“Jesus, a victim of a conspiracy among threatened Jewish leaders, died on a Roman cross. Babel put Jesus to death: City and tower, Jew and Gentile, Shem and Japheth, the whole oikoumene, joined forces to kill the true Emperor. To the Jewish temple elites, Jesus threatened the delicate balance with Rome. As He gained a following, it became more and more likely that the Roamns would come to take away ‘our place and our nation’ (John 11:48). It was expedient that one man die for the people. Jesus threatened resistant Jews because he favored Judea’s untouchables and flouted the rules of purity. His movement was a contagion that could infect all of Judaism and prevent Yahweh’s advent to redeem Israel. He had to be expelled. It was expedient that one man die for the people. For the Roman procurator, Jesus was another Jewish nuisance, innocent perhaps but not worth protecting at the cost of a riot. It was defensible to execute Him, since He called Himself a king, talked about an empire other than Rome, set Himself as rival to Caesar. It was expedient that one man die for the people. . . . or, it was convenient to offer a scapegoat to protect one man’s dead-end post in the fetid backwaters of the empire. Pilate’s utilitarian calculus unmasked the brutality just underneath the shiny surface of Roman justice. Roman iustitia cracked forever at the cross of Jesus. And Jesus’ unmasking of Roman power advanced a crucial step in the resurrection, the Father’s own verdict regarding Jesus, His ‘justification’ or ‘vindication.’ The resurrection made public what was hidden in the cross, that Jesus is the Righteous One. If that is true, then the alliance of Jews and Romans to execute Jesus was unjust. Before the cross, Jew and Gentile, partners in building Babel, stand exposed.” —Between Babel and Beast, 35-36.
The gist of his argument is that Twitter is in fact a particularly Christ-like mode of communication, since Jesus had no hesitation in dropping bewildering, provocative one-liners like “Follow me, and let the dead bury their dead” (Mt. 8:22), and “Do not think that I came to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace but a sword” (Mt. 10:34). And indeed, we are given to understand in Scripture that Jesus did this intentionally to provoke, bewilder, and offend people, so that “hearing they might not understand, and seeing they might not perceive.” Toby summarizes, “The point is that Jesus frequently said things in short, pointy ways that not only could be misunderstood, but which frequently were and were meant to be.” He also points out that while there are problems with a sound-bite culture, humans are called to name the world, as God does, packing massive truths into short, pregnant utterances.
From this he concludes,
“But ultimately, it is not a pastor’s job (or any Christian’s for that matter) to make sure everyone understands. Sometimes, God sends pastors and prophets to preach in such a way as to make sure the people don’t understand, to tell parables, and perform prophetic charades until the people are deaf, dumb, and blind (Is. 6:9-10, Mk. 4:11-12). It is not necessarily a failure for the truth to be told in a way that stirs up discussion, demands clarification, and confuses people.”
I have raised some concerns about this argument in a lengthy comment, which you can read in full there; the bullet-point version is this:
- Jesus generally knew who he was talking to when he made these utterances; indeed, they were usually to an individual or small group. The tweeter has no idea who is listening in and taking offence.
- Jesus had the advantage of tone of voice and body language to communicate to his hearers; the tweeter doesn’t, which suggests greater caution is needed.
- The spoken word carries much more authority than the pixels in a Twitter feed; people are much more likely to stop in their tracks and think hard about a provocative utterance they hear, whereas they are more likely to scoff at something they see on social media (at any rate, I am; maybe I’m just weird that way).
- Jesus was the Son of God and history’s greatest teacher; at the very least, humility demands a rather large dose of prudence when trying to imitate his boldest teaching techniques.
- Are we really called to imitate His practice of intentionally inciting the antagonism of his hearers, given that his ministry came as a unique moment of eschatological judgment?
