FRODO, HARRY, AND GOD ... In the Battle of Good & Evil
The recent movie release by Warner Brothers of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone  has led to a resurrection of harsh criticism from the Christian right. Perhaps due to the overlapping movie release of the first book in J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, comparisons are being drawn between the two works of fiction and their respective authors.
Lord of the Rings (LOTR) fans will be first to point out the somewhat incomparable nature of Tolkien's work to any other - taking offense at any parallels that are drawn between the talents of Rowling and Tolkien especially. The Christian right also takes offense at the comparisons but for radically different reasons. For Christian critics the arguments boil down to a simplistic characterization of the battle between good and evil with Frodo Baggins and his creator, Tolkien, representing the good and Harry Potter and J. K. Rowling serving as evil influences upon the children of the world.
The popularity of J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has been likened to mass hysteria among children - and a large group of adults as well. Mass hysteria being an uncontrollable emotional reaction that is demonstrated by a significant number of people, reaching a "tipping point" - as Malcolm Gladwell might write - leading to a snowball effect that sweeps across the population. For many this particular brand of hysteria is as harmless as a fashion craze and certainly just as profitable. It may even be a beneficial type of hysteria as it has resulted in millions of children picking up a book and embracing the love of reading over the bubble-gum-for-your-mind entertainment characterized by television and video games.
Many Christian and secular critics, however, have based their opinions of "Pottermania" on the media hype that has accompanied the book series. The marketing frenzy and multi-million dollar industry that has resulted from Harry Potter might be aptly labeled "capitalism run amok." Many agree with Richard Abanes, author of Harry Potter and the Bible, in his opinion that "[Rowling's] success can be attributed to a combination of: 1) the right amount of publicity; 2) peer pressure among children for the latest fad; and 3) undiscerning reviewers jumping on the Harry Potter bandwagon." It is difficult to retain these opinions, however, after reading the books. It also becomes a little less easy to stomach the latest absurdities emitted from religious organizations like Focus on the Family.
The two main arguments that the Christian fundamentalists have leveled against the Harry Potter books are:
The Christian critics claim that the Bible provides a clear command forbidding any involvement with the occult. It also offers its readers an indisputable and absolute moral code where "good is good and evil is evil" and "never should the two be mixed in a righteous, heaven-bound Christian; the mission in life all parents should encourage their children to adopt as their own."
Two fictional works that follow the proper approach for fantasy novels according to the dictates of the Bible, as interpreted by anti-Potter Christians, are C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. In both series there is a clear distinction between good and evil characters and there is limited emphasis on occult subject matter. Whether or not these claims are true is a topic for debate but it is fair to assume that the acceptance of the fictional work of both Lewis and Tolkien is largely due to the symbolic use of Christian theology in the overall plot of each series. The fact that both authors are praised as having been devout Christians may also play a role in the fundamentalists' approval.
The critics see the Harry Potter series as a direct affront to Christianity. With characteristic arrogance this self-centered viewpoint can be likened to the historical claims that the sun revolves around a stationary earth, that the earth is the center of the universe, and still popular today among many creationist factions, that all matter and energy within the universe is the way it is to allow for the emergence of humankind.
What Christian critics claim to be anti-Christian, however, is often simply a piece of work that is oblivious to their theology and as evidenced by a millennia of non-Christian discoveries, inventions and creations, is able to make positive contributions to our society nonetheless. The refusal of Rowling to reveal her religious beliefs may also play a role in the fundamentalist brouhaha. [Editor's note: The author wishes to correct this statement and thanks Steven Carr for pointing out that Rowling has identified herself as a Christian. In an interview with the BC Christian News she said of her Christianity: "...[it] seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God."]
Richard Abanes recently released his criticism of J. K. Rowling and her fictional works in his book Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace behind the Magick. A chapter of this book compares Rowling's creation to those of Tolkien and Lewis, claiming that the latter works provide examples of the acceptable, godly approach to fantasy literature. The Potter books on the other hand may be a result of satanic forces in our midst.
