The backstory and meta-narrative


When J.K. Rowling released the whole set of Harry Potter novels as ebooks weeks ago, I was one of the first on the website to buy them. And having them with me now, I’ve been rereading them. It’s been fun. And different than when I first read them.

I had heard about the Potter Universe from people with small children when I was serving as rector of Trinity Church in Bethlehem PA. But even though there were all sorts of whispers about how they were selling out everywhere, and children were devouring them, our daughter wasn’t quite old enough for them yet, and I didn’t really pay much attention. So when the first movie came out, I wasn’t sure if we were going to go or not. Some friends with children our daughter’s age invited us to tag along with them (they’d been reading the first three books and were very excited about the movie) and we did. The movie was magical. And I had a sense that it was incomplete. It hinted at things and ideas that it didn’t fully develop, and it contained subplots that seemed like they were included for marketing purposes (plush dragon sales for instance) and not because they were important to the plot.

So I decided to read the first book. Actually both my daughter and I decided to read the first book.

I have a funny gift of reading very fast. It’s sort of curse in ways. I can plow through two novels in a day when I’ve got the time or the interest. It’s always made packing for beach vacations sort of a challenge. I would take one bag of clothes, etc and one large bag of books to read. I really don’t like running out of things to read. (When I was in High School I used to buy books by thickness and read series by the numbers of volumes…) That’s why I like ebooks so much. You can pack a whole library onto a Kindle or an iPad and it doesn’t take up any more space loaded than it does empty. But I digress…

So I read the first book. I think I started it just before dinner and finished by breakfast the next morning (I left a little to read for when I woke up in the morning.) My daughter was as impressed by that as anything I’d ever done. So I grabbed a copy of the second book to show her that it wasn’t just a “one off”. Read that by the next morning. And so on with the third.

I suppose because she tried to keep pace with me, and it was getting her to read (she still much prefers video games and other sorts of non-linear story telling) that I kept at it with her. And I suppose I started to enjoy the books too. We started a tradition of going to the bookstore together at midnight the night each new book was released. And we’d both start reading in the car on the way home. (Her mother was driving.) By the time she’d wake up in the morning I’d have finished the book. And she’d double down trying to finish it too.

I started to notice clear Christian themes in the books as I read through the series. But they came out so sporadically and I was speed reading them without much time for reflection that I didn’t pay much attention to the themes other than to defend the books against charges that they were somehow Satanic.

So when the ebooks were released, I decided to read the books again, but more slowly this time, more like poetry, savoring the words and paying closer attention to the various clues scattered along the narrative now that I knew how the story came out. And it’s been a totally different sort of experience. I’ve noticed allusions that I missed as I rushed through. I’ve seen more subtle writing, particularly in the interesting characters, than I expected or remembered. And I’ve reaffirmed my belief that Rowling was dead serious when she said in an interview that her hope was to follow in the path of the Inklings, the Oxford set that was trying to tell Christian truths in modern literature.

Her writing was reminiscent of Tolkien’s to me. Neither are particularly gifted literary stylists. But with both writers you really have a sense that you’re only being told a little of what they’ve imagined of the world they’ve created. There are all sorts of little hints and allusions to other stories throughout the volumes of their writing. Both of them have notebooks full of characters and ideas that they didn’t use in the story. They edited down their ideas to tell a story set in a fully imagined parallel world. And it’s the hints that there’s much more to what they not saying that give their writing it’s ability to draw people into that other world.

If you think of it, the Potter stories keep telling the same story over and over. Orphan child meets wise mentor and struggles against focus of evil. Each book has the same landmarks: start of term, halloween, Quidditch matches, Christmas, climactic battle at end of term. What makes it all so fascinating is that each time the story is retold though, there’s more nuance and more information being shared. It’s as if in each retelling, each recapitulation of the basic plot, we are getting closer and closer to the core truth that she’s trying to tell us. Her main idea, that love conquers all, that friendship and loyalty matter, that tolerance is critically important is finally fully formed in the last book – and the last book becomes the key to understanding all the previous books.

