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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Harry Potter and Me, Part 2

If you haven't seen it yet, this blog post will make more sense if you've read Harry Potter and Me, Part 1 first.

Continuing onmore issues anti-Potter articles often mention.

Subjects That Hogwarts Students Study

Besides magic and spells, there are a few other subjects that, on first glance, might appear to correspond to occultic practices in our world. I will discuss how J. K. Rowling treats these subjects in her books.

1.) Divination

Yes, there is a class at Hogwarts, the wizard school Harry and his friends attend, called Divination. Professor Sybill Trelawney, a middle-aged witch who claims to have an "Inner Eye" and be able to prophesy. She tells the children to look for signs in crystal balls, the tealeaf residue left in teacups, and their dreams. Harry, Hermione, and Ron find this subject dull and completely useless, as Trelawney clearly fabricates the majority of her so-called predictions.  The headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, tells Harry that Professor Trelawney predicts the death of a student at the beginning of each school year.  The entire thing is obviously bogus, full of superstition and old wives' tales. Rather than being encouraged to seek out fortune tellers in our world, children would instead be taught to question their credibility. The only creatures capable of discerning the future in Harry's world are centaurs, who primarily use the movements of the stars to predict general trends or major events that will happenbut no specific details. In Harry's fifth year at school, a centaur named Firenze comes to teach them instead of Professor Trelawney, and he tells them that sometimes even centaurs can misinterpret astronomical phenomena. Furthermore, we must also consider that centaurs predict the end of the world by observing the stars and planets in The Last Battle, the seventh book of The Chronicles of Narnia.

The two exceptions about Trelawney's fortune-telling in the series (twice Professor Trelawney does actually prophesy accurately) do not originate from Sybill herself. She is unaware of having prophesied afterwards, so we must conclude that the prophesy comes from some cosmic force or something unexplained beyond the storybut again, we cannot presume that the prophesies come from an evil source if we have no textual evidence.

2.) Astrology

Some claimed that children reading Harry Potter would be encouraged to believe in astrology and horoscopes. But actually, Harry and his friends take a class called Astronomy, NOT Astrology, and it is just like the astronomy classes in the real world, from what details are mentioned in the books. And this is a class that doesn't come up much anyway.

School Holidays

Some people were uncomfortable about the idea that the students at Hogwarts celebrate Halloween. This is an issue that many Christians are divided onto dress up, or not to dress up. My personal opinion is that dressing up in a costume that isn't scary or evil, as well as participating in Harvest Festivals / Noah's Ark Parties at your church, are both perfectly okay. Harry and his friends participate in Halloween in an innocent way, like young children in our world do. And in the first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Harry's parents were murdered by Voldemort, the Dark Lord, when he was only one year old, on Halloween. Usually, in the first few novels, something important happens on Halloween to increase conflict and suspense, which is quite logical as it is the anniversary of Harry's parents' death as well as the beginning of the fall of the Dark Lord (more on that later).


The idea of Harry and his friends learning and saying spells bothered Christian parents, and for good reason. However, the spells in no way invoke spirits of any sort, and are all combinations of Latin phrases and made-up words. One spell, used by wizards who practice the Dark Arts, seems to be from Aramaic. As mentioned previously, how does that differ from children repeating "Bibbity-Bobbity-Boo" from Disney's Cinderella or even "Abracadabra"?   Or "Open Sesame"?   Or even when we say, "What's the magic word?" to remind children to say please?


Articles written against Harry Potter that I've read have also noted that there are ghosts in the books. This is true, but none of the characters ever conjure them up or summon them, but they do talk to the ghosts like they would to another person. One pro-Harry Potter article that I read argued that this was no different from Dickens' use of Marley or the ghost of Christmas Past in A Christmas Carol. The author said something to this effect: so should we not read A Christmas Carol because the main character consorts with ghosts and spirits?  In reading Charles Dickens' story, we recognize the distinction between fiction and reality. Why should Harry Potter or other fantasy stories be any different?