Abanes' criticism against the Potter books range from the trivial to the sincere but ultimately absurd. Throughout the book he points to particular content in Harry Potter that he considers inappropriate for children. When comparing the work of Tolkien and Lewis to that of Rowling he overlooks similar elements that can be found in both The Narnia Chronicles and The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whether he is applying a double standard or employing an intentional selective process to his comparisons or is simply ignorant of the actual content to be found in the books he refers to, is unknown.
Among the more serious objections, Abanes claims that the Potter books contain "gratuitous violence," "gruesome imagery," and "perverse" and "twisted humor."
Violence, whether gratuitous or not, can be found in much of what passes as entertainment both today and throughout history. As recent events demonstrate, it also plays a significant role in our reality. The claim that LOTR is devoid of violence or presents it in a different, biblically correct light, is without merit. In LOTR the Dark Lord Sauron is the personification of evil and is equally as vicious, if not more so, as a similar character in the Harry Potter books: Lord Voldemort - or for the less courageous among us, "He Who Must Not Be Named." Both characters are trying to restore their former power by acquiring a magickal object that will grant them immortality. Both will do just about anything to attain the object of their desire.
Considering the extraordinary violence found within the Bible - the complete and utter annihilation of life in the Mighty Deluge, for instance - Abanes' charge of inappropriate violence within the pages of Harry Potter is especially offensive (indeed, see Don Morgan's lists of Bible Vulgarities and Bible Atrocities).
Jesus might say to Richard Abanes:
The charge of gruesome imagery is equally suspect. Considering the decades of graphics the LOTR novels have inspired and the masterfully crafted imagery of the stories themselves, Abanes demonstrates his tendency for selective research. The Potter books have yet to inspire much artwork with the exception of the Warner Brothers' movie and this has a surprising lack of the elements associated more appropriately to the horror genre. The glittering silver fluid that served as the unicorn's life force and that Lord Voldemort was so eager to drink due to its restorative properties, is as bloody as the movie gets."Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye." Matthew 7:5
The characters in LOTR are also much more frightening than those in the Potter books. The Black Riders and Orcs, for instance, would cause anyone to shudder in fear whereas the ghosts and magical creatures in Potter are quite tame. Hagrid, the groundskeeper of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, is attacked by Abanes for the compassion he shows many of the beasts that are thought to be wild and dangerous. Hagrid is also attacked because of his heritage as a Giant and the legend of the aggression capable of his kind, especially considering that he is entrusted with the welfare of children. Such a reaction might also be directed towards the groups we call "priests" and "ministers," considering the facts and legends surrounding their kind, yet it is doubtful that Abanes would object to these characters caring for his children.
Hagrid turns out to be one of the more sensitive and compassionate characters in the novels. The danger faced by many of the children in the stories turns out, more often than not, to be the fault of the actions and behaviors of the characters themselves rather than what is wrongly assumed to be the dangerous nature of the beasts. The not-so-hidden meaning that Abanes missed here is that our fears and presumptions about life forms different from ourselves may be based on groundless prejudice and the influence of ideas and pressures from outdated belief systems. Though Rowling makes no reference to the Christian involvement in the millennia of false ideas and prejudice that have been leveled against many non-human species - and several groups within our own species - this is one of the many positive contributions to real world issues that she has made. Needless to say, the allegory found within the Bible is thought to serve a similar purpose in many cases, providing an under-appreciated benefit of fiction. As Bruno Bettleheim points out in The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales "[m]ore can be learned from [fiction] about the inner problems of human beings and of the right solutions to their predicaments in any society." Joseph Campbell would likely agree.
To demonstrate the "twisted humor" to be found in the Harry Potter books Abanes points to a character called Nearly Headless Nick. His name is the result of the botched up beheading that left him dead but with his head still dangling from his neck by a piece of skin. For those who haven't seen the movie this minor part is played by John Cleese, who perfectly captures the humor that is intended and leaves us with great respect for the casting director. Indeed we are prone to laugh out loud by the existence of Nick - a rare reaction from reading that requires much talent on the part of the author. Several other comedic elements are included in the Potter book with all brands of humor represented. Another two-sentence ditty that Abanes makes an example of is the popular joke that is often voiced by children whenever their teachers mention the planet Uranus. Silly and crude perhaps, but funny just the same. How these examples of humor can be viewed as harmful is simply too ridiculous to contemplate. Humor is not an unheard of element within Tolkien's work either. Drunken debauchery, the personality traits of many Hobbits and the bumbling antics of the Fellowship provide three examples that tickle our funny bone. From a Christian perspective, however, these particular examples might be considered as negative influences upon our children because of their glorification of drugs and alcohol and the ridicule of people that aren't quite "normal." Yet Abanes remains silent, applying once again, a double standard to the fiction he explores.