I suppose it’s worth emphasizing that, while Toby has suggested that this is a question of being willing to “tell the truth and let the chips fall where they may,” of being willing to be offensive for the sake of the Gospel, I don’t think that’s what’s at issue. I think that preaching the Gospel will often prove offensive in a world that doesn’t want to hear it. Telling the truth will get you shunned, accused of intolerance, or burned in effigy. But it’s because I want to preserve the offensiveness of the message that I don’t want the messenger to be unnecessarily offensive, lest scandal become our daily fare and lose its force. I want us to be as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves, so when we do rile the world up, it’s simply because that’s what the Gospel does, not because we have been wantonly provocative. If we take too much pleasure in being provocative, the world will have long since dismissed us as chronic cranks before it even hears the scandalous word of the Gospel.
Paul determined to know nothing but Jesus and the cross. Was that enough? To answer that question, we need to answer another: What is the cross? The cross is the work of the Father, who gave His Son in love for the world; the cross is the work of the Son, who did not cling to equality with God but gave Himself to shameful death; the cross is the work of the Spirit, through whom the Son offers Himself to the Father and who is poured out by the glorified Son. The cross displays the height and the depth and the breadth of eternal Triune love.
The cross is the light of the world; on the cross Jesus is the firmament, mediating between heaven and earth; the cross is the first of the fruit-bearing trees, and on the cross Jesus shines as the bright morning star; on the cross Jesus is sweet incense arising to heaven, and He dies on the cross as True Man to bring the Sabbath rest of God.
Adam fell at a tree, and by a tree he was saved. At a tree Eve was seduced, and through a tree the bride was restored to her husband. At a tree, Satan defeated Adam; on a tree Jesus destroyed the works of the devil. At a tree man died, but by Jesus’ death we live. At a tree God cursed, and through a tree that curse gave way to blessing. God exiled Adam from the tree of life; on a tree the Last Adam endured exile so that we might inherit the earth.
The cross is the tree of knowledge, the tree of judgment, the site of the judgment of this world. The cross is the tree of life, whose cuttings planted along the river of the new Jerusalem produce monthly fruit and leaves for the healing of the nations.
The cross is the tree in the middle of history. It reverses what occurred in the beginning at the tree of Eden, and because of the cross, we are confident the tree of life will flourish through unending ages after the end of the age.
The cross is the wooden ark of Noah, the refuge for all the creatures of the earth, the guarantee of a new covenant of peace and the restoration of Adam. The cross is the ark that carries Jesus, the greater Noah, with all His house, through the deluge and baptism of death to the safety of a new creation.
The cross is the olive tree of Israel on which the true Israel died for the sake of Israel. For generations, Israel worshiped idols under every green tree. Israel cut trees, burned wood for fuel, and shaped the rest into an idol to worship. Now in the last days, idolatrous Israel cut trees, burned wood for fuel, and shaped the rest into a cross. The cross is the climax of the history of Israel, as the leaders of Israel gather to jeer, as their fathers had done, at their long-suffering King.
The cross is the imperial tree, where Jesus is executed as a rebel against empire. It is the tree of Babylon and of Rome and of all principalities and powers that will have no king but Caesar. It is the tree of power that has spawned countless crosses for executing innumerable martyrs. But the cross is also the imperial tree of the Fifth Monarchy, the kingdom of God, which grows to become the chief of all the trees of the forest, a haven for birds of the air and beasts of the field.
The cross is the staff of Moses, which divides the sea and leads Israel dry through it. The cross is the wood thrown into the waters of Marah to turn the bitter waters sweet. The cross is the pole on which Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, as Jesus is lifted up to draw all men to Himself.
The cross is the tree of cursing, for cursed is every man who hangs on a tree. On the tree of cursing hung the chief baker of Egypt; but now bread of life. On the tree of cursing hung the king of Ai and the five kings of the South; but now the king of glory, David’s greater Son. On the tree of cursing hung Haman the enemy who sought to destroy Israel; but now the savior of Israel, One greater than Mordecai. Jesus bears the curse and burden of the covenant to bear the curse away.
The cross is the wooden ark of the new covenant, the throne of the exalted savior, the sealed treasure chest now opened wide to display the gifts of God – Jesus the manna from heaven, Jesus the Eternal Word, Jesus the budding staff. The cross is the ark in exile among Philistines, riding in triumph even in the land of enemies.
