By Dr. Brett Salkeld

By now, many of us will have seen the news that a Catholic school in Nashville has removed the Harry Potter books from its library at the insistence of the pastor responsible for the parish school.  (Here in Saskatchewan, with publically funded Catholic schools, we are not familiar with this arrangement.)  What are we to make of this?  Is this pastor a kook?  Or should all of our Catholic schools be doing the same thing?  And, more broadly, should Catholic parents let their kids read Harry Potter?


As someone who has been quoted in media stories to ill effect myself, I want to be cautious and point out that I am only able to analyze the pastor’s position based on what he is reported to have said.  The news stories quote an e-mail that seems quite likely to accurately represent his views, but it is possible that there is context we don’t know about or that he might wish to rephrase.


Given these caveats, let’s look at the text itself.  The reason given for removing the books is that:


"These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception. The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text."  


What strikes me most about this paragraph is not that the pastor thinks magic is not good but only evil, but that he thinks magic is real.  Let me clarify.  My suggestion that magic is not real is not a claim that there is no such thing as spiritual warfare or that there are no evil spirits that seek our harm and that watch for opportunities to do so.  It is not even to say that certain notorious instruments in our culture (say, a Ouija board) might not be particularly well suited to evoke such opportunities.  Rather, I want to say such spirits do not operate in the way that popular accounts of “magic” imagine they do.


Popular accounts of magic, such as those found in Harry Potter (and somewhat differently in The Lord of the Rings), imagine that certain formulas, if said by people imbued with certain powers, and done in the right manner (rubrics are often very important) actually achieve things in the material universe.


The suggestion of the pastor’s second quoted sentence, that the Harry Potter books contain real spells and curses that can operate in our world, seems predicated on this idea.  It is a conceit of certain types of fiction that can be done well or poorly from a literary point of view, but when applied to our world it is really just superstition.  To be blunt, the Catholic Church does not believe that these spells and curses are real, not just because we don’t think J. K. Rowling wrote real spells and curses into her books, but because we do not believe there is any such thing!


The pastor is partly right, however.  Playing around with such things can be dangerous.  But not because they are real.  They are dangerous because superstition is dangerous.  They are dangerous because they are unreal.  Treating unreal things as if they are real opens us up to deception.  Our minds are story-telling and meaning-making machines that construct narratives to make sense of our experience in light of the categories we feed it.  When we feed them unreality, we end up believing false things and making bad choices.  Horoscopes are basically harmless when nobody takes them seriously, but they become genuinely dangerous when people actually start to use them to interpret the events of their lives and make decisions based on them.


But however correct he may be about the reality of spiritual danger, he himself is making the situation worse, not better, by superstitiously misrepresenting the way evil functions.  It is not a basically mechanistic reality, but a spiritual and relational one, where the key theme is the distinction between truth and falsehood, not the wording of spells.


Which brings us to the first sentence.  If the second sentence is a more or less uncritical assumption that magic works in real life the way it works in fantasy fiction, the first touches on something a little deeper.  The pastor writes that, “These books present magic as both good and evil, which is not true, but in fact a clever deception.”  What are we to make of this critique?


The obvious rebuttal is that the archetypes of fantasy fiction are C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (and the rest of his writings about Middle Earth).  Two works which are Christian to the core and which both have magic being used for good and for evil.  The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the central text of the Narnia series, even talks explicitly about the good magic being stronger (and older) than the bad magic when explaining how Aslan’s death (a not overly subtle allegory for the crucifixion of Christ) overcomes the power of the White Witch.  And those opposed to Harry Potter want this book introduced into our libraries if they don’t already have it!  (I’m with them on that, by the way.)


This rebuttal is often tossed off quickly with a “case-closed” kind of air.  And indeed, if the argument is simply that the Harry Potter series is bad because magic is used for good and evil in it, those opposed to it should seem to be opposed to Lewis and Tolkien for the same reasons.


But very often there is a deeper moral intuition behind these claims that seem so easily dismissed.  If I may, I would like to restate the pastor’s concern for him.  It is not so much that the books “present magic as both good and evil,” but that they present many things, magic included, as morally ambiguous or even unserious.


Readers of Harry Potter who are steeped in a Christian worldview will recognize many good things in them.  J.K. Rowling is herself a practicing Christian and Harry is undoubtedly a Christ figure by the end of the series, willing to make the ultimate sacrifice so that others might live.  But they will also often find themselves uneasy in the moral universe Rowling has constructed.  The is a certain lack of moral seriousness in the repeated instances of Harry and his friends breaking the rules, getting away with it, and even being lauded for it after everything turns out OK.  The relationship between Harry and Dumbledore is often in stark contrast to that between the hobbits and Gandalf.  Gandalf never winks at wrongdoing, even if he forgives it.


The use of magic in Harry Potter is a bit of a red herring.  Magic is morally ambiguous in Harry Potter because the whole moral world of Harry Potter is morally ambiguous.


So, we shouldn’t let our kids read them, right?


Not exactly.


Children’s literature today is chock full of things dramatically worse than Harry Potter which completely escape our notice because they don’t have something like “magic” to catch our attention.  From a Christian point of view, Harry Potter is not perfect, but it’s also not that bad.  And it has many redeeming qualities.


Here’s what we did in our family.  My wife read the whole series before the children were old enough to read it themselves.  We started them on Lewis and Tolkien and didn’t introduce Harry Potter until they were utterly soaked in Narnia and Middle Earth.  Then we introduced Harry Potter and have initiated conversations about the good and the bad in it.  Other families have done this by reading it aloud to their children so they can engage them in conversation about it as they read.


Keeping kids away from Harry Potter as if it is bad magic is bound to backfire.  It is likely to only increase their curiosity while simultaneously decreasing their capacity to be critical readers.  To engage, instead, with a popular and exciting book with your kids from a Christian point of view builds the essential skills they’ll need to navigate a whole world of quasi-Christian, non-Christian, and anti-Christian art.  And you might even have fun doing it.

UPDATE:  Parents who choose to read Harry Potter with their children, and/or who want to engage children who are reading it for themselves, simply must read the following analysis by Stephen Greydanus.  It is an excellent and thorough account of how magic works differently in Rowling, Lewis, and Tolkien.  Note, however, that it is written before the Harry Potter series was complete and that some of the moral qualms he mentions with the Potter books are handled differently in the later books.  Also, if at all possible, make sure your kids are getting Lewis and Tolkien first. If they can't read them, use audiobooks and the excellent radio productions made by Focus on the Family (Lewis) and the BBC (Tolkien).

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