The Pornographic Harry Potter? On the near impossibility of reasoning with Christian fundamentalists

Posted on 07/17/11 28 Comments

When I was in Rio last month I found myself in the back of a cab on my way to the conference at which I was to speak. Unfortunately, when we arrived I discovered that the cabbie didn’t accept credit cards and I had no Brazilian money. To complicate matters further, the poor fellow spoke no English and I spoke no Portuguese. With a growing sense of exasperation, the cabbie said something to me which I could not grasp. So he slowed down and repeated the sentence. Unable to speak Portuguese, I just replied dumbly, “I don’t understand.” So he slowed down some more, upped the volume and repeated the sentence yet again. But it was a moot point since I STILL didn’t speak Portuguese.

I can sympathize with the cabbie based on a recent abortive conversation I had with some Christian fundamentalists at the Christianpost.com. (Those who have read my book You’re not as Crazy as I Think will be aware that I offer careful warnings about using the term “fundamentalist” as a way to marginalize others. But that doesn’t change the fact that some people are, by historical, sociological, and ecclesiological definition, fundamentalists.) The worst part of the exchange however was the fact that my interlocutors didn’t even realize they were unable to speak the relevant language(s).

The exchange began when a blogger at the Christianpost.com named Olabode Ososami posted an article in which he defended the typical ultra-right wing charge that Harry Potter is bad because it will draw kids into the occult. Usually I ignore such semi-literate nonsense (by semi-literate I mean functional literacy hampered by the inability to interpret particular genres; by nonsense I mean poppycock). But this particular article was like a grain of sand in my clam shell. So I thought I’d turn it into a pearl. I put the signal on, pulled over to the side of the road, turned around and began speaking Fantasyse in a futile attempt to explicate the nature of literary genre and the meaning and function of fictional narrative texts.

Was the dialogue fated to fail? Perhaps. When people don’t even recognize that there is a language they are failing to speak how can the conversation possibly succeed? I repeated my points. Nothing. I slowed down and said them again. No luck. Ososami and his readers looked blankly back and kept talking about witchcraft. How sad.

Liberal arts education is the very means by which we become literate in different forms of communication and literature. Sadly, we live in a day when many people are casting doubt on the value of a liberal arts education. Case in point: two years ago the university that used to be a sister institution to my seminary disappeared and was replaced by a small for-profit technical college. I don’t doubt the value of learning how to be a travel agent or computer tech. But 6 month courses that seek to create functionaries in the social order as quickly as possible are no substitute for an education in the grand tradition.

Now back to the main story. One of Ososami’s readers, an anonymous individual who identifies him/herself as “mayneidea”, rushed to Ososami’s defense. May’s comments provided a great example of how futile conversation can be with those who lack the categories of a basic liberal arts education. May begins on a rhetorically loaded point: “Seems to me, RD, having read a couple of your blogs, that you like to prance around within the scriptures….” Why “prance”? The only things I know that prance are thoroughbreds and drag queens. Anyway, May continues, “finding the areas of controversy (like witchcraft) then finding what I can best described as “loopholes” in these areas.” That is a great example of how futile conversation is with a semi-literate. It doesn’t matter how much I slow down and repeat my explanations spoken in Fantasyese. According to May I am just looking for loopholes so I can ignore what the Bible really says about witchcraft.

This type of abortive conversation reminds me of the pastor who once asked me “Did the Bible happen or not?” How is one supposed to respond to such a bizarre, poorly-formed question? Believe me, I tried. But even as I began to explain why his question was so poorly-formed, I could see his eyes glazing over as if to say “Just answer the danged question Mr. Professor!” 

Anyway, May continues, “Then you seem to instruct Christians that we too can enjoy these loopholes: we cannot actually partake in in witchcraft but we can enjoy reading good fiction about witchcraft as the scriptures don’t “prohibit” the reading of it.” A statement like this makes me empathize with the curator of a museum who must field the complaint of a Baptist minister’s wife that Michelangelo’s David is obscene. How do you begin to respond to somebody who thinks that a great Renaissance sculpture is pornographic? About the same way you respond to somebody who thinks Harry Potter is satanic: with great difficulty.

