clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A Christian perspective on 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child'

Editor's note: This has spoilers, including a plot synopsis, for "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child."

Eighteen years ago, the name of a young wizard named Harry Potter entered our global vocabulary and seemingly overnight, words like Hogwarts and Hermione became synonymous with childhood.

For others, however, these iconic people and places signified something quite different. In the nascent days of the Harry Potter releases, some Christians began to vocalize opposition to the series on the grounds that the characters enjoined young people to heresy by practicing witchcraft. Meanwhile others, including myself, found the books to be valuable teaching tools for both the seeker and committed Christian alike.

So what might a Christian think of the latest addition to the Harry Potter canon?

The new play, titled "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child," contains much to both challenge and enrich the faith life of the Christian reader. By way of explanation —and please stop reading if you don’t want a general plot synopsis — the story recounts the adventures of Harry’s son, Albus, and his friend Scorpius as they use a Time Turner to try to prevent the death of Cedric Diggory, who Voldemort kills in the fourth book of the series.

The attempt is prompted by a request from Cedric’s father, Amos, who feels that his son was wrongfully killed, and that Harry owes it to him to right this wrong by going back in time and preventing the murder.

When Harry refuses the request, Albus and Scorpius — anxious to prove themselves in the wizarding world — take it on, thus playing with fate and driving the plot through various permutations of what would have happened if events in the wizarding world played out differently than they did.

Thinking of this plot from a theological point of view, "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child" is a play that revolves around why evil exists — also called the problem of evil or theodicy. Amos Diggory, in asking for Cedric’s restitution, is really asking for an end to the experience of his own grief and pain. In other words, he tries to erase evil by seeking a reality in which it didn’t exist.

As Albus and Scorpius attempt to manipulate the past in order to preserve Cedric’s life, they discover that a number of different realities could have emerged if history had played out differently for Harry and his friends, finding that tiny moments and microscopic decisions all factored into Voldemort’s defeat. So as the play concludes (again, spoiler alert), what the characters learn is that the world they live in, complete with all its suffering, is still the best option of all the permutations that could have been.

So should a Christian oppose this message? Not necessarily; in fact, it’s actually a view that was proposed in the past.

The renowned Christian philosopher Gottfried Leibniz made this argument almost exactly 300 years ago when he coined the term which in English translates to “the best of all possible worlds.”

According to Leibniz, God could have created one of many worlds, but because God is by nature good, it would make the most sense if God created the best of all possible worlds, which would in effect mean the world in which the least possible evil existed. In other words, if it were possible for no evil to exist, that would be the case.

But Leibniz suggests that the best possible world requires a certain amount of evil that is necessary for the best possible positive outcome. This evil is ultimately defeated by the presence of goodness. So why must evil exist at all? Because evil teaches us to desire good, to fight for it, and without understanding evil, we wouldn’t chase after the good. The presence of evil, then, is actually an essential component of the best possible world.

That seems to be the message of the latest installment of the Harry Potter canon as well. The current reality of the wizarding world — for all the suffering that it holds — is still the best possible reality in which Harry and his companions can exist. Indeed, the play goes so far as to say that Albus and Scorpius owe their very existence to the horrors that came before, including Cedric’s death. Attempting to manipulate fate, then, to believe that the past could have been better, is a fool’s errand.

Now all of this may logically make a lot of sense, but not if you’re Amos Diggory or anyone who has experienced horrendous suffering.

Does the knowledge that one lives in the best of all possible worlds do anything to take away the pain of losing a child or a friend or a spouse or any of the other forms of suffering that continue to smart over time? When faced with that kind of pain, isn’t it always worth fighting for a better reality, a better today or yesterday or tomorrow?

Harry Potter, at the end of "The Cursed Child," seems to think so (as does Leibniz). Indeed, he tells Albus in the play’s final scene that what he did was transformative and worthwhile; Albus’ actions changed the world, even though he couldn’t undo the past.

But if this is what Harry Potter says, it’s also what Jesus Christ’s journey stands for. After all, the Resurrection teaches Christians that evil doesn’t have the last word, that pain is ultimately redeemed. But even as that is a reality, it is also the hope we hold as we witness evil in our midst, and so together we strive, like Albus and Scorpius, to fight against the world’s horrors.

So while we Christians may not be able to change the past, we have faith that, guided by God’s vision, we can be agents of tomorrow’s transformation.

Danielle Tumminio is an Episcopal priest and professor at Seminary of the Southwest. A three-time graduate of Yale University, she holds a doctorate from Boston University and is the author of "God and Harry Potter at Yale."