A few years ago, I was able to read the first Harry Potter novel with a completely open mind. I had no idea what it was about, and as the cover just had a black and white photo of a steam train, there were no external clues. I was given it for Christmas one year. So I started reading it, and I enjoyed it, hooked by the mystery of the first chapter and the strange events surrounding Harry’s eleventh birthday. When the revelation came that young Harry is a wizard, my eyes glided over the W-word with barely a flicker, bar the thought that hang on, surely Diana Wynne Jones had already done this stuff years ago?
It was by no means perfect, mind you. It had a noticeable ‘the end justifies the means’ flavour – Harry is allowed to lie and deceive, if it furthers the plot and advances the cause of the good guys, and in the closing chapters Dumbledore uses sheer favouritism to twist the rules and give his favourite house more points than anyone else. It’s annoying, but it’s just bad storytelling – not something anyone goes to hell for. By and large, I thought it a good kids’ novel, with characters that young readers can identify with, and whose triumphs those readers can vicariously share in. And it taught that good lies in helping others; bad lies in serving yourself; fighting bad takes courage and strength; and you have to fight it, because if you won’t, how do you know anyone else will?
Then Harry became famous, and evangelical Christians started embarrassing everyone by burning copies publicly, and ranting about occultism and witchcraft and all that’s unwholesome. I read exactly the same Bible as the Potter-burners, so why aren’t I out there with the best of them, chucking my copies on the bonfire and quoting Exodus 22:18 – “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” (KJV. The NIV has “Do not allow a sorceress to live”, but sometimes you really have to go with that old-time language to get the full flavour.). I mean, my spiritual antennae aren’t entirely atrophied. I found the movie The Craft to be a hideous, obscene, blasphemous mess that I couldn’t recommend to anyone, and while I enjoyed Buffy no end, bits of it still made me distinctly uncomfortable.
Why was that? Because, make no mistake, the Bible is vehement in its condemnation of such things. From Leviticus 19:26 onwards (“Do not practice divination or sorcery” – NIV), it is quite outspoken on the subject. The nicest thing you will find in its pages on the subject is where Joseph (possibly) makes a joke about divination (Genesis 44:5): given the context, he probably wasn’t being too serious. Otherwise, the Bible is resolute.
So yes, you can build a pretty good case against Harry, on paper. And there is the rub. It’s on paper. Any theory, whether based upon scripture or conjecture or perception, should be checked against fact. That’s science, and in the best spirit of 1 Thessalonians 5:21: “Test everything. Hold onto the good” (NIV). Paul didn’t want his readers blindly following everything he said – he knew whatever he wrote would stand up to any kind of scrutiny. So, let’s scrutinise.
Well, you could start by asking if what the Bible calls a witch is what we would call a witch today. Wicca, whose practitioners are called witches, didn’t exist until the twentieth century (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca): therefore, the Biblical proscription cannot have been referring to it. What was the Bible referring to? Take a look at Deuteronomy 18:9-11.
“When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead.”
The witchcraft of the Bible was part of a much bigger caboodle, infinitely more unpleasant than anything a present day occultist is likely to come up with.
Of course, I’m playing with words here. Whatever the Bible means in its choice of words, the take-home message can only be that it firmly condemns any kind of occultism.
So, is Harry occult?
So the test has to be: is he? Or is he something that just happens to be described with the W-word? Because, just calling something a witch or wizard doesn’t make it so. I could call my car “witchcraft”. I could then say that I journey to work each day by witchcraft. It would not be occult to do so. It would be childish and immature and not really very funny, but it would not be occult.
I repeat the question: is Harry Potter occult?
Yes! cry the Potterpyros. It is. And they cite … well, just about anything they can come up with, frankly.
For instance, I was once told by someone at church, with a completely straight face, that J.K. Rowling is a witch. His source was an ex-witch he had heard speak at a Christian conference. She said Rowling shows knowledge of certain deep secrets that are only made known to the inner circle. QED.
Let’s examine that contention. Was this ex-witch also a member of the inner circle? There are two possible answers – yes, or no.
If no, then how does she know what these secrets are?
