Let me start with a confession. I’m taking a bit of an easy road here for my first Serious Play post. Harry Potter has been talked about a lot and I’m not doing anything amazingly different. Secondly, I had originally had a grand idea of making the concept behind Serious Play a blog in itself and wrote up an interaction on the Harry Potter series. Granted I never really published it in a way that many could find it, but if you did then I apologize if this will sound familiar for either of the reasons above.
So anyhow let us move to the subject at hand. Last month marked the end of Harry Potter as we currently know it. The final movie based on the seven novels written by J.K. Rowling came out on July 15th and marked the end of Harry Potter. Responses to this were mixed. I know some who came out and celebrated the fact that Potter was finished, while others lament the fact that the “era of Harry Potter” has passed. One can say that with a phenomenon like Harry Potter it is never going to be “the end” it is simply that there will not be new books or movies about Harry Potter. This is of course, if Rowling is to be believed when she says that she is not planning on writing more about Harry Potter. For an example of this look at how many people still enjoy the Lord of the Rings despite the fact those books were first published in the 1950s.
What is Harry Potter about? That seems like a question that is pointless for the millions of people who have read it. Basically at its heart it is a series of books focused around the life of Harry Potter. He begins the series believing that he is a normal boy who has the misfortune to be in the care of his uncaring aunt and uncle and their son. However, over the course of the books he learns that he actually has magical abilities and is sent to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to develop his magical abilities. Along the way he learns of the fact that his parents were killed by the dark wizard Voldemort and how as a baby he was somehow able to survive being attacked by Voldemort and was even able to defeat him. He also learns that Voldemort is not completely defeated and is trying to return to his full power.
The first few books are primarily about Harry and his friends thwarting the attempts of Voldemort to regain his power. Eventually, Voldemort succeeds in returning to full power and the tone becomes more about preparing for a direct confrontation of the forces of good, personified by Harry’s side, and the forces of evil, led by Voldemort. This may sound like a very simple overview of the books, but really at the heart of the book this is what drives the story along. It is also simple so that I don’t give too much of the books away for those who may not have read them.
The Magic Controversy
When Harry Potter first came out Christians rejected the books because of the use of magic and the belief that it was encouraging interest in witchcraft or in the occult. It was believed that Harry Potter would encourage children to take up witchcraft or occult practices. Not wanting to simply resort to the “this is a work of fiction, why get so worked up about it” retort, were Christians warranted of this view?
My simple answer, no. A lot of magic is associated, among their practitioners with the invocation of spirits, gods, goddesses, angels, demons, etc… This is not a hard and fast rule, but seems to be the majority rule. It is out of this reality that Christianity takes issue for primarily two reasons. The first of these is due to the source of the power and the second is how this power is believed to work.
The first concern is the source of this power. If most magic is associated with invoking a god, goddess, or some spiritual being (even if it is a spiritualized nature) then it comes into conflict with there only being one God. The idea that there is supernatural power out there isn’t the worry, it is where the source of the power is. Is it from God or is it from a false god, which if the Biblical worldview is the accurate one, would be power from one opposed to God. This would be fallen angels or demons.
The second concern is the idea of how this power is believed to work. For the one claiming to practice magic it is their ability or knowledge that shapes and manipulates the power to do what they wish, be it healing or harming. For the Christian understanding it is not a manipulation of God that results in what we want, but an understanding that God is the one who chooses what he will do. Yes, we are called to pray and ask for God’s power to work, but it is not focused solely on our desires. He is the source of spiritual power and miracles as well as the one who ultimately decides if that spiritual power will be used, not us.
Given these concerns Harry Potter’s magic only really hits concern number two, but without the first concern it turns magic not into a manipulation of a spiritual world primarily, but more of magic as a mix of natural and developed skill like the use of technology or athletics. Which is something you can find through the books as many of the magically proficient have either a lack of understanding of technology or a disdain for it because magic is their technology. This results in humorous results as the magic users try to use technology as is often highlighted with Arthur Weasley.
So my final thought is that we can’t be too worried about the magic in Harry Potter. It may require explaining or discussion or it may not. I grew up on fantasy novels and video games that incorporated magic and honestly the thought of connecting that to a life of pursuing witchcraft or using magic in real life was never in view. It may just be better to leave it as a work of fiction for this.
Really it seems to me that the magic controversy was the biggest one regarding Harry Potter at least from other Christians. There are a couple other issues that were brought up against the books though.
The more significant of these in my mind was the idea that Harry was somewhat of a rule breaker. It was argued that this set him as a poor role model for children. However, this doesn’t really take in account the circumstances of the books. It is true that Harry sticks his nose in where it doesn’t necessarily belong, but many of the times he breaks the rules it is either to help a friend, learn more about the strange events going on around Hogwarts, or attempt to thwart the events after they found out what was going on. Also one has to realize that Harry and his friends did often try to tell adults but were not always believed, partly because they usually never had the full picture down. Also lets face it there can be a place for obedience and a place for disobedience given certain circumstances. The events that were going on in the Harry Potter series were quite bigger than breaking curfew or sneaking into forbidden places.
The second is much less significant because it didn’t actually take place in the book, but was more due to comments by Rowling afterwards. That was the making of Dumbledore a homosexual. Some want to make this a reason to reject the books. My beef with this is that this wasn’t necessary information. It really plays no bearing on the story at all and Rowling wasn’t brave enough to spell it out during the book, which makes it look like a cheap ploy to pander to a certain group without putting her sales at risk. Honestly you could read the book and never think about Dumbledore in that way. Imagine if she said Dumbledore was heterosexual or that he had taken a vow of celibacy instead, what bearing does that have on the story? None, so why make this issue big regardless of one’s stance on the issue, particularly since the books themselves make little if any case for it and it was simply a comment from the author after the fact.
Ending on a Positive Note
Honestly, I didn’t get a lot of the fuss these controversies generated. So I want to end with some positives that the Harry Potter series leaves us with. Perhaps the most significant is that this series has often been associated with a rebirth of interest in reading for all ages. While it was a bit of a circus around the release of each book, how many times do we see people getting excited for a book? Not very often. Admittedly for some, like myself, the hubbub seemed a bit much and perhaps made me not be interested in Harry Potter until some time later. That said though the Harry Potter books accomplished something major, they got people interested in reading again or introduced them to reading for the first time.
In addition there are a lot of great themes present in the book. Love, good and evil, self-sacrifice, the danger of seeking power and more. To pick out a couple of themes like magic or disobedience as negative is ignoring the larger work and the positive themes there are. We live in an imperfect world and Harry Potter’s imagining of the world is just as imperfect. There is real tension in doing what is right when it can also mean breaking some rules. To expect a perfect world would negate the need for a story in the first place since there would be no conflict and the book would be dreadfully boring.
Not everyone is interested in fiction novels. I’m okay with that. I’m not saying that you have to read Harry Potter. However, if we, as Christians, are simply rejecting it for trumped-up charges that are poorly thought out we may do more damage than good. I really enjoyed the Harry Potter series, and thought it was engaging and fun to read. It contained themes and values that could easily been seen to be parallel to the values of Christ. We’ve got to come to terms that while Harry Potter may be at an end, it is also very much here to stay. It is up to us to deal with it in a proper way.