Sunday, July 26, 2009

Why Conservatives Should Love Harry Potter

I went to see Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince this Friday, and enjoyed the film very much. While reflecting on its lessons, I thought I would write up a short piece to respond to well-meaning religious conservatives who believe that the Harry Potter franchise promotes witchcraft or lures Christian children into the occult.

Not only do I believe their concern is misplaced, but in fact, I have to say that the Harry Potter books and films are one of the greatest and most crucial cultural developments of our generation.

Consider first, the clear and unambiguous battle between good and evil. In a post-modern world turned upside-down by the philosophical wreckage of the previous four centuries, where "enlightened" students at our top universities will maintain with a straight face that all morals are relative and that there is no objective right and wrong, it is a breath of fresh air to see our entire society captivated by a story that so clearly portrays good and evil exactly for what they are.

Good people are full of love, hope, benevolence, kindness, meekness, humility, and an unflinching dedication to, pursuit of, and reverence for the truth. Evil people are full of malice, fear, envy, cruelty, arrogance, and deceit. The good strive to live in community with one another. The evil try to hurt others. The good are peaceful. The evil are violent. The good love light and life. The evil love darkness and death. The distinction is clear and unequivocal in Harry Potter as it is in real life. Conservative Christians could not ask for a better advocate of their views in the popular culture.

Then there's the magical. This is the part that seems to put off Evangelicals and Pentecostals the most, but it is in fact one of the Harry Potter series' greatest virtues. In our post-Enlightenment world, where philosophic naturalism and pretentious scientism have triumphed in our leading cultural institutions, how wonderful it is to see people and children in love with magic! That's the charm of Harry Potter. That's the draw. 20th Century America and England are starved for the supernatural, and the Harry Potter books and films make a fine entree in that regard!

Part of the cultural/political program of the eugenicists (the heirs in spirit of Darwin and Malthus) and the socialists (the heirs in spirit of Marx and Hegel), is to cut off society from its roots, including its spiritual beliefs and religious traditions. The advance of atheism today is not the philosophical or scientific triumph of truth over invented dogma, but one aspect of the systematic imperialism and conquest of violent, modern political agendas. I can think of few things that have done more than the Harry Potter series to halt their advance by subtly but deeply confronting the premise that our universe is merely a closed system of physical cause and effect.

Furthermore, the Potter books make their case and unfold their captivating plots by making use of motif after borrowed motif from all of the Western world's classical mythologies and religious traditions. In a culture so cut off from its own past (a thing conservatives of all people should lament), Harry Potter is introducing many of us for the first time to something beautiful- the ancient world. It subtly, and not-so-subtly weaves together a vibrant tapestry from all the threads of the ancient way of thinking and looking at the world, which is and will be our greatest weapon in fighting the march of statism and the other scourges of modern and post-modern thinking.

Harry Potter doesn't make me want to consort with the Devil. Instead, it reminds me of how beautiful, and wonderful, and true my Christianity is. It makes me want to be a better person, it motivates me to make our world a better place, and it gives me hope that I can and will triumph in that regard.

9 comments:

Left Coast Rebel said...

Great post! Would you mind if I cross-posted this over at the Left Coast Rebel today?
Thanks

W. E. Messamore said...

Sure, though I would be pleased if you would publish an excerpt w/ a link. PS: I am still going to get back to you soon on writing up a solid guest post for your blog. I'll email you a couple summaries so you can select the one that suits you best.

Anonymous said...

Not-so-great post. This should be entitled "How Conservatives could *abuse* Harry Potter".

Here's why they can't:

Throughout the series, morality is shown as something complex and not easily agreed upon. The "good" are not always good - they have their flaws, they act rashly, cowardly or mean (teenage Marauders taunting Snape), they are sometimes manipulative (Dumbledore). They do break rules and they do use violence if it is needed to prevent harm (hello, wizard dueling!). They change sides, sometimes back and forth (Pettigrew, and, of course, Snape!). They fight among themselves. And that's perfectly alright because we are all that way and we have to learn to handle it. The bad guys, in turn, are always evil for a reason: lonely, deprived childhood (Voldemort), traditional "racist" upbringing (the Malfoys), mobbing and disappointed love (Snape), wanting to belong (Pettigrew). You can always understand them and feel compassion towards them, they are never fully condemned. Harry Potter shows that finding out what is the right thing to do, while it may sometimes be obvious, is often also a difficult task. "Avada Kedavra" may be the worst of all unforgivable curses, but using it on Voldemort is right. Not exactly the clear-cut dichotomy you guys want, is it?

Then there's the idea of magic - the age-old fascination with which would be an expression of humanity's longing for more and more abilities, for making more and more sense and use of their surroundings. Of understanding and modifying the world for our good. It is that same striving that inspires modern science - be it biochemistry or neuroscience, genetic engineering (yes, indeed) or cognitive psychology. Without the dreams of what magic would achieve, we would never have invented many modern-day conveniences: Computers and cellphones are our magic mirrors and crystal spheres, airplanes are our flying carpets, transplants or tissues grown in vitro are our Skele-Gro. Harry Potter supports the idea of magic as manipulating the world while not exploiting or abusing it - the same thing that modern, ethical science aspires.

