Monday, May 31, 2010

Magic in Harry Potter versus Magic in Lewis and Tolkien

One of the arguments for Christians accepting the Harry Potter (HP) books as fine for Christian children to read is that, even though there is an emphasis on magic and witchcraft, which are condemned by Scripture, are not magic and witchcraft to be found in stories everyone accepts as good, namely, The Chronicles of Narnia? This is a powerful argument on the surface and anyone who wishes to rule out Harry Potter as good, children's literature must come to grips with it.

Throwing out
The Chronicles of Narnia (CN) and The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) would be absurd for many good reasons. But if we are to criticize the one and praise the other, we must be able to specify the difference between magic in Rowling's work versus magic in the work of Lewis and Tolkien.

Fortunately, Michael O'Brien is up for the task. He argues that magic in the HP books is very different from magic and witchcraft in Lewis and Tolkien. Let me summarize his argument briefly with some thoughts of my own thrown in. (For those who wish to get their O'Brien pure and unfiltered, see his essay: "The War for Our Children's Souls" in
Remembrance of the Future: Reflections on Our Times (Justin Press, 2009), which is a collection of his essays and shorter writings over the past 30 years or so.)

1. HP and the Occult:

He points out first that, unlike the CN or the LOTR, the HP books have sparked an interest among children in the occult and psychic phenomena. Citing research from the Barna Group in 2001, he shows that children who read HP are more likely to show an interest in occult and psychic phenomena such as seances, casting spells, mixing potions, fortune telling etc.

This is the weakest of O'Brien's points simply because interest in magic and witchcraft is higher today than two generations ago and HP may simply reflect the age, rather than being a cause. Still, it would make sense that HP is part of the "mainstreaming" of the occult much like Playboy was the mainstream of porn. So, while the exact relationship of cause and effect is hazy, the HP books are part of the growth of neo-paganism in our culture.

2. Magic and Witchcraft are Always Evil in Lewis and Tolkien:

The second point refers to the upsetting of the Christian symbolic universe in HP by making magic and witchcraft neutral in themselves and arguing that they can be used for either good or evil. In the Narnia books the White Witch is a traditionally evil figure and Aslan's powers are supernatural, but Divine in origin. Aslan aids the humans in the war against evil, but the humans do not wield "white magic." In fact, the fact that the witch is a "White Witch" may be symbolically very significant.

In LOTR, Gandalf is called a wizzard by others, but he is clearly stated to be one of the Istari, an order of beings between the angels and men. Basically, he is one of a lower class of angels. He is like a Guardian Angel and a guide to morality. His function is to elicit faith and goodness from elves, hobbits and men. He uses his powers sparingly and not to replace the moral effort of mortals.

Magic in Lewis and Tolkien always corrupts mortals when they try to wield it and the supreme example of this is the One Ring, which Boromir and his father wish to use against the Dark Lord, but which only corrupts any who try to use it. The only solution is to destroy it. Frodo's adventures in using it always turn out badly and he never really recovers from his wound on Weathertop when he put the ring on and was stabbed by the Witch-King of Angmar.

3. The Cosmos is Ultimately Impersonal and Ammoral in HP:

What I mean by this is that the universe of HP is basically a materialist one with no God and no Devil. Magic in HP is similar to technology in our world; it is a power wielded by a scientifically trained elite that taps into "natural" forces which seem "magical" to the uninitiated. There is a force or power in the universe that humans can access, according to HP, and it can be used for good or evil. The universe is ultimately impersonal.

Contrast this to the Christian metaphysics in which the universe is ultimately personal because God the Creator is personal. Good and evil derive from God and the Devil and so supernatural powers can never be neutral because they ultimately derive from either God or the Devil. Thus miracles done by Divine power working through human instruments are good while magic, which is a seizing of power illegitimately, is a gift of the Devil who works in fallen creatures to use them and ultimately to possess them. Therefore, the prohibition of magic and witchcraft in Scripture is ultimately rooted in the personal and moral nature of the cosmos. It is instructive that disaster befalls Narnia when a person in London dabbling in the occult causes a door to open between the worlds. In the Providence of God, Aslan uses the Pevensee children to repair the evil that results from the use of magic by mortals.