Much of the criticism of Harry Potter is largely voiced without first applying the same scrutiny to the book upon which all others are supposed to be judged - demonstrating one of many un-Christian behaviors that have surfaced over this matter.
The charge of "twisted humor" might be a far more applicable term to associate with some of the content found in the Bible. Abraham's near sacrifice of his son Isaac as a test of his love and devotion for God certainly deserves the criticism of being "twisted" and "perverse." The reaction to this biblical event by apologetics throughout history results in similar criticism and is simply too horrifying a thought to be viewed as anything more than a sick joke. The seriousness with which Abanes writes his scathing commentary of the fictional work of Harry Potter and the great energy and time expended on this project is another candidate for this particular charge."Judge not, that you be not judged." (Matthew 7:1)
Further comparisons are drawn between Tolkien, Lewis and Rowling based on the aforementioned arguments leveled against Harry Potter that serve as the primary objections to the books by Christian fundamentalists.
The glorification of the occult is an example of the subjective interpretation that fundamentalists are notorious for. Criticism ranges from one extreme to another with one claimant going so far as to accuse Satan himself of directing the pen of Rowling and being the real mastermind behind the Harry Potter series.
Almost as extreme and just as accusatory is Phil Arms in his book Pokemon and Harry Potter: A Fatal Attraction, sub-titled "An Expose of the Secret War Against the Youth of America." Arms begins by claiming that a "psycho-spiritual assault" has been leveled against our children and his purpose is "to expose the sinister ideological roots from which the majority of children's programs and recreational activities are coming." Under the heading "The Wicked World of Harry Potter" Arms calls the series a "diabolic literary phenomena" and all parents who allow their children to read the books are "setting their children up for a catastrophic spiritual collision." "[The books'] spiritually polluted nature" Arms continues, "will grossly contaminate the values and moral foundations of any child.... Christian parents have a God-given responsibility to forbid their children's participation in such things."
Here we see the infamous alarm bell reaction of fundamentalists that is far greater than justified. This panic reaction is the dangerous form of hysteria and has led to many atrocities throughout history. It is far likelier for this behavior to cause harm to humanity then the emergence and subsequent popularity of a fantastical novel that uses the occult as a theme in its fictional story line.
The fundamentalist frenzy over Harry Potter is creating unnecessary fear and paranoia among the listening public. The claim that Satanic forces are acting through fiction to steal the hearts, minds and souls of our children is just as fantastical as the novels on which the claims are based. It is worthwhile to remind readers that there is no evidence for the existence of Satan nor of supernatural evil. In the movie Unusual Suspects, the character played by Kevin Spacey remarks that Satan's greatest triumph was to make others believe he didn't exist and indeed this is often the rebuttal provided to those who make light of warnings like Arms'. Believing Satan does exist, however, and that the fans of Harry Potter are vulnerable to his wicked ways, will likely result in the same Satanic Panic that surrounded the claims of Satanic cults sacrificing children in diabolic ritual and unleashing a slew of evil upon the world. An equally extraordinary claim is that the latest rock group that warrant persecution, according to religious extremists, are using backward messaging  to indoctrinate children into the occult. Claims of this nature have been thoroughly debunked by publications like the Skeptical Inquirer and shown to originate in the imaginations of fundamentalists like Arms that have simply lost touch with reality and are allowing an unfounded paranoia to dictate their lives.
Arms considers Harry Potter to contain "dark and demonic" content. In the foreword to Richard Abanes' book, Douglas Groothius, an associate professor in philosophy, calls the series "a moral, spiritual and intellectual wasteland." He writes that "the series is steeped in a thinly disguised occultism; it favors morally flawed, egocentric characters who lie with impunity, practice occultic techniques, use profanity and refuse to repent...." Setting the stage for Abanes he praises the author for providing "a rare voice of sanity, reason and biblical discernment."