Harry Potter does indeed introduce a lot of cultural heritage (though I dare say it comes mostly from polytheistic Greek and Roman mythology and from pagan folklore rather than from the lives of Christian saints, or something along these lines). But in doing so, it modifies and adapts this heritage to fit the purpose of the story. Knowing our cultural roots and how they influence us is important. But questioning them - and finding out how we can interpret and use them in our present-day-world - is one of the important reasons why one should, and the Harry Potter books clearly make this point - not only in the way the author herself treats this cultural heritage, but also explicitly, in depicting the bad sides of wizarding heritage (e.g. the bad behavior towards house-elves or the superstition and hostility towards "Muggle-born" wizards). This is exactly what liberals (and not so much conservatives) promote: know your roots, but question them, see how they fit this world today, see which ones have been proven wrong, incorporate those that haven't, and all in all, pick from a variety of sources - diversity is a big keyword.

And may I remind you that Harry Potter has sparked off a large amount of fanfiction, well-tolerated by its author, where themes like homosexuality, BDSM, underage and premarital sex and antiauthoritarian rebellion have been widely discussed and in most cases depicted in a positive light? How could the books do this if, as you say, they actually support the conservative view?

I think, my dear boy, you are seriously mistaken. Nobody will buy this.

Sincerely,
Bella

Anonymous said...

If you have to claim one recent piece of teenage fiction as supporting a conservative Christian worldview, couldn't you pick something like Twilight instead? Oh, but that would be too obvious and could show you in a bad light: A young girl completely obsessed with and subordinate to her partner, unable to exist without him and totally dependent on him, willing to throw away her human, warm-blooded, sensual existence in exchange for eternal angelical perfection after death, willing to marry him, all conservative-like; him as her savior from all stupid situations she naively and clumsily gets herself into, strictly no sex before marriage, a pregnancy that is clearly harmful to the expecting mother still carried to the end (so what if she breaks every bone in her body - hey, we can fix it with a bit of vampire venom!). That is all very sick, and because you know that deep in your heart, you have to instead prey on the most popular liberal-minded teenage fiction of recent years. Shame on you.

Anonymous said...

Interesting point of view Messamore... I am very happy that you do not condemn Harry Potter as so many narrow-minded conservatives tend to do. I agree with you that HP generally inspires people to do good rather than evil and that it reminds us of the things which make life worth living - love and beauty.

However, I must also disagree with some of the points you are making. Bella is quite right, pointing out that the HP world is anything but black and white, that some of the "good" characters do not always act honorably and that evil characters are not born but made, that sometimes they can change and seek redemption, that they may deserve a second chance. Note, for instance, how much Dumbledore (who represents wisdom throughout the book), trusts in Snape's capacity to redeem himself and also in the fact that Draco is not a murderer - that he will not necessarily become like his father.

Most importantly: Good and evil are only clearly separated in the first three books, which are primarily targeted towards younger children. Like in real life, the complexity and ambivalence of characters and the protagonists' perception of the world increases as they grow up! Only children (and some very naive adults) can claim with a straight face that the distinction between good and evil be clear. Harry Potter, for instance, learns to appreciate the subtle shades of grey in book 5 (at the latest), at the age of 15, when he watches Snape's worst memory.

There is one more point where you are entirely mistaken. You wrote:
"I can think of few things that have done more than the Harry Potter series to halt their advance by subtly but deeply confronting the premise that our universe is merely a closed system of physical cause and effect." I'm sorry to rain some more on your parade but Harry Potters world IS in fact "a closed system of physical cause and effect"! Think about it! Magic in Harry Potter's world obeys clear rules and laws! Sure, these rules are different from the laws of physics, chemistry and biology which we learn in school, but they are causal nonetheless: The same spell, when performed the same way under the same circumstances, will cause the same physical effect.

In the end I agree with Bella much more than I do with you... But I also disagree with both of you in that I do not think that any group, be it conservative or liberal, has the right to claim HP for their own propaganda! One has to view HP for what it is: A great piece of fiction which should inspire joy and happiness in children and adults alike - across the whole political spectrum.

-deadpoet

PS: There is no point to even comparing "Twilight" to HP. HP is a rich and brilliant soon-to-be-classic. Twilight, on the opposite, is seriously deranged trash. But yeah, I agree that Twilight is full of sick relationships which are rather typical of people with certain conservative sets of mind.

W. E. Messamore said...

1st & 3rd anonymous:

Thanks for your input! I appreciate your participation in a discussion that I believe needs to be had. As for your rebuttals of my thesis:

There's nothing wrong with portraying people as complex- they are. Doing so doesn't mean that the author considers morality to be relative, and in the case of Harry Potter, there is a clear and unequivocal right and wrong.

