The Problem with Harry Potter

Contrary to popular belief Harry Potter is not the anti-Christ, and though he is something of an interesting literary Christ figure he is not the second coming.  He is part of an imperfect trinity of Dumbledore (father), Harry (son), and Fawkes (spirit), and there are some beautiful and powerful moments in Rowling’s stories that point to something of the beauty and power of the Gospel (such as Harry’s battle at the end of Chamber of Secrets or Dumbledore’s drinking the cup of sorrow in order to destroy the works of Voldemort at the end of Half Blood Prince). However, I have a serious problem with Potter.

Please do not mistake me.  I have defended the Harry Potter books against viscous and slanderous attacks by church people who never so much as cracked the books open.  (When will we ever learn that slander is a horrid sin even when it seems to serve the purposes of God.)  Ms. Rowling is not a witch or a Satanist.  There is no secret hidden code within the pages of these seven volumes.  There is not one legitimate spell or working of magic.  It is all very pretend, a backdrop of fiction against which to paint very human virtues and vices.

That is precisely the problem.  For Ms. Rowling it is all make-believe!

The problem with Potter is that for all the enchantment of a magical world and all the imagery from a classical world (Christian and pagan) it turns out to be nothing but symbolism for a modern world.  Ms. Rowling, though she claims the Christian faith, is not a “believer.”  Harry Potter is founded on a liberal, materialist, modernist worldview—that is the danger.

Before making my case, let me say here that I am not writing this for the die-hard Potter opponent.  If it is your conviction that as a Christian you should not watch of read Harry Potter, then do not do so.  Teach your children your conviction.  Know your conviction and why you hold it.  Be honest about it.

On the other hand, do not make up or believe slander about the books.  Realize that a few people turning to witchcraft because of Potter books (if that has ever happened) is not the purpose or plan or fault of the books.  Any book can be misused.  It is your duty to know your convictions and live them out.  It is not your job to enforce them on every other Christian any more than I can enforce my feeling that tattoos are an irresponsible waste of money or that American Idol is an ungodly waste of time.  (I have seen God use both tattoos and American Idol, but they are both still wrong for me to invest in.) But, to the purpose.

My purpose here is to raise awareness in the Christian fan of Harry Potter.  Rowling’s stories do use some Christian imagery, as we all know, but they are not built on a solidly biblical world view.  They are thoroughly modern.  Let me try to lay it out as clearly as possible.

There is a strain of “Christianity” that is modernist, materialist, and liberal.  In a very dry, dead, and un-dramatic way it is anti-Christ.  It is the mainstream church ideas (1) that religion of the right sort is a good thing for promoting good will and equality but any absolutism is the source of evil, (2) that the natural world has certain seeming miraculous elements that are none the less material at their source, (3) that Jesus was a really great guy to be honored and emulated but certainly not worshipped (i.e. he never intended nor would have liked being worship), (4) God is dead—meaning he was an important invention of ancient ancestors to help us order society but we all know now that he is a symbol of what we are to become collectively and we really do not need him to be present as anything other than a concept, and (5) the resurrection is a symbolic device that has some spiritual reality but is not historically true nor literally desirable—indeed physical resurrection is an unnatural and dangerous desire.

Before I show how Harry Potter fits in here, let me mention that I do not claim that Ms. Rowling consciously holds these views.  Rather, it is quite possible that like all too many people she has not given the first serious thought to these ideas, but has merely bent with the prevailing winds in matters of worldview.

As to the ideal of “equality” as the ultimate good, Christian and non-Christian writers have stated that fairness and equality are basically the sole moral ideal in the postmodern world.  It is a good thing—in truth—though the application in the world is often warped.  This is one of the admirable parts of the Potter series; the entirety of the plot, the whole of the conflict is over the issue of “muggles” and “pure blood.”  Rowling took the discussion to the warped level in her extra-biblio announcement that Dumbledore was gay.

On the matter of point two, the materialism central to the modern/postmodern worldview, it may seem odd that a book full of magic could be materialistic (I am speaking in the philosophic sense that all the world is material, not in the greed sense).  However, it was noted by Chuck Colson early on that the magic was “scientific” as opposed to spiritual.  Colson offered this as a defense.  However, in this larger discussion it is a problem.  Colson must have forgotten The Magician’s Nephew.  Lewis was wise enough to know that “scientific” magic is the worst form of sorcery.  It is a reduction of the world to the merely material and then its manipulation to the fullest extent. (Odd how easily we all embrace the scientific.)  On a further note, it should be clear that the magic in Potter’s world is very material—it is a matter as genetic and physical as the Weasley’s red hair.  (It is little different from the medichlorines of the Jedi and the mutations of the X-Men.)

As for the less than divine Jesus, it is quite clear that Harry is a Christ Figure.  He is the chosen one—the one who will destroy evil personified.  There is even a death and resurrection of sorts in the end.  It is common practice that a literary Christ figure be imperfect (i.e. Billy Budd, Frodo & Aragorn, or King Arthur), so that is not an issue here.  They are not meant to be Jesus, just emulate him in some aspect to make a point.  (Aslan is a unique figure for he is neither a pure allegory of Christ nor a mere literary Christ figure in the more symbolic way, he is Jesus in Narnia.)

