Question from Harry Potter: Is It Real or Just in My Head?

Art & Literature, Education, Logic & Rhetoric — By on July 9, 2013 at 7:00 am

Editor’s note: This week, we’re running a series on questions, inspired by Matthew Lee Anderson’s book, The End of Our Exploring. We reviewed his book hereThere’s a great deal going on this week: buy one copy of Matt’s book, and you can give one away for free. Check out the details here.

I unashamedly love the Harry Potter series as Christian literature. This is not to say that J. K. Rowling wrote the books as evangelistic tools, but the story that she tells through the whole series gives Christian answers to the big questions about life. In Harry Potter, evil is a selfish progression toward non-existence, death to self and the love of others is the way forward, being bound to life on this earth as though its continuation is the highest good is evil, belief is a choice that continually has to be made, love are trust is better than hatred and suspicion, and love is ultimately stronger than death. I could go on, but John Granger says everything much better and at greater length in How Harry Cast His Spell. In that book, Granger highlights a very important question at the very end of the series, and it is from Granger that I draw most of my beginning thoughts.

Toward the very end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the chapter “King’s Cross”, Rowling puts into popular literature a question with massive Christian implications. Harry is talking to Dumbledore in the train-station-between-the-worlds that he goes to after Voldemort zaps him with the death curse one more time, and Harry puts a question to him:

“Tell me one last thing,” said Harry. “Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?”

Dumbledore beamed at him, and his voice sounded loud and strong in Harry’s ears even though the bright mist was descending again, obscuring his figure.

“Of course it’s happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”

When Harry and Dumbledore had conversations when Dumbledore was still alive, their conversations were physically measurable and real, but they were also in Harry’s head. Albus Dumbledore being dead, yet spoke, a real conversation in which Dumbledore told Harry things that he had never told Harry before. Dumbledore’s answer to Harry is reminiscent of the three-way split that the Professor proposed to deal with Lucy’s discovery of Narnia in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Either Lucy was mad (which she was not), lying (and she was characteristically truthful), or telling the truth, and the Professor concludes that, unless she could be disproven, the children had to assume that there is some truth to what she is saying. It helped Harry that Dumbledore did not give Harry some religiously important message to come back to life with, but Harry, in his own head, had to decide what he was going to do about the real things happening there.

In the King’s Cross station between the worlds, Harry apparently had the choice to give up the ghost or to shuffle back into his mortal coil and continue the fight against Voldemort. Because humans are both body and spirit, whatever we do with the spirit greatly influences how quickly and with how much force it is ejected from the body. In the novel, Harry had a choice. In daily life, every choice adds up to a great big Live or Die. What people think in their heads very strongly affects what they do in “reality”—that is, the physical world. If they go with pure materialism, higher thought is an illusion and religion should go no further than biochemistry. If they go with “all is one” pantheism, then higher thought and individual action is an assertion of the will against the oneness of all things. Knowing God can be “in your head” as well as physical, though Chinese takeout may exercise a disproportionate influence in your religious convictions if you rely too much on a burning in the bosom.

Questions are the mind’s eyes, or perhaps its hands, exploring and manipulating the external world of truth and ideas. They can explore: “What time is it?” “Are we there yet?” “What would you like for dinner?” They can beckon: “Will you go to the dance with me?” “What time would you like to go to the movie?” They can karate chop: “Have you no decency?” “Would you like to take a long walk down a short pier?” “When did you stop beating your wife?” Matthew 6:22-23 says, “The eye is the lamp of the body. So, if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light, but if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light in you is darkness, how great is the darkness!” (ESV). If the question is good, your whole mind will be full of light. If the question is bad, how great will be the darkness! We must believe the reality of what happens in our minds, and Dumbledore’s question “ . . . but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” calls Harry to ask good questions on the one hand and to trust the reality of what happens in his head on the other.

What Harry Potter says about reality happening “in your head” is a great support for the work of the individual conscience and obedience to absolute truths. At various points in the stories, the kids have to do the right thing when adults cannot or do not. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry, Ron, and Hermione have to do something to save the Sorcerer’s Stone from Voldemort when Dumbledore is called away by a false message and the other adults think that the Stone is very closely guarded. In Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry and friends have to destroy all of Voldemort’s Horcruxes, and the final requirement for Harry to let Voldemort try to kill him means that adults cannot help him. Harry has to believe the truth and act upon it, putting his whole heart, soul, mind, and strength into the effort every time. Although no conscience acts in isolation, something as grand as St. Athanasius holding out against the Arian heresy would have been impossible without St. Athanasius’ confidence in the rightness of what he perceived “in his head” about the truth of Christ when it seemed that the whole world was against him.

Lots of things happen in my head on any given day. “Ooh! She’s pretty!” “Why did my boss do THAT?” “What is WRONG with those twerps?” “God is good.” Some of it is as profound as finding a fly in my soup, while other things are as trivial as thermonuclear war. There is always the task of discerning “what really going on when what’s going on is going on” as a professor of mine once said, but whatever it was, it really happened. Remaining confident that it was real and that it happened is a cornerstone of faith. Faith is not trust without proof, but it is continuing to trust something that was once proven, even factoring in new evidence and alternative points of view that seem to disprove what was once believable. What happens “in your head” is real, and though it must be interpreted, it is contiguous with what happens in the external world. Good questions are dreadfully important because they invite decent answers, whereas a poorly or deviously formed question banishes good answers and encourages lies. Dumbledore was dead when he asked Harry that all-important question, but can a man’s tombstone truly steal the goodness of his question?


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  • rstarke

    This is tremendous, and really helpful. Thanks!

  • objectivecorrelative

    Most human beings are quite imaginative and need to be discerning about “what’s in our head.” You might include a caveat about testing one’s thoughts to make sure they’re consistent with scripture and the reality God has put around us. Some pretty wrong and destructive things can get into your head.

  • Nathan Bennett

    The last paragraph. Was it not very clear?