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January, 2002, Volume 9 Nr. 5, Issue 101


JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN.

Perhaps you have heard of the small, loud cadre of religious activists who are warning against the Harry Potter books, movie and tie-ins. Most thinking folks just blow a raspberry at such nonsense and get on with their lives. A few rubberneck at this cultural car-wreck of cultic curmudgeons. Another few are swayed by the silliness, never reading the books themselves but sure they are evil because another "real Christian" told them so. (Ironically, the same "scholarly" critics who dis and damn J.K. Rowling’s books praise J.R.R. Tolkien’s and C.S. Lewis’s fantasies to the heavens, a subject I will discuss in the next essay, "Low-brow Brit Lit Brouhaha".)

Why bother writing about this latest battle in the culture wars? Admittedly, I am a bit of a rubber-necker myself when it comes to fundamentalist fanaticism; similar to the horrified fascination people show at accident scenes, born of recognition of our fragility and mortality, and curiosity toward those things which remind us of the worst traits of our shared humanity. I also think the Potter Problem is an example that can illuminate issues important to democratic culture and humanist ideals.

To cram the debate into a nutshell: some people, almost exclusively self-identified as evangelical Christians, have a mortal - make that "immortal" fear that the Harry Potter oeuvre promotes and teaches witchcraft, Wicca and Satanism, with attendant evils such as relativism and humanism rounding out the nefarious brew. Others view HP as plain old make-believe, or as teaching good values such as friendship, self-sacrifice and courage. Guess which group is more likely to have actually read the books, or seen the movie? I cannot really stuff the debate into that nutshell or this essay, but for the rubberneckers, a quick Google search of "Harry Potter, Bible" turns up 29,600 links, and "Harry Potter" turns up 1,430,000!

D&D, Goth, rock-and-roll, Harry Potter. The fashions of fundy-fear-mongering may change, but, as those Satan-spawned blues boomers Led Zeppelin remind us, the song remains the same. Whether it is Islamic fundies shrouding women in burqa, the patridiotic Ashcroft-Cheney administration muffling the Constitution with the flag, or neo-fundamentalist Christians burying dissent and critical thought under leaf piles of pages and pages of mostly unread Holy Bibles, the issue is power, the patriarchal power that is anathema to a democratic society.

What I would like to say to the pottermanic religioids is, "Lighten up, try critical thinking for a change, and everything is not all about you. Really." The focus of most of the worry falls into two categories: magic and morals. Harry and other non-muggles have magical powers and use them, tricked out with every western literary cliché from broomsticks to wands to pointy hats. Morality in the books is situational ethics, where characters deal with both small and very large issues. The concerns of the narrow-minded are that children will be lured to witchcraft, divination and Wicca, all of which they see as prohibited in their Bible; and that a lack of moral absolutes in the books are similarly "unbiblical". Let’s take these on one at a time.

Harry Potter Teaches Magic

There is no such thing as magic. Stage magicians are actors and technicians, admitted charlatans who create illusions. They take advantage of our human psychology and perception to delight and entertain us, to frighten and amaze us. If you think I am stating the obvious, consider that no less an intellect than Arthur Conan Doyle was so impressed with Houdini’s skill that he insisted the performer had supernatural powers. A trick as simple as the illusion most children know – "removing" the thumb at the joint by grasping it with the other hand and sliding it off – amazed Conan-Doyle and caused his "psychic" wife to faint. People are rather easy to fool, and that is what makes magic shows so much fun. Only an unethical magician will lie to his fans that he has supernatural abilities; a few stage mentalists and many so-called psychics fall into that dishonorable category. Stage magicians keep their secrets. These are trade secrets, intellectual property, and also traditional professional secrecy about commonly shared illusions. There is nothing nefarious about such secrecy, and with few exceptions these are open secrets, available with a little research. Most illusions are artistic variations on old standbys.

Other meanings given to the word "magic" are those of some neo-pagans. Such ideas as "acting ‘as if’", rituals to awaken internal psychological potential, enhancing placebo, tapping natural immanent divinity, playacting make-believe, psychic ability, a sense of wonder and stewardship for the earth are examples. Some pagans have supernatural beliefs, some do not. There are a wide variety of religious notions among earthy pagans, and experience and intention are more important than belief, since these are non-creedal, evolving, and ultimately individual religions. There is a commonly shared ethics, well expressed in the popular wiccan rede (and ye harm none, do as thou wilt), and threefold law (what you do, for good or ill, will come back to you times three). The equation of neo-pagans and wiccans with worship of Satan (a Judeo-Christo-Islamic concept) is obnoxious ignorance at best. Most paganism seems a sort of environmentalist libertarianism for imaginative bookworms.

Supernaturalism is widely believed and diverse, and includes ghosts, gods and vampires, afterlife and the Aldebaran Space Brothers. (I wrote that last phrase on a lark, combining words from a couple of the silly new age notions I have heard. Then I did a Google search and, yes, there it was!) Since "supernatural" means beyond or outside of the natural world, then by definition it is nonexistent, or imaginary.

