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The "Harry Potter" Debate: The Witch-Hunt Continues
Fr. Pierre Ingram's homepage ^ | Fr. G. Pierre Ingram

Posted on 11/27/2001 8:41:52 PM PST by jrherreid

The "Harry Potter" Debate: The Witch-Hunt Continues

A friend recently sent me a copy of the December 2000 issue of HLI Reports (vol. 18, no. 12), which featured an article by the editor, Ms. Kristin Sparks, entitled "Should Your Children Read Harry Potter?"1 Sparks' answer is overwhelmingly negative. I must say that reading her article confirmed my concerns regarding the kind of Christianity represented by Human Life International. Despite their obvious and admirable zeal in "defending life, faith and family around the world," as their slogan puts it, much of their published material reveals an intolerant, aggressive, and paranoid attitude toward contemporary society and culture. It appears that they would have us keep our children in a tightly controlled religious ghetto, reading only works by supposedly "safe," Christian authors, and presumably watching as little television as possible. Is this the way to raise confident, intelligent, discerning young men and women, ready to face the challenges of life in today's world?

The "Harry Potter" debate is only one form of the ongoing conflict between Christian fundamentalism and secular Western culture. This is the same debate that has brought us unilateral condemnations of rock music, Hallowe'en, and fantasy role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons--all of which, the fundamentalists claim, will inevitably lead our unsuspecting youth into the clutches of occult forces and away from the faith. I do not know of any studies that have actually demonstrated the existence of a direct and necessary link between such pursuits and occult involvement, although I know that many Christians have tried to establish one. All I can say is that from my childhood onward I have listened to rock music (and still do), gone out for Hallowe'en, played D&D and many other FRPGs, and am now a Roman Catholic priest and theologian, adhering without hesitation to orthodox Christianity and worshipping the One God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit! I have also read the first three books in the Harry Potter (HP) series, and most of the fourth, and see absolutely no reason for responsible Christian parents to deny their children the opportunity of reading them.

Let me make it clear from the outset that I am not trying to downplay the dangers--spiritual, psychological, and moral--associated with occult activity. The dangers are real. Moreover, it is true that Neo-Pagan and occult groups are actively promoting their beliefs and practices in our society, particularly among young people, and that they are enjoying an unprecedented popularity. I am not advocating a Polyanna attitude in regard to these threats. Vigilance and discernment are always required. However, I believe that the Christian critics of Harry Potter are barking up the wrong tree. This is not the enemy. These books are not, in and of themselves, an advertisement for "witchcraft." Besides, retreating into a cultural fortress and issuing condemnation after condemnation of everything that is going on "out there" does not constitute a winning strategy. In fact, it may be helping the other side. If Neo-Paganism and occultism exert such a powerful fascination even over youth raised in Christian families, could it not be precisely because Christianity often presents the image of a restrictive, repressive, unimaginative and boring religion? I believe that the solution consists in manifesting in a positive way the beauty, the wonder, the liberating power, the life-affirming potential of the Christian faith.

According to the HLI article cited above, the main problem with the HP books is that their "dominant message [is] that witchcraft is a legitimate religion for children to enjoy" (p. 10, col. 1). This is blatantly untrue, and is not substantiated in the article. The author of the HP books, Joanne K. Rowling (JKR), does not present the use of magic as a "religion," or even as a spirituality, in any sense (cf. my response to Michael O'Brien). It is true that "the 'good' characters in the series participate in activities that resemble occult/Wiccan practices, such as: sorcery, astrology, transfiguration, casting spells, mixing herbal potions and communicating with the dead" (p. 7, col. 1)--but the key word here is "resemble"; and the resemblance can only be superficial because, in fact, the characters do not engage in religious practices, i.e. cultic or ritual activity of any kind.2 In particular, the books contain no reference to Wiccan beliefs, rituals, tools, symbols, practices, principles, or sayings. (Click here for more info on these.) "Spells" are cast with a wand and a brief pseudo-Latin formula. The power at work in all these magical practices does not come from preternatural beings, but from within the human person (as Sparks admits later in the same paragraph). In other words, magic is a natural power, and therefore--like all natural powers--it can be used either to serve good or to serve evil. The heroes, Harry and his friends, use it unambiguously for good, for real, unselfish good--and not simply "to glorify self and gain control over others" (p. 11, col. 3). They show extraordinary generosity, courage, and loyalty.

