A reader named RB has offered a comment and question concerning our favorite magician, Harry Potter:
I really appreciate your blogs on Harry Potter and your goal to challenge typical evangelical thinking. It needs done. I’m wondering what your opinions are on sorcery being used within a story (as in LOTR, Narnia, and Harry Potter). I have no problem with it, but that is the main argument my family uses against Harry Potter. They say that since the Bible commands us not to use sorcery, it shouldn’t be used in a story, so we shouldn’t watch/read them if they do. I disagree with them, but I’m having trouble explaining to them why fantasy literature is not of the devil. What do you think about this?
This is a tough question to answer RB. As I already noted, the ideal would be the provision of a liberal arts education for those who lack it. Just as immersion in a culture enables one to speak a new language so immersion in a classic liberal arts education equips one to read texts effectively. And once you’ve learned how to read texts, the very kinds of problems your family raises simply fall away.
But I recognize that enrolling critics of Harry Potter in the nearest accredited Bachelor of Arts program is, in most circumstances, not a practical solution. So I offer you two further possibilities.
The Disney Response
If your family likes Disney cartoons then you could ask them whether it is okay to watch “Fantasia”, “Snow White”, “Pinnochio”, “Peter Pan”, “Sleeping Beauty”, and all the other classic Disney cartoons that make use of magic. Put them on the defensive. Challenge them to articulate the difference between the fantasy they deem acceptable, such as “Fantasia”, and the fantasy that they say isn’t, such as poor Harry Potter. If they fail to articulate salient differences between the fantasy they find acceptable and the likes of Harry Potter then hopefully they will rethink their position on Potter. (On the other hand, it is also possible that they might retrench by repudiating Disney films. That would be a most unfortunate response but one that I have seen. However, in that case the best you could do would be to leave them to rethink that extreme reaction to “Fantasia”.)
The Two Countries Response
What we really want to do, I suspect, is to get your family to appreciate that Harry Potter doesn’t belong in our world, and our prohibitions on “sorcery” don’t belong in his. Toward the end of communicating that basic distinction I offer the following illustration.
Imagine that you’ve grown up in the streets of Haiti, a country with one of the most corrupt police forces in the world. Having grown up in Haiti you were taught the following:
Don’t go to the police when you’re in danger.
Your mother drilled that into you from a young age given that in Haiti the police are the biggest threat of all.
However one day playing in the streets of Port-au-Prince you hear of a city called “Toronto” in which people follow a very different maxim:
Go to the police when you’re in danger.
That makes no sense to you. After all, the police are corrupt. They could as likely kill or rob you as help you.
The problem, of course, is that Toronto is a different world than Port-au-Prince. In Toronto the police are a force for good, even if they are a force of corruption in Haiti.
The world we live in (the real world) and the world Harry Potter lives in (J.K. Rowling’s fictional world) are as different as Port-au-Prince and Toronto. Just as some things are true in Toronto which are false in Port-au-Prince, so some things are true in the real world which are false in Rowling’s fictional world (and vice versa).
With that in mind let’s carry our analogy further. Reading Harry Potter and thus entering into Rowling’s fictional world is like a person from Haiti getting on a plane in Port-au-Prince and travelling to Toronto. While visiting Toronto the person recognizes that the police are a force for good just as the reader recognizes that within Rowling’s books Potter’s magic is a force for good. But when the person gets back on the plane and flies back to Port-au-Prince they recognize that the police are again to be avoided. By the same token, the reader of Harry Potter recognizes that when they close the book and place it back on the shelf they leave his world of benevolent magic behind.