If yes, are she (and apparently Rowling) really the only two ex-witches ever to come over to the side of light? Or could it be these so-called secrets are about as mysterious as the inner workings of the Masons, which in theory should only be revealed to outsiders on pain of death, but which in practice you will find on innumerable web sites?
In fact, I can and will make this confident assertion. There is not a single “fact” of witchcraft in Harry Potter that either Rowling did not make up out of her own head, or which you can’t find in any good public library.
There is precedent here. In 1944, the magazine Astounding Science Fiction published a story called “Deadline” by Cleve Cartmill. The story was almost prescient in its description of the atomic bomb programme – which at the time was America’s most closely-guarded secret – and editor John Campbell was interviewed by some very suspicious FBI agents, trying to find the leak. (See http://www.asimovs.com/_issue_0310/ref.shtml)
There was no leak. Cartmill and Campbell had taken the basic facts of nuclear physics that were already publicly available, done a few common sense extrapolations, made up a few extra items off the top of their heads (Campbell was a physics graduate), and mixed it all into a plausible-sounding story. They had had no idea that their own government was working along the same lines. It’s what authors do – take what isn’t real, present it as if it is. We trust the intelligence of our readers to work out what is real and what isn’t.
Sadly, the trust is not always rewarded.
Arguments against Potter
So far, in my opinion, Harry passes the test. You read the Bible, which condemns occultism. You hold the books up to its light and judge for yourself: are they occult? And the answer to me is a resounding ‘no’.
Not to everyone, though. The video Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged is fairly typical of the anti-Harry arguments I have heard, and I’ll summarise them here. Apologies if anyone feels misrepresented. You can buy a copy of the video at http://www.therealpotter.com/ – the page also has links to further anti-Harry items.
|Children want to copy Harry.||Well of course they do. Children want to be James Bond too. Most manage successfully not to become an alcoholic fornicating misogynist murderer.|
|The difference between Harry Potter and “acceptable” fantasy literature with witches and wizards (Tolkien, CS Lewis) is that Potter readers actually learn how to access these dark powers.||No, they do not. Potter spells consist of mangled Latin incantations and – I cannot stress this enough – MADE-UP bits.|
|The witchcraft of Harry Potter is presented realistically.||Again, no it isn’t. If they have wands and flying broomsticks, it’s simply in line with the usual fairytale depiction of the same. Dumbledore dresses like a pantomime wizard. Or Merlin in the Disney version of The Sword in the Stone. You want real witches – well, the website mentioned above includes a video of modern witches at play (sorry, I mean no doubt conducting a serious and meaningful ritual). You won’t get anyone in Harry Potter dressing like that. The first film even managed to get itself cursed by a White Witch (hah!) because of its inaccurate depiction of broomstick flight (see here: apparently, real witches do it bristles-forward.) From the runaway success of the film we can deduce the curse wasn’t entirely successful.|
|Harry is taught to use occult powers for his own gain.||No, Harry gets into several different kinds of trouble if he tries any such thing, even in self-defence, up to and including the threat of expulsion from Hogwarts. Harry has to learn self-control and humility – often kicking and screaming, but who hasn’t? The lesson of Harry Potter is that if you are given especial gifts and abilities then it is up to you to use them responsibly, to help others.|
|Harry’s life only improves when he becomes a wizard, thus presenting the occult life in a positive way.||Well, yes, Harry’s life only improves when he becomes a wizard, but that’s only a spin-off of the real change. Harry’s life changes because he is removed from an abusive environment and introduced to friends who give him respect and self-esteem.|
After this, it gets increasingly circumstantial. I should add that as far as I know, the following only comes from the above-mentioned video – I’ve not heard anyone else repeat them and I don’t know if other anti-Harrys agree, or if they find this as embarrassing as I do.
