Mon, Sep
4
2006

Harry Potter and the Fear of Christians

harrypotter.jpg

So, it seems that officials in the Catholic Church, including the Pope’s chief exorcist are coming out against the Harry Potter series, calling it “an instrument of evil”.

“Magic is always a turn to the devil,” said the Roman Catholic priest, according to Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.

Amorth, who is also the president of the International Association of Exorcists, said the series contains many positive references to “the satanic art” of magic and makes no distinction between black and white magic.

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Well, that’s fine. This simply means that Harry Potter will, like birth control, become an item that a lot of Catholics cheerfully use in defiance of official doctrine. Because, like birth control, these officials within the Catholic Church are on the wrong side of the issue theologically.

You don’t have to go far to find Christians who happily read the Harry Potter series of books. I’m one of them. And here’s another. Rebecca Anderson, one of the strongest Christians I know, not only reads this heathen series, she writes fan fiction in its universe. And how is she able to reconcile her faith with these books? Primarily by keeping in mind that it’s just a story.

First, I have always loved fantasy stories. My father read C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s books to me when I was a child, and as I grew older I read and re-read them, and other books like them, many times. I also spent a great deal of time reading the classic fairy tales, as well as myths and legends from around the world. The idea of a world at once like and unlike our own, in which people had different abilities and faced different challenges yet the struggle between good and evil went on, had a great appeal to my fertile imagination. And yet, in all those years of reading fantasy I was never tempted to abandon my Christian faith and convictions, or to worship other gods, or to seek answers and power in the occult. In fact, the more that the system and practices of magic in a fantasy novel resembled what I knew of occultism, the less I liked the book and the more likely I was to put it down unfinished. Anything to do with summoning demons, or using “spirit guides”, or being possessed, made my skin crawl.

if we’re going to flip out over the use of magic in the Potter books, then let’s be consistent. Let’s also ban “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty” because they portray certain types or uses of magic as good — just like the Harry Potter books. In fact, nearly all the classic fairy tales are about good characters who are able to do magic, and/or are helped by magical beings, and/or who are given magical items which they use to achieve their goals — just like the Harry Potter books. In fairyland, as in Potterland, there are potions, and wands, and magic phrases like “open sesame”, and people who can change into animals or vice versa. There are mysterious prophecies and heroic quests; and a monster may be your enemy — or he may be a friend in disguise.

The criticisms of Rev. Gabriele Amorth and other officials within the Catholic Church suggest a closed-mindedness that many Catholics do not share. At its root, it is a refusal to acknowledge that God speaks to us in many ways. It is a statement, one made many times by many religions, that their particular faith has a monopoly on truth; a statement that has been, in my opinion, thoroughly discredited by such theologians as C.S. Lewis.

It is not by our adherence to strict doctrines of faith that salvation is to be found, it is by our actions that we are judged. It is clear, in millions of real world examples, that people of many faiths are equally good, and that God loves us equally. If people find a different way to speak to God, and in all their actions they are as compassionate to others as any good Christian, then that path for them is as valid as my path is for me. So what if Harry Potter uses magic? He is using it to fight evil. That makes him good.

And, lest we forget, Harry Potter is fiction. It’s not pretending to speak for God.

Reading the criticisms Rev. Gabriele Amorth has on Harry Potter, it’s quite clear that he either hasn’t read the books, or he can’t get past his prejudices regarding J.K. Rowling’s use of the term Witches, Wizards and Magic. There is no distinction in the Harry Potter universe between the magic that Harry Potter uses, and electricity. Or computer programming. Or swords or nuclear weapons. It’s a technology, nothing more. The magic here is not asking Harry Potter to do evil things like perform sacrifices. He is no different from any good young man.

There is an episode of the classic science fiction series Babylon 5. I can’t remember the title, but it features an alien scientist, hated for a number of atrocities she created, who returns and is captured, and unleashes her parting shot. She has created a formula which renders the person who takes it immortal. The catch is, in order for the formula to work, the person who takes it has to kill somebody else. Unquestionably evil. And unquestionably magic, despite the show’s science-fiction trappings. But it is not the magic itself that makes this act evil. The magic here is merely the tool that has been used to express evil. The fact that it’s a science-fiction premise, though, prevents the plot device from being criticized primarily on its magical basis.

Were magic as available to us in this world as a high-priced computer, it would be possible for Wizards and Witches to practise magic while attending Church on Sundays. Indeed, it seems likely from J.K. Rowling’s books that at least some of the attendees of Hogwarts are themselves Christian.

Yes, technology such as magic, computers and nuclear weapons can be used for evil ends, but that does not make the technology evil, nor the people who use that technology for good. Yes, there are people out there who believe that science is as offensive to God as magic, but we tend to see such people as crackpots. It is only because it is fashionable to fear anything related however loosely to the occult, that we can give the Rev. Gabriele Amorth’s comments the time of day. And, frankly, I suspect he only is paying attention to the Harry Potter series because of its popularity.

I cannot help but notice that the Catholic Church is silent on Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials sequence, despite its explicitly anti-clerical attitude. But then, the first movie adaptation of this series is still a year off, and early indications are that its anti-clerical sentiments have been bowlderized by the cowardly studios that are mounting this. People line up for the Harry Potter movies, and that makes them both a threat in some people’s eyes, and an opportunity for easy publicity.

Finally, there is a motto in Catholic teaching, which seems to apply here, which Rev. Gabriele Amorth seems to have forgotten. It goes like this: “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas” or, “in essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”

Harry Potter believes in right and good. He is compassionate and loyal, courageous and resolved to beat back the forces of Voldemort who do not believe in charity. He stands for truth, justice and the British way. And he uses a magic that’s not much different from technology.

In that respect, the magic of a children’s fantasy series strikes me as a pretty big non-essential, don’t you think?


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