“He Who Must Not Be Named”

No, it’s not who some of you think. Of course, those of you thinking that will probably dislike that label being applied to the person I am applying it to. The fictional person I’m talking about is Harry Potter, the boy wizard.

(This entire post is spoiler-free – would you expect any less from me?)

My background

I remember when the Harry Potter books started making waves in the late nineties. My first exposure to them, while I was in the vacuum called “college”, was when an elderly, revered, theologically conservative professor of mine (most called him “stodgy”) remarked, “I’ve read the first book and I don’t see what all the controversy is about. I’m not sure how it’s much different from the Grimm’s fairy tales I read as a kid!” So my first thoughts on the issue were that my beloved Dr. Bowdle likes the books despite the fact that there are Christians who have a problem with the magic in it; that sounded like some of the overreactions I encountered when I first mentioned The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Lord of the Rings to some Christians I knew.

Yet that single endorsement was soon lost in the din raised by venerable and esteemed Christian leaders like Dr. James Dobson. Amidst the noise raised by panicking Christians, I found two objections that seemed like valid concerns: 1) the magic in these books is more like the occult than the magic in Lewis and Tolkien; 2) kids all over the world are already joining the witchcraft movement in response to the interest raised by these books.

I assumed that these two were, for the most part, correct. I did not read any of the books (they were for kids!) and I did not seek out discussion. I considered that maybe the books got worse, and that Dr. Bowdle hadn’t gotten far enough into the series to see the evil it was championing. Yet because I had not read them, I could not in good conscience comment on them, a scruple that I saw ignored by other Christians alarmingly often.

With the release of the last book and the buzz surrounding it, not to mention the recognition that a few respected Christian friends enjoyed the series, I recently decided to look into it all firsthand.

What I found shook the very foundations of all I believe.

Actually, I just put that sentence in there to keep you reading. It’s true that some of you may be scandalized by what I have concluded, but let that sentiment entice you to seek out the truth yourselves. Let me address the two biggest concerns Christians have had with the series.

Common objections considered

1) The magic in these books is more like the occult than the magic in Lewis and Tolkien.

Let me respond to this with a few questions. Why is magic evil? Why does the Bible condemn it, and what exactly is it that the Bible condemns? The answer is that the “magic” censured in Scripture was any ritual pertaining to false religions, devoted to false gods. Because they were a part of pagan religion condemned by God, they were ipso facto evil. The “magic” in the Bible has nothing to do with cauldrons and bats, but with Baal and Asherah. That said, it does stand to reason that any spiritualistic rites intended to consult, appeal to, or appease a false deity would also be anathema. Lewis and Tolkien described magic that was not of this sort, which do not qualify for a Scriptural ban. Is Rowling’s magic different?

In the worlds created by Lewis and Tolkien, magic is part of the fabric of the universe, no more personal or intentioned than the wind. It is part of the nature of the worlds that the Emperor-Over-the-Sea and Eru Ilúvatar created. Their magic is not supernatural, but extra-natural; it is not beyond the natural, but an additional aspect of the natural introduced by the authors to set up a universe that can actually host the themes and events they wish to communicate. In their universes (particularly Lewis’s), even the Creators of this magic are held to it in the same way that adding one and one inexorably equals two; this magic is not a set of sacramental principles and activities set up by the deities as part of their commerce with the mortals they created. This sort of impersonal magic is definitely not necessarily evil but, rather, it may be used either as a tool for evil or for good. Having now read all seven of the Harry Potter books, I can categorically affirm that Rowling’s sort of magic is exactly in the mold of Lewis and Tolkien. In Rowling’s mythology, neither false gods nor the devil and his minions have any more to do with this magic than they do the changing of the seasons in our world.

Now, does this excuse the use of Halloween-style symbolism and other tools of actual pagan religion? First of all, I would like to say that any reasonable Christian knows that many Christmas and Easter traditions have their origins in pagan imagery, but have been commandeered and sanctified by our overcoming faith. Surprisingly enough for those looking for the occult, the books rarely mention Halloween, although Christmas in its proper spirit is prominently displayed in each book. As for occult symbology, if there is any here it is hardly surprising: Rowling is British, and the types of images we Americans commonly think of as only occurring at Halloween and in Satanic rituals are part and parcel of the traditional English cultural heritage; one of the conceits of Rowling’s universe is that some of the elements of “real magic” from the wizarding world has occasionally leaked over into ours, and those leaks that we non-magic folk recognize are generally greatly distorted and misrepresented versions. A fundamental part of the set-up of the series is the amazement any of us would experience if we stepped through a portal to see that flying broomsticks, potion-preparing cauldrons, and wand-directed spells were real! What if our knowledge of goblins and ghouls and trolls is based in another, poorly-understood reality? What if those things are the norm and we are the oddity in their world? That’s the initial conceit, and one which too many Christians do not recognize as close kindred to the set-ups of Narnia and Middle-Earth, all sharing an impersonal and elemental form of magic that is quite distinct from the kind condemned in the Bible.