When someone warns that "Harry Potter teaches magic", do they really believe someone can say "Oculis repairum", wave a wand and fix your eyeglasses? Do they believe in a giant three-headed dog named Fluffy? Are they expecting children to fly on broomsticks? Well, why not, if they believe mentally ill people are possessed by demons, young earth creationism, and that a minor, perhaps apocryphal, Jewish teacher literally rose from the dead? There are some beautiful ideas in Christianity, which have informed and inspired great art and good actions, and there are some awful ideas therein that have inspired and informed bad actions; this essay is not an attack upon Christianity, not even the silliest of the so-called biblical literalist varieties. So all you folks with persecution complexes, relax; the EAC (Evil Atheist Conspiracy) has your name and address and will be dealing with you in alphabetical order. Yes, we bought the list from Santa Claus.

Of course the notions of biblical prohibitions usually quoted to scare Christians away from HP are from Deuteronomy and are used as dishonestly, as are other selected Bible verses used against gay men. Why do often intelligent people wallow in this particular ignorance? If they really believed that all those lists in Leviticus and Deuteronomy were to be taken seriously today, why do they not protest most modern agriculture and all genetic engineering? Why do they wear fabric blends or eat shellfish? Silly, eh? Any ammunition in a culture war, I guess.

Harry Potter is a Bad Boy

He lies, he breaks school rules, he disrespects his elders! That Harry Potter is a bad kid, and a bad example to our children. Along with his cronies, Ron and Hermione, he misbehaves and disobeys. Children might get ideas, so say the Potter-fearing parents.

This is a sad commentary on the critics’ distrust of and dislike for children, and on their shallow notion of morality, for Harry and his friends are likable, goodnatured, generous and ultimately heroic. To focus on the lowest level of morality – obedience – as the highest virtue is a dangerous idea in religions, as it is in any society. Obedience is not a virtue at all, simply a behavior of following rules as very young children, for safety, which will be supplanted, as they mature, with a social contract. Only fascism, and fascistic religions, can consider blind obedience to authority a virtue. Belief without evidence, called faith, is a higher virtue than either doubt or believing with evidence, in the topsy-turvy of this peculiar morality.

Harry, who has grown up deprived of goods or love, is generous, sharing with Ron as soon as he meets him. He turns down Draco Malfoy’s smarmy offer of alliance, and defends others from Malfoy’s bullying. Most of the rule breaking is in service to a larger moral task, some is just shenanigans, and all of it has consequences.

Harry risks his life for the good of others, as does Ron. In the penultimate crisis of the story (and magnificent in the movie) is the giant game of wizard’s chess. Ron wins the game by sacrificing himself, as the knight, to clear the way for Harry to checkmate the white queen. Ron knows it is the only way to win the game, therefore allowing Harry to proceed to the final task, and Ron knows he will probably die. When someone on the net told me it compared in a small way to the sacrifice of Jesus, I replied that Ron’s act was the greater. "You ask, what did Jesus die for? About two and a half days. We knew he'd be OK. And, he was God, right? And an adult. Ron was a human child. Granted he had that wizard trait, but it did not prevent pain, nor death, and there is no resurrection in the world J.K. Rowling invented."

Harry is Godless

This is the ultimate and underlying complaint about Harry Potter, the thing that bugs the book-burning bible-imbibers the most. Nowhere in the Potter series of books is there any mention of God. A whole world where the big guy is not relevant. (In the movie the character Filch says the g-word twice, both times as exclamations, the conversational way many folks use the f-word.) There is no Jesus, or heaven or hell or sin or Satan). Although there are incidents and abilities in this fictional world that do not correspond to our real world, they share an ultimate mundanity. There is pain and death, change and loss in both. And no other world is assumed, no heaven, no hell, no reincarnation, no afterlife (except a few ineffectual ghosts, and they live in the world, not beyond it.)

When folks in Harry Potter accomplish something, be it Hermione’s academic achievements or Harry’s Quidditch victories or Neville’s brave challenge, they take the credit. They may acknowledge others (mentors, friends, teammates), but there is no god to thank, and pride is not a sin. Nor is there a devil to blame when one does wrong. Humility and pride are human scale.

Good stories, developing characters and terrific wordplay, as well as the self-perpetuating meme of popularity, have made the Harry Potter series phenomenal bestsellers. But, unlike that perennial bestseller, the Holy Bible, Rowling’s books are actually being read, cover to cover. Kids can tell the difference between make-believe and reality. Perhaps the anti-Harry crowd is afraid that these newly engaged readers will read the Bible now, and see it as the fiction it is, a work of the imagination and aspirations, the fears and hopes and bad editing, of people like and unlike themselves. As Harry Potter, Ron Weasley and Hermione Gingold are like and unlike themselves.

© 2002 JeanneE Hand-Boniakowski, RN

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