Well shoot. Here I was trying to come to Harry Potter’s defense and help assure Christians they have little to worry about with these books, and then J.K. Rowling goes and outs Dumbledore.
I wrote an initial article this summer about how, though the Potter books are not specifically Christian in content, there was still a good deal of virtue in them and that for our family they provided opportunities for us to discuss our faith. And just when we thought we’d mined the books for all the faith oriented discussions they could yield, J.K. Rowling tells the world that she wrote Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts school and mentor to Harry Potter, as a gay man.
What was Rowling thinking? She had to have known that this revelation would only provide ammunition to all the Potter haterz out there. I remember when I first wrote my article friends of mine said things like, “You know you’ll probably have a back-lash on this, right?” and “Are you prepared to die on this hill?” So I confess that when I first got news of the Dumbledore development, I thought, “Great, it serves me right for defending a fictional literary character who is a wizard no less.”
While it’s true that my energies might be better spent elsewhere, my aim was less to champion the books as it was to address what seems to me to be unthoughtful criticisms from the church, and to wonder why our first response is usually fear. I wasn’t advocating for everyone to read these books, I was merely saying they weren’t the occultish affair that many Christians assumed they were and furthermore that they consistently provided opportunities to talk about our faith with our own kids in compelling context.
And that’s exactly what happened this week. When I got the news about Dumbledore’s sexual orientation, I was frustrated that Rowling would bring any kind of sexuality into these books. I had always been grateful that the books steered clear of blatant sexual themes. I then wondered if I should talk to my boys about this news or passively hope they wouldn’t hear about it (less on account of homophobia and more because I didn’t want the stories to be colored with any kind of sexuality for them). But I knew they would hear about it sooner or later, and it was best that they hear about it from me. So at lunch that day, I made the announcement: Albus Dumbledore was gay. And a fruitful conversation followed.
Whatever your theological position on homosexuality, I think it’s safe to say that by and large the church has demonized gays and lesbians or at the very least dismissed them as reprobates consumed by lustful desires. However, if you know any homosexuals personally, you begin to see that it’s a bit more complicated than that.
We have a number of Christian friends who over the years have outed themselves as gay – many of whom would have done just about anything to be heterosexual. When someone close to you makes the often painful admission that they are gay, it becomes difficult to dismiss them as merely perverted or lascivious. You have to reconcile their sexuality with their humanity, which is inconvenient and messy.
And in a way that’s what’s happened with Dumbledore. He is a character that is so beloved, wise, gifted, and heroic – someone readers have come to trust and to love, someone we even wish we could be perhaps. He is like a friend, he’s like family. Why complicate things with these very personal details? Now we have to factor his sexuality into the equation and come to terms with it. Do we excommunicate him from the family? Are we afraid to be in a room alone with him? Do we now disregard all the virtues that made us love him in the first place? It’s messy, and complicated – and a lot like real life. At least that’s how it has been for us when people we loved came out of the closet. The question is: Now what?
The Potter books reveal no sordid affairs of any kind going on in the castle of Hogwarts, and it appears as though he was a celibate homosexual (unless Rowling decides to rewrite the history she’s given us). I told my boys that this has all reminded me of one of my own heroes: renowned author Henri Nouwen. Nouwen wrote some of Christendom’s most beloved books, full of deep wisdom and great compassion. At the height of his career as author and teacher at Harvard and Yale, he left behind his position of influence and renown and lived the remainder of his days in obscurity serving the severely mentally handicapped at the L’arche Daybreak Community in Canada, exemplifying selfless Christian service.
In his books he bravely faced his pain and helped the rest of us to face our own and allow God to redeem it by making us “wounded healers.” After his death, it was revealed that he was gay, and in fact the great pain that he often made reference to was his own subsequent loneliness and his conviction that if he chose love and companionship with another, he would have to sacrifice his ministry.
He chose his ministry and remained a celibate homosexual.
We got to talk with my boys about all of this, and it was fruitful. We got to talk about the difficult theology in discerning what God’s heart is toward homosexuals (wherever you land on this issue, I think it’s safe to say that we as a Christian community haven’t always responded lovingly and in a Christ-like manner). We wondered how a church like “God Hates Fags” could exist within Christendom. We wondered what a truly Christ-like response to homosexuals would look like.
Tough questions without easy answers that we must wrestle with if we are to be Christians worth our salt. Tough questions that I might have otherwise avoided if it weren’t for the news of Dumbledore’s orientation. So I’m right back where I started with my initial defense of the Potter books. They have consistently provided fertile opportunities to dig in and ask hard questions about faith.
Even though I was irritated with Rowling at first for dropping this bomb on us, I suppose I’m indebted once again to her for an opportunity to have a meaningful conversation about faith, God, and love.
That was probably her intent.