2) Kids all over the world are already joining the witchcraft movement in response to the interest raised by these books.

A big problem here is that Christians have confused curiosity-driven research for temptation-driven obsession: I, for instance, looked up “hippogriff” to see a picture and discover that creature’s origin and place in real mythology. Even as a child I would not have been inspired by these books to seek out, let alone sign myself up for, a religion or cult that pretended hippogriffs existed. Would kids watching Harry perform a spell want to be able to duplicate that? No more so than I wanted to share the Elves’ immortality, or own a talking beast. Surely there must have been a handful of adolescents who looked into real occult spells to see if they worked. For that matter, I can’t imagine but that there have been misguided people who have been inspired by the witch of Endor’s successful foray into conjuration as described in 1 Samuel. Doubtless such attempts at imitation did not work, and even if those kids deceived themselves into thinking they did, I believe they have a leg up on the materialists who believe that nothing exists apart from the natural.

If we are to blame Rowling for this, we must not neglect to lay at Tolkien’s feet the blame for almost single-handedly creating the fantasy genre that has inspired and fueled neo-paganism. But as for those who get sucked into this, I don’t need to tell you that some kids just want an excuse to be different. Moreover, the type that would start experimenting with Wicca and the like is probably exclusively the same type of kid that would have sought out or stumbled upon the huge corpus of godless fantasy within three or four years, a genre that is a direct heir of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, although certainly significantly bastardized in terms of emphasis and motivation.

Why read them?

Okay, I’ve answered why you shouldn’t not read them. But is there any positive value in reading them?

Yes, yes, yes.

For the spiritually attuned Christian, there is probably no less spiritual value to be gleaned from these than from Lewis or Tolkien, abounding especially in the mythic quality that the Inklings set out to propagate when they wrote their fantasy fiction. After all, keep in mind that Rowling is a Christian who stayed low-key with her faith so as not to put off non-Christians or give away some plot devices, a fate that the Chronicles of Narnia has suffered. I recently heard a non-Christian bemoaning the fact that Lewis was openly evangelizing children in the Narnia series. Rowling’s Christianity is much more subtle, and therefore on the occasions in which it surfaces, it is perhaps more potent; I think of this series as something of a Trojan horse.

When I was more skeptical of the series, I heard another Christian defending it, “So what’s the difference between Harry Potter and Narnia or The Lord of the Rings?” I scoffed: “Um…hello? Thinly veiled Christ-figure versus boy with a wand? Man who converted Lewis to Christianity versus modern British woman of obscure religious background? Come on!” No longer speaking from the ignorance of not having read the books, I still say that it’s like neither Lewis’s nor Tolkien’s stories; it’s more like a cross between them. One one hand, it involves children and is primarily intended for young people, but as the series goes on, it feels much more like The Lord of the Rings in that it has an epic story arc that spans the series and leans more toward myth than to allegory.

[Note: in no wise is this series for tiny tykes. The stuff is much too heavy. I’ll probably start Jill on it at about 11 (Harry’s age at the beginning) and let her read one book a year until she’s seventeen. This corresponds with the original once-a-year release schedule, and as Harry ages, so does the subject matter – quite cleverly, really.]

Anyone who enjoyed The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings will likely find much of the same pleasure. Unfortunately, I can’t go into details of why Christians are starting to appreciate it, because some of the better stuff is embedded into the gradually unfolding mythology of the series, reaching a dramatic culmination in the last book. Just trust me – you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time (which is more than I can say for the movies…avoid these if possible). Aside from its spiritual value, it really is fun reading: especially appealing are Rowling’s sense of humor and her extremely rich, almost Dickensian characterizations that have realistically dynamic development.

Trust me, you’ll appreciate it. If you don’t trust me, trust Dr. Bowdle. And again, stay away from the movies – although now that I think about it, I would recommend that you watch the first one to get the excellent imagery and well-cast actors in your mind.

Let me leave you with a quote from Jeffrey Weiss (here’s a spoiler-filled link to the source):

J.K. Rowling gets the last laugh on the dwindling number of conservative Christians who have attacked her “Harry Potter” saga over the past decade: The most important plot point of the seventh and final book is unambiguously Christian.

Ms. Rowling cleverly scattered so many red herrings amongst the loaves and fishes in the previous books that she made it difficult to see the trail clearly except in retrospect. The Potter story is not a linear Christian allegory, no modern day Pilgrim’s Progress. And Harry’s World is insistently devoid of explicit religion, right through the final chapter.

But Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows finally reveals plainly what the author had said for many years: that her Christian faith undergirds her fictional creation.

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