Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Harry Potter's narrative journey (and implications for the Christian story)

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.


Frank said...


I enjoyed this article. I was reminded of the experiences of missionaries around the world who share the gospel through chronological storying. The entire story of the Bible is shared, sometimes with entire villages that have never heard the Bible, story by story, beginning with creation and leading to the resurrection. If only one story a week is told, as is often the case, it can take weeks to reach the end. Missionaries have reported groups begging them to tell the stories quicker. Sadly, some, (so interested in real evangelism!)short-circuit the process and go straight to the resurrection. When done correctly, it can definitely be a "gripping cultural phenomenon.

Catherine said...

Hi Al,

How interesting...I too am from the western subs, and I too go to an AMiA church...Church of the Great Shepherd, and I'm quite familiar with your church. I'm happy to "meet" you.

Great thoughts on Harry. Very good thoughts.

I just posted my own reveiw…I’d love to hear what you think.

Anonymous said...

Al, nice post. We "sort of" know each other. Well I'm not sure we've ever met, but my company christianaudio does work with IVP. And my coworker works with your wife lot for audio rights. Anyway, I love your blog. I'm going to add a link on my blog back to you if you don't mind. Do you have other suburbanish blogs you can recommend? Dave

Al Hsu said...

No problem, Dave - thanks for commenting and linking. There are a few other suburbanish blogs out there, or folks who have blogged about ministry in suburban contexts. Check out Missio Dei Suburbia, Theopraxis, Reformissionary, and Todd Hiestand.

Becky said...

Hi Al,

Thanks for these comments. I recently had a wonderful conversation with a non-Christian neighbor about faith, and afterwards berated myself for not taking the opportunity to spell out the whole gospel then and there, during our first of such conversations. However, I loaned her several books on marriage from a Christian perspective, and she's very open to reading and discussing them. So I hear the still small voice of the Holy Spirit reminding me, in my heart, and once again through your words, that I need to give her time to make her own journey, not push her too quickly to the end of the story. She is definitely seeking--she even said she wishes she had faith and isn't sure how to get it! With that kind of an in, it's hard for me not to pounce. But I think I'll take a step back and allow the hound of Heaven to take charge of the pursuit. And along the way, we'll all enjoy the ride.