It’s always interesting when a cultural artifact becomes a cultural phenomenon. There was not a lot of initial promotion for the first Harry Potter book, and expectations were modest. But somehow word of mouth buzz moved the series past a tipping point and Harry Potter became something larger. No longer was J. K. Rowling an unknown author laboring in obscurity. Now she's an international media celebrity, wealthier than the Queen of England, with millions of fans around the world clamoring for every word and detail about Harry.
This makes me wonder – what would it look like if we saw comparable levels of Harry Potter mania directed to the Christian story? It’s not like crowds are awaiting the next Bibleman DVD, or staying up all night to read Miroslav Volf’s newest book. Or Isaiah or Jeremiah, for that matter. Can you imagine people packing the streets of Ephesus in eager anticipation of the publication of part 2 of Luke/Acts? Or release parties in Corinth celebrating the receipt of Paul’s second epistle to them? Dress up like your favorite super-apostle!
I wonder if there have been times in church history when the gospel narrative was this gripping a cultural phenomenon. People probably wouldn’t be this crazy about Harry Potter if they had all grown up in a context where they had heard the Harry Potter stories so much that they no longer seemed fresh. The challenge for us in a post-Christendom era is that people have become anesthetized to the Christian story. They’ve heard it already, or they think they’ve heard it already. And it doesn’t capture their imagination the way today’s imaginative narratives have. In a world of Harry Potter, Star Wars, 24 and Heroes, it’s hard for the Christian story to compete.
Those of us who have been reading the Harry Potter novels as they were being published were able to experience something special that future generations of readers won’t – the anticipation and suspense of waiting several years between each book. From now on, new readers can read all seven books straight through if they want to. But for the past decade, Harry Potter readers have been part of a global community that has experienced the dramatic tension of waiting for the next installment.
I wonder what it would look like for the gospel story to be more suspenseful. I think one of the most significant aspects about the experience of reading the final Harry Potter book is that we didn’t want to hear spoilers. We had come to know and love the characters so much that wanted to journey with Harry and his friends. We needed to experience and discover for ourselves what they were going through. We didn’t want to find out in chapter two of book one how it was all going to turn out. Instead we read seven books and thousands of pages, staying up into the wee hours of the morning, because the journey is every bit as important as the ending. Indeed, without experiencing the adventure of the journey, there wouldn't have been as much dynamic power to the ending.
Are Christian “gospel presentations” less like the adventure of a Harry Potter novel and more like spoilers that tell you what happened but take all the suspense and delight out of the journey? Maybe Christians have been so intent on getting to the point and bottom-lining things, for the sake of saving souls, that they’ve taken the mystery and surprise out of the narrative. We jump to the end. God loves you, Jesus died for you, pray this prayer, yada yada yada.
It’s well-intentioned but self-defeating. We don’t get to know the characters, and so we diminish the experience and the power of the biblical narrative. Often we are so concerned about getting people from here to there that they don’t experience the journey enough to really make the faith their own. We have short-circuited the narrative imagination. What a loss.
Harry Potter reminds us that it's not just what we say, but how we say it. We can recover the imagination, a sense of wonder at a world of mystery and discovery. We can invite people to join us on a long-term experiential journey that’s full of twists and turns but nevertheless infused with hope. And we can enjoy the community of friends and mentors that accompany us along the way.