Warning: Possible spoilers. Also, I don’t mean to indicate by this review that I recommend anyone see the Harry Potter movies or read the books. If you don’t think it’s right to watch/read, then don’t watch/read (Rom. 14:23). This review is for those who have already read/watched and want to discuss it, or for those who are wondering whether or not these narratives can be enjoyed in good conscience.
What Kind of Sorcery and Witchcraft?
The first issue most conscientious Christians come up against when it comes to Harry Potter concerns its use of “witchcraft.” When the series first started becoming popular, many conservative Christian groups immediately bewailed what they considered to be the promotion of practices that the Bible strictly forbids. If Harry Potter does in fact promote the very same witchcraft that the Bible condemns, it would seem like a no-brainer that the series should be entirely avoided by the wary Christian. What needs to be addressed is whether or not Harry Potter and the Bible are referring to the same things when they use the words “witchcraft” and “sorcery.” What does the Bible mean when it speaks of these things?
The sorcerers and witches in the Bible are people attempting to manipulate God or spirits to do their bidding. In most cases, the witchcraft and sorcery are connected to the activities of the supernatural, and are often connected to idolatry (1 Samuel 15:23). The witch of Endor (in 1 Samuel 28:7) uses a “familiar spirit” to divine occultic truths. God’s hatred for sorcery and witchcraft seems to be largely due to the fact that witches and sorcerers are worshipping or ascribing power to something other than God. Notice that following the forbidding of witchcraft and sorcery in Deut. 18:9-14, in which God condemns the dispossessed pagan nations for “listening” to the counsel of sorcerers, God promises Israel that He will send a prophet, to whom Israel shall “listen.” The crucial issue here seems to be the idolatry of sorcery, trusting some other source (usually supernatural) for true knowledge and power while neglecting the worship of the one true God.
But in the Harry Potter world, magic is not supernatural. It is not in reference to some spirit or demon. Rather, magic is a natural phenomenon. There is not any mention at any point that the power of magic comes from any other source but the natural fabric of the Harry Potter world. “Sorcerers” in the world of Harry Potter have natural capacities for manipulating the natural forces of magic that are seamlessly existent like any other natural force in their world. Witchcraft in Harry Potter operates almost exactly like science, and the “sorcerers” in Harry Potter learn to discipline their natural capacities for this science. It may be unfortunate that Rowling chose to call this magic “sorcery” or “witchcraft,” but Tolkien had wizardry and sorcery in the Lord of the Rings, and Christians rarely even mention it. It’s a different world.
Science and Magic
Consider that a farmer from 500 years ago, were he to be dropped into the middle of our contemporary industrialized society, would really have no framework to understand our science. His best explanation for most of it (and if we’re honest, we feel this way sometimes too) is that it is magic.
Self-propelled machines, iPads/Pods, airplanes, electricity in every home, screens broadcasting ultra-realistic moving images from across the world, wireless internet … We live in a time when technology has vastly outstripped our ability to comprehend its function. But the Bible does not condemn the manipulation of natural forces, per se, since the dominion of the natural world is our natural domain. For me, Harry Potter is a world where magic has no reference to the supernatural. I accept it within Rowling’s framework as a natural force of her imaginary universe. Sorcery is, in that world, operating exactly as science does in ours. There are evil scientists and good ones, but the natural forces are not to blame either way.
C.S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, said:
There is something which unites magic and applied science [technology] while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the wise men of old, the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men; the solution is a technique.
In Harry Potter’s world, we see that the point of magic, similar to the point of technology in our world, is mostly to better the lot of the sorcerer/scientist. Magic/science washes dishes for us, it fixes/replaces glasses, it unlocks doors at the press of a wand/dongle, it makes transportation easier/more convenient, it entertains us, it does our heavy lifting. In Potter’s world, it is this fact which makes Harry different. When he wants to bury his friend, he does it without magic. When he has a chance to become the most successful or the most powerful sorcerer, he doesn’t take it. He is a “good” scientist as much as he is a “good” sorcerer.
Nature Red in Tooth and Claw
But … this doesn’t mean that Rowling’s universe has escaped Biblical criticism. Not by any means. In some senses, the very thing that makes magic in Potter’s world acceptable to me also completely undermines Rowling’s philosophical and ethical foundations. One of the components of Rowling’s universe is that there are in fact no supernatural occurrences. Everything in the world is a part of the nature of things… no mention of gods, no mention of God, no mention of demons/angels, etc. The closest things to the supernatural are the spirits of the dead, but even they are human, getting what they “deserve” without reference to any eternal judgment. God is not denied. He is simply not mentioned. But we must also remember that Tolkien’s books are extremely scant concerning anything supernatural. There are beings of great power that are evil, and others that are good (though fewer in number), but Middle Earth is mostly populated by flesh and blood and sublunary spirits of one kind or another, and Tolkien does not create a one-to-one correlation between our worlds in the same way that Lewis does in the Chronicles of Narnia. One is left to grapple with the worlds as they are presented; not every parable is intended to mirror every facet of all of life.
