making peace with Potter

Note: no spoilers here.

“Of house-elves and children’s tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing. Nothing. That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped.”

Albus Dumbledore

I went to see the final Harry Potter movie last night. And it’s not because I believe in magic.

But I do value the imagination, which is why I believe in unicorns. The power in fantasy is not really magical, however. It is the power of choices made by characters whose unique destiny or ability magnifies the consequences of their actions.

Imaginative literature opens these possibilities. And questions about them. So I agree completely with Dumbledore who tells Harry in the final book/film that just because something is happening in your head doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Clearly many conservative Christians have had a love/hate relationship with Harry Potter, as in they love to hate him. And I understand their reasoning. Almost.

I’ve not understood why they think it’s teaching their kids to be witches. Because it’s not, regardless of what the Onion says. Not that kind, anyway. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, there is a kind of mechanical magic in fantasy that does not draw on the supernatural at all.

Nobody in Harry Potter books ever prays to a a dark power, not even Voldemort. That’s why Chuck Colson endorsed the Potter books early, as a moral fable whose heroes use love and sacrifice as their weapons of choice while the bad guys marshal power and fear.

Nobody took their clothes off or swore at me last night either.

And while it could be argued that Harry Potter puts witches in a more favorable light then we might want, I’ve also not quite understood how Narnia with its witches and The Rings with its wizards often get a pass, while Potter doesn’t. Because in the end Harry Potter is also a story about people in extraordinary circumstances doing extraordinary things.

Of course I’m not doing these books justice. Rowling is good story teller whose central character confronts fear and loneliness, risking his life over and over with courage, loyalty and love. And for that reason, many Christians have warmed up to the series over time.

But none of those Christians who like the book can refute the ultimate argument of their Christian friends who don’t, that there are better things to do with your time. That’s an argument that can not be refuted because it is no argument at all. That’s the same reason some kids don’t brush their teeth— because there is always something “better” to do.

It sounds pious though. What some people mean when they say this is that praying and fasting is better than reading fantasy, although of course some praying and fasting is pretty vain. And not every body talking about it is doing it either. In fact, many people who say this have their own ways to waste time, like watching Fox News while waiting for some politician to save us. Or watching TV at all.

Some of these critics have no time for entertainment of any sort, however. But I’m a defender of good books because they force us to think about character and calling, and that’s no waste of time. And because our creativity reflects the image of our Maker.

Some good books just happen to be fantasy.

No one finds Jesus at the end, of course, like in so much laughably bad Christian fiction. But I think Rowling managed to write books that people will go back to over and over to think about right and wrong and how to act on the distinction.

Harry is not a true Christ figure, although he is willing to lay down his life for his friends. This would require another whole post to unpack.

But he makes a passable Joseph, a man of integrity who stood in the place he was called and served the people he loved. The church has managed to overlook Joseph’s divination for a story that points us to a greater truth.

And while the Harry Potter books lack the biblical authority of Joseph’s story, they raise many of the same very human questions. Like what would you do to your faithless brothers if you were the most powerful man in Egypt? Or what would you do with the most powerful wand in the world?

More people today have heard Harry’s story than Joseph’s, unfortunately. But you have to start the conversation somewhere:

“You know, Harry kind of reminds me of Joseph, who also had strange dreams and struggled with power.

Would you like to hear the choices that he made? And talk about the reasons he made them?

Good. Why don’t you start. Tell me what you liked about Harry Potter.”

Listening is always a good place to start.

And faith is often where it ends.

See also More Magic, on L’Engle vs. Rowling.

6 thoughts on “making peace with Potter”

  1. I’ve never been a big fan of fantasy– or at least I didn’t think I was… Until I realized that I’ve read a lot of fantasy for someone who claims not to be a big fan.
    L’Engle, Tolkein, Lewis, Dahl have written some of my favorite books.
    Still– I’d argue that it’s the characters and the story that I’ve liked. The first time I picked up Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone it was Harry that drew me in–poor, orphaned Harry forced to live in a cupboard under the stairs in his Aunt & Uncle’s house. And then it was Hermione and Ron and Hagrid and Professor McGonegal that kept me reading. And those feasts on the long tables in the Great Hall…
    I read a lot of books about India, too– which sometimes seems as fantastic as Hogsmeade being just as out of my realm.

  2. And you know how I feel about anyone banning books.
    Particularly those that fear what questions and ideas might do to faith.

  3. My argument against the Harry Potter books is, of course, cut off at the knees because I did not read the books — then again, I haven’t read all of the Narnia or The Rings for that matter.

    However, I was turned off Harry from the very first book because it seemed to me it was teaching (just like Disney does) that children know better than adults, and that it is okay to disobey as long as you have an excellent reason to disobey. It is okay to disobey because adults don’t know enough about a situation to make a proper decision. Therefore, it is best to keep parents in the dark about what is really going on and practice in secret the important things.

    To me, that is a foundation that I just could not agree with so I didn’t go past the first half of the first book.

    People don’t believe me when I tell them I’ve read a series very similar to the Harry Potter books written by Diane _______, her last name escapes me at the moment. The children of her story were faced by the same sort of dilemma, but their choices were met with consequences very unlike Harry Potter’s.

    1. As a former children’s magazine editor I understand this concern. We looked for fiction that involved conflicts kids worked out for themselves. And while I think HP reflects a natural stage in children’s development—they are teenagers after all—the role of adult mentors is essential to the series and motivates much of the sensemaking that drives the conclusion. I’d be interested to know the other books you refer to.

  4. I agree with your post. I think it was CS Lewis that pointed out that Science Fiction (and, by extension, contemporary Fantasy) is very often much like an allegory in that the characters wear their personalities “on the outside”. For instance, instead of living in the City of Sin, they live on a planet where sinful activity is the norm.
    John Granger also expanded my understanding of the Potter books with his excellent analysis.
    I enjoy the sort of imaginative exploration available to the fantasy genre. I tried the style myself by writing a “fan-fic” using the Potter universe. My foundational thought was, “What might it be like if a Christian kid attended Hogwarts?”

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