In Which JK Rowling Teaches Us to Read the Bible

[Today’s guest post from Brittany K. Hale explores reading Scripture as it was meant to be read, even with 21st Century eyes.]

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Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start (indeed). When you read you begin with A B C, yes? Yes, but it is not a simple step from learning an alphabet to advanced reading comprehension, not even in one’s first language.

Children learning “the quick, brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” must have some concept of foxes and dogs, not just know their letters, to understand the basic statement this pangram is making. Before a child can move from Little Golden Books about pokey little puppies to the Harry Potter series, she must also learn about the society in which she lives, and if she is not British, then a touch of information about that society would help. She must know about school, trains, bullies, good versus evil, and how chocolate makes one feel.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
(image Entertainment Weekly, original Mary GrandPre’ cover design)

She must also have a very elementary grasp of genre: Harry Potter is fiction meant to entertain. It is also meant to encourage young minds to think deeply about things like love, honor, courage, fear, anger, selflessness, friendship, etc., yet she does not need to be aware of this effect on her to properly read the series. The Harry Potter books are not textbooks on how to become a wizard. This all may seem quite obvious, but these truths are often taken for granted, especially when it comes to reading the Bible.

I am not saying the only way a person can properly read and understand the Bible is to first learn Hebrew and Greek, and then take seminary courses on ancient Israelite society, Greco-Roman society, and historical/literary methods of analyzing scripture (although I do highly recommend this). I am pointing out that comprehension of whatever one reads first requires basic knowledge of the society/culture in and/or for whom it was written, as well as the intended genre. Interpretation comes next.

As I said above, a child can properly enjoy the Harry Potter series without ever realizing that JK Rowling is simultaneously teaching her about life, love, and friendship. Adults tend to pick up on those lessons in fiction, but they do not confuse fiction that teaches truth with a text that teaches fact (at least, not if they understand how genre works). Furthermore, not all adults agree with JK Rowling’s perspective. Both the author and the reader see with their own metaphorical set of cultural and personal lenses which tint how they understand what is written and read. Many people have had such awful experiences with forms of witchcraft in the real world that they resent Rowling for using magic to delight young minds in her quest to tell a story which actually has nothing to do with magic.

In the Harry Potter series the existence of magic is merely a literary device. The books are not meant to be propaganda for the pursuit of magic in the real world. The magical context allows Rowling to take what is so familiar as to be taken for granted and cast it in a fresh light, to make the reader see in fiction what she has become blind to in her daily life: the very fabric of our society, our cultural expressions, the framework of our political philosophies, etc.

This is true of all fantasy and science fiction works (I highly recommend reading the introduction to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). Hermione’s fight for the freedom and dignity of house elves is nothing less than a fight for civil rights. Children who read learn empathy, and children who become empathetic to house elves and Hermione will grow into adults who stand for the civil rights of disenfranchised groups in real life.

Magic is not the point, love is.

Reading literally can be confusing

If we read these books “literally,” then everything gets confused. Likewise, if we disregard genre and context when reading the Bible, then we easily confuse metaphor with literalism, poetic truth with scientific fact, or descriptive statements with prescriptive, universal commands.

Much of Jesus’ teaching is focused on correcting misinterpretations of Israel’s scriptures, “You have heard it said, but I say to you…”, etc., because bad theology kills. In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus criticizes Israel for killing the prophets sent before him (Luke 11:45-52). He, too, is killed because Israel fails to recognize him.

His entire conversation with the men on the road to Emmaus is one long lesson in scriptural interpretation. In the Acts of the Apostles (aka the Gospel of Luke, vol. 2), Peter calls Jesus “a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst” (Acts 2:22). The Israelites were expected by God to use their reason and experience with Jesus to help them understand the holy scriptures and ancient traditions which had been passed down to them. They ignored that his healings and other miracles were all obviously good works of God, and instead accused him of conspiring with the devil because they read that it is a sin to do work on the Sabbath, it is unclean to touch a leper, etc., and so they killed him.

Next time someone says personal experience is not a valid lens through which to interpret scripture, I would remind them that 1) it is impossible to be purely objective, and 2) God expects us to pay attention to what we experience (like God working through women preachers, or God using a LGBT Christian to be a neighbor/Good Samaritan to her fundamentalist coworker), in order to help us better interpret scripture.