Richard Abanes writes "The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, because of their superior literary quality, unique storylines and timeless natures, certainly deserve a place among the classics ... the Potter books are little more than occult-glamorizing, morally bleak, marketing sensations filled with one-dimensional characters and a hero who is, to borrow the words of Rowling's Professor Snape, 'a nasty little boy who considers rules to be beneath him.'"
The occult theme explored through Harry Potter is certainly not absent in Tolkien's work. Although Tolkien creates a more complex set of rules that govern the magick found in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trilogy, the occult theme is indeed present. Objects with special powers - rings, swords, wands, broomsticks; supernatural powers to render oneself invisible or perform disappearance acts; spells and potions to create a certain effect in others, are some of the occult subjects found in both works. Those who are skeptical of the paranormal will actually take pride in knowing that doubt of extraordinary claims is not overlooked in the Harry Potter books as it is in Tolkien's work. One example is the skepticism that Harry and his friends show the divination teacher when she encourages the students to gaze into a crystal ball in order to see the future. Headmaster Dumbledore also questions the psychic abilities of the divination teacher when he states that out of the countless predictions she has made, only two have ever been right. Chance and probability theory providing the explanation for both the hits and the misses. The praise of logic and good ol' fashioned critical thinking also finds its way into the Harry Potter series. In Book One, Harry, Ron and Hermione must overcome several obstacles in order to win their first battle against evil. Hermione's test is a logical one and she is awarded a prize for her clear thinking at the end of the novel. Unfortunately this is one of the few aspects of the story that Warner Brothers omitted from the movie although Hermione still receives an award at the end.
Whether or not the occult is glorified in either work is a nonsensical question. If the books create a supernatural longing in children - where they dream about acquiring some sort of paranormal ability that can be used to make all kinds of dreams come true then indeed, this is possible. Jesus' ability to turn water into wine may also produce the same longing in many adults. The desire to be superman for a day is not synonymous with actually becoming him, however - or even trying to do so. The glorification of the occult may simply result in wilder imaginations among children and a longer list of activities and subjects for parents and teachers to explore.
One of the more interesting aspects of the novels, for adults especially, is the real historical references that are included. J. K. Rowling did indeed study the history of the occult, mythology and magic in order to write her books. She also included material that was once taken seriously in various parts of the world. For many this is simply an additional bonus of a good story and a sign of cleverly crafted writing. For skeptics too this sort of material and the overall paranormal focus of the books provide a great platform for such educational material and activities as housed on the Young Skeptics site in the Exploring Imaginary Worlds area. For the Christian critics however this is simply more evidence for their claim that J. K. Rowling is intentionally glorifying the dark arts and encouraging children to become witches and wizards. Abanes, in what might be praise for Rowling in different circles, writes with a suspicious I-told-ya-so tone that "She, in fact, has an extremely well-developed and sophisticated knowledge of the occult world, its legends, history and nuances."
In addition to the occult glamorizing, critics find the moral ambiguity of Harry Potter disturbing. That Harry Potter promotes situational ethics or moral relativism, however, is only an insult to those who believe that there exists an absolute moral code provided us by an omniscient being. For the many who don't believe such a morality exists and who recognize the cultural evolution of both ourselves and our societies, situational ethics may provide the most appropriate solution to the problems that arise. Placing our choices and decisions in the context of the particular situation in which they arise, might afford the most appropriate, effective and relevant solution for each.
The criticism of moral relativism is accompanied by claims that the Harry Potter books promote a morally confusing landscape. Richard Abanes' states that in the novels "bad characters turn out to be good. Good characters turn out to be bad. Misbehavior is condoned as long as the eventual outcome is either fun or rewarding. Good deeds bring about evil results. Harmful deeds ... bring about positive results.... In short, Rowling's moral universe is a topsy-turvy world with no firm rules of right and wrong or any godly principles by which to determine the truly good from the truly evil." Abanes' summary of the moral landscape of Harry Potter is partially accurate but there is exaggeration in the above claims as well.