The Dark Arts

This area is where Christians should be concerned if evil magic in the story was glorified in any way. Yet it is clearly not. The kids take a class every year called "Defense Against the Dark Arts" and learn how to equip themselves against the villians. In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth book, their Defense Against the Dark Arts professor, Professor Moody, teaches them about the three Unforgivable Curses--spells that are against wizarding law to use. They are the Imperius Curse (used for mind control, the word is Imperio), the Cruciatus Curse (used for torture, the word for it is Crucio), and the Killing Curse (the word for it is Avada Kedavra, apparently derived from Aramaic in what I uncovered in my research). Anyone who uses these curses on another human is sentenced to life in Azkaban, the wizard prison.

The good characters never use these curses, with one exception. Once Harry, in an understandable burst of anger, attempts to use the Crucio curse in a battle against a woman who just killed someone very dear to him, but she only stumbles, and tells Harry that he has to really mean it when he uses an Unforgivable Curse (the implication being that he is too innocent to actually want to torture another human being). In the last book, Harry continues to use the Expelliarmus spell to disarm his opponents, even though Professor Lupin tells him he must be prepared to kill if he needs to in order to defend himself. But he never, ever uses the Killing Curse against anyone. Voldemort uses Avada Kedavra continuallybut Harry practices only self-defense, which is intriguing considering the context of this series.

Expecto Patronum is one of the defensive spells Harry learns. He has to say the words while concentrating an intensely happy moment for the spell to work. It is used to repel dementorsevil, black-robed, soulless creatures that drain the happiness from a person and cause despair. Dementors also guard Azkaban prison. Riddikulus is another spell, used to combat boggarts, a creature that assumes the form of your deepest, darkest fear and lives in dark places like wardrobes and cupboards. It's best to face the boggart with someone else, to confuse it so it won't know what form to assume, and then the spell makes it assume something silly that makes you laugh, so the fear loses its power over you. Finally, Legilimency is used to read minds to an extent, or, more accurately, memories, and is practiced by Lord Voldemort and his followers, the Death Eaters. Harry attemps to learn Occlumency so that he can close his mind to Legilimency and protect it against evil influences. To guard his mind, he has to control his emotions.

Voldemort's return to a corporeal body, one of the more intense passages in the series, takes place at the conclusion of the fourth book. It is creepy, and rightfully so, because it could mirror actual occultic rituals, but again, these are the bad guys, not the admirable characters. The Dark Lord's servant makes a potion from the "bone of the [Voldemort's] father," the "flesh of the servant," and "the blood of the enemy" (he draws some of Harry Potter's blood) to come back to his full power.

Magic in our World

Other opponents of the series have been bothered by the fact that magic in Harry Potter is not just used in the wizarding world and at his school, Hogwarts, but that it also occurs in our world as well. (There is a connection between the wizard fantasy world and our worldHarry travels between the two through a brick wall at Platform 9 and 3/4 in a London train station). The magic is not just a long, long time ago in a land far, far away.  Yet since Harry and all the other young wizards are not allowed to use their magical abilities outside of school until they are adults unless there are life-threatening circumstances (and in the rare instances that this does occur), it is again only magic of the fairy tale variety that has already been discussed.

Now, having covered most of the fantasy elements that most arguments against the Harry Potter series utilize as evidence, I can now discuss why I find the books worth reading. As a Christian, I would never make the argument that a set of novel encouraging particiption in the occult, which also happened to be adventure stories with moral lessons, would be wholesome reading for anyone, let alone children. My friend Kathleen told me that some of her fellow online students in a college literature class argued, in a discussion where Harry Potter came up: "But the books teach children morality." In the words of one of my fellow English literature majors and good friend Cynthia, "that would be like mixing candy and poison." Yet because I have made the case that the magical elements in this series are not of the occult, now I will proceed to discuss what value I think the books have.

As I started reading the opening lines of the first book, I sensed something was afoot. It is the evening upon which the entire wizard world is rejoicing and exultant that a baby boy has caused the temporary defeat of the Dark Lord, Voldemort. They all look to him now as the cause of their joy and peace, the one who brought them deliverance.  ...Like the shepherds and angels in Bethlehem?   Honestly.  What else does this sound like? I realized that Harry had a clear potential for developing into a Messiah figure. But I knew I'd have to keep reading to find out if J.K. Rowling kept this up.

