Twenty years ago when the first Harry Potter books were published, they re-ignited a controversy about the proper attitude of Christians toward magic, or more accurately, stories about magic. As much as I dislike pronouncements about “the proper attitude of Christians toward” pretty much anything, a recent review of an entirely different fantasy book series got me thinking again about magic. So once again, dear reader, I find myself twenty years out of fashion.
Let me begin by saying that I really like the Harry Potter books. I resisted them when they came out, but when I was drafted as a summer camp chaplain I decided I had better read the books as a matter of cultural literacy. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the books are well-written and engaging, that they challenge readers with age-appropriate ambiguities and authentic characters. I found myself in conversation with middle-schoolers referring to muggles and quidditch. I was not particularly worried that these books were drawing children into the Dark Arts.
At the time, the argument seemed to be framed between those who believed that exposing children to a fantasy world of magic was opening the door to demons, and those who saw these books as an epic of good versus evil, with echoes of Christian themes of self-sacrifice and love conquering death. Author J. K. Rowling was either the next C. S. Lewis, creating Christian allegory accessible to modern readers, or was a cunning wolf in sheep’s clothing, whose ripping yarns slip under our radar to normalize witchcraft.
I think both these arguments miss the point. Stories of magical forces and people who can harness them are as old as humanity, told by Christians and adherents of every faith and no faith. These stories seem to fill a human need for fantasy, for narratives that don’t follow everyday rules of reality. I don’t believe that fantasy stories in and of themselves need to be demonic or idolatrous: witness the fantastic medieval legends of the Lives of the Saints.
By the same token, stories of cosmic good and evil, self-sacrificing heroes and fearful villains, are hardly unique to Christianity. Just because a story makes a sharp distinction between the white hats and the black hats does not mean that it is Christian at its core. In fact, one of the heresies that the church had to fight in its early years was the Manichean idea that the universe was governed by opposing good and evil forces in equilibrium. This model has more to do with comic books than with the God of scripture who declares all of creation to be very good.
Oddly, the thing that first began to make me uncomfortable with the “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” was the way that the stories deal with Christmas. Of course, Christmas has long ago become a secular holiday for many in England and in the US, but something seemed missing in a story of cosmic good and evil when Christmas day is about nothing more than knitted jumpers and paper hats, when even the wise Dumbledore has nothing meaningful to say about the day when the earthly and heavenly worlds are gathered into one. This absence was most stark for me in the last book of the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, when Harry and Hermione spend Christmas Eve in a churchyard, looking at gravestones and hearing Christmas carols being sung in the church.
Like many stories set in the modern world, Harry Potter has no room for God. If this were a mundane story about kids at boarding school and their eccentric teachers, that might not be a problem. But these are stories all about the fundamental forces of the physical and the spiritual world, about the relationship between humanity and… what? Magic is presented as a power running through the universe, a power that some beings can control, but ultimately a power that belongs to us. Magic seems to have no source other than itself, and exists to be bent to human will, good or evil. A human being who has access to magic has no need of God. If God exists at all, he is something for the muggles in the chapel at Christmas, and has nothing to do with the heroes’ struggle to wrestle control of the world away from the dark wizards who use power for selfish ends, and preserve the same power for the good wizards who use it to do what they think is best for everyone, muggles included.
Ultimately, this is a Gnostic worldview, a philosophy that orthodox Christianity has been battling for two thousand years. Gnosticism teaches that the world we see is an illusion, that the real battle between the powers of good and evil is fought beyond our sight, but that with secret knowledge and training an elect few of us can understand what is going on, and even turn those powers to our own ends.
Christianity believes that all power belongs to God, that God may sometimes use us to exercise his will in the world, but that we do not use God’s power to exercise our will. That was the error of Simon the Magician in Acts Chapter 8: he thought he could franchise the Holy Spirit. That is the error of some preachers who teach that we can goad God into granting us prosperity. Mutatis mutandis, this is also the worldview of a particular kind of materialistic science that believes we can perfect the world if the people in power are clever enough.
I don’t believe that reading Harry Potter will turn children into Satanists, or even atheists. But neither would I be comfortable with a Harry Potter themed Vacation Bible School. I don’t believe Harry Potter is hostile to God, nor do I think that it is crypto-Christian. Sadly, like much of the modern world, I think that Harry Potter finds God too irrelevant to worry about.
May the power of God be so manifest in our lives that we may teach the world God’s love.