The reason Harry fits the modernist Jesus type is in his acceptance of adoration.  It is strained and for the greater good.  Harry realizes, by the end, that people need the image of him to keep fighting and in some ways allows it to be.  However, in the final chapter it is the normal life that is his heaven.  He refuses the wand of power (the rod of iron) and settles down wisely to finish his days in normalcy.  This is in contrast to the apocalyptic Christ who commands worship that liberals so dislike.

The point above is most clear in connection with the last two that I will take together.  God is dead and the resurrection didn’t happen in history—it is all symbolic.  As I have mentioned, Dumbledore is the figure of God, he is providence.  At all times—even when he is absent—he is present to watch over Harry.  He is the one that Voldemort fears.  He often seems almost all powerful.  Yet as Harry comes of age, Dumbledore becomes less godlike until finally he is dead and gone.

Harry’s conversation with D while he is unconscious in the final book is very revealing.  There is a distinction between real and factual in a sense.  Harry asks if this conversation is real or only in his head and D replies that these two aren’t mutually exclusive—again something of a materialist religionist reduction.  It all has a material—its in your head—explanation while maintaining a real meaningfulness

This may seem like a stretch to some, but my final proof is in The Tales of Beedle the Bard because all of the above is only really an issue if the resurrection is denied.  In Beedle’s tales it resoundingly is.  Rowling has something of a Buddhist view of death.  In the very significant “Tale of Three Brothers” the wise brother in the end knows that death can be avoided for a while but not defeated, so at the last he greets death as a friend.  This in itself would not be damning were in not for “Babbity Rabbity and Her Cackling Stump.”

In the commentary on the story we find that it is the story that teaches all wizarding children that magic cannot raise the dead.  In fact the eminent wizard philosopher Bertrand de Pensees Profonders writes that all attempts to raise the dead should be given up.  (The fact that he shares a name with Bertrand Russell, famous Atheist, may not be coincidence.)  Babbity, in the story is said to know that “no magic can raise the dead.”  Is this the liberal response to Lewis’s “deep magic from before the dawn of time”?

These are, for what they are worth, my opinions on the matter.  I enjoyed the Harry Potter books as stories—and would not begrudge anyone else’s enjoyment.  However, when engaging such a powerful medium as story, it is good to consider what is at the root.  You may think my estimation wrong—please respond if you do.  To think “in isolation and with pride leads to being an idiot,” Chesterton says.  Please take the time to prevent that from happening to me—your comments are welcome.

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2 thoughts on “The Problem with Harry Potter

  1. I am a great fan of the series, and have read and reread the books several times. I think Rowling is a fantastic author, and she weaves a beautiful, exciting, and hilarious tale throughout.

    That said, I agree with the concept that the magical world is just materialism cloaked in the fantastic. This is a topic I have been pondering for a while now, as I am writing for the genre.

    Two of your points hit home with me. First, the reluctant leader is an overdone archtype that, as far as I know, has risen to near universal popularity in the last decade or so with young adult fantasy fiction (perhaps all fantasy fiction, but I have limited experience in other age groups, so I won’t venture to say). Think of what the filmmakers did to Peter’s character in their adaptation of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe or about Aragorn in the film version of the Lord of the Rings. That particular character arc has been done to death. I can see how it could be construed as an anti-worship message, but to me it’s more a false humility or at least a confusion over what true humility looks like.

    Second, the death of Dumbledore touches on a more complex concern for me as an author. A commonly taught requirement for good fiction is that the main character reach the blackest moment in the story and be forced go on with no help at all. This is called character agency. The hero or heroine must overcome impossible odds (or perish in the attempt) without the aid of any one else. The concept of deus ex machina is frowned on. The gods cannot swoop in and take care of everything, or even anything.

    This concept of character agency is pervasive. For example, when reading the Lord of the Rings, I was disappointed and confused when Gollum took the ring into the fires of the mountain instead of Frodo. I was expecting the Hobbit to sacrifice himself, but that would have been the materialist ending. It wasn’t until a friend pointed out that Tolkein was emphasizing the hand of providence before I was able to reconcile myself to it.

    In Rowling’s case, Dumbledore has to die so Harry can face Voldemort alone. The materialist hero can and should take care of himself without the need for providence of any kind. I agree with you, Scott. To have kept Dumbledore alive would have kept providence alive. And that would have meant Harry could place his hope in more than himself.

  2. Wonderful insight, Christy–thank you. Your point about the failure to understand humility is well taken–I have made that point about Aragorn in the LOTR movies on several occasions (not to mention Faramir) and I absolutely hated what was done with Peter in that movie billed as Prince Caspian. This could go to my point of pervasive worldview that Rowling is not aware of.

    You make a stronger point for the case of Dumbledore’s death than I did. Again, it could very well be completely undetected by Rowling. It is amazing how many evangelical Christians have (often under the guise of Calvinism) traded providence for fatalism–but that is another post entirely.

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