While on vacation, I had the opportunity to watch the highly acclaimed (and highly controversial) Harry Potter series. Yes, yes, it’s true – and for those of you who temporarily fainted out of shock, the smelling salts are in the medicine cabinet.
It was interesting, to say the least, and sharing the experience with friends was an added bonus. We watched the films, thought about them, and used them as fodder for several healthy discussions. Our opinions varied a bit from person to person, but ultimately, the general consensus seemed to be this: Harry Potter was neither as good nor as bad as we were expecting it to be.
Now let me explain.
Much has been made of the magic in Harry Potter, and countless Christian critics have accused it of promoting the same kind of occult practices that scripture expressly condemns. But are these charges correct? I’m not so sure.
Consider what Michael Minkoff has to say on the issue:
The sorcerers and witches in the Bible are people attempting to manipulate God or spirits to do their bidding. In most cases, the witchcraft and sorcery are connected to the activities of the supernatural, and are often connected to idolatry (1 Samuel 15:23). The witch of Endor (in 1 Samuel 28:7) uses a “familiar spirit” to divine occultic truths. God’s hatred for sorcery and witchcraft seems to be largely due to the fact that witches and sorcerers are worshiping or ascribing power to something other than God. Notice that following the forbidding of witchcraft and sorcery in Deuteronomy 18:9-14, in which God condemns the dispossessed pagan nations for “listening” to the counsel of sorcerers, God promises Israel that He will send a prophet, to whom Israel shall “listen.” The crucial issue here seems to be the idolatry of sorcery, trusting some other source (usually supernatural) for true knowledge and power while neglecting the worship of the one true God.
But in the Harry Potter world, magic is not supernatural. It is not in reference to some spirit or demon. Rather, magic is a natural phenomenon. There is not any mention at any point that the power of magic comes from any other source but the natural fabric of the Harry Potter world. “Sorcerers” in the world of Harry Potter have natural capacities for manipulating the natural forces of magic that are seamlessly existent like any other natural force in their world. Witchcraft in Harry Potter operates almost exactly like science, and the “sorcerers” in Harry Potter learn to discipline their natural capacities for this science.
It’s a fascinating distinction, and one which is, I think, well worth considering.
At the same time, I can already anticipate one response to this argument: “Okay, so there’s a distinction: but will most people be able to recognize that distinction?”
I understand the concern – I really do. I’m still thinking it over myself. Simply put, will audiences be tempted to involve themselves in real witchcraft by watching this series? Perhaps. It’s certainly not impossible. But the line between fantasy and reality is pretty well defined in Rowling’s world, and anyone who confuses the two is either extremely dense or incredibly immature. Or both.
In the end, therefore, I’m simply not convinced that Harry Potter equals an automatic one-way ticket to potion-brewing and the dark arts.
There. I said it. You may now proceed to lob rotten fruit in my direction.
In many ways, I think the magic in Harry Potter is the least of our worries, distracting us from aspects of Rowling’s world which are, to my mind, far more problematic. The writer quoted above makes this observation:
[T]he very thing that makes magic in Potter’s world acceptable to me also completely undermines Rowling’s philosophical and ethical foundations. One of the components of Rowling’s universe is that there are in fact no supernatural occurrences. Everything in the world is a part of the nature of things… God is not denied. He is simply not mentioned.
But the lack of the supernatural in Harry Potter seems like more than just a harmless and incidental omission. In The Half-Blood Prince, Professor Slughorn says that murder is a “crime against nature.” Since there is nothing supernatural to which (or whom) one can appeal, evil becomes a deviation from nature rather than a deviation from divine decree.
This is troubling for obvious reasons. Minkoff goes on to say,
In our world, these assumptions do not translate. “Nature is red in tooth and claw” (in the words of Tennyson), therefore any moral code drawn from it could not consistently condemn killing. What, are we to set up court systems in the African savanna to prosecute those bloodthirsty lions? Rowling borrows from what most believe to be the case to forward what cannot be proven on its own grounds…. The question is, “Can nature be used infallibly to establish fixed boundaries of ethical conduct?” Answer: No!
Given this lack of any transcendent moral authority, there really isn’t any convincing reason for Harry to be more virtuous or morally-upstanding than the Dark Lord.
But, of course, Harry is more virtuous than Voldemort. And Christian symbolism comes into play throughout the series, particularly in the final film. Rowling herself admitted that this was intentional, prompting some viewers to laud Harry Potter for its “tremendous biblical themes,” “profound Christology,” and the like.
Now, I’m more than ready to admit that Christian themes and imagery can be found in the series; but (contrary to what some would argue) that does not make the overall worldview a distinctly Christian one. Ultimately, the worldview of Harry Potter is one very big and very weird mish-mash of “isms”: Christianism, naturalism, relativism, mysticism, and so on.
I thought long and hard about how to conclude this post, but in the end, I decided to be lazy and let someone else do it for me. Once again, I draw from Michael Minkoff:
Rowling borrows from naturalism, Christianism, individualism, Eastern dualism/mysticism, Hinduism, and just about any other “ism” laying around her writing desk in order to create what still manages to be a well-told and cohesive story. Say what you will about her ideological foundation, she sure has a brilliant imagination and she knows how to weave a yarn. The most powerful parts of the finale of this narrative (7.2) draw most heavily from Christian symbolism. I don’t think this is coincidental. People long for the salvation narrative they have rejected in Christ, and Christians, of course, are sensitive in their hearts to that which mirrors Christ-likeness. But the natural man wants salvation on his own terms. He doesn’t want to be told he is evil. He wants to think exactly what Rowling tells him in the end: Any person has the capacity without reference to God to choose to do good and get good in return. Now this is the real fantasy. All the wands and dragons and stuff… that was nothing.