Is this simply a "clever portrayal of witchcraft" (p. 7, col. 1), some kind of soft-sell marketing aimed at making the practice look more benign than it actually is (like "white magic")? I can't see how. What Sparks and other critics seemingly fail to comprehend is that we are dealing with a work of fiction, i.e. a work of the creative imagination. In a work of fiction, anything is possible. Magic does not have to be associated with supernatural evil, as it is in the Christian world-view. In this case, the content of the HP books does not suggest that the nature or function of magic in the story is an accurate reflection of beliefs and practices in the real world, even if certain terms and names are the same in both. To put it more simply, a "witch" in HP is not a witch in our world. It is obvious, for many reasons, that the HP books are not presented as "how-to" manuals for people seriously interested in practising "the Craft." To take only a few examples, modern-day witchcraft does not assume the existence of mythical creatures (basilisks, Boggarts, centaurs, dragons, Hippogriffs, giants, giant snakes and spiders, goblins, Grindylows, house-elves, merpeople, phoenixes, Skrewts, three-headed dogs, trolls, unicorns, Veelas, werewolves), flying broomsticks or keys, talking hats, an owl mail service, transfiguration (changing one thing into another), invisibility cloaks, wands that shoot stars, magical quills, or time travel. How then can HP be condemned for "filling children's minds with the 'glories of witchcraft'" (p. 11), according to the "real-life" meaning of that word? If certain young readers find it difficult to distinguish fiction from reality in this case, that does not make HP worse than any other fantasy or science-fiction series. It is the responsibility of parents and educators to help children learn the difference. But let us not exaggerate the gullibility of children. A vast majority of them know that HP is "just a story." My 7-year-old niece, to whom I have read a great deal of the story, is under no illusion that similarly extraordinary powers could be accessible in her world.

I have been an avid fan of J. R. R. Tolkien (JRRT) and his "mythopoeic" work since the age of ten. Since Sparks describes him as a thoroughly safe and "sound" author (p. 11), I feel I must point out that not only is there lots of magic--both good and evil--in his works, but one of the main characters of both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (LOR), Gandalf, is called a "wizard," i.e. he is a professional user of magic. He is one of the most prominent, powerful, and charismatic characters. Actually, many commentators have seen him as one of the major "Christ-figures" in the LOR. (Cf. the EWTN article for more on this topic.) The claim by some Christian reviewers of HP, such as Steven Greydanus, that Gandalf is "safer" than Harry because the readers would be less inclined to identify with him is complete nonsense. And since there is no explicit reference in either novel to God, or to any other transcendent source of magic power, I fail to see how JRRT's portrayal of magic is any less "secular" than J. K. Rowling's. And if one wishes to discuss graphic, horrifying portrayals of evil and violence, the LOR makes HP look like Anne of Green Gables.

What about the accusation of "moral relativism," based on the fact that the main characters have "vices" (p. 10, col. 2)? Again, let us please remember that we are dealing with a story, a work of fiction--not a children's catechism. Why should Christian parents feel that they have to approve the moral code of every character in their children's books? If all the heroes in novels had to be saints, I suppose we would have to throw out most of the masterpieces of Western literature. Come to think of it, we would probably have to get rid of the Bible as well. Besides Our Lord Jesus Christ and his Blessed Mother, all the "heroes" of the Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, are far from perfect in the moral department (Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul, etc.). That is because they are human--like we are. But that means we can identify with them: with their struggles, their failures, their triumphs. Fallibility makes for believable characters and a good story. Besides, Harry and his friends are hardly engaged in gravely immoral behaviour--unless Sparks believes that man-made rules (and in this case, those of a school of witchcraft!!) are sacrosanct embodiments of the moral law. . . . I seriously doubt that any reader of the series would come away convinced that it is permissible to do evil for the sake of good, or that "the ends justifies [sic] the means" (p. 10, col. 1).

