a few words on harry potter, storytelling, and christianity.

A few days ago, I finally had a chance to watch the last of the Harry Potter movies, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2″. The movies run the range from excellent (Deathly Hallows Pt.2, Half-Blood Prince) to competent (the first two movies, directed by Chris Columbus) to odd and head-scratchingly inconsistent with the characters of the novel in places (Azkaban). Overall, however, they’re a remarkable achievement because they manage to replicate in movie form what makes the books so unique: they progress and grow with the characters through seven years.

After I finished Deathly Hallows, I had the impulse to read the books and watch all the movies again from the beginning because I was sad to see the story end. This is what makes great storytelling to me–when you feel a nostalgia and sense of loss for a world that never existed except in your head and that of the author. it also reaffirmed my personal theory of storytelling: that a novel ultimately stands and falls with the author’s ability to make us care about the characters. Ideally, a good novel has both great characters and a great plot, but a novel with a humdrum plot can still be great if we care enough about the characters and the world in which they move. On the obverse, the best and most airtight plot will not save a novel with bland and uninteresting characters. If we don’t care about the people in it, the story becomes uninteresting even when the author is firmly in command of the plot and throws in narrative razzle-dazzle.

Harry Potter isn’t about witchcraft and wizardry. Those are the dressing on the salad, the tinsel on the tree, the swirl on the pastry. Harry Potter is about friendship and love and loyalty, about family and the nature of life and death, and about what’s truly important in life, the qualities that define us as human beings. That’s why the criticism of the series from certain segments of Christianity is not only misguided, but profoundly unfair. So much of the Harry Potter books could actually serve as Christian allegory (and far more effectively than C.S. Lewis’ heavy-handed pap in the Narnia books) that people who accuse Harry Potter of being the Devil’s work only show that they either don’t have a clue what the books are about (and many haven’t even read them), or that their version of Christianity is a particularly loveless and grim one.

I know that most Christians don’t have a problem with Harry Potter. Most of the Christians I know, for example, read the books and let their children read them, simply because they’re good entertainment that ultimately champions good values. But I have come to understand why some Christians reject the books, and why they’re invariably members of the inflexible and fundamental branches of Christianity. You see, the Christians I know and get along with have an understanding that books are a way to make us understand our nature and our place in the world, and that nothing is literal in fiction. They apply this attitude to the Bible as well–Jesus speaks in parables, the lessons of the New Testament are to be seen in context, and the spirit of the book is in the totality of its message.

There’s another kind of Christian, though, and they treat the Bible differently. For them, the important thing is that parts of it have lists of black-and-white rules, lots of “Thou shalt not” and so on. They are the ones who see the Bible as literal truth. What’s important is not the message or the intent or the spirit of the book, but the lists of printed rules that can be followed. They absolve the believer from having to apply their own judgment, from having to examine an issue from all sides and see it both in the context of human experience and the spirit of the book’s message. That would require having to attempt to understand the issue, when it’s much easier to hold it up against the go/no-go gauge of Leviticus et. al.  The Bible says “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”, Harry Potter talks of witches and wizards, ergo Harry Potter is anti-Biblical and therefore un-Christian. It doesn’t require understanding, or exercising judgment, or even reading the books in question. In reality, Harry and his friends embody values that Christianity claims as virtuous. They are kind, fair, loyal, and concerned with the suffering of others. They face evil with courage even at the risk of their own lives. Most importantly, they love each other and remain loyal to friends and family even in the face of persecution. Those are all professed Christian virtues, aren’t they? I mean, if you’re going to encourage your kid to read, isn’t that the kind of stuff a Christian would want their kid to read and like? When it comes to moral lessons in literature, you could do a lot worse than Harry Potter.

