Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Witchcraft or Christian Values?

Two recent articles deal with the latter day Beatles-like cultural phenomenon of Harry Potter. One is from Mercatornet the other is from the National Review Online. Christians tend to blow either very hot or very cold about the series (and the commercial boon it spawned). I must say that I have found much of the anti-Potter arguments uninformed and unwarranted.

The first article (MercatorNet) was published the day before the last Potter book was released.

The second was published two days after its release.

A few excerpts are provided here, click on the title for the full article.

Harry Potter and the order of love


Harry indirectly affirms and points to ultimate laws upon which lesser laws must rest and to which they must elastically connect if they are to truly function to protect the good.


One overarching theme to be commended in the books is Rowling's critique of rationalistic materialism and its essential banality. An elephantine image of materialism and its banality is the Dursley family (though Rowling more often uses the metaphor of a swine). Sketched in Dickensian fashion, using strong lines and colourful images, the Dursley's are consumers, anxious controllers, and rational-they are "enlightened" in knowing material comfort is the highest good and are sharp at attaining and securing it. They have a limited family in one carefully indulged son, and they have friendships only of use. Friends are used to further position and salary at work.


... J.K. Rowling works within the parameters and rules of story, and more particularly within the general genre of fairy/folk tales, legends, and myths. She uses the tools of a writer, especially metaphor and analogy, and paradox. It is not appropriate to analyse or judge stories solely on the literal level, even when asking moral questions. Good stories aim at tuning perception -- as artists like Joseph Conrad and Flannery O'Connor assert -- to help tune the interior eyes to see Reality, especially the interior workings of reality such as the mysterious workings of the human heart, light and dark, and the unseen workings of evil, love, and grace.

In so doing art is not restricted to comfortably pleasing its readers nor required to deliver clear examples and arguments for the sake of good behaviour or proper manners. And, more so than plain philosophic or theological principles, metaphors can dance -- they are not inextricably tied to the idea or thing they represent. A wolf may metaphorically represent an evil -- as found in literature throughout the western tradition -- but it would be incorrect to argue that a wolf is essentially evil and must always metaphorically represent evil; he is a creature and essentially good. To argue contrarily is to infer a gnostic, unchristian view of the world. To suggest that all artists must keep within a code of metaphors is simply fearful and unnecessarily rigid. (Kipling in his Mowgli stories pictures wolves differently, for example).

Metaphors are free to dance, to move with the current of time, or the intuitions of an artist who seeks to represent truthful things. A writer can have good witches and bad -- as is the case in the Brothers Grimm, the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, the Wizard of Oz, or the stories of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, to name a few. Also, magic is a tool within literature, especially within the folk genre of literature. The ethical questions of good or bad are tied to how the metaphors and literary tools are used -- do they aid a more truthful perception, even if the perception is not fully conscious, or do they manipulate and invert a perception?


This sense of ultimate order is, as Chesterton argues, true to fairy tales and runs throughout Harry Potter. In this context we can put Potter's apparent disregard for rules and authority in perspective: he disobeys most often not out of simple curiosity or an inveterate inability to respect rules and authority, but because he is moved to defend the higher good -- higher, more ultimate (can we say "eternal"?) laws. He is not a budding Nietzchean hero, a passionate, heroic and intuitive soul who is not to be constrained by "good and evil". Harry disobeys because others do not or cannot see the danger, and he risks his life defending Life against an evil force who is the one who declares there "is no good and evil". (p. 291) Harry indirectly affirms and points to ultimate laws upon which lesser laws must rest and to which they must elastically connect if they are to truly function to protect the good.

Harry Potter & the Art of Dying Well
Ending with the end.

By Thomas Hibbs


“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” This passage, without a reference to its scriptural source (I Corinthians 15:26), appears nearly half way through J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, the final book in her hugely popular series. Deathly Hallows marks a satisfying completion of the series, more dramatically captivating and more effectively orchestrated than any book in the series since Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. As both the title and the scriptural reference indicate, the book is preoccupied with death. While addressing our peculiarly modern obsessions, the reflection on death and its possible overcoming is hardly morbid. Ultimately, it is not even tragic; instead, it is a comic affirmation of the triumph of life over death, love over hate, and community over isolation.


In the final book, Rowling makes explicit some of the most important philosophical and theological themes from the entire series. There is, for example, the project of controlling nature and overcoming death. As Alan Jacobs noted in his early essay on the Potter series, magic is not so much an attempt to seduce readers to the occult as it is an invitation to reflect on technology and the modern project of rendering humanity masters and possessors of nature — the goal, Descartes famously boasted, of his scientific method. From the very first book, in which the sorcerer’s, er, philosopher’s stone promises immortality and power, Rowling reflects on the dark arts and on the question of whether the pursuit of desirable ends justifies the use of any means whatsoever. In so doing, the books address both a) the uses and abuses of mere technique or technology and b) the ethical theory called utilitarianism, the calculation of means by reference to the “greater good.” If it were not clear from the previous books, it is made palpable here — utilitarianism, which is subject to the self-interest and self-delusions of those who wield power and who thus determine what is the “greater good,” is a source of great evil.

The quixotic project of overcoming mortality through technological power is also a violation of the bodily conditions of human life. Indeed, the modern world is given to extremes on the topic of death and the body, from the resolute refusal to acknowledge or embrace aging and mortality to a nihilistic celebration of the death-wish. What is striking in the final book is the prominence of the theme of reverence for the dead body. In Goblet of Fire, Harry risks his own life to return the murdered body of his friend Cedric to his parents; then, in Half-Blood Prince, after Dumbledore’s death, he wonders, “Had they take Dumbledore’s body yet? Where would it rest?” and announces his plan to visit his parents grave. In Deathly Hallows, much is made of the fact that, instead of using magic, Harry physically digs the grave of one of his fallen fellow warriors. Reverence for, and remembrance of, the dead are hallmarks of virtue and of a well-ordered community.


Readers of the final book are left to puzzle over, not just the mysterious powers of mercy and self-sacrifice, but also explicit references to the New Testament, the one from Corinthians cited above and a passage from Matthew, “where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” Harry encounters these statements on tombstones and knows neither their source nor their precise import. In that respect, Harry is a stand-in for most modern readers. Although he never explicitly formulates it this way, Harry’s great quest in Deathly Hallows leads him toward an understanding of the meaning of these scriptural passages, an understanding not just theoretical but eminently practical.
If reading Harry Potter leads to curious young people (and adults) dusting off the family Bible (or purchasing one*), I will applaud the series as worthy of the positive attention it has received.

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