Throughout the series, each book entails a struggle against evil, and every school year, Harry meets the challenge. Harry matures as the Dark Lord grows stronger yet again.

Finally, the seventh and final book culminates with Harry sacrificing himself to save the world, realizing that only his death will bring about the ultimate and final defeat of Voldemort.  Sound familiar?  As he willingly walked through the forest to face the Death Eaters and his followers, reminding me of Aslan heading through the woods toward the White Witch and her crew at the Stone Table, we as readers hear his final thoughts, and the spirits of his mother and father and other dear friends who died in the struggles walk with him. At this point, I was completely crying my eyes out. The series had met my expectations at the beginning and exceeded them. And yes, his willing sacrifice enables him to come back and ultimately defeat the Dark Lord (who is, interestingly enough, completely loaded with symbolism involving snakes).

For further insight into the ending of the series:

J. K. Rowling in an interview with a Spanish newspaper in February 2008: "Since he was young until Chapter 34 of the seventh book, Harry is required to be a better man in that he is obligated to accept the inevitability of his own death. The plan of the books was that he should have contact with death and with the experience of death. And it was always Harry alone who had to have that experience. It all came down to conscience, because the hero had to live these things, do things, see things on his count. It’s part of that isolation and sadness that comes with being a hero.  For me, that chapter is the key of all the books. Everything, everything I have written, was thought of for that precise moment when Harry goes into the forest. That is the chapter that I had planned for 17 years. That moment is the heart of all of the books. And for me it is the last truth of the story. Even though Harry survives, of that there was no doubt, he reaches that unique and very rare state which is to accept his own death. How many people have the possibility of accepting their death before they die?"

"And he [Harry] set off. The dementors’ chill did not overcome him; he passed through it with his companions, and they acted like Patronuses to him, and together they marched through the old trees that grew closely together, their branches tangled, their roots gnarled and twisted underfoot. Harry clutched the [Invisibility] Cloak tightly around him in the darkness, traveling deeper and deeper into the forest, with no idea where exactly Voldemort was, but sure that he would find him. Beside him, making scarcely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin, and Lily, and their presence was his courage, and the reason he was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other."  Chapter 34, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Dialogue from Harry's final battle with the Dark Lord:
"You won't be killing anyone else tonight," said Harry as they circled, and stared into each other's eyes, green into red. "You won't be able to kill any of them ever again. Don't you get it? I was ready to die to stop you from hurting these people"

"But you did not!"

"I meant to, and that's what did it. I've done what my mother did. They're protected from you. Haven't you noticed how none of the spells you put on them are binding? You can't torture them. You can't touch them. You don't learn from your mistakes, Riddle, do you?"

Concluding thoughts:

1.) There is some brief language and violence in the Harry Potter series, so children probably shouldn't read them when they are very young. Parents should decide what content their children are capable of handling.

2.) Don't make the mistake of not reading an author's work purely because of their lifestyle / biography. Some argued that children should not read Harry Potter because J.K. Rowling is not a Christian. On that note, we can't actually make that judgement call on whether she is or not—though I would argue her books potentially reveal much about her belief systemand there are many classic children's books and other works written by authors with lifestyles and worldviews we would likely not agree with, but we still enjoy reading them.  (Examples: The Secret Garden, A Little Princess, The Cricket in Times Square, the Frog and Toad series, and The Importance of Being Earnest.)

From the author herself:
"To me, [the religious parallels have] always been obvious,” Rowling said. “But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”

When asked if her books promote the occult, she said: "I think that’s utter garbage. I absolutely do not believe in the occult, practice the occult. I’ve never... I’ve met literally thousands of children now. Not one of them has said to me, 'You’ve really turned me on to the occult,' not one of them." (in an interview with Katie Couric on Dateline NBC, June 20, 2003)

"I did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity. I wasn't trying to do what C.S. Lewis did. It is perfectly possible to live a very moral life without a belief in God, and I think it's perfectly possible to live a life peppered with ill-doing and believe in God."