Do I believe in the literal truth of Harry Potter, that reading the books will make my kid turn to witchcraft? Not any more than I believe in the existence of God or gods or divinity in general. I don’t believe that I can point a wand at an object and make it levitate by saying “Wingardium Leviosa”. But I do believe in the power of love and friendship and beauty, the things that elevate us above just being meat–and those are the essence of the Harry Potter books, not wands and spells and witchcraft.

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29 thoughts on “a few words on harry potter, storytelling, and christianity.

  1. Richard Keistler says:

    I’m a faithful Roman Catholic and I have no problems with the Potter books, though I haven’t read them entirely or intently. Parents raising their children properly will also teach their kids the difference between fantasy and reality. Fifty years ago when I was a little kid, we had Arabian Nights, Tom Swift and I can’t remember what else. We all knew that was just funning around. I think the problem is parents not doing their job. Thanks for the excellent post, as always!

  2. Richard Keistler says:

    You know what all of this reminds me of? Back in the sixties and seventies when goofy people were playing their LP’s backwards trying to find Satanic verses and codes in the records. More decent vinyl got ruined that way-

  3. Jerry says:

    Good writing Marco. The best argument used on me was “what’s your opinion of the Disney stories? Snow White, Sleeping Beauty etc.” Those were just animations of “Fairy Tales” but served to show me the narrow sightedness of those who would seek to limit my thoughts and dreams.

    BTW, those who would limit us are not all Christians. There are others who follow other teachings.

  4. LittleRed1 says:

    The people who come unglued at the wizardry in Harry Potter probably see nothing amusing in the story of Balaam’s ass in the Tanakh (Old Testament), either. I went to college with a few folks like that. Generally decent human beings but very limited in some ways. At best they are well meaning. At worst they back into the followers of another faith: you know, the ones who tend to run around defending their deity from jokes and comments by non-believers.

    Besides, who says that G-d can’t use seven well written novels and their movies to get a point across? ;)

  5. JDS says:

    Excellent post, Marko. As a Christian, I cannot wait until my kids are old enough to enjoy Harry Potter, for precisely the reasons you mentioned. I could never quite wrap my head around those who extol C.S. Lewis, and demonize J.K Rowling.

  6. Dave says:

    It’s the same silliness that drives “zero tolerance” policies, and you hit it squarely on the head: it absolves them from thinking. “True believers” of every stripe–religious, political, any sort of authority–seem to become afflicted with the concept that they can reduce that authority to black-and-white rules that can be followed programmatically, and that anybody who doesn’t hew to the prescriptions and proscriptions is a Bad Person. The approach lacks subtlety, so it naturally appeals to the simple or lazy mind; “understanding, or exercising judgment” requires work, work which they may not be prepared or willing to do.

  7. BBJ says:

    I dont know about Potter, never been tempted by the shows or the books. I have no patience for either SF or fantasy – they have become a means for gays to push their agenda and all the good stuff has been done already without the baggage that today’s politically correct writer is saddled with.

    I think there is a war on with Christianity and the liberals and the story tellers have, by and large – taken the wrong side. Your mileage may vary, suit yourself. I have better stuff to read and see.

  8. Joe E. says:

    So, SF and fantasy are a gay conspiracy? Just wow.

    • Marko Kloos says:

      Didn’t you know? I have to get my plots and novel ideas approved by the Gay Agenda Committee for the Subversion of Christian America now.

      • BBJ says:

        Perhaps not Marko, but unfortunately legions of hack authors doing warmed over plots they stole from stories written decades ago – use such crap to rebrand their drivel as something new. In the end, the SF/fantasy plots are all the same: protagonist saves the day by waving an enchanted spoon, or deploying a tachyon powered static warp field to foil the antagonist and they live happily ever after. Only now, to be different, instead of the boy getting the girl, the man gets the man in the end.

        Hey, if you can write it and sell it go ahead. And I only use the queers as an example. This problem extends to Hollywood too – using the story to push a political agenda. Sometimes it can be done…but more often, when poor writers try and use the story as a medium to push a political agenda – be it socialist, homosexual, alternative or ‘other’ – it degenerates into pulp propaganda and turd polishing.

