Pondering Potter

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.

THE WIZARDRY
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.

THE WORLDVIEW
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.

CONCLUSION
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.

*I’m extremely grateful to Michael Minkoff and his article The Worldview and Witchcraft of Harry Potter, which I quoted so extensively in my post. I recommend you read his entire article here.
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21 thoughts on “Pondering Potter”

  1. Are you serious? Did you dare to watch this series? :P

    Now being serious… I liked your review and the quotes you added. Great stuff.
    It was fun and edifying to come out of my comfort zone and watch these movies with thoughtful, and well grounded in the Word group of friends. Not to mention all the good chocolate we ate meanwhile, and all the patience you all had towards me and my, “please, please pause it a minute…I have a question” in the middle of an important scene :)

    Blessings!

    1. Yes, watching the series was a lot of fun; and I enjoyed our discussions about it even more. Between you, me, Annie, Eric, Nikko, and Sants, we had ourselves a pretty grand old time talking about film and worldview. :D

  2. Interesting. No rotten thingimajigs on my part, just applause for a Christian review that is excellent (rare) and balanced (rarer). I think ultimately, as with many other books/movies it’s a case of maturity on the part of the reader/viewer, and an ability to discern the good and the bad. Have you or do you have any plans the read the books?

    Oh, and also, being a youngest, I’ve never had to worry about whether I would allow younger siblings to read or watch something, so I was curious, would you recommend Harry Potter to your siblings?

    1. LOL! Thanks, Amy. Your encouragement is much appreciated. :) I actually would like to read the books at some point; they’ve been recommended to me by multiple friends, so I think they’ll make my TBR list sooner or later.

      You’re observation about maturity and discernment on the part of the viewer is spot-on; and with that in mind, I think Harry Potter is best reserved for older viewers who are strongly grounded in the Word. I wouldn’t recommend the series to my younger siblings. :)

  3. Very good thoughts! The Harry Potter series (the books, of course; the movies were nothing in comparison) is, in my opinion, easily one of most imaginative and overall best series of books ever written, and all the controversy created by the “Christian community” was ultimately unfounded and totally unnecessary. Provided the reader is old enough to understand that everything in the series is purely fiction, they will unexceptionally love these books! That’s my (somewhat biased) viewpoint, anyway. :)

  4. You make some very interesting points here Corey, but I am not about to debate you because I don’t have the time and I am afraid my views would simply because of my personal feelings would cloud my reasoning – which I do intend to cover in post eventually over on my blog but – back to the subject. Nicely done, I disagree – but I’ll leave it there. :)

  5. *Lobs rotten fruit at Inkey just for the fun it* :D I’ll be honest in saying that I don’t like Harry Potter and that I form my opinion off the book Harry Potter and the Bible which does not focus so much on the “magic” so much as the principals (or the lack thereof) represented in them and would personally never read the books or watch the movies. But that is also just my opinion and it’s okay with me if you feel different. :)

    1. No worries, Apeslugger. I respect your decision – and really, this post was more about me sorting out my thoughts on the issue, and less about me trying to persuade people to watch Harry Potter. :)

      1. But that is also just my opinion and it’s okay with me if you feel different. I wasn’t talking about you in particular but anyone who likes Harry Potter and disagrees with me is okay.Because in the end it is just my opinion.

  6. I appreciate your review. Very intelligent and well-thought out, unlike a Sunday School teacher who once said that Harry Potter was the “antichrist.” I haven’t seen all the movies yet, but I did read all the books. I found nothing inherently “evil” about them. Typical “good vs. evil” stuff, and good wins. I never really thought about the aspect of the “magic” in the “Potter-verse” being natural rather than supernatural. I like that description. As for the lack of any mention of God, I frequently wonder why the Christian community complains that secular writers don’t mention God or have Christian principles. Why would we expect them to??

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jeff! It’s definitely a subject I’ve enjoyed reading and studying about over the years. Lots to consider on both ends of the spectrum, that’s for sure. :)

  7. I too recently watched the Harry Potter movies the first time and I agree, the use of “Magic” was more like a power or an element than what is described in the Bible as being magic.
    I did not watch the series before because of the terrible things that I heard about them but I really enjoyed the movies.
    I am kind of a casual fan of the movies (no intention of reading the books) and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was by far my favorite of the series and I did not care for the first two but I liked the other movies in the franchise in general.
    Do you plan on writing reviews for each of the movies on your “reel reviews” blog? I would be very interested in reading them.

    -James

    1. My favorite part of the series was probably Order of the Phoenix, though I enjoyed them all (more or less). I think they’re good, but I still wouldn’t put them in the same league as, say. The Lord of the Rings films.

      I may review the entire series on my movie blog at some point, but right now I’m kinda “Pottered-out,” if you know what I mean. :)

      1. Order of the Phoenix was my second favorite of the series and the first one that I overall enjoyed. :) But I agree Potter is not even close to Lord of the Rings, Star Wars (original trilogy) are the only movies that I like more than LOTR.

        I know what you mean. :)

        -James

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