It was Christmas Eve as Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the town of Godric's Hollow, searching through the snowy church graveyard for the graves of the teen wizard’s parents, Lily and James Potter.
Here’s how the scene is depicted in the final novel — “"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" — of J.K. Rowling’s seven-volume set. Christmas carols are drifting out of the church when the duo discovers the tombstone for the family of the late Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore. The inscription is from the Gospel of St. Matthew: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."
That’s just the start of the faith content in the Potter-verse rooted in the author’s worldview. Hang in there with me, because this is going to link up with this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) and the national column that I wrote about the God-shaped hole in “Avengers: Endgame.”
Now, about the Potter family tombstone: In a 2007 “On Religion” column on this topic, I noted:
… The Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death."
Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?
"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."
This is another Bible verse — one that Rowling said stated the theme at the heart of her Potter series. It also helps to know that the Harry Potter stories grew out of the author’s grief after the death of her mother. Rowling wanted to make a statement that death is not the end.
It also matters that Rowling has been upfront about the fact that she is active in the Scottish Episcopal Church and, based on her remarks through the years, it’s pretty clear that she is on the left side of Anglicanism. Her academic background in classics (and love of Medieval Catholic symbolism) also shaped the Potter-verse.
So what is the context of the verse on that Potter headstone? It’s taken from a famous passage in 1 Corinthians, chapter 15. To be blunt, this is the essence of the Christian faith.
For if the dead rise not, then is not Christ raised: And if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins. Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ are perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable. But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept.
There’s more, of course, and then comes verse 26:
The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.
So, what does this have to do with “Avengers: Endgame” and, to be precise, the 22-movie series about this corner of the Marvel Comics universe?
Well, every now and then some kind of grant hero-journey epic grabs a culture and doesn’t let go — for a decade or more. When this happens, you know that you are dealing with something bigger than a mere story. You are dealing with a story that has taken on core subjects at the heart of human life and beyond, a story that usually has religious implications of some kind.
Take “The Lord of the Rings,” for example. There is no way to grasp the symbolism in J.R.R. Tolkien’s masterwork without understanding his deep and life-changing Roman Catholic Faith. The team working with filmmaker Peter Jackson knew to leave that material intact (as he told me and several other reporters when the films were being released).
“Star Wars” has a worldview as well, since George Lucas was trying to blend “Flash Gordon" into the comparative religion theories of Joseph "The Hero with a Thousand Faces Campbell." The result, faith-wise, is a kind of cinema-multiplex fusion of East and West.
What about “Star Trek”? Creator Gene Roddenberry was walking a similar path from Christianity into Buddhism, Eastern mysticism and Humanism.
Does any of this matter? Well, I remember a study — in the early 1990s when I taught at Denver Seminary — that if preachers wanted to use images that ordinary Americans would understand they needed to draw from “Star Trek,” “Star Wars” and the National Football League. The Bible? Not so much.
Today? Note this recent Religion News Service feature: “How the ‘Harry Potter’ books are replacing the Bible as millennials’ foundational text.” Here’s the overture:
(RNS) — It’s a book nearly everybody knows, many of us nearly from birth. We reference it in our daily lives. We use its complicated moral systems to define our social and political stances and to understand ourselves better. Once we have read it, and learn the lessons considered therein, our political attitudes alter, making us more welcoming and more caring to outsiders.
Activists quote from the stories on placards to make their points at protests. Hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of people have written their own narratives in response to these foundational myths. I refer, of course, to the “Harry Potter” series.
It may seem flippant to talk about J.K. Rowling’s behemoth young adult fantasy series as a foundational myth that threatens, at least among millennials and Gen Z, to replace the Bible. But the numbers bear out its place as mythical bedrock. Sixty-one percent of Americans have seen at least one “Harry Potter” film. Given that just 45% of us (and a barely higher 50% of American Christians) can name all four Gospels, it’s no stretch to say that Gryffindor, Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff are better known in American society than Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
So what about the Marvel universe, and in particular, the Avengers tales? Here is the opening of my national column from this past week:
As most occupants of Planet Earth know, last year's "Avengers: Infinity War" ended with the genocidal demigod Thanos using six "infinity stones" to erase half of all life in the universe.
It would have been logical to assume the sequel, "Avengers: Endgame" would start with lots of funerals, with pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other shepherds working overtime to answer tough, ancient questions.
That assumption would be wrong.
"People are mourning, but they're going to therapy and support groups," said film critic Steven Greydanus of DecentFilms.com, also a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark. "What we don't see are grieving people in church or even at funerals. … We don't hear anyone asking, 'Where is God in all of this?' "
Why is no one asking the “theodicy” question that has played a crucial role in so many classic stories?
Why are there no funerals at the start of “Avengers: Endgame”?
Well, that’s a religion story and a business story — a matter of myths merging with materialism.
Enjoy the podcast. And pass it on, perhaps to a preacher or two.