        I think alot of this is driven by what faces today’s author: true originality is incredibly difficult to achieve. So cheap ‘parlour tricks’ are used to liven things up – be it sex, sin, perversion or what have you.

        For a voracious reader like me – hell, I’ve seen it. Over and over and over again. Your politics don’t become more acceptable because you wrapped them up in an SF turd. I want to be entertained – not lectured by some leftie/libertarian/homosexual flit!

        Just my two cents. That – and I think the purple tele-tubby is gay. The munchkins are warned.

        • Nomen Nescio says:

          of course everybody’s doing warmed over plots stolen from older stories. it’s arguable that everybody has to — there’s just not enough plots for everybody to invent their own. authors and playwrights were stealing each others’ plots back in ancient Greece; what matters is how well you can present it.

          as for authors’ politics ending up poisoning their works, yeah, that happens — on both sides of the aisle. people categorize Heinlein’s books into those written before and after the brain eater got him, and even though i love Mike Williamson’s Freehold, i have to consciously ignore the ridiculous libertarian preaching in it.

        • Silverevilchao says:

          Wow, the hypocrisy of a bible-reader complaining about the lack of originality in sci-fi/fantasy stories blows my mind.

        • Marko Kloos says:

          He probably never heard the story of Mithras, who was born of a virgin in December, was visited after his birth by magi who brought gifts, had twelve companions, performed baptisms, was called “the way, the truth and the light”, was buried in a tomb and rose again after the third day.

        • Jim Sullivan says:

          BBJ said- ” Only now, to be different, instead of the boy getting the girl, the man gets the man in the end. ”

          Dude. Seriously.

  9. the pawnbroker says:

    As to the stories, their entertainment value, fantasy nature, and underlying positive messages, I can’t quibble with your assessment at all. But here’s where you lose me:

    “Do I believe in the literal truth of Harry Potter…? Not any more than I believe in the existence of God…”

    Nor, apparently, any less. That you place a superhero born from the mind and pen of a talented writer on the same plane with Christianity itself, speaks…well, volumes.

    • Marko Kloos says:

      Question for you:

      Do you reject the claim of Muslim theologians that the Koran is the word of God–not just “divinely inspired” like the Bible, but the actual verbatim dictated word of God?

      If you do (and I assume here that you do, since you don’t self-identify as a Muslim), what basis do you have for your rejection?

      • the pawnbroker says:

        It’s not their religion that I reject, but yours…which seems to have as its primary tenet the rejection (and belittlement) of all others.

        What basis do you have for that?

        • Marko Kloos says:

          Oh, I don’t even know where to start with you on this one.

          First of all, you weaseled out of an answer. Secondly, why is it “belittlement” of your religion when I say that I consider the Bible a work of fiction?

          I reject all religions because a.) I haven’t found any evidence that any of them are objective truth, and b.) because I reject the entire concept of religious thought, which is the existence of the supernatural. It’s as simple as that. You’re almost an atheist yourself, because you reject all religions save one. If you can understand why you reject all the other religions, you’ll understand why I reject yours. If it’s “belittlement” for me to say that your holy book is fiction, then it’s equally belittlement for you to dismiss all the world’s holy books *except* yours as fiction.

          Lastly, why does it make a damn bit of a difference to you whether I believe or not?

          And you really need to recalibrate your offense meter. Read through my post again, and the section that triggered your umbrage. I merely said that I don’t believe in Harry Potter’s literal truth any more than I believe in the existence of God, or gods. If *that’s* enough to get you all worked up in a lather and question my character, it really speaks more about your faith than my lack thereof. And if you’re that convinced that my lack of belief makes me this condescending, shitty, mean person who just disrespects religious people, then what the high and holy fuck are you doing reading this blog?