But the lack of the supernatural in Harry Potter seems like more than just a harmless and incidental omission. In the Half-Blood Prince, Professor Slughorn says that murder is a “crime against nature.” Since there is nothing supernatural to which (or whom) one can appeal, evil becomes a deviation from nature rather than a deviation from divine decree. This is problematic, however, for obvious reasons. In our world, these assumptions do not translate. “Nature is red in tooth and claw” (in the words of Tennyson), therefore any moral code drawn from it could not consistently condemn killing. What, are we to set up court systems in the African savanna to prosecute those bloodthirsty lions? Rowling borrows from what most believe to be the case to forward what cannot be proven on its own grounds. Most of us think torture, killing the innocent, relishing other people’s pain, racism, genocide, etc. are not good. But what about those “natural” phenomena about which not all humans agree? For that matter, not everyone agrees on torture, killing, or the rest. The question is, “Can nature be used infallibly to establish fixed boundaries of ethical conduct?” Answer: No!
What is interesting is that Rowling has “come out” and said that Dumbledore was a homosexual. This is not at all even slightly intimated in the movies or books, but I am sure Rowling considers homosexuality acceptable because it is “natural.” It occurs naturally among some animals, so it must be okay, she posits. This is very shaky ground, however. Genocide, incest, and rape occur among many animals, too. Does that mean these things are okay? Wait, wait, guys… Don’t close the books on Stalin, Mao, and Hitler quite yet… J.K. Rowling thinks they might just be paragons of natural ethics. Anyway, this is troubling and it greatly affects the ethical foundation of the narrative. In other words, it has none. There is no reason, outside of a Biblically supernatural understanding of transcendent ethics, that Harry Potter is any more virtuous than Voldemort.
But, Harry Potter is more virtuous than Voldemort. Especially in the last movie, Rowling really lays the Christian symbolism on thick. Voldemort’s final “version” of himself is his serpent? When he dies, he blows away like chaff (The wicked are not so, they are like the chaff driven by the wind). Harry Potter dies to protect his friends, but the thing that really dies is the curse that was resting on him, so he comes to life again to lead his friends to victory. Wow, this is starting to sound a little bit like Narnia. Rowling actually made it clear that this Christian symbolism was intentional.
Conclusion: Religious and Philosophical Smorgasbord
What are we to make of it? It’s hard to know. Rowling seems to draw from whatever symbolism suits her at the moment… whatever symbolism is the most powerful force, whether or not she agrees with the whole philosophy from which she borrows. Dualism is also apparent in the narrative (with many characters a troubled mixture of light/dark). And one can’t forget the ubiquitous individual relativism (“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”). Overall, the main theme of the narrative, culminating in the last book, seems to be this: “Good and evil is not a matter of nature, but of choice. The only thing in the world that can rise above the pressure of circumstance is the indomitable will to do what one believes to be right.”
Harry chooses the hard way any time he thinks this is the right way. Dumbledore pretty much sets this option up for Harry by saying, “The time has come when all of us will have to choose between what is easy, and what is right.” Sirius Black says to Harry that everyone has light and dark in them and that it is the part we choose to act on that defines us. Dumbledore tells Harry that he is different from Voldemort not because of his abilities or his nature, but because of his desires. In this way, Rowling emphasizes her theme again and again: “You are what you do. Do good, and you’ll be good, and you’ll receive good in time.” In the end, Dumbledore tells Harry something along the lines of, “Help always comes… to those who deserve it.” Taking all of this into account, this is the philosophical upshot of Harry Potter as far as I can tell:
1) There is no supernatural reality. Evil is a perversion of nature. Good is defined as those parts of the Judeo-Christian moral code that haven’t yet become politically incorrect mixed with a healthy dose of individualism.
2) Everyone has tendency to good and tendency to evil in them by nature (yin-yang style).
3) You are good if you choose to act on the good within you. Evil if otherwise.
4) Those who do good are good, and will receive good in the end (and vice-versa) because nature works that way (Karma style).
So, Rowling borrows from naturalism, Christianism, individualism, Eastern dualism/mysticism, Hinduism, and just about any other “ism” laying around her writing desk in order to create what still manages to be a well-told and cohesive story. Say what you will about her ideological foundation, she certainly has a brilliant imagination and she knows how to weave a yarn. The most powerful parts of the finale of this narrative draw most heavily from Christian symbolism. I don’t think this is coincidental. People long for the salvation narrative they have rejected in Christ, and Christians, of course, are sensitive in their hearts to that which mirrors Christ-likeness. But the natural man wants salvation on his own terms. He doesn’t want to be told he is evil. He wants to think exactly what Rowling tells him in the end: Any person has the capacity without reference to God to choose to do good and get good in return. Now this is the real fantasy. All the wands and dragons and stuff… that was nothing.