How Can Fiction Illustrate Biblical Theology? The Case of Harry Potter

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from 40 Questions About Biblical Theology
by Andrew David Naselli

The Case of Harry Potter

Harry Potter, the seven-book fantasy series by J. K. Rowling, is the best- selling series in history, with more than 500 million copies sold.[1] We are using Harry Potter to illustrate our point because that story is the “shared text” of the twenty-first century.[2] (While some people think Harry Potter is dark literature that Christians should avoid, we are convinced it is filled with implicit and explicit Christian themes.[3])

Harry Potter helps illustrate biblical theology. We’re being serious!

The first time I read the books I listened to them with my wife, Jenni. We enjoyed it so much that we read the books again two years later, and the timing was just right. But something happened that we didn’t anticipate (though I should have since I teach biblical theology!). The first time we read the books, we were focusing on their storyline: Who are the characters? What happened? What will happen next? We didn’t know where the story was going. We could only anticipate and guess. In our first reading, we were preoccupied with simply following a thrilling story.

But when we read the series for the second time, we were reading it differently. We already knew the characters. We already knew what would happen. We already knew where the story was going. We already knew how the story would end. But do you think that spoiled the second reading? Not at all. It actually made it better.

We loved our second reading right out of the gate in book 1. We immediately started making thematic connections that we missed the first time. We kept stopping to say such things like, “Did you hear that? I totally missed that the first time we read this. Rowling picks up on that theme again in book 3 and then develops it further in books 5 and 7.” In other words, we started tracing thematic trajectories from book 1 all the way through to book 7. We started marveling at how well Rowling packaged the seven books as a coherent series with an overarching theme and many motifs that she masterfully develops throughout the storyline. (Rowling wasn’t bumbling along as she wrote each novel. She masterminded the entire storyline before she completed book 1. Sure, there were new details she filled in along the way, but she designed the overall plotline at the beginning.)

The joy we experienced tracing those thematic trajectories is just a small taste of what it’s like to read the Bible over and over again. Each time I read straight through the Harry Potter books, I make richer and thicker connections that I didn’t see before—themes that are right there in the text but that I didn’t have eyes to see my first or second time through.[4]

Once you’ve read the Bible straight through once, you know its overall plotline. But you can’t reread it enough. There’s always more to see, more connections to make. That’s what biblical theology focuses on: making organic, salvation-historical connections with the whole Bible, especially regarding how the story progresses, integrates, and climaxes in Christ.

This means that once you’ve read the whole book, you simply can’t read it the same way the second time and subsequent times. You can’t help but read any part in light of the whole. And since the whole Bible is a coherent story, we must read the whole Bible—including the Old Testament—with Christian eyes. We live at this stage in the history of salvation, so we should read every bit of the Bible in light of everything God has revealed to us. The New Testament is the answer key to the Old Testament. We have the answer key! So why would we read the Old Testament as if the New Testament did not exist?

We chose to illustrate this point with Harry Potter, but we could illustrate it with any epic storyline—whether a book or a movie. And the story doesn’t even have to be epic. Some books and films are filled with intrigue the first time you watch them—such as those featuring a detective solving a case (e.g., Sherlock Holmes). Or consider movies such as The Village, The Truman Show, A Beautiful Mind, Inception, and Interstellar. Once you have already seen such a movie and know the basic storyline, if you watch it a second time, you see details that you missed the first time, and you start making thematic connections that you couldn’t have made the first time. Once you’ve watched the movie the first time, you’ll never watch it that same way again.

Since the Bible is one big story that is all about Jesus the Messiah, we should be able to read any one part of the Bible in light of the whole. If you don’t understand a part of the Bible in light of the whole storyline, then you don’t adequately understand that part of the Bible. It’d be like reading just one chapter from book 3 of the Harry Potter series without having read anything else in the seven-book series. You wouldn’t be able to understand or appreciate that chapter because you’d be reading it out of context. You couldn’t see how it fits into the whole story.

Biblical theology shows how all the seemingly loose threads in the Bible weave together in Jesus. Jesus is the climax and consummation. The story is all about him. And whether the theme is creation or covenant, law or liberty, sin or salvation, happiness or holiness, rest or righteousness, it all climaxes in Jesus. My wife and I have read the Harry Potter series together three times. We love it. It hasn’t gotten old. We’ll probably read it again together in the future. But we certainly don’t read it every day.

The beautiful thing about the Bible is that it never gets old. You can read it every day and make connections that you hadn’t made before (or you can remind yourself of details and connections that you had forgotten!). It’s a special book—a book like no other, a book that God himself wrote. And we have the pleasure of reading it at this stage of salvation history: Jesus the Messiah has come, and he is coming back to consummate his rule. So read every part of the Bible in light of the whole.

Summary

When you read a masterful story like Harry Potter, the first time you read it is special because you are enjoying a spellbinding storyline. But the subsequent times you read the story can be even more significant because you can start tracing thematic trajectories that you were unable to detect in your first reading. That illustrates how we do biblical theology. As we read the Bible over and over and over, we can better trace thematic trajectories and make connections that the divine author brilliantly designed.


[1] See also Andrew David Naselli, How to Understand and Apply the New Testament: Twelve Steps from Exegesis to Theology (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2017), 238–39. See J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (New York: Levine, 1998); Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (New York: Levine, 1999); Rowling, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (New York: Levine, 1999); Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (New York: Levine, 2000); Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (New York: Levine, 2003); Rowling, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (New York: Levine, 2005); Rowling, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (New York: Levine, 2007).

[2] John Granger, “Book Binders: What I Learned about the Great Books and Harry Potter,” Touchstone 21 (December 2008), http://www.touchstonemag. com/archives/article.php?id=21-10-028-f. Time Magazine calls   John   Granger the “Dean of Harry Potter Scholars”: https://techland.time.com/2009/08/28/ john-granger-dean-of-harry-potter-scholars-the-nerd-world-interview.

[3] See John Granger, How Harry Cast His Spell: The Meaning behind the Mania for J. K. Rowling’s Bestselling Books, 4th ed. (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2006); Jerram Barrs, Echoes of Eden: Reflections on Christianity, Literature, and the Arts (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), 125–46.

[4] To clarify, typology is a technical term for a phenomenon in the Bible (see Question 8). Anything like that outside the Bible is simply analogous. The Bible is unique as a divine- human book. Typology within the Bible is historical and something God progressively revealed over the course of fifteen hundred years.

 


This post is adapted from 40 Questions About Biblical Theology written by Jason S. DeRouchie, Oren R. Martin, and Andrew David Naselli. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

To understand what the entire Bible teaches about any given subject, we must practice biblical theology. By surveying the whole canon of Scripture, we can best discern what God has revealed about any particular issue. But doing so requires answering a number of important questions:

  • What type of biblical theology will we choose?
  • What overall story does the Bible tell?
  • How should we understand the relationship between the Old and New Testaments?
  • How does our topic fit within salvation history?
  • How do we apply the truths we discover?

40 Questions About Biblical Theology provides resources to answer these key questions in order to guide readers in their own study and practice of biblical theology. Other vital topics the authors address include how to understand typology, key themes in biblical theology, and how Christians should relate to Old Testament promises.

Ideal for courses on biblical theology, for pastors, and for anyone who teaches or interprets Scripture, 40 Questions About Biblical Theology will deepen your understanding and application of the whole counsel of God.


Want to learn more about the 40 Questions Series? Visit the new website 40Questions.net!

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About Author

Andrew David Naselli serves as associate professor of systematic theology and New Testament at Bethlehem College and Seminary in Minneapolis and as a pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church. Check out his blog at andynaselli.com.

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