Upon being asked if she was a Christian, she replied, "Yes, I am, which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God. Every time I’'ve been asked if I believe in God, I’'ve said yes, because I do, but no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that, and I have to say that does suit me, because if I talk too freely about that [her Christianity], I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’'s coming in the books.”

"The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It's something I struggle with a lot. On any given moment if you asked me [if] I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yesthat I do believe in life after death. [But] it's something that I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that's very obvious within the books."

3.)  Ultimately, do not begin the series with your mind already made up about it. Honestly evaluate it for what it is.

Thank you for reading and and thinking along with me. Comments and counterarguments are welcome!


Christianity Today: Redeeming Harry Potter
Christianity Today: Harry Potter Is Here to Stay

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Harry Potter and Me, Part 1

Most of you will probably either find this post either unnecessary if you came to this conclusion long ago or may be rather opposed to what I am about to say.  Recognizing both positions, I consider my effort to be worthwhile if a single person stumbles across it in browsing the web and decides to start thinking for themselves from reading this essay.  Last summer, after reading many arguments and articles online and in print for and against Harry Potter, discussing it with some of my writing friends and mentors in the CleanPlace Teen Writers' Group, and even having one of my professors, Dr. Martin, tell me last spring (with a quirky, half-smile) that I should read it for myself (not to mention Matthew, a classmate in my Intro to Literature class during my first semester of college, express similar thoughts), I decided that I would have to read the Harry Potter series to truly form an opinion about them.  While Christians probably shouldn't totally immerse ourselves in popular culture to the extent that we can't separate ourselves from it, I think that we need to at least be aware of what is happening in it and have an educated opinion about books and movies that make big waves in our society.  Harry Potter, I believe, is one of those elements of popular culture today that shows no sign of fading away anytime soon.  Delving into the texts themselves reinforced to me the importance of evaluating formulating my own opinions.

Shortly after I started the series, one of my friends from back in the Dallas Metroplex, Anna, sent me this article, "Twelve Reasons Not to See Harry Potter Movies."  (http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/HP-Movie.htm).  While the article expresses many parents' concerns, I have numerous issues with its logic.  Most of the reasons and claims provided in it are null and void once you disprove one of the earlier ones. Another aspect to keep in mind is that the article was written in 2001, when the series was only halfway complete and not all of the movies had been produced. Since this is a typical example of the fear-based articles that get circulated on the internet among conservative groups about Harry Potter and other children's media, I answered the author's claims blow-by-blow for my friend and am posting them in a more polished form. 

Sidenote: I have encountered four general types of Christian readers in my life to datepeople who believe reading all fiction is wrong (A older Mennonite lady who was a librarian in Montrose, Colorado told me once that her husband only read nonfiction, though she enjoyed fiction herself), people who believe any story with fantastical elements in it is wrong (this usually includes fairy tales, Greek mythology, as well as fantasy / science fiction), people who believe fantasy and magic is all right if a deity that corresponds allegorically to the God of the Bible is present (this would include Narnia and Donita K. Paul's DragonKeeper series, but not Lord of the Rings), and people who think that any fantastical elements in fiction are all right, deity or not, as long as any "magic" does not involve contacting spirits or acting as a medium.  Not everyone falls into these categories absolutely, but overall, it has been my experience that they generally do. 

And these two blog posts are not really intended for people in the first two groups.  I would have to have a different argument to first argue that reading fiction is not wrong in and of itself and that reading stories with fantasy / fairy tales are all right as well.  These essays are meant to show those in the third category what the viewpoint of the fourth category is like so they can honestly consider it...and perhaps discover they already liked several stories that fall in the fourth group. 

Spoiler Alert: For those who have not yet read the books, several major plot points must be revealed for the purposes of my argument.  Be forewarned. 

The article's first point is this:
"1. God shows us that witchcraft, sorcery, spells, divination and magic are evil."
Okay, I agree. The Bible verse they used, Deuteronomy 18:9-12, is correct.

