Jean Bethke Elshtain: Requiescat in Pace

Harry Potter, St. Augustine, and the Confrontation with Evil

Jean Bethke Elshtain died last month at age 72. I suspect many readers here do not know who she was. I certainly didn’t until a septuagenarian friend in Bellingham, Washington, who had read Hidden Key to Harry Potter in 2002 and liked it, told me about the lecture she had given months before at the Smithsonian, ‘Harry Potter, St Augustine, and the Confrontation with Evil’ (above, given at a later date). My friend assured me this was big news that Bethke Elshtain had ‘come out’ on the for side in the Potter Wars that were raging then, because she was considered by thoughtful Evangelicals to be a political scientist and theological giant striding the earth.

Eager as I was for any kind of support for my book but especially for a recommendation that would have this kind of weight, I sent her a copy of my book and asked her, if she would be so kind as to read it, and, if she liked it, would she, could she write a short blurb?

Presumptuous hope? Oh, yeah. I did the same thing with Prof Alan Jacobs then at Wheaton College; he returned the book unopened and derided my literary alchemy and Eliade thoughts in an article in First Things. Which was probably the kind of response I should have expected for a ‘cold call’ request to “drop everything, read my book, and please endorse it.”

Prof Bethke Elshtain, however, read the book and very soon after wrote a very flattering and generous endorsement. Tyndale featured it in Looking for God in Harry Potter (2004). I have often thought this paragraph from a respected Christian thinker may have been the reason they decided to publish the book; it gave them significant cover in the world of Christian Book Sellers, all of whom carried her works because they and their customers admired her.

Forgive me, then, in my self-importance, for thinking that victory in the Potter Panic was won to some degree when this woman, diminutive only in appearance, took to the battlements. I know her kindness to me in this first request and in later correspondence about how she came to read the stories (grandchildren, as you might have guessed) and other subjects, were a great support to me when I wondered if my critics weren’t right in the consensus that I was a nutter for arguing that there was significant Christian content in the Hogwarts Saga and this was the reason for their success.

You can and probably should read the Wikipedia life summary and the obituaries at The Atlantic, the University of Chicago (where she was a professor, albeit long after my time there as an undergraduate), in The Christian Post, and the Chronicles of Higher Education. You’ll come away from those eulogies with some appreciation, I hope, of what an insignificant part of her grand life discussing Harry Potter was, — but in that small part, she made a critical contribution that changed the balance in what was then considered a lost cause.

Memory Eternal.


  1. It was a pleasure to watch her talk and it made me wish I could hear more of her ideas and interpretations after Deathly Hallows came out. Are there any you can point us to? I especially appreciated her pointing out that in our modern society we have decided that the word ‘evil’ is taboo in favor of syndromes and maladjustments. So it was especially nice to connect that to JKR’s choice to make Voldemort ‘He Who Must Not Be Named.’ Also the later Taboo on using his name aloud.

  2. Delightful! I first encountered Elshtain when reading her book, “Democracy on Trial”. It is a short, brilliant piece of political philosophy. To know that she gave this talk makes me respect her thinking all the more.

    May she rest in peace.

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