Looking for God in Harry Potter: Is There Christian Meaning in the Bestselling Books?by John Granger
Millions of children, even Christian children, are reading the mega-selling Harry Potter book series and are exposed to the Harry Potter movies. John Granger, a devout Christian, teacher of classic literature, and father of seven children, first read the Harry Potter books so he could explain to his children why they weren�t allowed to read them. After intense study,… See more details below
Millions of children, even Christian children, are reading the mega-selling Harry Potter book series and are exposed to the Harry Potter movies. John Granger, a devout Christian, teacher of classic literature, and father of seven children, first read the Harry Potter books so he could explain to his children why they weren�t allowed to read them. After intense study, however, he became convinced that the books are underestimated as literature--and reflect important Christian truths. In Looking for God in Harry Potter, Granger gives parents and teachers a roadmap for using the Harry Potter books to teach Christian truth to children.
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Looking for God in Harry Potter
By John Granger
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.Copyright © 2004 John Granger
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMAGIC, FANTASY, AND THE CHRISTIAN WORLDVIEW
The "sorcery" in Harry Potter supports biblical teaching, not practice of the occult.
More than any other book of the last fifty years (and perhaps ever), the Harry Potter novels have captured the imagination of the reading public worldwide. Hundreds of millions of copies have been sold to date. However, although the books have been wildly successful, no one as yet has been able to explain their popularity.
The Harry Potter books, in case you too have lived on the Planet Zeno since 1997 or have recently come out of a coma, recount the adventures of an English schoolboy as he advances from grade to grade at Hogwarts School. Hogwarts is no ordinary boarding school, however, and Harry Potter is no typical student -the former is a school for witchcraft and wizardry, and Harry is not only a wizard-in-training, but the target of attack by the worst of evil wizards, Lord Voldemort, and his followers, the Death Eaters. Each book ends with a life-or-death battle against Voldemort or his servants and enough plot twists to make you dream of saltwater taffy.
I am convinced that the fundamental reason for the astonishing popularity of the Harry Potter novels is their ability to meet a spiritual longing for some experience of the truths of life, love, and death taught by Christianity but denied by a secular culture. Human beings are designed for Christ, whether they know it or not. That the Harry Potter stories "sing along" with the Great Story of Christ is a significant key to understanding their compelling richness. I take hits from both sides for daring to make such a declaration-from Potter fans who are shocked by the suggestion that they have been reading "Christian" books and from Potter foes who are shocked by the thought that there could be anything "Christian" about books with witches and wizards in them.
As the magical setting of the books has caused the most controversy, I'll start with the setting and several formulas Rowling observes in every book.
Some Christians object to Harry Potter because Christian Scripture in many places explicitly forbids occult practice. Though reading about occult practice is not forbidden, these Christians prudently prefer (again in obedience to scriptural admonishments to parents) to protect their children because of the books' sympathetic portrayal of occult practice. These Christians believe that such approving and casual exposure to the occult opens the door to occult practice.
Other Christians, whether Harry fans or sideline observers of the controversy, point out the books are "only stories" and that many stories beloved by Christians (usually the Narnia or Lord of the Rings books are invoked as examples) have portrayed witches and wizards in a positive light.
These two groups square off with compare-and-contrast sessions about Frodo, Aslan, and Harry-arguments as much about taste and prejudice as about substance. Both responses miss the mark, I think. With a clear lack of charity, both camps have made Harry Potter into something of a litmus test-of fidelity to principle on the one hand and of human intelligence on the other.
Given this impasse, I think it pays to note three observations:
1. Occult practices are universally denounced by major world religions. Every major religion-Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (not to mention animism)-prohibits invocational sorcery and individual (or unguided) exploration of the spirit world. Why? Calling down occult forces and demons is dangerous, and the world's traditions protect their own by condemning it. Invocational magic and sorcery never work according to human plans (the dark forces always have a different agenda for the sorcerer and his community). Being concerned about the occult is not a silly, parochial Christian concern restricted to "ignorant fundamentalists"; it is a prudent human concern evident in the faiths of the whole world.
