Friday, October 5, 2007

Harry and His Friends

by Robert A. Howard

Harry Potter has captivated the world’s children. Sons and daughters who were struggling with or uninterested in books are suddenly voracious readers. Adults generally value this shift because the ability to read and comprehend is essential to success in adult life. For families grounded in Scripture, literacy is a virtue as well as a necessity. Parents and preachers use poetry, parable, and biography from history’s most popular book to instruct their charges on the differences between good and evil. Christians believe these differences have certain and profound implications for human experience.

Because the Bible can be hard to read and understand, a vast literature of commentary, children’s stories and adult non-fiction has arisen to assist understanding and instruction. Still, the results are often imperfect and incomplete. In spite of appeals to grace and inspiration, Bible scholars regularly disagree on the meaning of specific verses, chapters or books. So do regular folk who read the Bible.

Disagreements have also arisen over the content of Harry Potter saga. The wizards, witches and other magical elements of these stories have put many Christian parents at odds with their children, with each other and, if they have read and enjoyed the books too, with themselves. Doesn’t magic confuse children about how real life works? Isn’t Potter’s popularity really evidence of how cleverly Evil has blended storytelling and magic to confuse and corrupt children?

I think when many people decide whom to trust in these matters, they feel bound to accept that judgment, first because the spiritual and emotional well-being of their children are at stake, and second, because parents do not feel equipped to examine the culture for spiritual dangers. Also, confronting those who claim authority and expertise here can be daunting. Under these circumstances, believing a book is evil is due more to convenience rather than to thoughtful examination.
It seems fair to me, and prudent, to examine the manner in which seductive evil can show up in literature, film, and other cultural expressions. But by itself, this examination does not seem enough. I suggest that looking at what might be wrong with Harry Potter requires that you also consider what might be right. For both children and adults, missing something valuable in life can be as destructive as misidentifying what is dangerous. The Bible is a clear example that evil in a story does not make the story evil, nor does it make you miss in that grand story what is good and right.

My good friend Andy Hanson, Professor of Education at California State University, Chico, responded to the Potter-is-evil argument by examining the literary tradition of magic in literature. He writes, “In my opinion, and the opinions of the vast majority of children's book editors and critics, these books belong in the same fantasy genre as Homer’s Odyssey, T. H. White’s The Sword in the Stone, Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising books, Lloyd Alexander’s Pridane Series, and L’Engles’ A Wrinkle in Time. If we decide to ban books dealing with the supernatural, we would have to get rid of works by Shakespeare, A Christmas Carole by Charles Dickens, Walt Disney's Snow White and Cinderella, and The Chronicles of Narnia, by C. S. Lewis, where supernatural evil creatures are actually portrayed torturing and killing the defenseless Christ figure, Aslan.”
Hanson then quotes John Monk, editorial writer for “The State,” in Columbia, South Carolina, who writes that the Potter books ‘…combine the detective work of the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, the mirthful wordplay of Dr. Seuss, and the lampoon portraits of Charles Dickens.’ Hanson then suggests that “…if you claim the Potter books lure children into witchcraft, you might as well say that the Shirley Temple movies set in the nineteenth century South teach young viewers to be slave holders, or, as he quotes Monk further, ‘…Treasure Island entices children to be pirates, or Peter Pan urges children to run away from home.’ ”

Andy penetrated my intellectual snobbery about reading the Potter books by gently suggesting I might enjoy them. Then he gave me a kind smile and loaned me his hard cover copies. I started reading Potter because I trusted our friendship, and I trusted him. Andy has trained teachers for over thirty years, and has taught students from elementary age to graduate school. He and his wife Claudia have raised three children, one of them an adopted daughter, and are attentive and loving grandparents. They are deeply devoted to each other, their family, their faith, and their church community. It did not look to me like Hell had kindled in the pages of Potter and was now slowly roasting them alive. In their home, I just saw and felt love. I still do.

Andy recognizes that his literary argument may do little to convince certain parents to consider Harry Potter in terms other than evil. So I offer some additional perspectives on J. K. Rowling’s books. I have both academic and clinical training in the psychological and relational factors within individuals, between partners in committed relationships, and in families. I have lived my entire life in a Christian tradition, and I work every day to grow up my faith, my heart, and my reason. As an avid reader and writer, I see reading as much an act of the imagination, intellect and conscience as is faith or worship. It looks to me like all this happens in relationship.