Yet then the authors proceed to state:
"2. The movie's foundation in fantasy, not reality, doesn't diminish its power to change beliefs and values."
Err...ok. This is partly true. Yes, fantasy can teach us values and influence our thinkingbut that doesn't mean that people who read it will believe that every element in it is real. How many people actually try to get into Narnia through a wardrobe? Or believe an apple offered to them by an old woman will harm them like Snow White? Most readers, even children, recognize the difference between reality and fantasy or fairy tales, absorbing the meaning behind the story rather than the actual elements in the story. Kids do pretend these things are real sometimes, but they are usually just doing it in an innocent way.

"3. Each occult image and suggestion prompts the audience to feel more at home in this setting."
Hmm. Possibly. Butif the elements in Harry Potter are truly occultic, doesn't that mean we shouldn't read Lord of the Rings?   That series has a wizard, Gandalf, who uses magical abilities. And he's a good character. Someone we respect as readers.   And maybe we shouldn't read or watch The Wizard of Oz.   That story has a couple of "good witches" in it. The fairy godmother in Disney's Cinderella uses magic to rescue her, using a spell, "Bibbity-Boppity-Boo," and wand while wearing robes. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvcTI3ctK8o)  And what about Mary Poppins?  I don't say this in a cynical way; I mean it seriously.  Logically, we would have to ban all stories with fantasical elements from children's literature, not pick and choose the ones we like.  And I know people who dislike those books / stories for those exact reasons. But to me it doesn't make sense to say that those are okay and Harry Potter is not, when you honestly compare them. I never found a place in the series in which Harry or anyone else contacts the netherworld or demonic sourcesmagic in his world is like physics in our world and just happens to be there.  Wizards are born with magical abilities—it is not something they choose to attain like people who practice witchcraft in our world. You either have the gift at birth, or you don't. It's not stated as coming from a deity or any other source, but is just a part of the fantasy world. I think we cannot conclude that the magic in Harry Potter is what the Bible describes as witchcraft if we do not have any textual evidence in the books that the magic originates from an evil source.

"4. God tells us to 'abhor what is evil' and 'cling to what is good.'"

"5. Immersed in Hogwarts' beliefs and values, children learn to ignore or reinterpret God's truth."
I'm not sure where the authors are getting this.  Sometimes the kids in Harry Potter are mischievous. They disobey the rules sometimes and sneak around after curfew, but they usually have good intentions of trying to stop something bad from happening.  (Not that this justifies their behavior, but we have all made similar mistakes).  Once, in the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry sneaks out through a secret passage to a village near the school, Hogwarts. All the other people in his grade level and higher were allowed to go that afternoon, but he didn't because he didn't have a signed permission slip from a legal guardian.  Harry wants to go to the candy shop and toy shop.  In this instance, he doesn't even have a good reason for disobeying. But when he gets back, he very nearly gets caught by his least favorite professor, and another one of his teachers, Professor Lupin, keeps him out of trouble, yet reminds Harry that Harry's parents died to save him as a baby, and he thinks it's a poor way for Harry to live in light of their sacrifice: "Your parents gave their lives to keep you alive, Harry. A poor way to repay themgambling their sacrifice for a bag of magic tricks."  Harry and his friends are human, and make poor decisions at times like all of us, but he's usually reprimanded for it somehow.  Consequences do exist in Harry's world, despite it being a magical one. 

"6. This inner change is usually unconscious, for the occult lessons and impressions tend to bypass rational scrutiny. After all, who will stop, think and weigh the evidence when caught up in such a fast-moving visual adventure? Fun fantasies and strategic entertainment has a special way of altering values, compromising beliefs and changing behavior in adults as well as in children."
As consumers of media in so many forms, we do get caught up in any movie / book / other entertainment easily without considering the message behind the entertainment.   But this applies to many things, not just Harry Potter in particular. Once we develop critical thinking skills and learn to analyze books and movies while we are being entertained by them or after we finish them, much of this danger is mitigated. Most children don't do this, though, which is why their parents should discuss these things with them.

"7. The main product marketed through this movie is a new belief system. This pagan ideology comes complete with trading cards, computer and other wizardly games, clothes and decorations stamped with HP symbols, action figures and cuddly dolls and audio cassettes that could keep the child's minds focused on the occult all day and into night. But in God's eyes, such paraphernalia become little more than lures and doorways to deeper involvement with the occult."
I believe I mostly addressed this under points #3 and #5, having stated that all of the magical elements in Harry Potter are not any different from other fairy tales and fantasy stories.  Many other series/movies come with trading cards and computer games and other merchandise, too.  Honestly, people can become obsessed with anything to an unhealthy extent.

