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Volume 14, Issue 2: Recipio

Potter's Magic

Ben Merkle

An amused DJ on a local classic rock station reported on a pastor in New Mexico who had organized a Harry Potter book burning. Apparently the pastor had claimed that the books taught children to do magic. How accurate the DJ

was being in his representation of the event is probably questionable, but the existence of the event points out how typical it is for evangelicals to grab the entirely wrong end of the stick. The DJ rushed to Potter's defense, pointing out that the books were fun and that they didn't teach children to do magic, but rather they taught kids to read. However, the DJ's defense points out from the start that Potter is not a significant threat. If the only power the book has is that of fighting illiteracy in the public schools, then what reason do we have to worry about it? It must be impotent. The book must be a fun read, but little more.
Of course, nothing is that simple.
To say that Harry Potter wasn't written under the inspiration of demonic powers (the way "Hotel California" was) is not the same thing as saying that there is no danger in reading it. The book has some wonderfully developed characters and several clever twists. But to grant this doesn't mean that the reader doesn't need to approach the book with a discerning eye. And this should be nothing new. Readers of Henty books and the Elsie Dinsmore series need just as much discernment (and sometimes more) to weed out all of the silliness.
To attempt to dismiss the Potter books merely because they contain the category of "magic" is about as thick-headed as dismissing Moby Dick because it contains the category of "ocean." Of all people, Christians ought to know that magic is every bit as real as the ocean and therefore ought to be featured in books as prominently as the ocean. The mere existence of a reference to magic in a book ought not to demand our condemnation. The problem is not with the existence of the category. The problem is what is said about that category. Does Moby Dick tell the truth about the ocean? Does Harry Potter tell the truth about magic?
Most of the defenders of the Potter books attempt to defend them by arguing that they are more or less "harmless." And this is where the real problem with the book comes in. For the most part, the book is harmless. Not only that, but, for the most part, the magic is harmless. The magic of Potter is frequently a cheap mimicry of modern technology. Little magicians covet the latest model of flying broom (the Nimbus 2000), eat Jelly Beans that taste like ear wax, and agonize over their homework for courses like Levitation 101. In the Potter books, an encounter with magic is not an encounter with the transcendent, but merely a mimicry of the pedantic.
This is where the book becomes dangerous. Magic is anything but pedantic. Magic is a brief glimpse of the otherworldly, the transcendent. It, in some small part, pictures the Incarnation, the moment when the Light of Light walked among us. As Tolkien put it, "It is magic of a particuliar mood and power, at the furthest pole from the vulgar devices of the laborious, scientific, magician. There is one proviso: if there is any satire present in the tale, one thing must never be made fun of, the magic itself. That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away" ("On Fairy Tales," p. 114). But this is exactly what the magic in Potter tends towards.
Potter's magic is a magic for materialists. It is a magic that comes from nowhere and leads to nowhere. It attempts to make magic a neutral category that can be approached however one wishes. Everyone gets a degree from the same school and does with it whatever he or she deems fit. But the magic itself is impersonal. Sure there is a hero and an arch-villain. But they both draw from the same neutral force. And it would seem that this impersonal force could probably care less whether either of them existed, let alone which one of them was to win.
This is one of the things that Tolkien did well. His magic is always personal. The Forest of Lothlorien feels the way it does, because it is under the power of Lady Galadriel. Mordor feels the way it does because it is under the power of Sauron. One can't use magic in Middle Earth without immediately orienting oneself to cosmic powers. Every spell is biased. It comes from somewhere and leads to some ultimate purpose. Although Tolkien is never quite explicit in the text, he is always deliberately describing a Christian world, created by the Christian God.
So Potter's harmlessness is really its biggest flaw. But this is no different than most books that Christians allow their children to thoughtlessly read. How many authors write as if trees are neutral? How many parents let their children go on reading stories about porcupines that presuppose the myth of neutrality? How often do we watch the ocean and miss the cosmic implications?
Consequently, Harry Potter doesn't need to be burned, unless of course we are going to burn the bulk of our literature collections. He's a fine read for a Christian, so long as we pity all the things that the book is missing.

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