  10. Eric says:

    I’m just happy kids were reading. My daughter is 3, so she reads whatever books I buy for her. When she’s old enough and if she wants to, her mom has the whole set, set aside for just that.

  11. Windy Wilson says:

    The people opposed to Harry Potter are also generally opposed to Santa Claus as well. Ol’ St. Nick has a lot of godlike powers, seeing what we do when we are awake, watching us when we’re asleep and knows if we’re bad or good. The fundamentalists overlook the fact that young children do not process abstract concepts well at all, and the use of a personality to illustrate an idea such as generosity helps internalize the character trait. Santa Claus is God with training wheels.

  12. peter says:

    I’m sick of people who cherry-pick Leviticus for the verses they approve of. How many obey ALL of the rules listed there? When was the last time their church performed a burnt offering in accordance with the rules? It’s a “shall”, not an option.

    Those are the same folks who condemmed “Life of Brian” without seeing it.

    Arrgh.

    The Harry Potter stories are all the Rudyard Kipling public-school values — loyalty, friendship, duty, honor — with a veneer of magic. We read them for the characters, not the sparkly bits. J.K. Rowling is about as “satanic” as Terry Pratchett.

  13. ATLien says:

    I like the battle of good v. evil and how evil uses the power of the state to crush those that would disagree with them (in the later books, at least.)

    I am going to read them again, too. I’m going to start with year 1 in German. I haven’t had practice like that for a while.

  14. the pawnbroker says:

    Wow, talk about umbrage, “…what the high and holy fuck are you doing reading this…”!?!?

    You’ve made several wrong assumptions here including that my interests are one-dimensional, and further, you presume to know my specific beliefs, which is a mean feat considering that I really don’t myself. But what the fuck I’m doing here is that I know that you have other redeeming qualities, e.g. “Why the gun…” etc. Unless your own religious beliefs trump all else and cause you to ban all who question them, in which case you can just delete me…which of course would make you king of the single dimension.

    “I reject all religions because a.) I haven’t found any evidence that any of them are objective truth, and b.) because I reject the entire concept of religious thought, which is the existence of the supernatural. It’s as simple as that.”

    That’s what I was looking for. As to b.), you may well reject everything (?) supernatural, but my observation is that you reject all religions except the one you actively and condescendingly practice, just like most everyone else. Which brings us back to a.), the premise that anything that is unproven therefore does not exist. Notwithstanding that it’s a good thing you’re a practitioner of literature and not science, a discipline entirely founded on the attempt to prove the heretofore unproven, one could say that by that standard, belief and non-belief are on equal footing and are essentially the same.

    But you are right; I don’t give a damn about your personal beliefs except as to why it makes you care so deeply, so vehemently, about those of Christians. I still don’t know, but I do know that you baited for response, got it, went ballistic, and in general protesteth way the fuck too much about something you profess to be non-existent. Huh.

    • Marko Kloos says:

      I don’t practice a religion, so please don’t play semantic games. If you define atheism as a religion, then the term loses its meaning.

      *I* baited for a response? You’re the one who read some sort of seething hatred into a simple sentence in the middle of a 500-word blogpost and extrapolated unsavory character traits from it. I went off on that not because of religion, or the existence of God, or whatever else, but purely and simply because your presumptuous attitude pissed me off. Clear enough for you?

      (And you still haven’t done me the courtesy of even trying to answer my questions. Trying to argue with you is like trying to nail a potful of grits to the wall. Therefore, I will no longer waste my time doing it. I won’t delete your comments, but I’ll no longer respond to them.)

  15. the pawnbroker says:

    Ah, the old non-ban ban; seems appropriate in this context, and probably a good choice. Cheers.

    • Ken says:

      Still didn’t answer the questions.

      • pawnbroker says:

        Really Ken?

        I did, but Marko wasn’t interested; his original question was a redirection device. But you re-read the exchange and let me know if you don’t see an answer for every question, and Marko’s forbearance I’ll parse it for you.

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