Why were the Harry Potter stories so wildly successful? What was it about them, as opposed to hundreds of other “young adult” novels, that embossed onto the consciousness of a generation? Why are we celebrating the 20th anniversary of their US publication with the same kind of enthusiasm as if the books were published last Christmas?

Here’s one theory. The Harry Potter books have become cultural touchstones because they are not really about magic, or heroes, or even good vs evil. They are really about friendship.

Friendship is the rosebud of American culture. Its the thing universally acknowledged as necessary and good, and the one thing that every mechanism of our daily life in a flat, atomized society violently resists. Particularly for readers of Harry Potter who were the first to grow up in a culture shaped by the internet and social media, the friendships depicted in the novels seem almost like a shameless daydream. Hogwarts is the epicenter for a kind of intimacy and interdependence that, for many of us, exists only in such fairy tales. Friendship–the kind that ties together Harry, Ron, and Hermione– is rare.

Not long ago someone asked me if I could recall the happiest period of my adolescence. I didn’t have to think long. The ages and the years are fuzzy (I was homeschooled, so all grades run together in my memory), but I could instantly remember a season of life where I was surrounded by friends from church. Though I couldn’t tell you what kind of Bible teaching impacted me then, nor most of the books that I loved, I could readily paint a mental picture of what it felt like to be tied into a group of others who cared about and looked out for me. It was a season that the college years destroyed, since most of the kids in the youth group went to different schools, and a large number used the opportunity to drop out of church altogether. When the rhythm of student ministry life was gone, so were the friendships. And the same is true for most of us, whether the rhythm is from church, or school, or neighborhood. Mobility cuts through friendship like a scythe.

Except at Hogwarts. In the Harry Potter universe, there’s no choice necessary between friends and “the next step.” In fact, as the mythology of the tale unfolds, it becomes clear that the friendships are part of the triumph of the good. The final victory over evil demands love seasoned through the years. Every time that Harry tries to accomplish by his own strength, even if his motivations are noble (like keeping his friends out of harm’s way), Ron, Hermione, and others intercede on his behalf.

This is the kind of spiritual friendship that cannot be adequately described in a context that sees shared hobbies or mutual ambitions as the extent of belonging. It’s a spiritual neighborliness that is hard to find in many churches, as ruthless age-segregation and perfunctory programming bring people together just long enough to send them away again. This liturgy of loneliness is one well-learned by many adults, especially men. In J.K. Rowling’s universe we get a vivid depiction of male friendship and compassion, as a stark contrast to our own disenchanted time, when many young men are isolated and many older men are pathologically lonely.

The Potter novels charm so many because they are an unembarrassed confession that friends matter, and that despite the best efforts of technology and consumerism, we human beings simply cannot get over the fact. That is perhaps one reason why an aggressively self-determining, self-authenticating Western audience somehow feels at home in a fantasy that clearly hearkens to a more standardized, more ritualistic experience of life. Our time has moved past antiquarian boarding schools or formalistic liturgies, but you wouldn’t guess it by looking at the bestselling novels of the modern age.

All to often, Christian voices do not challenge the relational damage of modernity. How many evangelical parents are willing for their children to explore alternatives to a far-away university? And how many youth ministries set up programming and structure that incubates young adults from the rest of the church, reinforcing the idea that the goal of life (even the goal of faith!) is to assimilate as long as possible into your assigned demographic? It’s ironic that many evangelicals were more worried about readers of Harry Potter becoming wizards and witches than they were about their becoming atomized, self-reinventing American dreamers, anxious for Rob Bell to teach them what it means to be spiritual.

If Christian communities cannot offer friendship, what can they offer? Part of believing the gospel at all is believing that it wasn’t given to individuals, but to a church. There’s much conversation right now about recovering a biblical ideal of church membership. Good! But a body part that never responds to the other body parts is probably dead, even if it’s still attached. Friendships weren’t created by God to disappear as quickly as they tend to. Covenant membership means friendship if it means anything.

Perhaps the best thing evangelicals could do to learn this is to put down the church growth manuals and the target demographic research, and read some Harry Potter.

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Posted by Samuel James

Samuel D. James is associate acquisitions editor for Crossway Books.