"8. The implied source of power behind Harry's magical feats tend to distort a child's understanding of God. In the movie as in the books, words traditionally used to refer to occult practices become so familiar that children begin to apply the same terms to God and His promised strength. Many learn to see God as a power source that can be manipulated with the right kind of prayers and ritualsand view his miracles as just another form of magic. They base their understanding of God on their own feelings and wants, not on His revelation of Himself." 
I can understand how perhaps this could be a concern in how children view God—except there is no deity in Harry Potter's worlda point many anti-Potter arguments I have read that were not as concerned with the fantasy elements have emphasized.   But don't even people who never read fantasy view God in this way?   We cannot blame this inaccurate view of God on Harry Potter or even other fantasy stories in general.   Even some Christians maintain a perception of God as simply the one you go to when you want something.

"9. Blind to the true nature of God, children will blend (synthesize) Biblical truth with pagan beliefs and magical practices. In the end, you distort and destroy any remnant of true Christian faith. For our God cannot be molded to match pagan gods."
As long as children (and adults) recognize the difference between fiction and reality, they will not fall into that trap.   Enough said.

"10. God tells us to 'train up a child in the way He should go.' It starts with teaching them God's truths and training them all day long to see reality from His, not the world's perspective. To succeed, we need to shield them from contrary values until they know His Word and have memorized enough Scriptures to be able to recognize and resist deception. Once they have learned to love what God loves and see from His perspective, they will demonstrate their wisdom by choosing to say 'no' to Harry Potter."
Mostly true...but the children's saying "no" to Harry Potter hinges on the books' being classified as occult, which I do not think is accurate.

"11. While some argue that Harry and his friends model friendship and integrity, they actually model how to lie and steal and get away with it. Their examples only add to the cultural relativism embraced by most children today who are honest when it doesn't cost anything, but who lie and cheat when it serves their purpose."
I think I addressed this with #5. As I came to this point, I began to suspect the person who wrote this article did not actually read the books, or read them and saw what they wanted to see in them, having formulated their conclusions beforehand. And I don't remember Harry or the others actually stealing. Sometimes they are sneaky or tell half-truths, and sometimes they do get away with it, but usually they are trying to do the right thing in the wrong way, and they are corrected in wrongdoing (as mentioned earlier about Professor Lupin's conversation with Harry). The kids learn from their mistakesHarry makes a mistake in book five, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, that actually costs Harry's godfather his life, because Harry falls prey to a trap from the Dark Lord, thinking he is rescuing his godrather Sirius. Harry chooses not to consult adults in the matter, but rushes headlong into the situation, following what Hermione calls his "saving people thing."  Sirius comes with others to rescue Harry and his friends from the trap they fall into...and Sirius dies saving Harry. Harry never forgets this, and resolves in the last book that no one else will die for him: "Dumbledore knew, as Voldemort knew, that Harry would not let anyone else die for him now that he had discovered it was in his power to stop it" and "'I never wanted any of you to die for me.'"

"12. God has a better way. When His children choose to follow His ways, He gives them a heart to love Him, spiritual eyes that can understand and delight in His Word, a sense of His presence and a confidence in His constant careno matter what happens around us. Harry Potter's deceptive thrills are worse than worthless when compared to the wonderful riches our Shepherd promises those who will ignore evil and walk with Him."
That point is also true...but again, is dependent on the previous claims that classify Harry Potter as occultic. The authors keep trapping us into agreeing with them by mixing truth with fabrication and exaggerations.  Furthermore, can we be so certain that Harry Potter is diametrically opposed to the Christian worldview?

In my next post, I want to discuss more arguments commonly used to discourage reading the books and my own experience with the Harry Potter series and what I actually do see in themthemes and other elements.  Analyzing one of the anti-Potter articles circulating on the web line-by-line pushes us to think critically without becoming emotionally invested in one side or the other. 

Next post: Harry Potter and Me, Part 2