Friday, July 20, 2007

Potter mania!

Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsI was quite amused today to walk past Waterstone's Picadilly, the biggest bookshop in the UK, and to see the masses all gathered in wizard's and witches - and others! -garb, all eagerly waiting for midnight when the final installment of the Harry Potter saga goes on sale [ed. note 26/7: link removed because of potential spoiler]. The majority were teenage girls, it seems, most of them carrying a Harry Potter book and having loads of fun. I even saw one group attempting to render the Potter Puppet Pals' Mysterious Ticking Noise! I'll be joining the millions reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows eventually, just not tonight! I've enjoyed the first 6 books and am curious to see how it all ends.

HP, of course, has been a source of controversy amongst Christians, although it seems to have grown somewhat muted as the years have gone by. Some of us might still be a little confused about the issues, so I thought it might be helpful to provide, briefly, a framework for thinking this through. (Warning: these are more random thoughts than a carefully constructed argument!)


  • The basics. We start with creation. Genesis 1 - we see God the Creator at work. The climax of creation is man, whom God grants the status of co-workers. (Gen. 1:27-28). We are to have dominion and subdue the earth. In fact, as we work, we begin to see that we too, are creators, creative beings. God delights in helping us fulfill this role in the beginning, allowing Adam to name the animals (Gen 2:19-20).

  • The fall. Genesis 3. We are creative beings, but we are also created beings. The serpent imaginatively hints at rebellion, subverting the imagination by implanting a vision of us supplanting God. Going against the Uncreated One has disastrous consequences. Adam invents a story, shifting the blame to Eve. Like a chain story, Eve tries to blame the serpent. Along with everything else, our creativity becomes tarnished.

  • Men and women remain creative beings, and they are not evil in and of itself. Even after the first murder, Cain's descendants are involved in culture-making activities (Gen 4:20-22), as they are meant to do as people made in the image of God, albeit fallen. This is seen in the building of the temple (eg. Exodus 31:1-6, 1 Kings 7:13-51). Our Lord Jesus was himself a carpenter, again giving significance to the act of creativity. Similarly, the creative act, though not evil in themselves, can lead to evil, eg. Babel, the golden calf.

  • The New Creation. There are hints that our work now will be carried over in the new creation (Revelation 21:24-26). Creative activity might even continue then (Isaiah 65:21-22). The resurrection of Jesus lends significance to creative acts now, reminding us that one day, the whole earth will be redeemed, including, most possibly, some of our current works!

  • So hopefully we have a high view of creativity in general with the outline I just sketched. With this, we also see that "the world" as is often used in the NT does not necessarily = "culture". To "not be of the world" does not mean not engaging in and with culture, if that is possible. So an isolationist stance for the Christian is not biblical.

  • What about fantasy? Many are suspicious of the genre, understandably seeing it either inherently occultic or at least pointing the path towards the occult. The first concern has already been dealt with above. The second concern is legitimate, but only serves to show that fantasy can be used for good and for bad. There is both good and bad fantasy.

  • Fantasy can help point to a reality beyond the material world. Asian Christians, perhaps, need no convincing on this point, but many Westerners have drunk deep from the wells of naturalism. Christians have had no scruples in the past with using the genre of fantasy, eg. Dante to Lewis, and Christian concerns about the genre, read in light of history, is actually quite novel.

  • Onto HP specifically. As many have noted, HP is not so much about wizards and witches, but stands in the long tradition of British boarding school stories - think Enid Blyton and Anne Digby! - which just happens to have wizards and witches and a world that doesn't just operate by scientific dictums alone. So I will argue that it is reductionistic to merely debate HP on the terms of whether it's occultic/leads to the occult or not. It is richer than that, and to read it in such a way is to read uncharitably and does a disservice to JK Rowling. Think of the way the book is narrated - through the school year - and important events in the year such as the Yule Ball and Quidditch matches.

  • It is also insulting to the intelligence of many children to claim that reading HP means that they will inevitably dabble in occultic practices, or will definitely be anti-authoritarian. Many are more discerning than that.

  • Having said that, it is also unwise to present HP to someone you know who is obviously interested in the occult. Christians are to exercise discernment here.

  • HP has many of the classic themes of fantasy, such as the fight between good and evil. Friendship, loyalty, and sacrifice all figure prominently in HP. You could even argue that there is an Ugly Ducking trajectory at work here (HP as orphan to having a family, Ron Weasley the unheralded sidekick coming to his own, Hermione learning to deal with her insecurities).

  • HP reflects (British?) culture, eg. anxiety over modern fears (whom can I trust? Which adults are "safe"? How can I learn to judge somebody's character?) and celebrates authenticity over celebrity (Think of Gilderoy Lockhart, Sirius Black, Rita Skeeter, HP himself). These are not new explorations and are actually staples of children's lit, for eg. read the works of Saki aka H.H Munro.

  • Other things to consider. We are to honour our parents, and so if we are still under their authority, if they choose to ban us from reading HP, we are to honour their request.

  • We are not to cause our brothers and sisters to stumble. If HP genuinely does so, then it is far better to refrain than to assert our freedoms. Of course, I will continue to persuade those involved (as I have just done above!) that I do not think HP is harmful, although of course, depending on the person, there are exceptions. Nor are we to use HP as a weapon to separate "true" Christians from false ones.

  • Finally, I leave the last point to Greg Clarke, who after pondering extensively on HP debate, says: "I'm tempted to think that it boils down to this particular question: do you like stories or not?"
Sorry, as usual this post went on for much longer than I expected! I hope that helps. I don't think HP is the greatest book ever, but I do think that it is enjoyable, reasonably written and that the world is richly imagined, and I hope many won't miss out on it, in spite of the hype.

Further reading:
Fantasy Literature and Christian Readers by Greg Clarke
Support Kairos and get their issue on the Imagination. Highly recommended!
Spiderman 3 and the moral imagination. A previous attempt of mine to reflect theologically on another work of popular culture.
The Muggle Helpline for Distraught Potterheads. Hilarious! Proficiency in Manglish required.

If you're looking for other "summer" reads (I'm aware it's not summer in many places!):
The Independent's Summer Reading Special
The Times Summer reading
TIME magazine - what writers are reading


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