Abanes statement that "Frodo exhibits a very un-Harry-Potter-like sense of duty, sacrificing his own life and concerns for those of his neighbors" is one of many clues that leads the reader of Harry Potter and the Bible to wonder whether the author did in fact read the books he criticizes. In the many stories that comprise the first four books, Harry Potter sacrifices his own safety and comforts for those of his fellow man numerous times, as do many other characters. In the Triwizard tournament, for instance, Harry puts aside his fear of death and his desire to beat out the competition in order to make sure that all other participants (and captives) return to the surface unharmed. When Harry's friend Hermione is in danger of being attacked by a Troll, Harry and Ron Weasley - another leading character - risk life and limb to come to her rescue.
In the works of Lewis and Tolkien, we are told by Abanes that "morality and integrity are at stake and dealt with as important and significant concerns." The same can rightfully be said about the Potter books.
Abanes references another fictional work in his attempt to show the failings of a non-Christian view of good and evil. The battle of the two extremes presented in Harry Potter, Abanes writes, is similar to that of the Star Wars trilogy. In Star Wars the two sides of the battle - the dark and the light - are powered by the same force. Depending upon the goals to be reached by the characters, this power can lead to good or evil. The outcome is dependent on who controls the force.
What might the "morally confusing" landscape of both Harry Potter and Star Wars remind us of?
Not necessarily an ideal reality but with the proper recognition of the causes of "bad" actions and behavior within our societies, we are far more likely to continue to improve our situation and change our world for the better.
Additional criticism is leveled against Harry Potter for mixing reality with fantasy yet this approach is commonplace in both the fantasy and science fiction genres and is one of many leading causes for their popularity. Fans of both revel in the enjoyment of finding parallels between our world and the lands of make-believe, discovering both intentional and imagined symbolism in the various events, characters and plot themes that are featured in the novels. In many ways, the Bible as a literary phenomenon could be enjoyed for these same reasons and the entire lives of the fundamentalists may have far more in common with this practice of melding fact and fiction than they would care to admit.
To mention the fictional work of C.S. Lewis briefly, Abanes claims that because Christian theology is "veiled beneath various characters" in The Chronicles of Narnia, the books are a testament to good (a.k.a. godly) fiction. He commends Lewis for representing evil as a witch "based on age-old and widely accepted symbols and illustrations of evil." The very same beliefs, mind you, that led to such atrocities as the Salem Witch trials and other unjustified witch hunts, massacres and crusades throughout history. As in Tolkien, the element that Abanes uses as an ultimate test of whether the novel is a good influence upon children is the obedience of leading characters to a God-like being. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Lucy, Peter, Susan and eventually Edmond pledge allegiance and become servants to Aslan, the lion, and by doing so win the battle with the evil White Witch. In Tolkien, the Fellowship led by Frodo Baggins and the entire realm of Middle-earth is ultimately governed by the power of Eru - The One. In Harry Potter, however, there is no Aslan, no Eru, and no God. It is the characters in the novel itself that are overseeing the battle between good and evil and who must ultimately be responsible for which side wins out in the end.
To repeat, the characters must rely upon their own resources, minds and humanity to build a safe and just society. Again, there is meaning here that is lost on Abanes, and fundamentalists of his kind, who are simply too narrow-minded to get the message, let alone appreciate it for what it's worth.
"[The lack of a God] is perhaps the most profound difference between Rowling's books and the works of Tolkien" says Abanes and it is probably fair to remark that this is what the Christian critics find most offensive to their arrogant sensibilities.
The charge of moral ambiguity in Harry Potter and the claim that the Bible provides clear and indisputable guidelines for moral behavior is false if not downright absurd. It would be much more applicable to reverse the claims.
What could be more confusing upon our moral landscape than two contradictory and opposing commands - both claimed as the Word of God - and both solutions to the same dilemma? The eye for an eye reaction featured in both the Old and New Testaments and the turn the other cheek strategy proposed solely in the New Testament is one of many examples of the moral chaos to be found within the Bible (see, for example, Don Morgan's Biblical Precepts: Questionable Guidelines). In addition, the reality that different and often contradictory interpretations of the good and evil and the right and wrong presented in the Bible are commonplace is clear evidence that Abanes premise is seriously flawed. Even the slightest knowledge of historical theology and modern-day apologetics will provide the necessary and justified arguments to stake the claim that the Bible is of little value in developing a morality for our times.