Jesus had spoken against the temple, with its panels and pillars made from cedars of Lebanon. He predicted the temple would be chopped and burned, until there was not one stone left on another. The Jews had made the temple into another wood-and-stone idol, and Israel must have her temple, even at the cost of destroying the Lord of the temple. Yet, the cross becomes the new temple, and at Calvary the temple is destroyed to be rebuilt in three days. The cross is the temple of the prophet Ezekiel, from which living water flows out to renew the wilderness and to turn the salt sea fresh.
The cross is the wood on the altar of the world on which is laid the sacrifice to end all sacrifice. The cross is the wood on which Jesus burns in His love for His Father and for His people, the fuel of His ascent in smoke as a sweet-smelling savor. The cross is the wood on the back of Isaac, climbing Moriah with his father Abraham, who believes that the Lord will provide. The cross is the cedar wood burned with scarlet string and hyssop for the water of purification that cleanses from the defilement of death.
The cross is planted on a mountain, and Golgotha is the new Eden, the new Ararat, the new Moriah; it is greater than Sinai, where Yahweh displays His glory and speaks His final word, a better word than the word of Moses; it is greater than Zion, the mountain of the Great King; it is the climactic mount of transfiguration where the Father glorifies His Son. Calvary is the new Carmel, where the fire of God falls from heaven to consume a living twelve-stone altar to deliver twelve tribes, and turn them into living stones. Planted at the top of the world, the cross is a ladder to heaven, angels ascending and descending on the Son of man.
The cross tears Jesus and the veil so that through His separation He might break down the dividing wall that separated Yahweh from his people and Jew from Gentile. The cross stretches embrace the world, reaching to the four corners, the four winds of heaven, the points of the compass, from the sea to the River and from Hamath to the brook of Egypt. It is the cross of reality, the symbol of man, stretching out, as man does, between heaven and earth, distended between past and future, between inside and outside.
The cross is the crux, the crossroads, the twisted knot at the center of reality, to which all previous history led and from which all subsequent history flows. By it we know all reality is cruciform – the love of God, the shape of creation, the labyrinth of human history. Paul determined to know nothing but Christ crucified, but that was enough. The cross was all he knew on earth; but knowing the cross he, and we, know all we need to know.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(composed for Advent Sunday 2011 at St. Paul’s and St. George’s Church, Edinburgh)
O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.
Lord Jesus, for whose coming Zechariah, Elizabeth, and all the faithful of Israel waited with longing two millenia ago, hear the prayers of your hungry people today. We mourn in exile from your presence, conscious of the sins that separate us from you, conscious of our faithlessness in the task you have given us to be the lights of the world. Lord, we are a barren people–our faith is weak, our hearts are cold, our churches are empty. Lord Jesus, Hope of Israel, who once did condescend to born of a virgin in a stable, be born among us again today, and give us the eyes to see you in your humility. Be born among us in the preaching each Sunday that we hear and the sacrament we share. Be born among us in small groups where we fellowship and hear you speaking to us through one another. Be born among us in our ministries to the lost and to the needy, in the Alpha Course as we display your truth, in our ministries with Bethany as we display your love, in our singing and worship as we display your beauty. Renew this church, and all your churches, with the power of your presence, with the terror and comfort of your word, with the courage to follow you on the path of love without pretense, love without measure.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save,
And give them victory over the grave.
Christ, Creator, by whose all-powerful word was all brought into being, re-Creator, by whose powerless death was all made new, redeem us again from the pit. Only-begotten from all eternity, you were born, like each of us, to die, but death did not hold you, and now it has lost its hold on us. And yet, Lord, the power of death, the stain of sin, remains every day with us–in the violence of the murderer and the rapist, in the despair of a mother who cannot feed her children, in the insatiable greed that defrauds and bankrupts the vulnerable; but also in the angry word that springs so readily to our lips, in the self-absorption that passes heedlessly by someone in need, in the restless discontentment that drives the wheels of commerce. Forgive each of us for these sins that are our own, and for the sins of others that we do nothing to oppose and to heal. Remind us that you have forgiven us, and give us the confidence to forgive others in our turn. Saviour, Redeemer, Deliverer, rescue us again by your power and love, show mercy to the downtrodden and strengthen us to do the same.
