The debate about Harry Potter, and its depiction of magic and sorcery, is a prime example of a philosophical divide among Christians. How much, if any, occult symbols, practices and references, should Christians tolerate in their tales? Especially as those elements are attached to protagonists?
Yesterday’s post How Harry Potter Made Me a Believer produced some great discussion. I particularly enjoyed the thread started by Jesse Koepke wherein he expressed concern that we have allowed a good story to overwhelm biblical injunctions against witchcraft and the like. Jesse proceeded to make some lucid observations about “magical distinctions” in Narnia / Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter.
There’s a lot of great (and not so great) articles / discussions about this subject (like Stephen Greydenas’ Magic, Middle-earth, Merlin, Muggles, and Meaning). So I don’t really want to go there. And I don’t need to. As much as I agree we mustn’t take magic and its portrayal lightly, my first reaction to Potter opponents and their ilk is to question their template.
Christian opposition to Harry Potter is reflective of a larger, more detrimental mindset which affects our view of God, Christianity, art, and culture. Hopefully I can elaborate on that statement enough to avoid misunderstanding and eliminate the concern that I may be somehow justifying tolerance and/or acceptance of occultism. But I’ll warn you ahead of time, this post is a bit long and a little scattered.
Like some of the commenters on yesterday’s post, I have come from an fairly active occult background. Not only did I frequent a warlock’s house in high school, I owned occult paraphernalia, and eventually began taking hallucinogens for “religious” purposes. So I totally respect the sensitivity Christians, especially Christian parents, bring to this discussion, and for the most part believe it is warranted.
Those who make a distinction between what Greydanus calls “magical hedges” (which “serve to divide the magic of fantasy from the [real] magic of curses and occult powers”) in Narnia / Lord of the Rings versus Harry Potter walk a very fine line. I’m not suggesting distinctions can’t be made, as Jesse did well in his comments, but that the defense a.) Can turn into an exercise in hair-splitting and b.) Is NOT shared by most Potter opponents. Which is why many of those same folks also denounce Lord of the Rings and Narnia.
On a.): Those who try to define the proper use of magic in Christian fantasy are forced to create their own literary / religious cipher. They inevitably construct sets and subsets of laws to govern their own discernment regarding what is acceptable or unacceptable magic. Some of the following may be found on that list:
- Magic is tolerable as long as it’s done in a “fictional” world (as opposed the real world).
- Magic is tolerable as long as the source is defined as God.
- Magic is tolerable as long as the source is defined as NOT being God.
- Magic is tolerable as long as i’s source is clearly delineated as Good or Evil.
- Magic is tolerable as long as it is used for Good.
- Magic is tolerable as long as it’s performed by non-human characters (i.e., elves, wizards, etc.)
And the list goes on. Problem is, even the defense of magic in fantasy can take on the tone of nit-picking. Maybe it should. Maybe that’s what separates discerning Christian readers from the general public. I don’t know. We just seem to be falling into a potential trap when we start niggling over whether THIS wizard, in THAT setting, on THAT world, could perform THAT action, with THOSE results, if he was really empowered by God. It’s pure tedium if you ask me.
On b.): Those who defend the magic of Narnia / LotR and NOT the magic of Harry Potter are in the minority. In other words, those who disapprove of Harry Potter most likely disapprove of Narnia and LotR on similar grounds. They are driving the debate more than the Potter apologists. “Let anyone who wields a wand be accursed!” In their scheme, even the Christian who defends Gandalf’s magic is an emissary of Evil. All that to say, the person who approves “Narnian magic” while questioning “Potter magic” walks a fine line and may in fact find opponents on both sides of the aisle.
As I said in my intro, I believe this controversy illustrates a philosophical divide among believers, one that frames our perspectives on (1) Christian holiness and (2) Fiction. Not only do we get caught up in arguing a “touch not, taste not” paradigm (only in this case, spell books, wizards, and crystal balls replace Sabbaths, dietary laws, and meat sacrificed to idols) we impose that template over storytelling. Thus, when holiness becomes a system of thou-shalt-nots, so does our fictional diet.
In the process, I think we risk bigger issues, we strain at gnats and swallow camels. We miss opportunities to engage the culture because we’re too busy quibbling with particulars. Like what constitutes “bad magic” in fiction.
After King Saul disobeyed God, the prophet Samuel rebuffed him with this admonition:
“For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft, and stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry. “ (I Sam. 15:23 KJV)
The letter of the law demanded that witches be stoned. Saul didn’t have a cauldron or a magic wand, but his “rebellion” was just as repulsive to the Lord. It foreshadowed what Christ would reveal — that the heart is the issue. Lust is akin to adultery. Hatred is analogous to murder. And rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft. This isn’t to downplay witchcraft, but to suggest that the issue is much bigger than magic — especially as it relates to storytelling! — it’s about one’s heart.
So why do Christians always get hung up talking about “externals”?
Jesus made the entire Law a heart issue. And when we get caught up in debating things like whether one type of wizard is more tolerable than another type of wizard, we’re really off course. Nevertheless, that’s the kind of debate this often turns into. Of course, we need to warn and guard against occultism. But when the Christian opposition to “magic in fiction” is driven by a narrow, draconian view of holiness, I can’t help but feel we’re completely missing the boat.
Okay. There’s a few rather disconnected thoughts. I’d be interested in yours.