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.
Not paranoid are we?
Actually, since the claim is that Harry Potter leads to witchcraft, it is a witch hunt in a way. ;-)
I would have made it longer. I suspect the DVD will have some additional scenes.
I'm used to Masterpiece Theater adaptations of novels, which can easily go to six hours.
In the books, Harry goes to school, and much of the charm of the books is in the descriptions -- not of the content of witchcraft -- but of the personalities and methods of teachers. This is what's so fascinating to kids of all ages.
I think you just have too much time on your hands. ;-)
But if you read much science fiction/fantasy you'll see that the patterns of setting up the good vs. evil are all very similar. It's the same story, it's a matter of how it's told. Kind of like John Grisham novels.
Still, I anxiously await the next installment of Star Wars and Harry Potter.
BTW - if you think Scabbers (Ron's rat) is like Chewbacca, you haven't read the fourth book...
I just don't know how that could sell. In any book translated to the screen, you've got to lose something.
Perhaps in theaters, but not necessarily in home video. I'll be willing to bet that the DVDs will be longer than the movies. Most of the stuff that Hollywood leaves out is character development, which is low budget.
I am asking my family to get a Babylon 5 paperback, Invoking Darkness: The Passing of The Techno-Mages. The 3rd in a trilogy. Lots of character development.
?? You read the books?
Right now, in my leisure reading, I'm finishing "Star Wars, Tales from the New Republic". After that I have "Star Wars, X-Wing #9-Starfighters of Adumar", "The Crystal Star", "The Black Fleet Crisis", "The New Rebellion", "The Corellian Trilogy" and the latest installments of the "New Jedi Order" to catch-up on.
I've been meaning to read the Harry Potter books, but I haven't been able to squeeze them in.
It would have been nice to re-read the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy before the release of the film, too. But hey, I have to make some time for Free Republic.