O come, Desire of nations, bind
In one the hearts of all mankind;
Bid Thou our sad divisions cease,
And be Thyself our King of Peace.
King of Israel, you are also Lord of the nations, before whom every knee shall bow, and whom every tongue shall confess. And yet our rulers neither confess your name nor bow before you; instead we find the god of Mammon everywhere enthroned, and war a favorite tool to serve agendas of greed and power. Prejudice and xenophobia divide us from one another, suspicion rather than sympathy is our default. Lord, we pray for Britain, that you would humble its pride and restrain its greed. Give us just leaders who protect the poor and the voiceless, rather than the powerful and influential, and who welcome the stranger, rather than turning them away. Lord, we pray also for America, still infatuated with her power and intoxicated with her wealth, concerned only with maintaining her own position. Give her leaders who will bow the knee to your kingship. We pray for leaders in the Arab world and in Israel who maintain their position by violence, make them submit to the Prince of peace. We pray for young nations that are leaderless and directionless–provide for them order and justice. We pray for leaders in India and China, nations that will direct the destiny of our world in decades to come; fill those nations with the light of your word today, that they may advance your kingdom tomorrow.
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.
Light of the World, we see your light dawning already in every corner of our globe. You have come, in answer to the longings of the ages, and the world is still echoing with the wonder of that great event. In nearly every nation and tribe are faithful disciples who call on your name; even among those who have tried so hard to forget you, you haunt their imaginations. Your kingdom has left its mark on our language, our music, our laws, our buildings. Lord, fill us with hope and joy this advent, recognizing amidst these short days and long nights that the darkness is breaking, remembering during the cold and the frost that the winter is ending, that you both have come and are coming again. Lord, let this exhilarating realization animate our every thought and deed. When we are frightened, let us take comfort in the thought. When we are tired, let it energize us. When we are heedless and turned inward on ourselves, let it call us to attention. When we are in despair, let it give us hope. When we are angry, let it make us ashamed. Lord, let each of our lives and each of our churches reflect the glorious proclamation that our King reigns and our King is coming.
Almighty God, give us grace that we may cast away the works of darkness, and put upon us the armour of light, now in the time of this mortal life, in which thy Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal, through him who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, now and ever. Amen.
On Thursday night, I had the privilege of seeing the final Harry Potter movie in the city where the books were conceived and written, so I wanted to take this opportunity to reflect on how faithfully this last crucial film reflected the rich theology of J.K. Rowling’s creation. I should mention that I was, until the very last book, something of a Potter skeptic, unconvinced that the books were anything more than a fun and overhyped story. But in the final chapters of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I was bowled over by the overt and profound Christological elements, which were so prominent that it seemed impossible that they could be integrated without overwhelming the story and turning it into a sermon. That they did not do so is a remarkable tribute to Rowling’s literary prowess. Following the logic of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, the final book revealed that the magical world of wonder that Harry inhabited was not all there was–there was a deeper magic, which overturned all the calculations of the magical world.
But the question was, could Hollywood grasp this deep magic? It had failed abysmally in the recent Narnia adaptations, sucking all traces of theology out with startling efficiency. The less overt theology of Lord of the Rigns had escaped somewhat more intact, though still crucially undermined at points. Whether intentionally or simply out of blindness, Hollywood shows itself remarkably adept at de-theologizing stories, and converting them, so far as possible, into some kind of feel-good humanism. I had a suspicion, especially after Deathly Hallows Part One, that this supremely theological tale would be no exception. Alas, I guessed rightly. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)
Now don’t get me wrong. From a strictly cinematic standpoint, and indeed from the standpoint of fidelity to the book, this film was, to my mind, all that could be wished for through its first 100 minutes or so. Even after that, I think it would be quite a decent film to anyone who hadn’t read the book. But these last 20 minutes, encompassing the part after Harry dies and Rowling cranks up the theology into high gear, subtly but systematically removed four key elements of these final chapters, which I shall call “The Death of Death,” “The Life of the Age to Come,” “The Atonement,” “The Last Judgment.” Note that not everything I sketch here is explicit in the book, and indeed, Rowling seeks to explain each of these phenomena in terms that make sense within the world of the book–this is literature, not a sermon, or even an allegory. However, I am fairly sure that I am reading each of these out of the book, not into it.