Let me skip to May’s final two points. To begin with, May says “IF we follow your logic that reading fictional literature about witchcraft is fine (especially for the kids) then “reading” pornography would also be fine…after all scripture says not to participate in sexual immorality, doesn’t mean we can’t “read” about it.”

Now I am actually going to pause for a moment and court futility by considering this argument. According to May, pornography and fantasy literature are moral equivalents. Let me begin by tightening up the analogy. Since pornography is image-based, May should actually have invoked erotica as a comparison since it too is text-based. I have no problem agreeing with a proscription of erotica: 

(1) It is inherently wrong to read erotica for pleasure.

I accept that (1) is true because erotica of its nature exists to foment lust and lust is a sin. May wants us to believe something similar about fantasy lit:

(2) It is inherently wrong to read fantasy literature for pleasure.

But what does fantasy literature exist to foment that is contrary to biblical ethics in a way analogous to the lust promoted by erotica? Presumably the answer is something like “fascination in the occult”. But that’s just false. Aslan, Frodo, and Harry Potter don’t exist to foment fascination in the occult or in any other sinful behaviors. This whole embarrassing parallel with pornography (or erotica) simply evinces yet again May’s semi-literacy as one utterly unable to understand the nature and function of fantasy literature.

At the close of his/her comment, May attacks J.K. Rowling. This attack is a response to my point that Rowling is a committed Christian who has distinguished herself throughout her career by outstanding works of Christian service and charity: “Finally, I don’t give a rat’s behind about someone’s “apparent” standing in their church nor their charitable donations as these things say less about a person’s heart than writing kid’s books about witchcraft does.”

It is at that point that this semi-literate fundamentalism shows its really ugly side. Repeatedly Jesus talked about those who are truly his sheep as being identified by their aid for the weak, marginalized and down-trodden. Rowling has repeatedly demonstrated this kind of fruit. But May doesn’t give a “rat’s behind” to all that. And what would May have said had he/she been present when Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan? “I don’t give a rat’s behind about that Samaritan’s good works, for they say less about a person’s heart than the fact that they’re a Samaritan.”

So the whole conversation was fated from the start. If people don’t even realize they cannot speak the relevant language of a liberal arts education then it doesn’t matter how many times you repeat yourself. They still won’t understand. Tragically,  it is a vicious cycle for the fewer languages a person speaks the smaller their world gets, the more subtle nuances are lost, and the more impoverished their experience of reality becomes until their semi-literate perspective at last squeezes the last bit of magic out of the world.

 

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  • http://ochuk.com Adam Omelianchuk

    Oh good grief. I remember these types abounded ten years ago. I didn’t know they were still peddling the same BS.

    • randal

      The Christian Post is thick with them, as are countless suburban congregations around North America. I know many people who revile Harry Potter as “witchcraft”. But the vast majority of these people think the Lord of the Rings is okay. I have never heard a coherent explanation as to the difference. So they know what they hate. They just don’t know why? (That’s not true actually. For the most part they hate Harry based on the testimony of semi-literate fundamentalist leaders who promote their “ministries” by criticizing “the world”.)

      • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

        The (flawed) reasoning usually goes something like this:

        *The “wizards” Gandalf and Coriakin (LotR and Narnia, respectively) are analogues of angels and thus should be cast as forces of good.
        *Sauroman, the White Witch, and Dumbledore (along with Harry, Hermione, etc) are analogues of attempts at real-world witchcraft and thus should be cast as forces of evil.
        *LotR and Narnia accurately represent good as good and evil as evil, but HP represents evil as both good and evil, thus making it evil.

        This whole thing depends entirely on the incredibly faulty assumption that analogues between fantasy and real life are objective — i.e., if they think Harry is intended to represent real-world attempts at witchcraft, there isn’t any other possible explanation. It’s a gross misunderstanding of the fantasy genre in general, and requires them to ignore Elfin magic in LotR and the host of “good magic” in Narnia.

        Besides, the only people who would mistake Hogwarts magic for real-world attempts at sorcery are the sort of people who don’t know what real-world attempts at sorcery look like (and would recoil in horror if they did).

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  • Brad Haggard

    is it wrong that I will enjoy the Harry Potter series more now knowing JKR’s faith background?

    • randal

      Yeah, a Presbyterian author. How boring.

  • Walter

    Been there, done this.

