By Eugene C. Scott
Like J. K. Rowling’s wonderfully weird invention of Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Jelly Beans, her Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and God’s equally wonderful and weird church are both humanity flavored hope. Sometimes they’re sweet and sometimes disgusting.
The truth is Rowling gave Hogwarts the same humanity flawed quirkiness that God created the church to reflect.
In chapter six of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” a confused but expectant Harry Potter stands on platform nine and three quarters waiting for the Hogwarts Express–a magical train that will take him–for the first time–to Hogwarts, where he will be schooled in magic. Once there, Harry’s life changes dramatically.
In this magical castle filled with moving staircases, strange rooms, stranger people, talking portraits, and ghosts, Harry, among other things, will cement life-long friendships with Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley while discovering that even the best witchcraft and wizardry school is full of quirks and imperfections and–more-so–quirky and imperfect people.
As I have enjoyed J. K. Rowling’s classic stories as pure fun reading, I also have been challenged by some of her deeper themes. Did she, for instance, intend to draw parallels between the mythical castle called Hogwarts and God’s mysterious community called the church?
Intentional or not, the parallels are there.
Relationships Define the Church and Hogwarts
Contrary to popular belief, the church is not a building nor an institution. It is a community. Yes, most often the church meets in a building and–unfortunately–becomes far too institutional. Hogwarts too is a particular place and has rules–most of which Harry breaks. But this is not what defines Hogwarts.
At Hogwarts, Harry, the orphan, finds his family. Through his friendship with Ron Weasley at Hogwarts, Harry is unofficially adopted into the Weasley clan. It is at Hogwarts also that Harry meets his godfather, Sirius Black and is mentored by a father figure, Albus Dumbledore.
Like Hogwarts, the church, first and foremost, is a community. A family thrown together in a myriad of relationships. Orphans all adopted by Christ.
I grew up in what is commonly called a dysfunctional family. We weren’t completely dysfunctional, however. We did two things very well: fight and meddle in each other’s business. What we did not manage was to foster intimacy. We loved each other to the best of our ability. Still my family was a lonely, chaotic place.
Then I became a follower of Christ and was adopted into this quirky, imperfect family called the church. Like Harry, it was in this completely foreign and unexpected place that I discovered true family. I am who I am because of God speaking and working through the family members I have met in various churches. I have served in six churches over the last 32 years. In each one God has introduced me to people who have become life-long friends. We have, as the great theologian and poet Paul said, “carried one another’s burdens.” We have cried, laughed, fought, feasted (a lot), and lived life together. Rowling was brilliant in drawing Harry as a hero who needed friends to accomplish his mission. And Hogwarts as the place those relationships formed and thrived.
This too is us.
The Church and Hogwarts Are a Mix of Angels and Demons
Much to Harry’s dismay, however, Hogwarts is far from perfect. It is there, under the Sorting Hat, that he discovers his own dark side. It tells Harry, “You could be great, you know, and Slytherin will help you on the way to greatness, no doubt about that.” But Ron warns him, “There’s not a single witch or wizard who went bad who wasn’t in Slytherin.” Should Harry join the darker, more prone to evil House of Slytherin, or the more benign House of Gryffindor? Each of us, whether follower of Christ or no, face the same choices.
In Hogwarts Harry battles his nearest enemy, Draco Malfoy. Hogwarts, like the church, contains not just angels but demons (so to speak). In the church I’ve been and met both. Like Harry, all of us who have spent more than 10 minutes in the church carry and have inflicted wounds.
Rowling invents a fictional school that rings true because it is such a real mix of sinner and saint. Just like the church.
If Harry imagined Hogwarts as utopia, he was sorely disappointed. This may be why so many of us give up on the church. We are drawn to its divinity but are driven away by its humanity. Our unrealistic expectations are as much a part of our disappointment as are the actual flaws thriving in the church. I plummet emotionally each time the church–or more correctly people, including myself, of the church–don’t live up to my lofty ideals.
Though I understand well the pain that the church can inflict (from personal experience as well as theoretically), the load that weighs heaviest on my pastor’s soul is trying to convince people that the church is both more and less than they ever imagined. More in that it is about being human and being in relationships while also being in relationship with God. Less in that it is about being flawed humans who need each other.
And in that way the church reflects humanity and human community perfectly. Harry could have never become who he was born to be without Hogwarts and all the pain, joy, disappointment and triumph mixed together in one.
Imagine had Harry, as do so many people today in regards to church, refused to board that mysterious train bound for Hogwarts, one of the best stories written in modern times would have never come into being. So too, when any of us refuses to join that infuriating, dangerous, glorious, Christ-community God calls the church. What real story might you be missing?
Eugene C Scott is co-pastor of one of those wonderfully weird places called The Neighborhood Church.