|Harry wears a pointy hat: the traditional headgear of the witch world is based on some kind of phallic lore.||??? Harry wears a pointy hat because everyone knows witches and wizards wear pointy hats. I’d be more worried if he didn’t, and copied the headdress of a high priest of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Or something.|
|Harry’s own name condemns him! The logic is roughly Potter –> maker of pots –> earthenware vessels –> cups and bowls used in unspeakable pagan rites.||Frankly, this just shows that if you want to find a conspiracy, you will. My interpretation is that Harry got his name because it’s about as ordinary a name as you can get.|
|Harry is protected by his mother’s love, which by a fairly convoluted route comes to be equated with goddess worship.||In the logic of a fairytale, it’s quite reasonable that a mother’s love should have especial power. Tell me your mother’s love doesn’t have a special meaning to you. Go on. Dare you.|
|Harry’s lightning-shaped scar is occult in significance — the same thing that led to the SS choosing it as their badge.||They brought Hitler into this? You really don’t want to know what Ben says.|
I’ll close this bit with two thoughts of my own.
- If an argument has to resort to this kind of barrel-scraping, it’s lost. Human courts base what is true and what isn’t on who has the cleverer argument, but the truths of the Bible simply are, painted in broad swathes and there for all to see. If you have to descend to legal nitpicking to make your point, you’ve probably missed it.
- The Ninth Commandment applies just as much to nobly-minded Christians trying to save a generation from the fires of hell, as it does to everyone else.
So is Harry Potter harmful?
Potentially, yes – but not for the reasons you’re probably thinking. Keep reading.
I was pleasantly surprised to find my conclusions on this subject shared in a review of the film Dungeons & Dragons on the Christian Spotlight at the Movies website (http://christiananswers.net/spotlight/movies/2000/dungeonsanddragons.html).
“The biggest concern about the movie from a Christian perspective is the presence of sorcery. Both good and evil characters cast spells. If you can accept the fact that this is purely fantasy, that it’s set in a make-believe world, and is not trying to make a statement about spiritual truths in the real world, then the magical elements shouldn’t be a problem. It has no more connection to real occultism than Homer’s Odyssey, or for that matter, Stephen Lawhead’s novels or many fairy tales. However, if magical elements of any kind make you feel uncomfortable, then you shouldn’t touch this movie with a ten foot pole. In fact, you’re not the sort of person who would enjoy this kind of movie anyway, so you may as well stop reading now.”
This advice is an exemplary working out of Paul’s advice to the Corinthians. Their problem was: should we eat meat from the market, that has probably been sacrificed to pagan idols? He replied:
“Everything is permissible”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible”–but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others. Eat anything sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it.”
If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake – the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God – even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
(1 Corinthians 10:23-33 – NIV)
Sure, Paul said to the Corinthians, eat what you like – it’s all part of the world God made. BUT if there are people of tender conscience around you, who will be hurt or offended or possibly misled by what you do, then don’t. It’s more important that other people aren’t hurt than that you get to eat what you like.
A more contemporary worry might be alcohol. Nothing wrong with drinking it – Jesus himself did, and even provided it on one occasion – but in the company of an alcoholic for whom it’s a real issue, you obviously stick to soft drinks. You don’t flaunt what you’re free to do at the expense of other people.
There are people who have been hurt by the occult. There are people who may be more susceptible than others to such influences. And these are people for whom Harry Potter may indeed be harmful. Christians who can read Harry Potter with a clear conscience are free to do so. We shouldn’t rub it into the faces of people who can’t. At the same time, the anti-Harry brigade don’t have the right to condemn it out of hand for all people. The Ninth Commandment again …
And finally …
Christians should get their facts right, and not just because they might otherwise commit slander that they will one day be expected – and be unable – to justify in front of a better judge than me.
Let’s assume that I’m an open-minded non-Christian, quite willing to listen to what you have to say to me about Jesus. I know nothing about him myself, but I know a great deal about Harry.
You then come to me and recite the anti-Harry arguments that I mentioned above: Rowling is a witch, it’s all an occult how-to manual full of dark symbolism and goddess worship and … yadda yadda yadda. In short, you convince me that you may be a very nice bloke, but you’re clearly capable of believing any old rubbish if it’s told to you by another Christian.
Why, then, should I believe a word you have to say about Jesus?
Copyright © Ben Jeapes 2005. Not to be reproduced without permission, but feel free to link to it.