How Do We Become Nicer People?

Hermione Granger, a Mountain Troll, and the Rules

How Do We Become Nicer People?

Hermione Granger, a Mountain Troll, and the Rules


Behind all of the magic wands, monstrous creatures, and wizarding spells of J.K. Rowlings’ masterful literary series Harry Potter lies a simple friendship between three kids: Harry, Ron, and Hermione. They’re strangers when they arrive at Hogwarts and, like many relationships, things start off tepidly, with some suspicion and snide remarks. But as they get to know each other and grow through their adolescent years, all of the hallmarks of a healthy friendship become apparent.

One of the early relational obstacles they experience, though, is Hermione’s incessant judgmentalism. She is the smartest of the three, by far. Her work ethic and her attention to the rules help her ascend in her classes above the rest. But it doesn’t come without a little snobbery and a lot of self-righteousness along the way. She is born of muggle (non-magical) parents, which may have led to a desire to prove herself, but her rule-following, intelligence, and pride all coalesce, like they tend to do in all of us, and it drives a wedge between herself and the people she cares about most. Even Harry and Ron keep their distance.

But there’s a moment in the first book when all of this changes. It doesn’t come from a class textbook or a spell on how to acquire humility or conjure likeability. Rather, it comes from love — a love manifested in an act of deliverance on the day a mountain troll is set loose inside the school. That day, Hermione is doing what she always does: showing off in class and making her classmates look bad. Hearing Ron ridicule her to others — “She’s a nightmare; it’s no wonder she doesn’t have any friends!” — Hermione runs away to the bathroom in tears. But when news breaks of a troll roaming the halls, Ron and Harry immediately dash to her rescue.

After some genuine luck, the troll is defeated and Hermione is forever changed. Rowling summarizes the outcome in a seemingly passing sentence: “Hermione had become a bit more relaxed about breaking the rules since Harry and Ron had saved her from the mountain troll, and she was much nicer for it” (Sorcerer’s Stone, 181).

I remember reading this for the first time years ago and marveling at how well it epitomized the New Testament. When our focus is taken off of the rules and put onto something else outside of us — especially an act of love — our hearts begin to soften, and we stop needing to win all of the contests life throws our way.

In the Bible we read, “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1), and elsewhere how it’s not through wisdom that we know God (1 Cor 1:21). I also think of the woman who loved much because she was forgiven much (Lk 7:47). For her, like Hermione, a loving disposition came from first being saved and forgiven, not from being told to be more loving. This is precisely the lesson Jesus is trying to teach. His interaction with her doesn’t happen in a vacuum but is witnessed by pious religious leaders who sneer at the woman’s actions and at Jesus’s kindness and who fail to understand that a mountain troll is standing right behind them as well.

The rules actually preclude true heart change because they point us back to the desert of “self” where no life-giving water flows. They addict us to playing comparison games and to the never-ending task of one-upmanship. But Jesus invites us to himself for the water (Jn 7:37-38) and not the law. The law can’t breed love; there’s no magic in it. Only love breeds love. And not just any love, but a Love that set out to forgive and reconcile his enemies to himself by being pinned to a cross by the troll of our sin.

Christianity’s approach to life transformation is utterly unique. It happens, as J. Gresham Machen says, “not by appealing to the human will, but by telling a story; not by exhortation, but by the narration of an event.” Hermione’s story is a small window into this greater truth. Transformation is not really our work at all. It needs to happen to us, from outside of us. It needs to surprise us, apart from the rules, through a felt sense of how we can’t save ourselves, but how someone else graciously has. It’s only then — in the shadow of the loving work of someone else’s hands — that we find that maybe we’re a little nicer than we used to be.

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