Skip to comments.The "Harry Potter" Debate: The Witch-Hunt Continues
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.
Thanks for the kind words. I guess my point was that, as a fundamentalist, I didn't feel that the good father was knocking fundamentalists. In fact, I agreed with most of what he said.
Now here's a good point. This word is becoming as overused as "right," as in, "I have a right to..."
Plus, many fundamentalists are unsure about what it really means, so I'm darn sure the liberal press has no concept about it. Part of the press's concept seems to be that fundamentalists avoid all pop culture, including television and movies and popular fiction. Not true, not true.
Interesting comment. And I certainly agree with "as little television as possible" for anyone.
While waiting on the next Harry Potter book, I've been reading the Left Behind series. While I do find the story line and interpretation interesting, the writing is pretty cheesy. Ironically the main "Christian" characters in the books survive (at least for now) because they are highly intelligent.
I'll be they read a lot and that they weren't limited to "Christian" books. The sad truth is that much of the Christian writing out there is considered wonderful because its "for the Lord" when a lot of it is drivel.
Limiting your reading to just those works is in fact limiting your mind. And it plays into the "world's" conception of Christians as being less intelligent. That's not to say that there aren't volumes of highly intelligent, thought provoking Christian works out there. They're just not the ones flying off the shelves.
Beyond the fact that Harry lives with an aunt and uncle who didn't think a lot of Harry's parents (Uncle Owen wasn't too fond of what happened to Anakin...) where do you make your comparisons?
Sorry you didn't like the movie. I was enthralled. Everyone I know who has seen it also loved it. If there's a shortcoming it's simply that, in a 2 1/2 hour movie, you can only include so much of the book. Which is why I would recommend anyone read the book before seeing the movie.
I'll bet we say the same thing about The Lord of the Rings.
Oh I agree. I really don't have a problem with these two guys. They are strong in thier opinions. But both are ecumenical and that's good. And they have taste. But it's the Paul Crouch types that REALLY turn off the liberals. So tacky. Sincere but tacky!!
Yes. More recognizable by his wife Jan with big hair, really big hair...
And that is why big chunks of the middle of the movie are such a yawn. The child "stars" are less then stellar as well. A lot of it is flat and seems to just be going through the motions of the book,
But hey, my kids thought it was the greatest. I had a few laughs and really enjoyed the first 20 minutes.
Oh please don't get me started with my list...
You guys must be real muggles. I thought the kids were great.
Then of course I never grew up. It was that evil Peter Pan thing ("he's" a cross dresser you know).
Ha ha ha...
Have the TV version with Mary Martin on videotape (from the re-broadcast of course).
Saw it live with Cathy Rigby.
Note to Rowling: you made lots of money, but a C.S. Lewis you are not, unless you think of yourself as the darkside's version. That means, whereas C.S. Lewis used his imagination to support the greatness of our Lord Jesus Christ, Rowling does it to magnify the arts of Hell. It is no surprise, really. A C.S. Lewis could not simply exist in this day and age of anti-Christianity. But a Rowling fits perfectly. Rowling reflects the age we live in, and Rowling defenders/sympathizers/buyers/suck-ups/whatevers are simply professing their allegiance to the spirit of this age, and not the spirit of an age that gave us the anti-thesis to Rowling, namely, C.S. Lewis.
Light vs Darkness, Night vs Day, Good vs Evil. Piece of cake. This is not a witch-hunt, it is merely a simple observation of reality.
Harry is sent to live with his Aunt and Uncle, because Lord Voldemort has allegedly killed his birth parents and made an attempt on his life. The "Star Wars" audience is, at first, led to believe that Luke's situation is almost identical.
Once you get past Luke's Uncle Owen, Aunt Beru and Father, Anakin Skywalker and possibly his mother allegedly being killed by Darth Vader the rest of the comparisons come pretty quickly.
I say allegedly because it's revealed in later movie episodes that Darth Vader is Luke's father and in later books, "Shadows of the Empire" for one, that an organized crime boss, Prince Xizor, actually killed Luke's Uncle and Aunt and will make many attempts on Luke's life.
Prince Xizor is trying to get even with both Darth Vader and the Emperor, for killing his family, by killing Darth Vader's son while framing Vader with, Luke's, his own son's murder and goading the Emperor into striking Vader down for a murder he didn't commit, but I digress.
Harry learns from strangers that he is "the" wizard just like Luke learns he is "the" jedi.
Harry must study the ways of the wizards and grow in skill and wisdom before he can face the ultimate, inevitable confrontation of Voldemort/Vader.
The messenger owls are the message delivered by C3PO R2D2.
Obiwan Kenobi's part is a combination of Hagrid's and Headmaster Dumbledore's. Although, because of a lack of character development, I doubt either one of them would have been missed 1/2 as much as Obiwan was, even if Voldemort had destroyed them both.
"Hedwig the Owl's" role in "Harry Potter" is then very similar to the further role of R2D2 and C3PO in "Star Wars".
Hermione =, for all intents and purposes, the cocksure and know-it-all, Princess Lea.
Ron = Han Solo with all of his smart-alecky remarks, but grudging respect and ultimate crush on Lea/Hermione. Ron/Solo the unlikely heroes that in the end save the day at the near sacrifice of their own lives.
Ron's rat = Chewbacca, but in a very undeveloped way.
Wand = Jedi light saber.
Nimbus 2000 = X-wing fighter.
"Norbert the Dragon", I haven't figured out, yet, why they banished him from the movie. I imagine it's because this literary "genius", JKR, banished him from the book. That's not a good enough reason.
If that dragon would have wound up sleeping on Harry's pillow and then made a cute attempt to burn Voldemort's behind, during the final confrontation, in a valiant effort to defend Harry, on that diminutive dragon's part, that dragon would have been on every child's pillow come Christmas morning. That was a multi-million dollar, losing decision. Heads should roll over that one.
The comparisons are endless, really.
I didn't catch a ghostly voice whispering for Harry to "trust the stone" or "trust the mirror" like Luke was urged to "trust the force", but I was nodding off by then.
If you're a big "Harry Potter" fan you have to be excited by the prospect of a new "Harry Potter" episode for every "Star Wars" book that's out there and there's alot.