For Sparks (p. 10) and other critics (such as O'Brien), even if it could be tolerable for a hero to commit sin, it is certainly unacceptable for it to go unpunished and/or have positive consequences. The fact that Harry "gets away" with lying, stealing, defying authority, getting revenge, etc. is adduced as a "proof" of the moral "confusion" created by the books. They would argue that to be judged "acceptable" by Christians, a fantasy novel such as this needs to have a plot that punishes all vice and rewards all virtue. I totally disagree with this proposition, for two reasons. First, reading imaginative fiction does not have to be "useful"; it should not have to be justified by ulterior purposes (pedagogical, catechetical, moral, etc.). Secondly, even in the so-called "real world," we all know that not all vice is punished--nor is virtue always rewarded.

It is always a tricky business to try to extract the "message" of a literary work, because any two readers may come away with completely divergent interpretations. What is fairly certain, however, is that if a particular character is clearly identified as an evil person, his words and actions are not being presented as ideals for the readers to follow. That is why I find it unacceptable for Sparks to extract certain quotes from the HP books and then present them implicitly as pertaining to the author's "message". For example, (1) the quote from p. 291 of The Sorcerer's Stone, "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it" (p. 211 in the Raincoast edition), is actually a statement that represents the opinion of Professor Quirrell, a totally corrupt character who is more or less controlled by Voldemort, the main villain. (2) If the quote from p. 427 of The Goblet of Fire about Fleur Delacour and Roger Davies being "very busy" in a bush is the most explicit reference to sexual activity that Sparks could find in the entire series, then parents can be quite confident that their children will learn nothing at all about sexuality from these books!!!

The quotes from various interviews by Rowling (on p. 11 of the article) do not support any of the conclusions that Sparks attempts to draw from them. (1) JKR does not say that in the real world, children should be free from parental expectations and authority--only that it can be fun to imagine this. (2) Her encouragement for young adults to study what they want at university is hardly an invitation for children to reject parental authority completely. (3) Her comments on the fascinating nature of evil are in no way shocking; she is not implying that people should give in to the fascination.

Finally, I find it unacceptable for Sparks to try to bring J. K. Rowling's personal character or political opinions3 into the picture. If the question at hand is how "dangerous" her books are for children to read, then we must look at the books themselves for an answer, not elsewhere. The fact that Rowling admires a member of the Communist Party, for example (p. 11, col. 2), does not necessarily have anything to do with the content of her books.4 Is there any evidence of Marxist thinking in HP? It is laughable to even ask the question. The fact that Sparks makes it an issue at all reeks of McCarthyism and an inquisitorial attitude.

After having emphatically asserted what the Harry Potter series is not, I think I should probably state what it is: a remarkably good story. The first three books read like classic thrillers; the characters are well defined and credible; and the classic struggle of good and evil is set against a highly original and imaginative background, with just the right dose of humour to keep it always entertaining. Read on!

Fr G. Pierre Ingram


1. The books in question are Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (entitled ~and the Sorcerer's Stone in the U.S., a difference that I can only explain by imagining some marketing department's fear that Americans would not understand the reference to alchemy . . .); Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets; Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban; and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. They are available in Canada from Raincoast Books.

2. The only explicit religious references that I could find in HP are: (a) the celebration of a very secularized "Christmas" at Hogwarts; (b) a reference to "Yule," a term used by both Christians and neopagans; (c) a brief mention about a medieval alchemist, Flamel, and his wife anticipating death as the next "great adventure" (which Sparks quotes). But in the latter case there is no indication of what particular destination or state is attained after death: It could be the Christian heaven, or a Wiccan/Eastern reincarnation, or some kind of Nirvana.

3. All I know of her involvement in politics is that as a post-graduate, she moved to London to work at Amnesty International doing research into human rights abuses in Francophone Africa.

4. What are the author's acknowledged sources of inspiration? According to her British publisher, Bloomsbury, J. K. Rowling's favourite author of all time is Jane Austen, although she most identifies with E. Nesbit, who wrote one of her favourite books, The Story of the Treasure Seekers. Her other favourite books include I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales for Children (surprise, surprise! two Christian authors!). Roddy Doyle is her favourite contemporary novelist.


