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<i>Harry Potter</i> and the Devil

Harry Potter and the Devil

By Murray Vasser

Abstract: This essay is a response to the criticism of the Harry Potter novels voiced by many in the Christian community.

Introduction

Some Christians have argued that children should not read the Harry Potter novels because these books are all about magic, and the practice of magic is strictly prohibited by the Scriptures. However, an examination of the nature of magic in the ancient world and the nature of magic in fairy tales reveals that the magic in Harry Potter is fundamentally different from the magic which the Bible condemns. Furthermore, the paranoia over the Harry Potter novels reveals a dangerous misunderstanding about the nature of demonic activity.

Magic in the Bible

Magic was extremely prevalent in New Testament times, as it provided the promise of safety and security in a cosmos believed to be populated by dangerous spiritual forces. In the ancient world, “Magic represented a method of manipulating good and evil spirits to bring harm or to lend help.” [1] Thus magical formulas consisted in the invocation of a wide range of spirits, as illustrated in this love potion discovered in Egypt:

I entrust this charm to you, underworld gods, to Pluto, to Kore, Persephoneia, Ereschigal, and to Adonis and to underworld Hermias Thoth and to mighty Anubis, keeper of the keys of the gates of Hades, and to the underworld gods…Raise yourself up for me from the repose that keeps you and go out into every district and every quarter and every house and every shop, and drive, spellbind Matrona…that she may not…be able to go with any other man than Theodorus…or be healthy or find sleep night or day without Theodorus.[1]

Another example of ancient magic is seen in this curse discovered in Rome:

I conjure you up, holy beings and holy names; join in aiding this spell, and bind, enchant, thwart, strike, overturn, conspire against, destroy, kill, break Eucherius the charioteer, and all his horses tomorrow in the circus at Rome. May he not leave the barriers well; may he not be quick in the contest; may he not outstrip anyone; may he not make the turns well; may he not win any prizes…may he be broken; may he be dragged along by your power, in the morning and afternoon races. Now! Now! Quickly! Quickly! [1]

Naturally, the powers afforded by sorcery were greatly coveted and greatly feared, but then into this world of magic came the message of the gospel: Jesus had been given dominion over all other powers, and nothing in heaven or hell could separate Christians from his love. Christians were commanded to destroy their magical devices and cling only to Christ.

Magic in Fairly Tales

In fairy tales, magic is not “a method of manipulating good and evil spirits to bring harm or to lend help.” In fact, fairy tale magic is not supernatural at all; it is simply a construct of the fantasy world. We often speak of fairy tales as containing supernatural elements, such a dragons, wizards, and spells, but this is not correct. In the world of the fairy tale, these magical elements are no more supernatural than horses, doctors, and mathematics. When Frodo puts on the magic ring, he disappears, but not because of any miraculous intervention by the spirit world into the natural order. Frodo disappears because, in Middle Earth, that is just the way things work.

In a chapter entitled, “The Ethics of Elfland,” G.K. Chesterton argues that the magic of the fairy tale world is the magic we experience daily in the real world:

When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairygodmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is magic…The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.[2]

We enjoy fairy tales, not because they are so strange, but because they are so familiar. Fairy tales open our eyes to the magic that exists all around us. In reading a fairy tale, we experience once again the wonder we felt as children when we encountered our own world for the first time.

Magic in Harry Potter

Clearly, the magic in Harry Potter is the magic of the fairy tale world and not the magic condemned in the Bible. Contact with demons plays no part whatsoever in the magic performed by Harry Potter and his friends. However, some still argue that while the magic of Harry Potter is fantasy magic, J. K. Rowling incorporated elements from, for example, “real” spells and curses. Clearly, Rowling drew on a wide range of popular mythology (werewolves, vampires, giants, elves, dragons, centaurs, flying carpets, moving staircases, alchemy, astrology, love potions, transfiguration, and much, much more), but the fact that some of this mythology may have ties to the magic condemned in the Bible does not mean that this magic has anything to do with her fantasy world.

For example, the men of Numenor had palantiri because J. R. R. Tolkien knew that real fortune tellers used crystal balls. The magician Coriakin had a book of magical incantations because C. S. Lewis knew that real magicians used spell books. By drawing on such mythology, Tolkien and Lewis impart a certain element of richness and believability to their fantasy worlds, but this does not mean that they are endorsing the type of magic condemned in the Bible. Crystal balls may be used in our world to channel the spirit world, but in Middle Earth palantiri have nothing to do with spirits. Magical incantations may be used in our world to invoke demons, but in Narnia the magician’s book had nothing to do with demonic activity.

As bizarre as it sounds, I have a theory that among all of the fairy tales Harry Potter has been singled out because of a peculiar sexism. For some reason, the word “witch” has come to carry a strong negative connotation that the word “wizard” does not carry. I have no idea why this is, but I suspect that Harry Potter would never have come under fire if “Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry” had been simply “Hogwarts School of Wizardry.”

Conclusion

I have heard Christians say things like this: “I don’t read Harry Potter because I believe that Satan is real, and I don’t think that we should mess around with witchcraft and that sort of stuff.” Then, these same Christians will go and watch a television show like 24, for example. I believe that this reveals a dangerous misunderstanding about the nature of demonic activity. Unfortunately many Christians have come to associate “real” demonic activity with the uncanny. To them, demonic activity is seen in voodoo dolls and Ouija boards, not in television shows and billboards outside of their shopping malls. Despite the Christian themes and morals that permeate the series, they refuse to read Harry Potter because the characters casts spells, but day after day, they sit down for an hour and let Jack Bauer teach them that torture is entertainment and Matthew 5:44 is absurd. The devil is at work.

[1] Dr. Clinton E. Arnold and Dr. Michael J. Wilkins, course lecture notes for The World of the New Testament (Spring 2011), Talbot School of Theology, La Mirada, CA.

[2] G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy.

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