It must be said that a large segment of the Christian population disagree vehemently with the arguments of their far-right brethren. In an interview with The Times of London England, Reverend Coleman states that the books "are about loyalty, standing up for friends, standing up for good against evil. That is exactly what the passage in James is about," referring to James 1:17-27 in the New Testament. Many churches are even adapting their services from time to time to fit the various themes explored in Harry Potter, to the delight of their congregations.
Connie Neal in What's A Christian to do with Harry Potter also takes a different stand on the issue than that of Arms and Abanes. Though equally in fear of occult forces upon the lives of children, Neal approaches the popularity of Harry Potter as providing an "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to promote Christianity and to revisit the harm of embracing occult and satanic beliefs.
Many schools also see opportunity in using the books in the classroom and tapping into the interests of children. Like Rowling, the teachers are not necessarily promoting the occult by doing so but are instead using the popularity of Harry Potter to ignite a love of learning among their students.
It is within the educational arena where Christian critics of the Harry Potter books are most vocal. Harry Potter has topped the list of the most challenged books for two years in a row. The American Library Association web site reports: "The ALA Office for Intellectual Freedom received a total of 646 challenges in 2000, up from 472 in 1999." As in other efforts to pressure school boards to act upon their grievances, fundamentalists are trying all available tactics and arguments to reach their goal of banning the Potter books from the public school. Several cases have been based on the claim that using Harry Potter in the classroom is a violation of the separation of church and state. Their argument is that Wicca is a religion and the witchcraft and wizardry in the books could be likened to the beliefs and practices of this group.
Elizabeth Schafer, author of Exploring Harry Potter states:
"Mimicking the paranoid Chicken Little, a fictional character who assumes the sky is falling when an acorn hits him, the anti-Potter parents are forming illogical conclusions similar to those of generations of book censors before them."An article in the Jewish World Review claims that the attacks against Harry Potter amount to "ignorance parading as piety."
A CBS opinion piece by Betsy Gerboth stated:
"Perhaps what the anti-Harry factions are most frightened of is that their children will read books like Rowling's, develop their own imaginations - and learn to make up their own minds - and reject the fanatical teachings of those who would like to decide what every child should and shouldn't read, based on their own narrow beliefs."Pottermania began in 1997. When the initial criticism was leveled against Harry Potter it was merely the latest in a long history of opposition to anything new and oblivious to Christianity. Reminiscent of Jerry Falwell's whining over Tinky Winky, the allegedly homosexual teletubby, the secular hope was that it would be ridiculed away if not suffer a quick and natural death. Unfortunately, Christian fundamentalists, though a minority, are infamous for their loud voices. Their stamina to stick around long after they've outlived their purpose is also remarkable. Considering that three more books are to appear in the Harry Potter series and the many movies that will be made, it is likely to assume that the Christian critics are here for a long time to come. Instead of criticizing the banality of the extraordinary amount of attention placed on the entertainment industry by these groups perhaps we should welcome the great expenditure of the fundamentalists' time and effort in this realm and encourage them to take up permanent residence.
1. The first book in the Harry Potter series was originally titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and is known by this name throughout Europe. This original title was especially applicable as it made reference to the ancient quest for immortality and the study of alchemy practiced in past civilizations.
2. The magic associated with the occult (or "black arts") is usually spelled with a "k" as in magik or magick to differentiate it from the more popular form connected with magicians such as David Copperfield. Occult magick is more commonly associated with celebrities such as Aleister Crowley, a self-procalimed anti-christ and reincarnation of the Egyptian god Thoth. The magick used in the occult is claimed by many Christians to be the manipulation of supernatural powers for an evil purpose, ultimately governed by Satan. This ignores the distinctions taught by real religions that incorporate magic, such as Santa Ria and Wicca, which say there is a difference between white and black magic, for example.
Examining the Satanic Panic. Peter Huston 18(3)280-281
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