2. Scripture itself contains material about occult practices. The Bible nowhere forbids reading material with occult elements in it. As there are witches, soothsayers, and possessed prophetesses in the Bible (almost all negatively portrayed), it would be more than odd if Holy Writ spoke against itself. If anything, the New Testament slams those who charge the righteous with sorcery (see Matthew 12:24-28 and Mark 9:38-40). I know devout Christians who hate Harry as well as many who love him; both groups read their Bible daily and enjoy fantasy stories with occult elements and magic in them-stories as diverse as Shakespeare's The Tempest, L. Frank Baum's Oz stories, Lewis's Narnia and Ransom novels, and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.
3. Whether or not to read Harry Potter from the logical, human view, then, is a question of whether reading Harry fosters a curiosity in the occult or in a rewarding spiritual life. Scripture forbids occult practice and tells us to "train a child in the way he should go" (Proverbs 22:6). The much debated question, then, is not whether we are allowed to read these books but whether the depiction of magic in them lays the foundation for future involvement in New Age "spirituality." The issue boils down to this: Does Harry foster an interest in the real world occult or doesn't he?
Despite initially having forbidden my children from reading the Rowling books, reading them myself has convinced me that the magic in Harry Potter is no more likely to encourage real-life witchcraft than time travel in science fiction novels encourages readers to seek passage to previous centuries. Loving families have much to celebrate in these stories and little, if anything, to fear.
I say this without hesitation because the magic in Harry Potter is not "sorcery" or invocational magic. In keeping with a long tradition of English fantasy, the magic practiced in the Potter books, by hero and villain alike, is incantational magic, a magic that shows-in story form-our human thirst for a reality beyond the physical world around us.
The difference between invocational and incantational magic isn't something we all learned in the womb, so let me explain. Invocational means literally "to call in." Magic of this sort is usually referred to as sorcery. Scripture warns that "calling in" demonic principalities and powers for personal power and advantage is dangerously stupid. History books, revealed tradition, and fantasy fiction (think Dr. Faustus) that touch on sorcery do so in order to show us that the unbridled pursuit of power and advantage via black magic promises a tragic end. But there is no invocational sorcery in the Harry Potter books. Even the most evil wizards do their nasty magic with spells; not one character in any of the five books ever calls in evil spirits. Not once.
The magic by spells and wands in Harry Potter is known as incantational wizardry. Incantational means literally "to sing along with" or "to harmonize." To understand how this works, we have to step outside our culture's materialist creed (that everything in existence is quantitative mass or energy) and look at the world upside down, which is to say, God-first.
Christianity-and all revealed traditions-believes creation comes into being by God's creative Word, or his song. As creatures made in the image of God, we can harmonize with God's Word and his will, and in doing so, experience the power of God. The magic and miracles we read about in great literature are merely reflections of God's work in our life. To risk overstating my case, the magic in Harry Potter and other good fantasy fiction harmonizes with the miracles of the saints.
C. S. Lewis paints a picture of the differences between incantational and invocational magic in Prince Caspian. As you may recall, Prince Caspian and the Aslan-revering creatures of the forest are under attack from Caspian's uncle. Things turn bad for the white hats, and it seems as if they will be overrun and slaughtered at any moment. Two characters on the good guys' side decide their only hope is magic.
Prince Caspian decides on musical magic. He has a horn that Aslan, the Christlike lion of these books, had given to Queen Susan in ages past to blow in time of need. Caspian blows on this divinely provided instrument in his crisis. By sounding a note in obedience and faith, Caspian harmonizes with the underlying fabric and rules of the Emperor over the Sea, and help promptly and providentially arrives.
Nikabrik the dwarf, in contrast, decides a little sorcery is in order. He finds a hag capable of summoning the dreaded White Witch in the hope that this power-hungry, Aslan-hating witch will help the good guys (in exchange for an opening into Narnia). Needless to say, the musical magicians are scandalized by the dwarf's actions and put an end to the sorcery lickety-split.
In the Narnia stories and other great fantasy fiction, good magic is incantational, and bad magic, which is contrary to Scripture, is invocational. Incantational magic is about harmonizing with God's Word by imitation. Invocational magic is about calling in evil spirits for power or advantage-always a tragic mistake. The magic in Harry Potter is exclusively incantational magic in conformity with both literary tradition and scriptural admonition. Concern that the books might "lay the foundation" for occult practice is misplaced, however well intentioned and understandable, because it fails to recognize that Potter magic is not demonic.
