Friday, July 15, 2011

Harry Potter and the Devil

Some Christians have argued that children should not read the Harry Potter novels because these books are all about magic, and the practice of magic is strictly prohibited by the Scriptures.  However, an examination of the nature of magic in the ancient world and the nature of magic in fairy tales reveals that the magic in Harry Potter is fundamentally different from the magic which the Bible condemns. Furthermore, the paranoia over the Harry Potter novels reveals a dangerous misunderstanding concerning the nature of demonic activity.

Magic in the Bible

Magic was extremely prevalent in New Testament times, as it provided the promise of safety and security in a cosmos believed to be populated by dangerous spiritual forces. In the first century, “Magic represented a method of manipulating good and evil spirits to bring harm or to lend help.”[1] Thus magical formulas consisted in the invocation of a wide range of spirits, as illustrated in this love potion discovered in Egypt:
I entrust this charm to you, underworld gods, to Pluto, to Kore, Persephoneia, Ereschigal, and to Adonis and to underworld Hermias Thoth and to mighty Anubis, keeper of the keys of the gates of Hades, and to the underworld gods...Raise yourself up for me from the repose that keeps you and go out into every district and every quarter and every house and every shop, and drive, spellbind Matrona…that she may not…be able to go with any other man than Theodorus… or be healthy or find sleep night or day without Theodorus.[1]
Another example of ancient magic is seen in this curse discovered in Rome:
I conjure you up, holy beings and holy names; join in aiding this spell, and bind, enchant, thwart, strike, overturn, conspire against, destroy, kill, break Eucherius the charioteer, and all his horses tomorrow in the circus at Rome. May he not leave the barriers well; may he not be quick in the contest; may he not outstrip anyone; may he not make the turns well; may he not win any prizes…may he be broken; may he be dragged along by your power, in the morning and afternoon races. Now! Now! Quickly! Quickly![1]
Naturally, the powers afforded by sorcery were greatly coveted and greatly feared, but then into this world of magic came the message of the gospel: Jesus has been given dominion over all other powers, and nothing in heaven or hell can separate us from his love. Christians were commanded to destroy their magical devices and cling only to Christ.

Magic in Fairly Tales

In fairy tales, magic is not “a method of manipulating good and evil spirits to bring harm or to lend help.” In fact, fairy tale magic is not supernatural at all; it is simply a construct of the fantasy world. We often speak of fairy tales as containing supernatural elements, such a dragons, wizards, and spells, but this is not correct. In the world of the fairy tale, these magical elements are no more supernatural than horses, doctors, and mathematics. When Frodo puts on the magic ring, he disappears, but not because of any miraculous intervention by the spirit world into the natural order. Frodo disappears because, in Middle Earth, that is just the way things work.

In “The Ethics of Elfland,” G.K. Chesterton argues that the magic of the fairytale world is the magic we experience daily in the real world:
When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairygodmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic….The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.[2]
We enjoy fairy tales, not because they are so strange, but because they are so familiar. Fairy tales open our eyes to the magic that exists all around us. In reading a fairy tale, we experience once again the wonder we felt as children when we encountered our own world for the first time.

Magic in Harry Potter

Clearly, the magic in Harry Potter is the magic of the fairy tale world and not the magic condemned in the Bible. Contact with demons plays no part whatsoever in the magic performed by Harry Potter and his friends.

Some argue that while the magic of Harry Potter is fantasy magic, J.K. Rowling incorporated elements from, for example, “real” spells and curses. Clearly, Rowling drew on a wide range of popular mythology (werewolves, vampires, giants, elves, dragons, centaurs, flying carpets, moving staircases, alchemy, astrology, love potions, transfiguration, and much, much more), but the fact that some of this mythology may have ties to the magic condemned by the Bible does not mean that this magic has anything to do with her fantasy world.

For example, the men of Numenor had palantiri because J. R. R. Tolkien knew that fortune tellers in our world use crystal balls. The magician Coriakin had a book of magical incantations because C. S. Lewis knew that magicians in our world use spell books. By drawing on such mythology, Tolkien and Lewis impart a certain element of richness and believability to their fantasy worlds, but this does not mean that they are endorsing the type of magic condemned in the Bible. Crystal balls may be used in our world to channel the spirit world, but in Middle Earth palantiri have nothing to do with spirits. Magical incantations may be used in our world to invoke demons, but in Narnia the magician’s book had nothing to do with demonic activity.

As bizarre as it sounds, I have a theory that among all of the fairy tales Harry Potter has been singled out because of a peculiar sexism. For some reason, the word “witch” has come to carry a strong negative connotation that the word “wizard” does not carry. I have no idea why this is, but I suspect that Harry Potter would never have come under fire if “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” had been simply “Hogwarts School of Wizardry.”


I have heard Christians say things like this: “I don’t read Harry Potter because I believe that Satan is real and I don’t think that we should mess around with witchcraft and that sort of stuff.” Then, these same Christians will go and watch a television show like 24, for example. I believe that this reveals a dangerous misunderstanding about the nature of demonic activity.

I have often heard Christians make statements like this: “Spiritual warfare is much more prevalent in third-world countries than it is here in America.” Really? The devil is more active in Nairobi than he is in LA? I highly doubt it.

Unfortunately many Christians have come to associate “real” demonic activity with the uncanny. To them, demonic activity is seen in voodoo dolls and Ouija boards, not in television shows and billboards outside of their shopping malls. Despite the Christian themes and high morals that permeate the series, they refuse to watch Harry Potter because the characters casts spells, but day after day, they sit down for an hour and let Jack Bauer teach them that torture is entertainment and Matthew 5:44 is absurd. The devil is at work.

[1] Dr. Clinton E. Arnold and Dr. Michael J. Wilkins, course lecture notes for The World of the New Testament (Spring 2011), Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA.
[2] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.


Sarah Jackson said...

Thanks for this, Murray. The danger in slapping an "evil-and-should-be-boycotted" label on literature that depicts literary magic is that, aside from missing out some wonderfully Christian stories, we're often so preoccupied with fighting said "evil" that we're oblivious to Satan's subtle work in our lives through other forms of media (raunchy tv, video games, websites, magazines etc). Which is exactly what the Angel of Light intends, I think.

Anonymous said...

I have not read Harry Potter, so I just read a short summary of each of the books. It reminds me of Native American religion--which is something Satan is using to keep people in fear and bondage. Nothing in all the summaries seems uplifting to me. It seems dark and depressing. The idea of Harry Potter, who has taken part in everything that is dark, giving his life for his friends and rising again uncomfortably parallels the truth of Jesus Christ. I work with children. They grow up loving Harry Potter and they hear Jesus Christ only as a curseword. If they ever do hear the true story of Christ--how do you think they will process it?
I agree that Satan is alive and well in our nation--viciously so. But don't think that he does not work through darkness and superstitious fears in other countries and even increasingly in our own. (I would challenge those who love Harry Potter to have some serious discussions with missionaries who have worked with primitive tribes--and ask for their take on the books.) Such dark practices seem to be enumerated in these stories, but are often presented in a positive light. I don't think being vigilant against Satan's deceptions is an either/or proposition. We can acknowledge that he does work in ways that are listed in Harry Potter--and we can also fully acknowledge that he works through mind-numbing and spirit-dulling addiction to entertainment here in our country. He is a multi-faceted enemy--and extremely subtle and entertaining.

jamie wenner said...

I have just stumbled on your blog and I am enjoying reading many of your entries. This one struck me because I was just discussing the other day with my 7yr old daughter the difference between the magic God condemns and the magic in fairie tales. Thank you for the post.