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Let the fireworks begin...
1 posted on 11/27/2001 8:41:52 PM PST by jrherreid
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To: Aquinasfan; MadIvan; RnMomof7; JenB
2 posted on 11/27/2001 8:43:21 PM PST by jrherreid
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To: jrherreid
90% of posts on Harry Potter are posted by people trying to provoke others. I thought we were supposed to grow out of that by age 12.
3 posted on 11/27/2001 8:47:00 PM PST by Dat
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To: jrherreid
Chistian fundamentalism? I can see both sides of this arguement, but find it as interesting to see people refer to Christians using the fundamentalism descriptor as other see it interesting to see the Potter fans refered to as the devil's disciples. If this debate can't be kept on the merits it isn't going to do either side any good.
4 posted on 11/27/2001 8:47:13 PM PST by DoughtyOne
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To: Dat
90% of posts on Harry Potter are posted by people trying to provoke others. I thought we were supposed to grow out of that by age 12.

Provocative statement, that.

5 posted on 11/27/2001 8:59:25 PM PST by jrherreid
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To: jrherreid
No fireworks ... I think its actually more benign.

They're trying to send a message about the general scarcity of values in the modern mass media.
It's not so much anti-"Harry Potter" per se as it is just using the hype surrounding Harry Potter to get out their message ... good marketing, it gets people to actually read their opinions.

When the excitement surrounding HP dies down, you'll see the same opinions attached to anti-"Lord of the Rings" messages or whatever the next new "hot" movie or book is.

6 posted on 11/27/2001 9:01:10 PM PST by JPR_Boise_ID
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To: DoughtyOne
From the article:
The "Harry Potter" debate is only one form of the ongoing conflict between Christian fundamentalism and secular Western culture.

As an assenting Roman Catholic, I would like to apologize for this poor-excuse-of-a-priest's bigoted religious slur against other well meaning Christians. Every apple basket seems to contain a few rotten ones. This one is just dressed in black.

7 posted on 11/27/2001 9:04:54 PM PST by Ronaldus Magnus
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Comment #8 Removed by Moderator

To: Ronaldus Magnus
I would like to apologize for this poor-excuse-of-a-priest's bigoted religious slur against other well meaning Christians.

Okay, okay, help me out. How did this priest slur us "well meaning Christians"?

9 posted on 11/27/2001 9:10:36 PM PST by Exigence
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To: DoughtyOne
"Chistian fundamentalism? "

Yes exactly!!! As someone said not long ago it was Jack Chick who got the anti-Halloween bandwagon rolling. (Mainly to bash the Catholic Church's celebrating All Souls Day and All Saints Day.) And his outfit is typically fundamentalist. So much so that all of his screeds should be published in a book called, "Christianity for Dummies."

But fundamentalism is not just a Protestant phenomenon. There are Catholic Christian fundamentalists too. (Many Catholics get this way because they are trying to appease their Protestant friends. To which I say BAH!!! Don't apologise for ANYTHING!! ) And I think a common denominator among them is a morbid interest in the occult and the devil. Yes I said interest. Because they ARE interested in it although that interest is anti-occult. They are almost as superstitious as the people who are really into the occult.

I knew some fundamentalists who actually burned a little wooden statue of Buddah because they claimed it had demons hanging around it. Stuff like that does not even enter my mind. I got have better things to think about than demons!!! It's a wood carving in the same way that Harry Potter is a fairy tale.

10 posted on 11/27/2001 9:26:35 PM PST by Theresa
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To: Ronaldus Magnus
"I would like to apologize for this poor-excuse-of-a-priest's bigoted religious slur against other well meaning Christians"

Not me. I think he's right on the money.

11 posted on 11/27/2001 9:33:24 PM PST by Theresa
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To: jrherreid
My problem with "Harry Potter" is that, even though it so blatantly rips-off "Star Wars", somehow the rip-off is such a stinker of a movie. It's almost as if they were so guilt ridden they were compelled to make another "Water World".

I guess it's not as easy as remove "Darth Vader", "Obi Wan Kenobi", "Luke Skywalker" and "Princess Lea", etc. and insert "Lord Voldemort", Headmaster Dumbledore", "Harry Potter" and "Hermione Grainger". "Jedi" out, "Wizards" in.

The lack of character development in this 2 1/2 hour debacle of a movie was ghastly.

Harry Potter critics have no fear. No magic here, at all. No talent either.

