Harry Potter and the Prophet of Doom

Is Harry really fated to kill or be killed? A closer look at the seer's dire prediction.

BY: James K.A. Smith


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A Matter of Interpretation

Madame Trelawney's predictions trade on ambiguity. In her class, dregs of tea could be either a lump of mud, a bowler hat, or the dreaded Grim. What "the signs" mean becomes a matter of interpretation, and it is just this ambiguity that feeds Hermione's empirical suspicions: "I think Divination seems very wooly," she remarks after their first class.

In biblical prophecy, there is also an element of ambiguity and interpretation. And here we have serious differences of interpretation. For instance, Christians read the prophecies of Isaiah 53 and see them fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth. Jews are yet awaiting the fulfillment of that prophecy. The ambiguity of prophecy--whether magical or biblical--seems to come with the territory.

A God's-Eye Point of View

One question not yet tackled in Rowling's magical world is just


seers arrive at their predictions. By what mechanism or power do seers foretell the future? Here we run up against the crucial difference between magical and biblical prophecy. In biblical prophecy, the ultimate source of predictions is the God who transcends time: the Lord of history for whom all of time is present as a simultaneous "moment." Unlike human diviners somehow trying to stretch their sight into the future, for God the future is always present. Thus the Scriptures make a distinction between "soothsayers and diviners," who are to be rejected, and true "prophets," whose words are to be received as the Word of the Lord (Deut. 18:14-15).

It is this sense of transcendence that marks the difference between the worlds of Harry Potter and Jeremiah. Because there seems to be no divine standpoint in the universe created by Rowling, all prophecy is only divination.

Character Is Destiny

These differences noted, we are still left with questions about human freedom: Doesn't the notion of the future being predicted lead to a sense that we are not free? Does prophecy entail some sense of fatalism? How can we resolve these tensions without giving up on prophecy and providence?

Instead of thinking about individual future acts, we should consider the future in terms of an

inevitability of character

. If I predict that tomorrow my wife will care for our children, I'm certainly not controlling her individual actions. Rather, I'm making a prediction based on the kind of person I know her to be: someone who loves our children. I'm counting on that, and I fully expect it to be fulfilled. But that doesn't compromise her "freedom." Predictions of this sort are rooted in the virtue or vice of the agents involved and takes seriously their "agency"--a far cry from the common worry that prophecy reduces us to puppets of someone else's will.

So even if the Potter prophecy is true...

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