That sounds like something doesn’t it? Like the story of Israel and coming of the Messiah?

The biblical meta-narrative works almost the same way (actually I suppose I really ought to say that Rowling is using the same technique that God does as God is telling us the story of human history). You read the biblical stories and you start to notice themes emerging and being repeated. By the time you read the Gospels you already know the outlines of the story, and as the same story is told four times, you start to notice that each version is retelling the stories of the Old Testament too. By the time we come to the full recognition of who Jesus is, and what his passion and resurrection mean, we want to go back and re-read the stories that came first to see if we can now see new meanings, new hints of what is coming contained within them. Didn’t the early Christians do exactly the same?

I’m thinking that we’ve managed to raise a whole generation of young people who will now instinctively understand the idea of meta-narrative and the way the books of the Bible are telling us the story of God. It’s worth thinking about how to make this idea explicit for them, because I don’t think they’ll have to struggle with the idea that it is in there the same way that people struggled in the 19th century at the time the abolitionists were claiming the meta-narrative warrant to argue that slavery was anathema even though specific biblical verses permitted it.

I started reading the Percy Jackson series last night just out of curiosity to see if those books might have the same sorts of structure as Rowling’s books. So far I’m not optimistic. But they do seem better written so far. I’ll let you know.

(Phoenix Comicon starts today. It’s a busy weekend but I’m looking forward to geeking our with a bunch of people who are also interested in mythic themes and doing philosophy and theology in a narrative way rather than a propositional way. A whole generation of young people are being raised on a diet of that sort of writing. Seems like we have a really good chance to do some serious proclamation in their midst doesn’t it?)

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...


  1. Have fun at Comic con! Big new book coming out on the phenomena of Comic Con. Probably worth a read this summer. You are in the heart of the most vigorous moral/ethical and theological maelstrom when at a Con!

  2. Lisa Fry says

    Excellent, and what I’ve been saying all along– but you said better. It’s why I love teaching series with youth, using a current book of fiction as a starting place.

  3. Bill Ghrist says

    Off topic – Congratulations, Nick! I hope that Bishops still have time to blog.

  4. What strikes me about the stories is that there is an outside power, not just in the big issues such as “where does a wizard get his power from?”, but also relatively minor ones such as “who created the magical map of Hogwarts?”. Moreover within their universe there are rules and constraints no different from ours. Fundamentally, this is not a “magic” world – it’s just a world with different set of rules and an unknown/unknowable creator.

  5. Gillian Barr says

    Congratulations, Bishop-elect Knisely! On the theology and structure of the Potter books, you should read John Granger’s analyses. (No relation to Hermione. ) Try _How Harry Cast His Spell_ 2008, Tyndale, available for Kindle. Granger is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and thus can see Christian themes in the works that more Protestant Christians often miss.

  6. Thanks Gillian – he’s been on my reading to-do list forever. My plan this summer is to finish working on the book version of Entangled States and get it into print. I’m hoping that on the other side of that I’ll have some time to make some headway against the stacks of books waiting to be read.

    Of course the new job might be an obstacle to that. Heh.

  7. Well, Bishop-elect Knisley, it is a basic premise that reading books, especially the Harry Potter type is key to healthy and fruitful living! I saw the Percy Jackson movie (I think it was last year), and I was not as impressed as I was with Harry Potter, but I was not inspired to read those books. I, too went to the midnight bookstore events whenever a Harry Potter book came out, and one time the actor who played Lucius Malfoy was there– that was fun!
    In some ways, I think of J.K. Rowling as a part of the same genre as Gene Roddenbury. She has the talent to step over the lines of everyday life, theology, science, the metaphysical world and things not even categorized with flawless agility. What Star Trek did for understanding the human condition, Rowlings has done for the spiritual realm. And, it has the added pleasure of not being as stuffy as Kant!

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