12 posted on 11/27/2001 9:37:40 PM PST by 4Freedom
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To: Ronaldus Magnus
Thanks for your comments. The Friar may actually have made some descent points, I just don't want to spend the time to argue this topic again tonight.

Folks, words like fundamentalist, zealots et al are used the same way liberals use the word conservative to tag Republicans at every opportunity.

For instance, a Republican on television will be introduced as a "Conservative" Republican when Democrat will NEVER be introduce as a "Liberal." These guys are simply playing the mind games of the socialist left. Mention the term conservative over and over in this manner and it becomes negative. This Friar may not even realize what he's doing, although I suspect he does. But make no mistake about it, there is a movement in this nation, and outside this nation, to lump all religions into one radical group.

Take special care to note how our religions are being besmirched by using some of the same tags as are being attached to the Taliban and Al Qaida. Note the term fundamentalist Muslem for instance. The word fundamentalist is being given a very bad conotation right now. And you can be certain that it will nearly always be applied to any religious person or group that supports what most of us would consider descent ideals.

Individuals and churches that view homosexuality and abortion in unfavorable light, will always be set up by the use of the word fundamentalist in their introduction or description of who and what they are.

The UN is rabidly anti-religion. We are buying into the globalist UN mentality. That's why religion is in for a tough time. I'd advise everyone to keep their eyes open.

This Friar's use of the word fundamentalist was a good example of what to watch for.

13 posted on 11/27/2001 9:52:22 PM PST by DoughtyOne
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To: Theresa
If the term fundamentalist were to be used sparingly, I wouldn't have a problem with it. But it is beginning to be used to describe any and all religions that have stuck to the old values system. Good heavens, if Jerry Falwell or Pat Robertson make some hair brained commment, they're roasted for months over it. However, that idiot Congressman Drynan was forgiven for decades worth of tripe uttered from a leftist socialist's point of view. And much of it made Falwell and Robertson look like choir boys.
14 posted on 11/27/2001 9:57:54 PM PST by DoughtyOne
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To: Central Scrutiniser; Exigence; Theresa
If this fruit cake with a clerical collar wants to make unfounded assertions about conservative Catholics, it's an internal matter. However, when this representative of my faith starts making negative over generalizations about a class of other denominations, he is picking a fight he doesn't have the authority to start. Whether you agree with his viewpoint or not, it is irrelevant to my statement. He is being anti-ecumenical while speaking under the auspices of his official capacity. I am making it clear to the non-Catholics reading this that he is unauthorized to do so. Christian fundamentalists have done much to develop western culture during the last several hundred years, particularly in their role in the development of this country (perhaps even more than the members of my own faith).
15 posted on 11/27/2001 10:06:10 PM PST by Ronaldus Magnus
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To: DoughtyOne
Good explanation of the new "f" word.
16 posted on 11/27/2001 10:20:29 PM PST by Ronaldus Magnus
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To: Ronaldus Magnus
Thanks. And yes, I guess it is being turned into a new "f" word. That's too bad.
17 posted on 11/27/2001 10:25:52 PM PST by DoughtyOne
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To: Ronaldus Magnus
"However, when this representative of my faith starts making negative over generalizations about a class of other denominations,"

This from the Zogby site: American Catholics look more favorably on Muslims and Mormons than they do on fundamentalist Christians, according to a new poll on political, cultural and moral trends in Catholic life.

A nationwide phone survey of 1,508 Roman Catholics found 56% had a favorable impression of Islam. Similar majorities had a favorable view of Mormons (54%), Buddhists (57%) and Hindus (54%), but only 46% of Catholics had a favorable view of fundamentalist Christians.

18 posted on 11/28/2001 12:18:20 AM PST by Theresa
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To: Theresa
harry potter is the devil...harry potter is bad harry potter is teaching kids magic

why dont they just leave it sister loves that movie and i dont see her practicing magic or trying to.

is there no end to the madness?

19 posted on 11/28/2001 12:24:18 AM PST by MetalHeadConservative35
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To: jrherreid
Sounds like HLI gets it right as usual. I'll have to check out the review.
20 posted on 11/28/2001 3:39:30 AM PST by Aquinasfan
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