I don't think that it is a hallmark of relativism to portray good characters who are not always good, who are sometimes rash, mean, petty, manipulative, or cowardly. In fact, that's a pretty good description of the Bible and its portrayal of a lot of good people.

As for the villains- their childhoods are never taken in the HP series to justify their behavior. It is still wrong and they are still villains. But it does explain their behavior.

As for compassion- should we not feel compassion toward all creatures, perhaps especially those who are so blind and unhappy as true villains are? Didn't Christ feel compassion for the men who murdered him? And Gandhi for the men who oppressed him?

Compassion is not a modern or post modern virtue and the modern world certainly has no monopoly on it (actually I would say senseless cruelty is more characteristic of post-Enlightenment thinking).

As for your conclusion (3rd anonymous), I think you are quite right that HP like much of C.S. Lewis' work is interestingly claimed by people all across the spectrum as their own. It is a testament to the genius, beauty, and transcendent truth that flowed from their minds and pens.

2nd Anonymous:

I actually haven't read Twilight or seen the film. In your comment it sounds as if you think I'm sitting here with a Twilight poster on my wall, lamenting that I can't properly sing its praises because everyone will see what a sick control-freak I am, so I chose to write a review on Potter instead. Your impression of me is a work of fiction itself.

Like the 3rd anonymous commentator, I see Harry Potter as a likely classic work, and my impression of Twilight was that it was a passing fad that was primarily written for middle school girls or something. I can't speak to whether the relationships and portrayals contained therein are "deranged" and I can't say that I have given the matter any thought at all.

HisDevotion said...

Hey Wes! Long time no see (or hear). I just found your blog today, I read on your profile "The Humble Libertarian" before but never knew you were the one who wrote it. It is a very nice blog! I just read the Harry Potter story and thought I would throw in my two cents. I respectfully disagree, because I do not feel that scripture supports this. The story that popped out in my head while reading this is Acts 16:16-18, 16 As we were going to the place of prayer, we were met by a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners much gain by fortune-telling. 17 She followed Paul and us, crying out, "These men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." 18 And this she kept doing for many days. Paul, having become greatly annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, "I command you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her." And it came out that very hour. Now I believe that the writer of the Harry Potter books admitted to placing real elements of witchcraft in them from her former studies (I can look it up if requested) but regardless still deals with witchcraft. The story in Acts is very intriguing, you have a woman following Paul saying all of the right things yet being so off target because of the foundation by which they are based. That foundation was shown to be demonic and Paul without the Spirit, would never have been able to discern it otherwise. The principle I pull out of it is this, the reason Paul cast it out of her instead of leaving it alone was for people not to think that mixing fortune telling and the gospel of Christ was an o.k. thing. I once had someone trying to convince me that a band, that appeared to bear no fruits, was good because of one song with very nice lyrics about God. I brought up this story in Acts because it is the heart behind what is said that tags it spiritually whether to the good or to the bad. We must not forget the same God we serve spoke against this in the Old Testament and has even brought the principle into the New.

Another story to illustrate this point was when David played his harp for Kind Saul. The reference is 1 Samuel 16:23, it reads, 23And it came to pass, when the evil spirit from God was upon Saul, that David took an harp, and played with his hand: so Saul was refreshed, and was well, and the evil spirit departed from him. So we see that just music, not even words to it, was able to suppress a demonic spirit temporarily. The main point I am making is this, that depending on what the heart of a person looks like, it is this that will determine the spiritual tempo of what they put their hands to. That is why scripture is so obsessed about us producing good fruit, it is not only a by product of the Spirit within, but also it is growth attained through discipleship.
Man Wes, I miss our conversations! You are a great guy with a wonderful heart and I pray that God continues to bless you! If any of this came off as offensive I so did not mean it to! I have sent you a few messages, reply back soon! Sincerely Chris Goff
OH BTW check out my blog sometime Wes! www.cgodevo.blogspot.com

HisDevotion said...

I read through that and wanted to say one more thing to sum up. The enemy is very clever, he is not called a deceiver for nothing. Deceit suggests a very clever lie, and not only that but a lie bought into. I think it is so important for the church of God to find their discernment roots again. In 1 John he says to test the spirits, why? Because even Satan can appear as an angel of light. If I base all of my decision making based upon what appears to look good, I could get myself into a spiritual predicament scripturally speaking. THANKS!!

W. E. Messamore said...

Hey Chris! It's good to hear from you.

I do understand that the Old and New Testaments expressly forbid witchcraft. The Potter books, however, are not encouraging it. These are fantasy novels, works of fiction with extended metaphors used to carry a deeper message- the one I explicated in this article. These characters belong in a fictional narrative that is different than the Real Narrative that we live in, where witchcraft entails some sort of cooperation with infernal and malicious powers. It's just a metaphor, a really, really awesome, poignant, and inspiring metaphor.

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