Thursday, February 15, 2018

Harry Potter and the Bible

 ©Warner Bros. Pictures

The Bible is not simply a religious text; it is the best-selling book of all time, and an influence on Western culture in innumerable ways. It is also the founding literature of Western Civilization, and it is not difficult to find similarities between it and a large number of works of fiction, both classic and modern. The Harry Potter series is the best-selling book series of all time, and as much as it may anger fundamentalist Christians, the similarities between the Harry Potter books/films and the Bible do not end there.

The similarities do not, however, lie in the obvious shared symbols the books contain. The fact that the symbol of Gryffindor is a lion is no more a reference to the Lion of Judah than it is to Aslan in the Narnia series. Snakes are prominent in the stories, and Lucifer took the form of the snake in the Garden of Eden. But while the Basilisk and Nagini would be considered evil, other snakes in the books have been portrayed more benignly (such as the one Harry frees from the zoo in the first book). The real parallels between the Potter books and the Bible lie in the issues of death, sacrifice, redemption, and love.

Sacrifice and redemption go hand-in-hand in both the Bible and the Harry Potter series. Especially in the Old Testament, figures such as Abraham, Moses, and Elijah fail greatly, usually early in their lives, only to overcome in the end. Moses in particular fits this model: before becoming the deliverer of the Israelites he was a murderer. In the Potter books, we see that heroes like Dumbledore and James Potter had significant character flaws early on life, but strove to overcome them and later sacrificed their lives battling evil. Snape is a perfect example of redemption as taught in the Bible, someone who turned from evil to good, though he was suspected by his comrades until the end of his life.

There is one point in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where we are presented with an actual verse from the Bible: "And the last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." This is the inscription on Harry's parents' tomb, and it comes from 1 Corinthians. However, this is not a case of J.K. Rowling professing Christianity. It is simply a classic verse that deals with the same thing as the central issue of her books: death and how we deal with and overcome it. All of us will, as Harry did, face the death of loved ones as well as someday facing death ourselves. Both the Bible and the Potter books show that death is not the end, but simply part of an ongoing journey, although they present that journey in very different ways (Heaven vs. King's Cross Station, for example).

In the end, the most obvious parallel is the belief in both the Bible and the Harry Potter books that love will, in the end, triumph. Harry's mother sacrificed herself for him out of love, and it was the power of that love that ultimately helped defeat Voldemort. Sirius loved Lily Evans, and that love made him watch out for Harry in spite of himself. And Dumbledore taught constantly that it was love that would overcome the power of the Dark Lord. In the Bible, Jesus made love a focal point of his teaching (as did St. Paul and St. John later): love of God and love of your fellow man. And he demonstrated it by laying down his life for us.

So while the Harry Potter series would not be considered “Christian” books, they explore many of the same core values as the Bible. 20 years since the publication of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," those who still seek to ban the books for being satanic would do well to try to understand this. Besides, if your faith can be destroyed by an eleven-year old character in a children's novel, it was a pretty weak faith to begin with. 

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Even Prophets Get the Blues

Though essentially unknown even by many Christians, Elijah holds several interesting distinctions in Scripture. Along with Enoch, he is one of only two men whom the Bible says never died; each was taken directly to Heaven. We are only told that God “took” Enoch, but Elijah was carried away by a chariot of fire pulled by a team of flaming horses. In the Gospels it was Elijah and Moses who appeared with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration. And Elijah is actually mentioned more times in the New Testament than any other prophet, including Isaiah and Jeremiah.

When we first meet Elijah, he has told King Ahab of Israel that by God’s command there will be no rain in all of Israel except by his word. God then sends him to a brook where he is miraculously fed bread and meat by ravens for a period of time (1 Kings 17:1-6).

Following this, God sends him to a poor widow and her son near the town of Sidon, and during the time he lives with them, they are provided with bread for three years by a small amount of flour in a jar and a little oil in a jug; neither the flour nor the oil run out while the drought remains. Also during this time, the widow’s son becomes ill and dies, but is miraculously raised to life again after Elijah calls out to God and prays that He will spare the boy’s life (1 Kings 17:7-24).