The Death of Death
What is it that happens when Harry gives himself up to death, and why is he able to come back from the dead? Well, in answer to the first question, we could certainly say that the Horcrux that is within Harry is destroyed; Voldemort is rendered vulnerable. This alone is rich with theological significance. Harry destroys the power of sin and death by bearing it within himself, and letting it die with him, just as Christ identifies himself with sin and fallenness, bearing it to the cross (does anyone think it’s a coincidence that Harry finds himself at “King’s Cross” at his death?) where it can be destroyed by dying with him. But if that were all, there would be no reason why Harry would have to knowingly and willingly give himself up; as long as Voldemort killed Harry in battle, one way or another, the Horcrux destruction would be accomplished. And yet great stress is laid in the book on the necessity that Harry voluntarily take this death upon himself. He must give himself up to death. Nor, if it were merely about destroying the Horcrux, would there be any reason he should come back from the dead, just as, from the standpoint of Christian theology, if redemption was merely the expiation of sin at the cross, it’s hard to see what significance the resurrection has.
To fully grasp what’s going on at this point in the book, we have to think of the significance of the Deathly Hallows, which are after all what the book is all about. The theme of the book is established many chapters earlier, at Godric’s Hollow, with the twin New Testament passages, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” and “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” Harry wants to destroy the power of death, to become the master of death, but the way in which he does so is crucial. It matters where his treasure is, what it is that he truly values. If he wants to overcome death for himself, to set himself up as its master, then he will be little better than Voldemort. This is the symbolism of the choice between Hallows and Horcruxes, which is built up throughout the earlier chapters of the book and comes to a razor-sharp point at Shell Cottage. Harry recognizes that he must choose between pursuing the Hallows, overcoming the power of death by taking to himself more power than death, or by embracing the route of powerlessness, the long hard path of destroying the Horcruxes, which means eventually giving himself up to death on behalf of others. (This fascinating dialectic is almost completely left out in the film The Deathly Hallows Part One, and so its resonances are absent at the crucial moment in Part Two, and the extensive conversation on this point between Harry and Dumbledore at King’s Cross is omitted.)
Harry is to become the master of death, but master not by setting himself over it but by putting himself under it. Death exhausts its force by being poured out on him, the one who willingly seeks it for himself to save others. Love is stronger than death. “But I should have died–I didn’t defend myself! I meant to let him kill me!” Harry exclaims. “And that,” Dumbledore replies, “will, I think, have made all the difference.” This enigmatic comment is left unexplained, but for the reader looking for an explanation within the existing logic of the books, Harry’s cheating of death is explained in terms of the power of Harry’s blood, itself clearly rich with theological overtones. The power of love in his mother’s sacrifice is in his blood, and although Voldemort took Harry’s blood to weaken Harry and strengthen himself, in this blood is the power of life that makes it impossible for Voldemort to finally kill Harry.
In short, in Harry’s death, we witness the death of death in his own death. Like Christ, “death has no more dominion over him.” What this means is more than just the destruction of another Horcrux; Harry has not just struck one more blow, but in fact the decisive blow. But to bring this decisive blow to completion, Harry must be resurrected. Death must be publicly exhibited as overthrown, its powerlessness before the power of love must be displayed and enacted, Harry must tread the powers of evil underfoot, must reverse the sentence of death that Voldemort has enacted on him by returning it upon Voldemort. And this resurrection must be no mere “rescuscitation,” it must be the return to life of someone over whom death no longer has hold (more on this in the next section).