What each child brings to any book depends in part on the family they live in, in part on their stage of development. Children are both open and susceptible to a story because their imagination and interpretive abilities are in the process of being formed. In order to develop an imagination that is truly theirs, they need a balance between guidance and freedom. When adults are impervious to a story’s possibilities because their imagination and ideas have become fixed, they risk being uninformed and untrustworthy guides for both their children’s moral conscience and their imagination.

Relationships drive our human experience, imagination, and the meaning we make of our lives. Faith flowers and fades in relationship. I miss the point of my relationship with Christ if I neglect or abuse my relationships with others. So I ask readers to consider the Harry Potter saga a wholesome story with important lessons for children about character development, virtue, adulthood and wisdom. I ask you to explore how these pretend and magical children bring us lessons about sacrifice and the redemptive power of love. You may discover that Harry Potter Saga has much to teach us all about friends, family and community.

In light of the virtues of this story, is Harry Potter an evil waiting outside the walls of our children’s hearts and souls, slipping in through the unguarded doors ajar in their imagination? This is an important question. I believe a thoughtful answer requires that we account for all that we can know, and connect that with the best we can imagine.

Children do not read any story in a relationship vacuum. They bring their family experience, as well as their developing imaginations, into their reading. Both aspects must be accounted for as a family navigates a story, searching out both its treasures and its dangers.

Human imagination and the supernatural are separate realms, each inhabited by good and evil. It is still largely a mystery how these two realms connect with and inform each other. Western science and culture have not been helpful guides here. What seems clear is that imagination is something like magic. Out of thin air, we make up stories about pretend kings, heroes, villains, queens, wizards and demons. We animate vegetables and animals with human qualities and dramatize their lives. Based on our values, we make up what these stories mean to us. One person of faith imagines that children are being lured by evil into The Sorcerer’s Stone. In contrast, I imagine that the hearts of children resonate with the way these characters relate with each other. I believe this inner resonance, living proof that the best in human relationships embody and evoke the Divine, is one way we are protected against evil.

This raises the question of whether evil is an appropriate literary subject for children. Real life events like 9/11, domestic violence in American homes, and the daily terrors of the Middle East show us that sometimes evil doesn’t wait for you to grow up enough to understand it. It strikes at innocence as much as through ignorance. This makes evil is a fit subject for readers of all ages. So Voldemort has important lessons for children. This dark figure, like all humans, had some tendency toward sin. Increasingly, and at key points in his life, he chose evil over good. His descent into darkness, gradual but sure, was fueled by his reliance on magic. Along the way he became inflated with his unique power and corrupted his imagination to create a vision of domination and destruction to which he devoted his entire being. He reduced all others to tools or victims. Voldemort teaches us that evil wins because something human failed and refused to admit it.

This failure is personal and relational. Evil doesn’t have to forcibly invade us. It just has to wait for us to wound, neglect, abandon, or exploit each other and ourselves. Christian concepts like grace and hope help guard us against cynicism and despair. But they are not guarantees. Except for the few mystics among us, our ideas and experiences of God will fail us if we do not live them out in human relationships.

When Rowling hints at a vague power influencing the destinies of wizards and muggles alike, she may be addressing the mysterious relationship between humans and the Divine. Humans certainly use the arts to express and probe this mystery, but they also use ritual, prayer and meditation without realizing how all these practices imaginative acts. It is the Divine that imparts revelation. We just have to imagine ourselves capable of accepting that gift.

So, in my imagination, the Harry Potter saga does not celebrate or disguise evil. It is the story of a triumph over a great evil. Magic does not save the day. When Harry and his friends battle Voldemort in their magical world, it is love, as J. K. Rowling makes clear, that defeats him.


Unknown said...

If you had spent the same amount of time meditating and reading your Bible and the Spirit of Prophecy as you spent indoctrinating yourself in the "wisdom of this world", maybe this blog would actually start to make a contribution to the spiritual growth of people who are losing salvation daily.

This blog has NOTHING of Adventist in it and its name is a travesty. You are doing a disservice to the cause of truth by delighting yourself in your silly philosophying and questioning Biblical truth.

Maybe someday you will come to your senses and prioritize reaching the lost instead of just starting baseless, trite discussions.

Andy Hanson said...

Thank you for commenting. I very much appreciate your response and respect your point of view. Your comment has been posted. By the way, just turned 65 and I hope to continue "coming to my senses" for a few more years. Thanks again for your concern about my spiritual growth. I share that concern for yours. Andy

estudante said...

Although Andy is the blog owner and may have some wacky views of Adventism, he is not the author of this particular article. The comments should be directed to the author of the article, Robert, not to Andy. And they both need our prayers for discernment...