The following statement will garner zero surprise from anyone who actually knows me:
I adore the Harry Potter books.
This is a fact somewhat troublesome to certain of my more conservative Christian friends, and/or Christian friends from certain denominations, and/or friends and acquaintances who simply don’t get the big fuss over fluffy children’s fare, and/or those who can’t get into the fantasy genre at all. Many of these people are people that I deeply respect for their integrity, thorough intellect, and thoughtfulness. Not crackpots. I also like to think that I am thorough, thoughtful, and not a crackpot, so it irks me that I seem to always be defending my literary preferences. As the final HP movie is due to open this summer, and I am re-reading the series with a couple of friends, I’d like to make one last effort to assuage the fears and scorn of the naysayers.
Allow me to address the religious concerns first.
Most of the objections that I hear from the Christian world about the Harry Potter books fall into either the “it will influence our children toward the occult” variety, or the more extreme “the books are demonized” variety.
Regarding charges of demonization, I don’t have a whole lot to say. Really, I don’t think I understand the argument. I am aware that satanism is a real thing, but from my understanding, it has much more in common with Ayn Rand than with J.K. Rowling, who reside on opposite ends of the morality spectrum (more on that in the future). I also happen to believe in demons (I even believe I encountered one once. Not kidding) – I believe in real supernatural forces at work in the world, so I take that charge seriously, but I do not believe that they dwell at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Rowling’s created universe is clearly imaginary, and while I believe that imagination does have great power (more on that in future posts), I also believe it is a G-d -given gift to be exercised. I do not believe that the use of imagination constitutes a deal with the devil, nor do I believe that Rowling has used her considerable imaginative gift irresponsibly or to negative effect. She’s playful. Children play. Wasn’t it Jesus who said you must become like little children?
Regarding the charges of occultism, let me just point out that in my limited exposure to pantheism, nature cults, and wiccan practices (and my exposure is VERY limited), they seem to revolve mostly around nature-worship, reverence for the created world, rituals to mark and honor the activities of the Earth, and communication with the spirit realm (loosely defined) through these means. I believe it is mostly this manipulation of the spirit world that Christians object to – it is a form of idolatry to bargain with lesser spirits rather than relying on the Holy One, and to worship the creation rather than the Creator. We could get into an interesting discussion someday about whether our modern obsession with technology is a new form of idolatry. Regardless, these forms of occultism have nothing to do with the magic portrayed in the HP books.
Rather than being spirit-led or nature-loving, Rowling imagines magic as sort of an inner technology born of some kind of recessive gene. Being born magical allows one to manipulate the physical world in invisible ways, and the “witches” and “wizards” that populate Ms. Rowling’s novels use magic like we use technology – for transport, communication, ease of physical labor, sport, healing, etc. It is usually passed through families, although magic-enabled people can sometimes be born of non-magical parents.
This is important to note – Rowling’s magic is congenital, so you are either born with it, or you aren’t. If you are not born with magical abilities, then no amount of training, trying, straining, muttering, wishing, wand-waving, animal sacrifices, or rituals will help you. It’s not something you can join or learn if you merely show an interest. You cannot bargain with spirits of any persuasion to acquire it. There is no choice involved in being magical, only in how one chooses to use it. Furthermore, if a character is born magical, he can’t get rid of it, and needs to be trained in it’s use so that he doesn’t hurt himself or others. Hence, the youngsters in the novels must go to school, not to learn magic per se, but to learn to control it and channel it in healthy directions.
Ms. Rowling does allow for one magical subject in her imaginary school which overlaps with real-life “occult” practices – the study of Divination (fortune-telling, astrology). Here, Ms. Rowling soundly parodies the whole practice. The Divination teacher in the HP books repeatedly makes a fool of herself, and by the fifth or sixth book, she has been so thoroughly humiliated that she actually becomes an object of pity rather than amusement. Hardly an endorsement for young readers to start reading their horoscopes.
In closing the discussion of the occult, let me just admit that, yes, a child could conceivably become interested in the occult from reading Harry Potter. A child could also become interested in seances from reading A Christmas Carol. Ebenezer Scrooge does, after all, spend the majority of the story in the company of some very exciting ghosts. Is it primarily the ghosts, though, that you remember from A Christmas Carol? They are colorful and exciting, but they are hardly the main event. The transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge is what keeps you coming back. So too, with Harry Potter. The “magic” makes it more fun, but it’s hardly what the story is about. The story is about a lonely, abused orphan who learns how to have friends, love, forgive, recover from mistakes, fight his battles, and sacrifice. It’s about his very human journey.
More to come….(comments, critiques, and questions welcome, as always).