    I grew up in an Independent Fundamental Baptist Church that taught us that the old TV show “Bewitched” was promoting the power of the Devil. I once bought a fantasy role-playing game called “Dungeons & Dragons” that my parents threw away in a fit of religious piety because it contained occult references.

    Luckily for me, my parents later softened their stance on much of this superstitious nonsense.

    • randal

      And then there are the countless Christian households that threw out all their Johnson and Johnson or Colgate-Palmolive products based on the urban legend that the corporation in question was run by Satanists. (eye-roll)

      • Walter

        Yep!

        I had forgotten about that until you mentioned it. In addition to that nonsense my old church would not allow facial hair, long hair on men, any music with a certain beat to it, and forget going to ANY movie theater. Yeah boy, those were the good old days. Is it any wonder I’m now a heathen?

        • randal

          I confess that I have real concerns about my daughter listening to anything with a hip hop beat. But heavy metal double bass, now that’s a different issue.

  • Beetle

    Randal, I very much appreciate you taking a fellow evangelical blogger, especially on your old stomping ground.

    > But spiritually, it [seeing the movie] will cost a Christian everything … and there are implications for nations.

    From my reading of Ososami’s article, he actually believes in witchcraft as a real tangible thing. He makes no allowance that witchcraft is, and always was, mere superstition. Do you disagree?

    • http://twitter.com/davidstarlingm davidstarlingm

      Whether witchcraft is real or not, Ososami’s argument is equally valid (or not). If a particular literary work is intended to push people away from truth and beauty and replace it with attractive counterfeits, then it is not wholesome and ought to be avoided.

      Since HP pushes people toward truth and beauty and offers no counterfeit (HP doesn’t remotely resemble any real-world attempts at divination or sorcery), Ososami’s argument falls flat.

      Do I believe witchcraft is possible? Well, I certainly believe in supernatural powers distinct from YHWH. Do I think those powers can be routinely accessed via chants, rituals, magic words, or spells? Don’t make me laugh.

      • Beetle

        I really do not see much difference between Ososami’s belief in the supernatural and your own.

        • randal

          Maybe, maybe not. But that’s not the issue. My issue is with Ososami’s view of popular culture and literature. He has a disturbingly dualistic view in which cultural products which are not explicitly “Christian” are “secular” and therefore suspect. To say we agree on the supernatural is like saying that Obama and the Michigan Militia agree that democracy is a good thing: it may be true but it ain’t very informative.

    • randal

      I believe that there are malevolent spiritual forces and that people can be affected adversely by them. But I have no idea what the term “witchcraft” refers to. It is so laden with pop culture nonsense as to be nearly useless. People like Ososami play off the ignorance of their audience (not intentionally mind you since they too are ignorant) by perpetuating Witches of Eastwick fears.

  • Robert

    My wife comes from a part of the world, as I imagine Ososami does, where witchcraft is fery real indeed. So I can understand him taking it seriously. But that’s not an excuse.

    The fundamentalists consistently fail to distinguish between different types of discourse. So fantasy writing gets confused with erotic fantasy, and they can’t see that one degrades women (or men as the case may be), while the other does nothing of the sort. It’s all on a par with their inability to distinguish between different genres in the Bible.

    • Jerry Rivard

      Are you saying that witchcraft is indeed real in certain parts of the world, or are you saying that it’s believed to be real in those parts? (Based on your past posts I would assume the latter, I’m just verifying.)

  • CarolJean

    It makes me appreciate more and more how God without hesitancy condescends with abundant love and goodness to each one of us, fundamentalist and elitist alike.

  • http://thelordgodexists.com/ Mike

    I have been designated by those who disagree with me as a Fundamentalist (perhaps correct in selected ways), yet I enjoyed this article. Additionally I have observed many rigid and pugnacious Fundies, nevertheless I find most of the Fundamentalists and strict Evangelicals I have known have an attitude that seeks peace, love, beauty, and truth. Moreover they read copious amounts of biblical and non-biblical volumes. And they seem to love Jesus deeply. I know that my observations do not necessarily contravene RR contentions.

    • randal

      “find most of the Fundamentalists and strict Evangelicals I have known have an attitude that seeks peace, love, beauty, and truth.”

      I think that’s true. I have spoken with many fundamentalists who think Harry Potter is evil but they are respectful about how they present their views and they recognize that other Christians disagree with them. Generally I don’t try to rock their boat (unless I know them very well).