These three miracles should be enough to solidify anyone’s faith, yet for Elijah an even greater miracle is still to come. He tells Ahab to gather the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah (Baal and Asherah were pagan gods the people of Israel had been following). Elijah would meet these prophets on Mount Carmel, one against 950, for a test:

So Ahab summoned all the people of Israel and the prophets to Mount Carmel. Then Elijah stood in front of them and said, “How much longer will you waver, hobbling between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him! But if Baal is God, then follow him!” But the people were completely silent.

Then Elijah said to them, “I am the only prophet of the Lord who is left, but Baal has 450 prophets. Now bring two bulls. The prophets of Baal may choose whichever one they wish and cut it into pieces and lay it on the wood of their altar, but without setting fire to it. I will prepare the other bull and lay it on the wood on the altar, but not set fire to it. Then call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers by setting fire to the wood is the true God!” And all the people agreed.

Then Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “You go first, for there are many of you. Choose one of the bulls, and prepare it and call on the name of your god. But do not set fire to the wood.” So they prepared one of the bulls and placed it on the altar. Then they called on the name of Baal from morning until noontime, shouting, “O Baal, answer us!” But there was no reply of any kind. Then they danced, hobbling around the altar they had made.

About noontime Elijah began mocking them. “You’ll have to shout louder,” he scoffed, “for surely he is a god! Perhaps he is daydreaming, or is relieving himself. Or maybe he is away on a trip, or is asleep and needs to be wakened!”

So they shouted louder, and following their normal custom, they cut themselves with knives and swords until the blood gushed out. They raved all afternoon until the time of the evening sacrifice, but still there was no sound, no reply, no response.

Then Elijah called to the people, “Come over here!” They all crowded around him as he repaired the altar of the Lord that had been torn down. He took twelve stones, one to represent each of the tribes of Israel, and he used the stones to rebuild the altar in the name of the Lord. Then he dug a trench around the altar large enough to hold about three gallons. He piled wood on the altar, cut the bull into pieces, and laid the pieces on the wood.

Then he said, “Fill four large jars with water, and pour the water over the offering and the wood.”

After they had done this, he said, “Do the same thing again!” And when they were finished, he said, “Now do it a third time!” So they did as he said, and the water ran around the altar and even filled the trench.

At the usual time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah the prophet walked up to the altar and prayed, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.”

Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the trench! And when all the people saw it, they fell face down on the ground and cried out, “The Lord—he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!”

Then Elijah commanded, “Seize all the prophets of Baal. Don’t let a single one escape!” So the people seized them all, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon Valley and killed them there. (1 Kings 18:20-40 NLT).

Following this great victory, Elijah prayed for rain, and the drought was ended. Yet after all of this, immediately after being part of one of the greatest miracles of the Old Testament, Elijah falters:

When Ahab got home, he told Jezebel everything Elijah had done, including the way he had killed all the prophets of Baal. So Jezebel sent this message to Elijah: “May the gods strike me and even kill me if by this time tomorrow I have not killed you just as you killed them.”

Elijah was afraid and fled for his life. He went to Beersheba, a town in Judah, and he left his servant there. Then he went on alone into the wilderness, traveling all day. He sat down under a solitary broom tree and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life, for I am no better than my ancestors who have already died.”

Then he lay down and slept under the broom tree. But as he was sleeping, an angel touched him and told him, “Get up and eat!” He looked around and there beside his head was some bread baked on hot stones and a jar of water! So he ate and drank and lay down again. (1 Kings 19:1-6 NLT)

So after all the Lord had done for and through him, after opposing 950 men and calling down fire from heaven, Elijah was afraid of one woman. He fled and then fell into what can only be described as a deep depression. 

But God didn't respond angrily to Elijah, or rebuke him, or question his resolve. Rather, he sent an angel to give him food and water and allowed him to sleep. After this Elijah arose refreshed, but he was still fighting the depression that had overcome him (1 Kings 19:9-10), so God showed Elijah what he truly needed to restore himself: the presence of God.

“Go out and stand before me on the mountain,” the Lord told him. And as Elijah stood there, the Lord passed by, and a mighty windstorm hit the mountain. It was such a terrible blast that the rocks were torn loose, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake there was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire there was the sound of a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his cloak and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.” (1 Kings 19: 11-13 NLT)

Elijah can be a great example for all to remember, both for his faithfulness and his failings. We too will have victories and defeats, successes and failures, times of depression that seem to last forever. In all of them the thing we need most is the presence of God.