The difference between the HP books and the Lewis/Tolkien books is that the latter are written within a Christian worldview and are meant to nourish that worldview imaginatively and hopefully in their readers. The HP books, by contrast, only challenge the worldview of modernity on the surface. In actuality, they reflect the materialistic worldview of modernity in which humans may safely grasp impersonal forces to use to impress their will on nature and other human beings. Ultimately this is because the HP books reflect a world without God.


Diane said...

I like this perspective. It helps clarify some of my concerns about Harry Potter.

Chaltab said...

Suggesting that Harry Potter leads children into the occult is as absurd as suggesting that GI Joe is bad for leading kids into military service. Perhaps it has happened, but it's hardly JK Rowling's fault that some kids are ignorant enough to think they can really perform magic.

You're failing to account for a basic and fundamental fact: the 'magic' depicted in Harry Potter is not *real*. It's purely fictional. It's a metaphor for human actions, which may be good or evil or neutral. Moreover, the seven occult practices forbidden by Scripture are either not mentioned (such as magical knot tying), considered evil within the Harry Potter world (charming snakes or casting harmful spells), or (as in the case of divination), ineffectual and the purview of frauds.

Craig Carter said...

You seem passionate about defending the books. I assume you get no share of the royalties and are moved by a noble love of great [in your opinion] literature. In that case, you would better spend that energy defending books of greater literary merit.

First, as to whether HP leads children into the occult, take up your complaints with the Barna Group. I didn't do the research.

Second, I never blamed Rowlings. It isn't about whose "fault" it is; it is about the quality of the books from a Christian perspective. Still, I suppose I can't blame you for arguing against an easier target than what I actually wrote.

Thirdly, you are factually incorrect about how "real" the magic is in HP. Many of the names mentioned are actually major occult figures of the past and many of the rituals come right out of occult literature. Rowlings did her homework. You might want to do some looking up too.

Fourthly, I find it interesting that your final sentence apparently incorporates a defense of "white" magic: casting only "harmful spells" is prohibited by Scripture? (raised eyebrow).

Chaltab said...

I enjoy the books, yes. I wouldn't call them great literature, but they are very enjoyable reads, and extol many Christian virtues. I think they are, quite frankly, far more pertinent to the modern Church than to any secular or non-Christian audience.

What I object to is the way that religious fanatics have taken a charming tale that is essentially about the value of sacrificial love and the evils of prejudice and transformed it through an intentional and blatant misreading into some kind of occult instruction manual.

Point One:
The Barna Group, though surely well-intentioned, is essentially a fundamentalist propaganda machine and not immune to publishing skewed statistics and misleading conclusions. Moreover, if Wicca is gaining adherents and Christianity is loosing them, it seems far more likely to me that this is because of the increasing fanaticism and fundamentalism of the church. I've never known a Wiccan who was pulled from Christianity into another faith because of fictional media, while I've known plenty of Christians who have turned away from their Church's teachings because of the growing entanglement of religion with bigotry and ignorance--two thinks Jesus Himself excoriated.

If by 'many' names taken from real occult figures, you're referring to things such as the use of Nicholas Flamel, you're making a mountain out of a molehill. Flamel was posthumously reputed to have developed a philosopher's stone, but there is no real evidence of this, and even if he was an alchemist, Rowling's use of him is flavorful detail that you'd be hard pressed to contort into some sort of endorsement of attempting real-world alchemy. And despite your claim, I challenge you to find a single 'real' occult practice described in the novels. Rowling researched folklore as any good fantasy writer does (and as Tolkien and Lewis did their entire lives) but to portray this as sinister is either misguided or disingenuous.

Last Point:
I don't know what 'white magic' supposedly is, but it hardly seems like spells like Lumos or Expecto Patronum have to do with the eight (I mistakenly wrote seven earlier) occult practices forbidden in Deuteronomy. The first four,as used in the Hebrew, forbid various forms of divination; the fifth forbids enchanting snakes, the sixth forbids magic with knot-tying, the seventh forbids 'spoken spells to harm people' and the eighth forbids 'asking of the dead'. The ancient Israelites used other forms of divination such as scrying and the Urim and Thummim to determine God's will, so you can't really argue that all occult practices were forbidden.

Craig Carter said...