All of this, I think, is clear enough in the book, although generally hinted at rather than openly set forth.
In the film? Nope. In the film, the conversation between Dumbledore and Harry is abbreviated so as to omit any sustained reflection on the significance of what has happened, and Harry simply asks, more or less, “So, can I go back?” To which Dumbledore replies, more or less, “Well, if you want to.” Why should he be able to go back? On what basis? Can the story just conveniently break the rules of its own world whenever it wants to? No, as in Narnia, what we have here is not the normal rules of magic, but a deeper magic at work. Thus far, the departure in the film is primarily one of omission, not commission, but the ramifications are still significant. The following features will show, I think, that I am not reading too much into this omission.
The Life of the Age to Come
When Harry comes back to life, it is not merely a reversal, a resuscitation. He comes back as one who has passed through death and come out on the other side. Now, clearly Rowling does not make too much of this. This is a story, not a sermon, and Harry is, for purposes of the story, just a regular old human being, not the God-man. He will go on to live a normal life, and presumably to grow old and eventually die again. Nonetheless, the sense that “death has no dominion over him” anymore is conveyed in several ways.
After he comes back, Voldemort, thinking him dead, triumphs over his body by casting the Cruciatus Curse, which ought to inflict unspeakable pain on any living thing. However, Harry is impervious, he feels no pain. Voldemort’s magic can no longer affect him. For this reason, Harry can now face Voldemort without fear. It is not as if he has now merely nullified Voldemort’s advantage and now comes back to fight him on equal terms. The terms are completely unequal. Voldemort has no chance, and Harry knows it. The game is up. “You must believe that you have magic that I do not, or else a weapon more powerful than mine,” says Voldemort. Harry replies, “I believe both.” Nor does Harry even have to cast a killing curse–Voldemort’s simply rebounds upon himself and he is destroyed. In the book, this is explained primarily in terms of the logic of the Elder Wand, and its change of allegiance. The Elder Wand, the greatest of the Deathly Hallows, represents the power of mastery over death, the power that Harry has refused to try and seize. And nonetheless, it has been granted him, in a roundabout fashion, ultimately because of Dumbledore’s self-sacrificial renunciation of it. But in any case, the upshot is that Harry now, having given himself up to death, has been vindicated as the true master of death, against whom Voldemort has no power.
Contrast this to the movie. Here, there is no hint that we have anything but a rescuscitation, an unexplained but convenient mechanism for Harry to return to fight another day, so that Round Two can commence, and the special effects guys can go crazy for another battle scene. The battle that commences is not one that, as in the book, is essentially futile from the start (for Voldemort), but one in which Voldemort still seems to have the upper hand. Harry is running and dodging, the snake is striking at people (instead of being decapitated right at the beginning of the sequence), and nothing really seems to have changed. Voldemort and Harry grapple together, and when their wands finally do meet, it takes some time before Harry can overpower and thus destroy Voldemort. Instead, in short, of a narrative in which the decisive victory has already been achieved by the renunciation of force, Harry triumphs, it seems, by superior force in a final closely contested showdown.
It’s also worth noting one little sequence in the movie that runs quite counter to the theo-logic I’ve sketched here. Voldemort comes into the castle courtyard with Harry’s body, exulting over his triumph, and Neville steps forward to challenge him. Neville tells Voldemort that Harry hasn’t really died, because he lives in each of them, in their hearts. He is still with them in spirit, and so it really makes no difference. They will still fight. Now, to be sure, in the book, the defenders of the castle are still defiant, but they are utterly downcast. They may not want to submit, but it is clear that Harry’s death does make a difference. Harry being truly alive and Harry being “alive in their hearts” are not the same thing, just as, contra modern liberal Christianity, Christ being resurrected and him living on in the disciples’ hearts are not the same thing. As Paul says in Corinthians, “And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins! Then also those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable.”
One of the most beautiful parts in the book is the revelation that just as the death of Harry’s mother protected him, so Harry’s giving himself up to death on behalf of his friends means that they are covered by his death, they are, as it were, atoned for. The sentence of death was on each of them, unless Harry went to die himself. He does so, and the power of evil and death no longer has any hold on them either.