If I had to choose the most valuable lesson from my undergraduate studies in literature, and my graduate studies in theology, it would be the importance of knowing how to read, and learning to be self aware as I am reading. The Christians who tend to be slower to quarrel with those of differing theological perspectives are those who recognize the poverty of their own “knowledge” about God. Those most fiercely committed to their theological views are more likely to equate themselves being potentially wrong with the truth in scripture being potentially false

Their love and devotion to God and “the w/Word” are genuine, but their inability to distinguish between their limited comprehension of the scriptures and the mystery of God’s will for the scriptures is where the real theological problems are bred. We all do this to some extent. The more careful we are to balance socio-historical analysis with literary analysis as we seek to interpret scripture, the less resistant we will be to recognizing our own potential mistakes, and the more gracious we can be to one another.

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Brittany K. Hale has her BA in Literature, and is in the processes of completing her MA in Theology and Biblical Studies. She is fascinated by the intertextuality of the scriptures, and takes Proverbs 25:2 as divine permission to be a student for life (“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings”). Brittany’s main interests include feminist theology, LGBTQ theology, intertextuality studies, narrative theology, and really any musings which force us to reexamine our assumptions about our life, faith, and place in this world. Her ideal day involves reading with her Great Dane, Brody, by her side, and coffee or wine in her hand. You can exchange clever gifs or engage in witty banter with her on Facebook and Twitter.

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[Here is another post on reading the Bible literarily rather than literally.]

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22 Responses to In Which JK Rowling Teaches Us to Read the Bible

  1. uplandweb says:

    If as you say, objectivity isn’t realizable and we need to consider experience, ours and others, what is the place of community? How do you include the discerning community and the community of tradition within “experience”? I ask this from an Anabaptist perspective.

    • Thank you for the question. Our larger communities help us discern whether our own experiences are normative or anomaly, and furthermore whether our interpretation of our experiences are accurate. Of course, not all God honoring communities even agree with one another on issues of theology and biblical interpretation. (See all of Church history as a reference). This is why it is so crucial for larger church communities/traditions to communicate with one another, even via Christ-like debate, and why individual Christians should seek out relationships with Christians of other traditions, as well individuals of other faiths (more than once in Scripture religious outsiders had to tell God’s people what God’s will actually was; e.g. in Joshua 2 Rahab of Jericho has faith in the foreign god, YHWH of Israel, because she had heard the stories of what YHWH has done for Israel. She informs the spies of Israel that Jericho is ready to fall before them, and so she becomes the agent of God’s will in the story).

  2. But… but… but… it’s about magic!
    But seriously, great blog.

  3. Tim says:

    Britanny, thank you for allowing me to run this as a guest post today. Genre and metaphor and idiom are key to understanding. You’ve done a great job helping us see how that works when reading the Bible.

  4. Tim, thank YOU for allowing me to share my thoughts with your readers! I am honored.

  5. Jeannie Prinsen says:

    Very helpful post. I especially like your discussion about how experience intersects with other kinds of knowledge to help us interpret Scripture.

    • Thank you! I was raised in the Wesleyan tradition, so John Wesley’s so-called “quadrilateral” of Scripture, Tradition, Reason, & Experience is my go-to matrix for scriptural interpretation.

  6. valerieste says:

    J.K. Rowling? Who’dda thunk?
    Maybe Jesus…

    Thanks Brittany for encouraging us to think. Truthfully (no pun intended) I would avoid reading scripture at times because I felt it confusing and not obvious when others seemed to glean straightforward dogmatic points they called truth. I felt like there was something wrong with me because I had more questions, especially when I found discrepancies with how things were done in the church. I would have loved to have read an article (blog) like yours at those younger ages to help me see that was perhaps the norm and it was just as Jesus encouraged.
    Instead of always seeking our comfort zones, perhaps we should be taught to seek our un-comfort zones. It’s very humbling, and can sure tame some pride issues that many of we Christians carry as a log in our eye.

  7. Bronwyn Lea says:

    Well said, Brittany ❤

  8. Curtis says:

    Thank you! My takeaway is that maturity is the ability to transition from literalism to metaphor where it’s intended, and not miss the larger points.