I don't think you have responded to the central point of my post. Instead you have tried to draw me into a debate you seem to be having with other critics. My view is much more nuanced than what you are talking about, yet not unrelated entirely.

The metaphysical basis of the HP books is materialistic. There is no God and no Devil; only impersonal forces which can be tapped for good or evil by certain humans. [This is why I find your eagerness to argue that some occult practices may not be forbidden by Scripture so interesting.] This theme is part of the revival of Gnosticism is the late modern West [cf. Star Wars and a lot of the New Age movement], but the Church has faced this sort of thing before. Since there is no ultimately personal God (or Devil) the onus is on the individual (the autonomous self of modernity) to choose the use the powers (in the book, magic; in real life, technology) for good. But how is good defined? Rowlings offers late modern, liberal platitudes like tolerance etc. but there is no objective standard, no revelation, no actual metaphysical good or evil.

So the message of the book is essentially gnostic and it teaches us that we are little gods in the sense that we make morality by our choices. Good and evil are not defined for us by God; they are the results of our choices.

Those who accept this worldview may or may not be drawn into actual occult activity; it is likely that only a small number will. But all who accept it will accept the gnostic message of making morality by our choices and by seizing the power available to us (whether literal magic or what magic symbolizes, i.e. technological power).

My main complaint could be summarized as not that the HP books teach belief in the Devil, but rather that they portray a truncated view of reality that is essentially atheistic.

Chaltab said...

Well on some level this is true, in that there is no explicit theology in the Harry Potter universe.

But that's true of the vast majority of novels. I don't understand this complaint, particularly considering that the novels explicitly have Christian themes and the Wizarding World is predominantly Christian, at least culturally. I don't know how much more one can expect. For Rowling to have made some sort of didactic theological argument, she'd alienate readers from other faiths or from non-religous backgrounds, much as Phillip Pullman alienated many from his critique of authoritarian religion by making 'God' a weak and corrupt strawman.

You seem to suggest that proselytizing should have been a goal of the novels when it seems rather obvious from any honest reading that they were mostly intended as entertainment and social commentary. Moreover we can infer that the same theological understandings that exist in the real world exist in the HP world given that it takes place in a simulacrum of the real world, more or less. For Rowling to choose sides would, as I said earlier, be didactic and off-putting to many readers--and would undoubtedly be ceased upon by some groups to undercut the anti-bigotry message.

It's not fair to compare Rowling to Tolkien because he was explicitly setting out to create a mythology for his world; (even then we only see hints of this in Lord of the Ring, and it's entirely absent from The Hobbit.) Nor is it fair to compare Harry Potter to CS Lewis' fantasy work because his novels are largely allegorical, Narnia being a fantastical mirror of the Kingdom of God.

The metaphysical basis of Harry Potter is largely left up to the reader, and that was very likely an intentional decision. Rowling's message is very clearly aimed at this world, not the hereafter.

Craig Carter said...

You wrote:

"The metaphysical basis of Harry Potter is largely left up to the reader, and that was very likely an intentional decision."

You have made my point for me very precisely. To "leave the metaphysical basis up to the reader" is not to assume a neutral stance, but to take a up a relativistic one. And relativism is not neutral; it is just as much a metaphysics as Christianity is. In fact it is a rival metaphysics.

As for speculating that she did not take a Christian position because that would be off-putting, I'm afraid that is demonstrably untrue. The Lord of the Rings wins consistently in contests as to the greatest work of fiction of the 20th century and even Hollywood finds that there is money to be made from films of the Narnia books. Most of the greatest works of English literature embody explicitly or implicitly a Christian worldviews. Literature need not be "proselytizing" in order to do this (although why proselytizing for Christianity is bad while proselytizing for environmentalism or anti-racism or other liberal hobby horses is OK is quite puzzling).

Besides, your speculation implies that Rowlings is not a true artist seeking truth, but merely a mercenary seeking sales with no regard for anything more than "giving the public what they want." That may be true, but if so it certainly demeans the HP books to the level of pot broilers and romance novels.

Chaltab said...

Are you seriously trying to win an argument by invoking the bogeyman of relativism? Even if it weren't shallow it would be wrong.