  • Beetle

    Ososami deleted all the comments. :-(

    • randal

      The final trump card of the fundamentalist: censorship. I tried posting on his blog again and he deleted all my comments but left those of his fans (and yours too ironically enough).

  • afpierce

    “To complicate matters further, the poor fellow spoke no English and I spoke no Portuguese.”

    I fail to understand how not speaking English in Brazil qualifies the cabbie as ‘poor’. It would seem to me the more appropriate statement would be ‘Alas, poor me, I was in Brazil and could not speak Portuguese!”

    This (dare I say it) arrogance is also reflected in the conversation on ChristianPost — the problem is not their readers being able to talk your language but your inability to speak theirs–you Sir, were in their country.

    I agree, many of those folks making comments on the site do lack compassion and understanding but that should be seen as an opportunity for those Christians who have moved on from pap to hard food. Unfortunately they can make themselves easy to hate and despise when what they really need from readers here is love. This is the ability that sets Christians apart. There is plenty of room for Christ’s love in many of these posts.

    • randal

      “I fail to understand how not speaking English in Brazil qualifies the cabbie as ‘poor’. It would seem to me the more appropriate statement would be ‘Alas, poor me, I was in Brazil and could not speak Portuguese!””

      I think you’re incorrectly reading an anglocentrism into the article. Just below the section you quote I wrote: “Unable to speak Portuguese, I just replied dumbly, “I don’t understand.”” That was an act of intentional self-deprecation to highlight my own inability to speak the language of my host country. At the same time, with an ignorant English speaker in the back of his cab who was unable to communicate he was a poor fellow in a difficult situation.

      Next, you write the following reprimand to my presence at the Christian Post: “you Sir, were in their country.”

      afpierce, what do you mean by that? Do you mean metaphorically that the Christian Post is a conservative Christian website? Because whether it is or is not I’ve been blogging there regularly for more than two years. The vast majority of the blog readers have not been there that long. They’re in my country.

      Or do you mean that I’m a Canadian posting on an American website? If so, what relevance is that? How many of those commenting are American and what relevance is it what their passport says anyways?

      • afpierce

        Randal,

        Great questions. I did read an ‘Anglocentrism’ (probably better know as an ‘ugly Americanism’) in the usage of the word ‘poor’ to describe the cabby. He wasn’t the one in a pickle, you were, no language, no cash …

        I first started following you on the Christian Post and followed you here when you left. I do check to see if you’ve posted there and since your return I routinely follow here to see what’s up. My point is, when it comes to contributors to the CP you’re anomalous (in a good way I think). The site is roamed by fundamentalists on both sides and the arguments are indeed farcical, narrow and ill-informed for the most part. I think it comes with the territory.

        In Ireland they have a term for outsiders: a ‘Blow-in’. I have been told I’ll keep the status until I have grandparents in the local churchyard. After 10 years here I’m still not Irish and probably never will be. Just being somewhere undoubtedly gives me a claim to something but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m the one that’s different. On the CP you’re different–the stranger in a strange land. We can argue about the metaphor but perhaps you do understand the point.

  • Brad Haggard

    Randal, I just read the ososami article for the first time, and I think it may have more to do with his ministry experience of witchcraft than the typical fundy anti-intellectualism. I think we North americaners don’t always appreciate that. I know that when I was introduced to the practice of idolatry in Mexico, I was at a loss to see how those idols held any power over anyone. But I just had to accept it and work to combat it in ministry.

    But, of course, Al Mohler types don’t have that same cultural connection.

    • randal

      “I think it may have more to do with his ministry experience of witchcraft than the typical fundy anti-intellectualism.”

      I think it is both/and. For example, in the comment thread (which Ososami has since deleted) he made the statement that Christian authors should spend their time writing stories about the Bible rather than other themes. Think about the nature of that claim: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, Graham Greene and Flannery O’Conner and all the rest should have directed their talents toward narratival moralistic retellings of Noah’s Ark and Jonah and the whale. That kind of statement reflects a simplistic and stark dualism between good/biblical and bad/worldly which is the very foundation of a fundamentalist marginalization of the broader world. And that, of course, leads to the social marginalization of the fundamentalist which demonstrates how self-destructive this whoe process is in the long-term.

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