04 December 2001

As I noted earlier, we went to the Harry Potter movie with our ten year old nephew a couple of weekends ago. While the film was enjoyable, I have to agree with the many kids I've seen interviewed who said that they liked the book much better. It's great to see kids prefering literature over Hollywood for a change.

My wife and I read all four of the Harry Potter books aloud to one another over the past couple of years and thought they were great. Rowling exercises her literary craft well, following the traditions of Tolkien, Lewis, and other fantasy writers, and combining elements of mystery, coming-of-age story, adventure, quest tale, school narrative, and so on. It's hard not to like and identify with Harry in his various mishaps and adventures.

We want Harry to win out over the forces of darkness, for good to triumph in the face of evil, and we understand Harry's story to be one more variation on the great Story of which we are all part. And that Story is a prominent (even if unintended) motif of the second volume in the series: a young girl held captive in the serpent's spell must be rescued by a hero who wins only through sacrificing himself and who must be raised up again by the father-figure in whom he has placed his love and trust. If that's not the Gospel, I don't know what is.

I know some Christians have problems with Rowling's books, but I really can't see why. The genre is fantasy and most children old enough to read are quite capable of distinguishing between fantasy and reality. The books, thus, really have nothing to do with witchcraft or occult practices. Even within the world that Rowling creates, magic does not function as a spiritual force that can be manipulated to one's own ends, but as a technology or art for which some people have an inborn gift, as in our world some people are born to play the violin. The use of magic does not involve calling upon spirits or tapping into dark powers. And the one area which does verge upon the occult--fore-telling the future--is routinely mocked, not merely as inaccurate, but also as a sham.

Rather, magic in all its manifestations is presented almost as a science which requires care, memorization, practice, historical context, and study. As such Rowling's "magic" comes to symbolize the powerful tools of art, science, and technology that, in our world, can also require study and can be used both for great good and terrible evil.

It is also emphasized in all the books that the most powerful forces in the world are ultimately the forces of virtue, wit, friendship, loyalty, trust, self-sacrifice, and unconditional love. Even in the first book, Harry's ultimate victory does not come from superior magical powers, but through Hermione's good sense, Ron's endangerment of himself for the sake of others, and the traces of his mother's great love for him that Harry continues to carry in his heart. Rowling's moral world is thus one that is clear and correct.

Again, I know some Christians have criticized the ethics of Harry Potter, especially as we see the adult rules being broken time after time by Harry and his friends. But that misses the point. The story is one of growing ethical maturity and a sense of virtue. But virtue is never a matter of simply following the rules.

The dramatic tension arises from Harry's attempts to grapple with what path is the right one to take, Hermione's rule-following morality at his one hand and Ron's rule-transcending loyalty at the other. The virtue of wisdom or prudence must be exercised in order to choose aright in such a situation. Moreover, it is clear, in some cases, that those caring figures of authority at Hogwarts allow such situations to arise precisely to encourage the development of such virtues. And when Harry or his friends choose wrongly, there are serious consequences.

Such a moral universe, I submit, is not permissive and does not encourage disobedience. Rather it is realistic, calling us to live out our deepest values in a world that is morally complex and dangerous. It does not give the simplistic answers suited for the very young, but asks the reader to mature with Harry, exercising wisdom and insight. Of course, such a portrayal of morality may be unacceptable to a certain kind of evangelicalism or fundamentalism that focuses itself upon legalistic rule-making and pat answers.

It is such a Christian outlook, I suppose, that also eschews the Harry Potter phenomenon in an attempt to remain separate from the "world" and to bear witness to our "difference" as Christians. Insofar as that means a refusal to give into marketing and the cult of material acquisition that has grown up around the books, I can concur. But as Christians we also have a duty to recognize God's good gifts where they are present, including the gift of literature, and to receive them with gratitude. "Taste not," "touch not," and "read not" remain doctrines that the real dark powers wish to use among us so that our loving God can be shown to the world as a humorless despot and to breed a sense of spiritual superiority in our own hearts.

A Christian witness, then, is one that takes up even Harry Potter with thanksgiving for the joy the books have brought so many and for Rowling's literary talent. And having taken them up, we share them with one another, evaluating them (and criticizing when necessary), but also seeking ways in which, through them, Christ can be made present to our world.