Harry, Buffy and Jesus:
Paganism, Christianity and Popular Culture
One could be forgiven for believing that the evils of paganism and witchcraft are on the rise again.  Certainly, this is what many self-proclaimed ‘evangelical’ and ‘Pentecostal’ Christian groups would like us to believe.  Such groups point to the rising popularity of books, films and TV programmes about witchcraft and wizardry as evidence that Satan and his hordes are making a renewed bid for the hearts and minds of our young people.  The wildly popular Harry Potter books, by J.K. Rowling, have come in for particular criticism.  These stories about a schoolboy who discovers he is a wizard are said to promote the virtues of the dark arts and the occult, thus leading children to reject the values and practices of the Christian churches.  Such claims are clearly misguided, and on two grounds, which I should like to visit briefly in this article.

First, it is intellectually dishonest to simply equate the satanic or demonic with contemporary expressions of paganism.  I happen to know a number of card-carrying pagans and witches, one of whom is amongst my most treasured friends.  I have learned that contemporary paganism is an earth-centred religious tradition that seeks to honour the trace of divinity in all things and all people.  ‘Magic,’ for them, is a kind of ritual prayer, in which an individual or a group calls upon the divine energies for assistance in approaching the task of life with integrity and good courage.  Thus the two-fold pagan ethic—‘Do what you like, but harm none,’ and ‘whatever you put out into the world, shall return to you threefold’—is supposed to encourage practitioners to work their magic only for peace, harmony, and the integrity of creation.  Now, while I am not so naïve as to propose (as some would like to) that Christians and pagans share both a cosmology and an ethical code, it is nevertheless difficult to conclude, from this evidence, that paganism is necessarily and always demonic or anti-Christian.  For Christians, the demonic is that which murders, destroys, accuses, lies and deceives (Jn 8.44; cf. 10.10, Rev 12.10).  It is the absence of the good or graceful, as Augustine said.  Clearly, many contemporary pagans do not promote such things.  Indeed, I would argue that many pagans share a certain abhorrence of the demonic, so defined, with their Christian cousins.  Much more could be said about this, but I shall refrain for now.

A second reason for doubting the account of our supposedly ‘evangelical’ friends is the simple fact that Harry Potter, along with several of its co-accused cultural artefacts, is demonstrably Christian: in both its analysis of the threat of evil, and in its stratagem for overcoming evil.  Consider the following (and here I will assume that some of you will have at least seen the movies).  (1) Voldemort, the evil Wizard and Harry’s arch-enemy, fulfils the classic profile of a Satan or devil figure.  He does his destructive work by lying and deceiving, preying parasitically upon the weak and vulnerable in order to acquire the ultimate prize of absolute and uncontradictable power. (2) Harry and his friends, on the other hand, tackle Voldemort’s schemes by the power of friendship, courage, humility and (above all else) self-sacrificial love.  In this they are clearly analogues of the Christian disciple or pilgrim.  (3) Like every Christian, Harry rarely overcomes without the assistance of a grace which comes from somewhere other than his own self-generated resources.  This is particularly clear in the second book or film, The Chamber of Secrets, where a Phoenix and a sword from the House of Gryffindor assist Harry.  Both the Phoenix and the Griffin were common symbols of Christ in medieval theology: the Phoenix because of its capacity to rise from its own ashes, and to heal by the baptismal water of its tears; and the Griffin because it is a creature half eagle (representing the divine Christ) and half lion (representing the human Christ). (4) The Harry Potter books are not simply dualistic, in some gnostic or docetic sense, when it comes to their portrayal of good and evil.  It is clearly understood that every human being has the potential to do both good and evil.  What makes the difference, they suggest, is the choice to submit to the good even when the odds are stacked against you.  Shades of the Garden of Gethsemane, I suggest.

One may find similar themes at work in another cultural phenomenon, the television series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, created by Joss Whedon.  The superficial viewer will of course see only that Buffy is populated with the characters of your average ‘evangelical’ nightmare: vampires, magic, witches, demons, hell-gods and trolls.  But the more astute viewer will note that a profound symbolism is at work in all of this: (1) that Buffy herself is a kind of Christ-figure, a ‘chosen one’ anointed to tackle the forces of evil and destruction, wherever they present themselves; she even gives up her life for the sake of both her friends and a promised future of peace. (2) that ‘magic’ is used as a cipher for prayer.  Through magic Willow, Buffy’s best friend, expresses her pain, her anger, her grief, her love and, most profoundly, her need for assistance and grace from another power, a power profoundly other than her own power or intelligence.  (3) that evil is consistently personified (The Master, Glory) according to the classical Christian model:  it is the desire for an absolute power-over rather than power-with, it uses the weak and vulnerable to achieve its ends, it operates by deception and lies. (4) that the oh-so-human heroes of the show, a small company of young people and a solitary adult, are constantly being faced with a choice between despair and hope, evil and good.  For me the most stunning episode of all is one in which Buffy loses hope altogether, and is sorely tempted to put aside her messianic responsibility in favour of the ‘safer’ existence of the innocent child who is never called upon to choose.  A garden of Gethsemane scene, if ever I saw one! (5) that there is no such thing as ethical determinism in the world of Buffy.  Even the vampires, demons apparently ‘without’ human souls, are capable of fighting against their instincts.  Angel and Spike, especially the latter, can be seen as models of Christian conversion:  called from evil to good by the power of love.

Now, I want to be clear about what I am saying here.  I am certainly not claiming that the creators of Harry and Buffy are card-carrying Christians who, like C.S. Lewis in the Narnia Chronicles, craft their stories with a specific intention to preach the gospel.  J.K. Rowling says she believes in God, but that alone does not make her a Christian.  And Joss Whedon would certainly reject the label, I think.  What I am claiming, however, is that whatever the intentions of their creators, both Harry and Buffy exhibit a profoundly Christian sensibility about what is at stake in the world, pardon the pun.  Precisely why this is so is open to debate.  Personally, I tend to agree with the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who says that Western art and thinking remain deeply Judaeo-Christian in structure, even as the churches become increasingly empty.  There is, he says, a sense in which a Western heart desires the Christian God, even if it is rarely aware of the fact anymore.

Personally, I would counsel contemporary Christians, angry and grieving at the disappearance of God from public discourse, to take another look at the apparently trivial stories of Harry, Buffy, and others like them (the Matrix movies, for example).  It may be that they offer yet another opportunity to explore Christian faith in a language and idiom that is already familiar.  Of course, the Christian gospel ultimately interrupts and shatters every familiar container: it is, like the prayer of the Spirit, from God, and therefore too deep for human words (Rom 8.26).  Nevertheless, it is equally true that the gospel never addresses us apart from the forms and ideas of human culture, with all of its many longings and laments.  The logic of both incarnation and resurrection, I suggest, prevents us from concluding otherwise.  God has chosen, from eternity, to approach God’s own future in and by a profoundly human culture and language.  For that reason, I would count it a great shame if Christians were to miss the traces of divine invitation offered us by Harry and Buffy.  We have missed so many such invitations already.

Garry Deverell
Centre for Studies in Religion & Theology
Monash University

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