The Presence in the Absence
The Harry Potter series, once giving rise to accusations of seducing young folk with witchcraft, ended a couple of years ago with the most powerful christological themes to come out of fiction since the Chronicles of Narnia. Theological reflections on the Potter saga accordingly abound...
The Harry Potter series, once giving rise to accusations of seducing young folk with witchcraft, ended a couple of years ago with the most powerful christological themes to come out of fiction since the Chronicles of Narnia. Theological reflections on the Potter saga accordingly abound. (This author seems to be the most popular, though it’s a toss-up whether her approach to theology or literature is more questionable; much better reflections are to be found here and here.)
It’s not hard to see the ways in which Harry’s actions mirror the christological themes of self-giving love and atonement of both the propitiatory and expiatory varieties. And it’s no surprise that in fictional improvisations on the gospel story, the Christ figure is easiest to illumine of the triune persons. The Father is usually barely there (think of the only alluded-to “Emperor over the Sea” in Narnia) and the Spirit is entirely ignored (I don’t know of any fictional analogue at all). But J. K. Rowling does manage to have a substantial image of the Father in her great tale and, what’s more, accurately captures the Father-Son drama. This Father is, of course, Dumbledore. His own past failures don’t detract from this role; if anything, they are crucial to the emotional drama. The red thread of the final installment of the series is whether or not Harry will trust Dumbledore to the end.
This is also the divine drama of the passion narrative. Robert Farrar Capon notes in his book Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002) that, in the very last parables Jesus tells before his arrest, the predominant theme is “the absence of the main character from the part of the parable that corresponds to our life now” (490). So it is in the King’s Son’s Wedding, and the Faithful Servant and the Bad Servant; and in the final trio of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Talents, and the Great Judgment of the Sheep and the Goats “the note of absence becomes practically the fulcrum of the judgment (krísis) that takes place when the main character finally appears” (490-1). “Accordingly, these parables are about a judgment pronounced on a world from which God, through all its history, was effectively absent—or to put it more carefully, was present in a way so mysterious as to constitute, for all practical purposes, an absence.” The parables “base the judgment solely on faith or unfaith in the mystery of the age-long presence-in-absence—the abiding parousía under history—of the divine redemption” (491). The crowning “parable” of Jesus on the theme of trust in the absent God is his own cry of faith and betrayal in his last words quoting Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” It is an analogue of Job’s cry as well: “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him.”
Throughout the last novel, Harry is haunted by Dumbledore’s absence. It starts with the “flash of brightest blue” in the fragment of the mirror he finds in his trunk. He hopes for the master he has lost and seen dead, but it is only Dumbledore hidden under the sign of his unimpressive, resentful brother Aberforth. In reading newspaper reports by the vicious Rita Skeeter, Harry is filled with rage that Dumbledore’s reputation has been called into question, but it is a rage suspicous of a hidden dark truth. When he finally gets a hold of the whole story, there is a bitter feeling of betrayal that Dumbledore did indeed have a dark past and withheld so much of it from Harry; and not only the bad things were withheld, but many of the good as well, like their common connection to Godric’s Hollow.
That raises the real emotional drama for Harry to a fever pitch: should he trust Dumbledore or not? Harry has two options for mastering death, possession of either the Horcruxes or the Hallows. Time does not permit him to pursue both. So the critical question is, does he go after the Horcruxes according to Dumbledore’s wishes—the apparently unreliable, withholding, and now completely absent Dumbledore? Or does he pursue his own instincts toward triumph through ownership of the Hallows? It seems that maybe, just maybe, Dumbledore wanted Harry to have the Hallows, too: after all, he’d passed on the invisibility cloak long before, and the Snitch is just the right size for hiding the resurrection stone. Which means Harry has to choose between the plain words of Dumbledore and his own hermetic reconstruction of Dumbledore’s true but hidden meaning. Which presence to choose, which absence to choose, which openness and which hiddenness? During his refuge at Bill and Fleur’s Shell Cottage, reeling from the death of Dobby the house-elf, Harry makes the critical decision for trust in Dumbledore and his instructions, even though the meaning is not clear to him and the outcome even less so.
It is only in the final battle of Hogwarts, when the suspected traitor Snape finally tells Harry the whole story through a bequest of memory, that Harry finally sees the plan in its entirety (or so he thinks). “Finally, the truth… His job was to walk calmly into Death’s welcoming arms.” Which meant that Dumbledore had “been raising him like a pig for slaughter,” as Snape objects (the word “pig” could easily be replaced with “lamb”). As Harry reflects on it, “Dumbledore’s betrayal was almost nothing. Of course there had been a bigger plan; Harry had simply been too foolish to see it, he realized that now. He had never questioned his own assumption that Dumbledore wanted him alive. Now he saw that his life span had always been determined by how long it took to eliminate all the Horcruxes.” And Dumbledore knew that Harry wouldn’t cut out at the last second, because Harry had come to love all the people that his death alone could protect. Harry was trapped by his own character and by the all-seeing eye of the Dumbledore he trusted. The Dumbledore he loved and trusted, the Dumbledore who taught him to love and trust, turns out to have taken advantage of that love and trust for his own righteous ends, apparently indifferent to the cost of Harry’s own life. And in the end, Harry has to agree with him.
Harry has no way of knowing that life waits for him on the other side of death. Jesus did, but it’s hard to believe that it made facing an unjust, abandoned, and excruciatingly (!) painful death much easier to face. What Rowling shows, though, is that Harry, like Jesus, is not simply a cog in the wheel of a righteousness machine set in motion by the all-wise Father. He is a person, a Person, who matters too, whose life is precious every bit as much as his death. The reward of self-sacrifice is not an honorable memory but a new life, free from the power of evil and death—Voldemort’s curses no longer affect Harry in the slightest. And, in the passage from death to life, the best gift of all: beholding the face of the trusted Father who answers the questions, unmasks the mysteries, and grants above all his own presence.
None of us walks by sight. Sight is speaking with perfect sincerity and truth when it says that all is not well, that evil has the upper hand, that death is the end. Sight can’t honestly say that things aren’t as bad as they seem and everything will turn out right in the end. But sight doesn’t see all that is. Faith doesn’t see it, either, but faith trusts in the Father’s promise that there is more to the story than our eyes can behold. This was the faith that took Jesus to the cross; it is the faith we are invited into through the preaching of the gospel and baptism; it is the faith by which we are justified and reconciled to the Father; it is the faith given by the Spirit, Who is most hidden and most present of all.