“‘You won’t be killing anyone else tonight,’ said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other’s eyes, green into red. ‘You won’t be able to kill any of them, ever again. Don’t you get it? I was ready to die to stop you hurting these people. –‘
‘But you did not!’
‘–I meant to, and that’s what did it. I’ve done what my mother did. They’re protected from you. Haven’t you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can’t torture them. You can’t touch them.'”
This is one of the most overtly Christian ideas in the book, and is entirely omitted in the movie. There is no sense that Voldemort no longer has power against Harry’s friends. Quite the contrary–he is still a terrifying force, striking at will, with, it appears, a very real chance of triumphing.
The Last Judgment
Finally, we come to the only change from the book that has been significantly remarked upon, because this one is too obvious to miss. In the book, Harry faces down Voldemort in the Great Hall, in the presence of all. Everyone falls silent and stops their fighting and watches the final encounter. And instead of simply going for each other, Harry and Voldemort have a conversation. Only at the end, when Harry has laid everything bare, does he engage and destroy Voldemort. In the movie, the final showdown occurs alone, in a courtyard, with no one watching or listening, and only a minimum of conversation.
Is there any significance to this? I think there is.
For what we have at the end is not so much a battle as a judgment. As I have said, Harry has for all practical purposes already triumphed. He has passed through death, he has overpowered death, he is the lord of the Elder Wand. What remains is simply for him to exhibit this triumph. All of this, I think, is theologically significant. At the end of the age, Christ will not simply snap his fingers and wipe out evil, and everyone will live happily ever after. No, he will be publicly vindicated, as will all his saints. All evil deeds will be brought to light and laid bare, and the righteous will shine for all to see. The lies of ages will be unravelled, and the truth will finally be spoken for all to hear. The spell of deception which the Evil One has laid upon the world will be broken. The wicked will be given one final chance to repent (or not, depending on your precise theology). Christ will be publicly proclaimed as the true Lord of Ages, and he will name the Evil One for who he really is. In short, just judgment will at last be given.
All of this happens in that final showdown in the book. It is crucial that Harry be publicly vindicated as the righteous one, the one who gave himself up to save the world, and that Voldemort be named for who he is–Tom Riddle, a coward. The truth will finally be told about Dumbledore and about Severus Snape–the righteous will be vindicated, and Voldemort’s lies about them finally unraveled. Harry will warn Voldemort of the terrible end that awaits him, and summon him to a last repentance, but in vain. Voldemort’s claims to supremacy will be shown to be empty, and Harry revealed as the true lord of the Elder Wand.
Although I doubt the filmmakers had any idea what they were doing when they altered this showdown, I think they were instinctively flinching from the intolerably eschatological nature of it all. For the modern, the battle against evil, insomuch as there is one, is one that we each have to fight within ourselves, is one in which we are each alone and each victory is ours alone. The idea of a final public confrontation, a judgment in which the nature of evil is laid bare for all to see, is foreign and unacceptable. Nor can the modern handle the revelation of true lordship. We saw this in Lord of the Rings and Narnia movies, in the watering down of the idea of kingship. So it is here. Harry’s supposed to be someone with whom we can all identify, and in the very last scene, he appears just a little too lordly. Suddenly he is revealed as the guy who holds all the cards, so to speak, who suddenly has access to all kinds of truths that we as readers are still trying to figure out. No doubt the filmmakers felt that audiences really wouldn’t be able to relate to such a transfigured Harry, and so the final confrontation must be no more than a last personal showdown between Harry and his nemesis.
As for the other changes, I can only speculate whether the filmmakers were intentionally de-theologizing or whether they really just didn’t get it. Sadly, based upon the way in which reviewers have reacted to the film and endorsed the ending, I’m afraid it’s the latter. Perhaps this is, if anything, more disturbing–to live in a society which is no longer reacting against or fleeing from God, but has just forgotten how to even recognize Him