Perhaps you are wondering, If Harry Potter magic is a magic in harmony with the Great Story, why are the bad guys able to use it? Great question.
Just as even the evil people in "real" life are certainly created in God's image, so all the witches and wizards in Potterdom, good and bad, are able to use incantational magic. Evil magical folk choose of their own free will to serve the Dark Lord with their magical faculties just as most of us, sadly, lend a talent or power of our own in unguarded moments to the evil one's cause. As we will see, the organizing structure of the Potter books is a battle between good guys who serve truth, beauty, and virtue and bad guys who lust after power and private gain.
Some fans of Lewis and Tolkien contrast their use of magic with Rowling's, arguing that, unlike the world of Harry Potter, the subcreations of these fantasy writers had no overlap with the real world. They suggest that this blurring of boundaries confuses young minds about what is fiction and what is reality.
But Lewis and Tolkien blurred boundaries with gusto in their stories-as did Homer, Virgil, Dante, and other authors whose works regularly traumatize students in English classes. Certainly the assertion that Middle Earth and Narnia are separate realities is questionable, at best. Middle Earth is earth between the Second and Third Ages (we live in the so-called Fourth Age). Narnia overlaps with our world at the beginning and end of each book, and in The Last Battle is revealed as a likeness with earth of the heavenly archetype, or Aslan's kingdom. Singling out Rowling here betrays a lack of charity, at least, and perhaps a little reasoning chasing prejudgment.
That the magical world exists inside Muggledom (nonmagical people are called "Muggles" by the witches and wizards in Harry Potter), however, besides being consistent with the best traditions in epic myth and fantasy, parallels the life of Christians in the world. I don't want to belabor this point, but C. S. Lewis described the life of Christians as a life spent "in an enemy occupied country." What he meant is that traditional Christians understand that man is fallen, that he no longer enjoys the ability to walk and talk with God in the Garden, and that the world is driven by God-opposing powers. Lewis's Ransom novels illustrate this idea.
Christians believe that their resistance to the occupying powers and their loving service to God qualify them as a peculiar people who are "in the world" but not "of the world" (John 17:13-16). Though the church has left the catacombs (except in some Muslim and totalitarian countries in which Christians still worship in secret and at risk of their lives), Christians true to their revelation and tradition understand that they serve a different Lord than the lord of the world.
The magical and secret world inside Muggledom is not cause for concern so much as it is a parallel to celebrate. I am not offering the magical world as an allegory (shudder) for the church; Rowling satirizes every institution-media, government, courts, schools, hospitals, families-and most human foibles in her subcreation. But I do think that her secret world within our world coincides with rather than contradicts the worldview of Christians.
Which brings me full circle. I started by saying that understanding incantational magic requires turning the modern worldview on its head, putting God first rather than last. I hope you see that the magic by spells and wands requires that we understand our world as a created world dependent for its existence on God's creative Word.
We live in a time in which naturalism, the belief that all existence is matter and energy, is the state religion and belief in supernatural or contra-natural powers is considered delusion. The incantational magic in Harry Potter, because it requires harmonizing with a greater magic, undermines faith in this godless worldview. And by undermining the materialist view of our times, it can even be said that the books lay the foundation not for occult practices but for a traditional understanding of the spiritual life.
The magic in Harry Potter is consistent with and even fosters a worldview affirming spiritual realities because
it is incantational rather than forbidden invocational magic;
it illustrates the right and wrong uses of power and talents;
its world inside Muggledom parallels the Christian worldview;
it reinforces the Christian view of the world as a creation rather than a natural accident devoid of meaning.
Have you heard stories of children being sucked into witches' covens because they want to be like Harry? Reports of rising membership in occult groups since these books were published inevitably turn out to be generated by proselytizing members of these groups. People who track the occult for a living explain that, despite Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter, membership in these groups in Europe and the United States are minuscule and are in decline despite a decade of Harry, Buffy, and occult milieu entertainment.
Excerpted from Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger Copyright © 2004 by John Granger. Excerpted by permission.
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