Rowling's work takes very Christian stances on the things Jesus and Paul and the other Apostles taught were the most important--love, faith, mercy, and hope. Rowling herself has spoken of the Christian themes in her work. Just because you have apparently missed them doesn't mean they're not there.

Moreover, being neutral *IS* a form of telling the truth. In this world, we can have only faith that God's nature is what we believe it to be. Christian metaphysics cannot be confirmed by any scientific test, and while there are certainly modes of storytelling where having an explicitly true metaphysic is appropriate, I don't feel that would have been appropriate for Harry Potter. And it obviously wasn't the story Rowling wanted to tell, which makes your criticism a matter of personal preference.

You're also flat out wrong to suggest that Middle Earth is explicitly Christian. Tolkien envisioned the story has taking place thousands of years before Christ, making it even pre-Judaic; and his creation myth had sixteen Valar, sub-creators, who did the work of shaping Eru's world, something that his own Catholic Church would have deemed heresy had someone tried to teach it as doctrine rather than literature. Tolkien maintained that he was creating a mythology that would not offend Christians, which he distinguished from creating a Christian mythology.

And that right there is the core of where you're losing me. If you want a good story, read a good story; if you want Christian doctrine, read Kathleen Morgan.

Or better yet, read the Bible.

Craig Carter said...

Oh, that is very deep: calling relativism shallow and trying to laugh it off. I guess you have no arguments.

I'm afraid you don't understand my point about the existence of God. It is impossible to be agnostic; you either believe or you live as though you don't while claiming not to know, which is the same as unbelief. If you confuse faith with being neutral, I just don't know where to begin with such a tangled up mess.

As for Tolkien, you are mistaken. The events of the 3rd age are placed in our world in the period of Gen. 1-11. The invented history is Tolkien's effort to create a mythology for England on the scale of the Norse epics. He once said that he like history far better than allegory, even made-up history. The point is that Tolkien's invented history or mythology is perfectly consistent with the Bible and the Christian worldview in a way that the Babylonian creation myths or the Hindu sacred writings are not.

As for HP, there are bound to be some Christian virtues in any novel, but I don't see faith anywhere, at least not Christian faith. Unless you have some sort of liberal modernist notion of faith in nothing in particular. There is no God, no natural law, no Tao (to use the term C. S. Lewis uses in The Abolition of Man).

The Catholic Church would not condemn his use of sub-creators. That is possible, though Divine Revelation does not say whether or not God worked through that particular means. Have you read his Letters? Repeatedly he discusses issues of theology and on more than one occasion he made changes in the Silmarillion in order to avoid heresy.

Chaltab said...

Yes, I *am* laughing at your shallow argument. Acknowledging that the universe does not, in fact, have flashing neon signs pointing to unquestionable truth of Christianity is not relativism. If this were the case then there would be no need for faith because we'd have sight.

I'm afraid you don't understand my point about the existence of God. It is impossible to be agnostic; you either believe or you live as though you don't while claiming not to know, which is the same as unbelief.

Careful, if you torture logic any harder you might violate the Geneva convention.

First of all, I don't know who you're supposing is living as they don't believe; certainly not myself. Second, for you to assert that there is nobody who honestly isn't sure where they stand in regards to faith is arrogant and ridiculous. I've been there myself in the past.

I'm aware of Tolkien's intent for Lord of the Rings and you're still vastly missing the mark. Tolkien pointed out in his Letters that the combination of Biblical literalism and art was 'fatal', and even a cursory reading of the Silmarillion shows that it's broadly incompatible with the Genesis creation story. It's certain that Tolkien wanted to avoid doctrinal heresy but that's not the same thing as what you're asserting, conforming the 'facts' of his fantasy world to fit the minutiae of Genesis.

As for faith in the Harry Potter series, we see it prominently in the final book when Harry encounters his parent's grave, Hermione explaining the Bible quote thereon is speaking of life after death. I expect, however, that what you're looking for when you say 'faith' is an affirmation of Providence, and this we do not get explicitly. In my reading I'd say there's a strong subtext of such*, but you've proven rather obtuse about reading between the lines.

*Ask yourself: where, from a story perspective do prophecies originate? What--or who--has dictated that the power of sacrificial love is the most powerful magic in existence? Where, for that matter, does magic originate at all?