Sunday, November 21, 2010

A Plea for Discernment

With the first part of the adaptation of the last Harry Potter book hitting the big screen, the Christian media (and particularly the fundamentalist portion) is full of claims that this is encouraging the occult. Now, this is not a defence of Harry Potter, or a condemnation. It is a plea for us to get beyond simplistically attacking the mere fact that the books and fils use the imagery of magic and witchcraft, and to address what is behind these trappings.

A few years ago I was treated to one of the worst, most superficial Christian responses to a film that I have ever heard (naming no names). It was supposed to be a response to the film The Golden Compass (remember that?). Now The Golden Compass was an adaptation of the first book in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. While using the genre of fantasy, complete with magic and witches, Pullman's books are in fact designed to teach atheism, and he is quite explicit about this. Yet this review treated the film as though it was occult propaganda. It seemed that the reviewer was unable to get beyond the trappings of the novel to its core message. I was deeply embarrassed by the review, and I have to say that I have never listened to the podcast in question since. Why? Because the review was utterly superficial, and there are more substantial things one could listen to. There was the problem, you see. Now it seems to me that to say of the Harry Potter stories, "The involve people who do magic, therefore they are bad" is on the same level. It simply fails to engage with the stories at all. Now you may say, "Christians ought not to engage with worldly entertainment", but if you do, then that is reason enough not to engage with Harry Potter without invoking a superficial argument about witchcraft. If you are going to try to say that it is all right for Christians to watch secular films and read fiction, but that they ought not to have anything to do with Harry Potter, then you need to actually offer substantive reasons.

The books and films do not encourage children to participate in the Occult, for in Harry Potter's world magic is something you are born with. The divide between the magical and the non-magical is absolute and unbreakable. Harry Potter has magic powers because he was born with them, just as Clark Kent has the powers of Superman because he was born a native of the planet Krypton. No character in the Harry Potter books acquires magic powers, they possess them by virture of their birth. Thus J.K. Rowling has actually done all she can to depict magic as non-transferrable. Secondly the magic in the books works 'mechanically', without the invocation of spirit-beings. Magic is not a religion in Harry Potter, it is a super-power, like Superman's X-ray vision, but with the trappings of English folklore. Unlike Spider-Man's Peter Parker, Harry Potter did not get his powers in an accident. Nor did he gain them by his own ability. He got them from his parents, like Superman. Thus, at least in J.K. Rowling's mind, the world of Hogwarts is necessarily separate from the world of her readers.

For this reason I am unconvinced by the argument that Harry Potter encourages dabbling in the occult. There are shows and films that do that, as well as books. So a critique of Harry Potter must go behind the stylized, fantasy magic and address the actual messages of the books. That I do not intend to do - merely to challenge Christians to think about content, and look beyond trappings. Otherwise we shall make ourselves look foolish, and may even find that we are ourselves doing the right thing for the wrong reason - and in such a way as to fail utterly to make the case for others doing the right thing, as in the case of The Golden Compass. And by the way "It's just not my sort of thing" is a thoroughly good reason for not doing something!

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