    • Maturity is definitely an important part, especially when it is a matter of being willing to see that a book, passage, or single line might not actually mean what we once thought it meant. Education on this matter helps. Not everyone takes seminary courses, but this is why it is so important that Pastors and other spiritual teachers DO have seminary training, because they are responsible for passing that knowledge (how to read), on to their congregations. There is a term, the “narrative arc” of scripture, which captures the essence of the “larger points,” as it were. The idea being that when all of various pieces of the scriptural cannon are taken first on their own terms (genre and context), and then pieced together accordingly, the larger picture should bring clarity to what might be confusing in single passages or where two passages may seem to contradict each other. 🙂

  9. Liz Jones says:

    Excellent article Brittany! Such very valid points. Thank you.

  10. JYJames says:

    We had a different experience.
    We cleared our media when our children were toddlers, leaving only the Bible for a year. We indulged in an eternal gift: Isaiah 40:8, 1 Peter 1:25.
    Gradually, everything came back (literature, informational texts, languages, research, travel, how-to, fine art, metaphor, simile, analogy, parables, parody, etc.) except magic. Disney, Narnia, superheroes, fantasy, etc., never returned. We noted when the Bible uses animals for metaphors, there are never fantasy creatures.
    The academic levels of our children exploded as they grew. It was phenomenal.
    I asked my husband, “Did you do this?”
    “No, it must have been you,” he replied.
    “Nope, not me,” I assured him.
    We credited God’s Word, and God’s guidance in media, the Bible as a standard.
    Our children studied the sciences as undergrads and went on to various advanced degrees. They also picked up a few languages along the way.
    This is anecdotal, without judgement of other practices. I could not argue theology if life depended on it. Many children achieve fluency and automaticity in literacy via the Potter books. Our children, however, were disinterested, without the rules; on library nights, they checked out at will.

    • That is excellent that your children loved to read, especially the Bible, from childhood through their graduate studies! I used the Harry Potter series in the post above not to say that parents should let their kids read them, or that they help us read the Bible. My main point was to deconstruct (for adults even more than children), how we approach reading anything. Because the Harry Potter books are strictly fantasy, and quite well known, they make for an easy analogy. I could have used the any type of fiction or non-fiction to make my points about understanding genre, metaphor, historical and social context, etc. The way we read tweets is (hopefully) different than the way we read and interpret legal codes. We should not read Genesis the same way we read Leviticus, or Isaiah, or the Gospels, or the letters, or Revelation (side note: there is a metaphoric dragon in Revelation, as well as other fantastic and metaphoric beasts throughout the apocalyptic writings). We should not even read every passage within Genesis the same way we read every other. And none of it should be read the same way we read a modern history or science textbook. There have been instances where I thought I read and understood a story in scripture, but after taking Hebrew and Greek, I learned that my English translation had transliterated place and people names, instead of translating them, and knowing what those names meant massively changes one’s understanding of what is happening in the story. Obviously we cannot all be ancient Hebrew scholars (mine is sadly VERY rusty), but it is good to remind ourselves to be self-aware as we read. There is so much in scripture that goes over our modern-heads; we don’t know what we don’t know, ya know? 🙂

  11. Carmen says:

    How utterly ironic that JYJames’ family tossed out books referring to ‘magic’ and kept the Bible.
    . . . shaking my head . . . Tell me, how do you think your god conjured up everything? Waved a wand? Wiggled its nose? Cast a spell? Sounds a lot like Harry Potter, eh? 😉
    Oh, and Tim if you decide not to publish this – I see you’ve cleared all my comments – it’s fine. All the others posters will read it anyway.

  12. Carmen says:

    Now Tim, that comment is disingenuous. You took off ALL my comments and there were a few complimentary ones. 🙂

    Imagine, children only being allowed to read the Bible for a year. These verses must have been a real challenge –
    She lusted after her lovers, whose genitals were like those of donkeys and whose emission was like that of horses. Ezekiel 23:20 NIV
    You will be pledged to be married to a woman, but another will take her and rape her. You will build a house, but you will not live in it. You will plant a vineyard, but you will not even begin to enjoy its fruit. Your ox will be slaughtered before your eyes, but you will eat none of it. Your donkey will be forcibly taken from you and will not be returned. Your sheep will be given to your enemies, and no one will rescue them. . . . The Lord will afflict your knees and legs with painful boils that cannot be cured, spreading from the soles of your feet to the top of your head. Deuteronomy 28:30-31,35
    Oh, and then there’s Numbers 31 – a real gem.
    Imagine children trying to make sense of that and being denied Harry Potter or Ursula Le Guin.
    Like I said, I shake my head. And you wonder why I can’t engage ‘kindly and constructively’?

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