Summer/Fall 2007, Vol. 10, Nos. 1 & 2

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Articles in this issue

Table of Contents

From the Editor:

Beating Up on the New Atheists

Romney and the Mormon Moment

The Democrats Get Religion

No More Mr. Nice Pope

Establishing Religion by Executive Order

The Gospel According to South Park

People Who Loved Tammy Faye



CSRPL.LOGO.gif (3062 bytes)From the Editor:
y Mark Silk

Since achieving mega-stature in global culture, the Harry Potter series has provoked a lively side debate over whether it is good for the Christians. The critics have, for the most part, been rather literal-minded evangelicals like James Dobson of Focus on the Family, who denounce its positive images of witches and sorcery as an affront to biblical condemnations of those things. But potshots have also been taken by such biblical non-literalists as Pope Benedict XVI, who in his prior incarnation as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger criticized the series’ “subtle seductions” that “deeply distort Christianity in the soul.”

On the other side have been those who argue that, far from purveying an anti-Christian point of view, author J. K. Rowling has actually delivered a package of fantasy chock-full of Christian meanings and messages. A late convert to this view is Dallas Morning News religion writer Jeffrey Weiss, who decided, after reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that Rowling’s opus is “at least as essentially Christian” as the Narnia books of the sainted C. S. Lewis.

While the comparison seems a stretch—the Narniad is pretty transparent Christian allegory—the Potter cycle reaches its climax with our hero engaging in an act of would-be self-sacrifice, which if not exactly substitutionary atonement à la Lewis’ lion hero Aslan, does bear some passing resemblance to the Passion narratives.

If I had to guess, I’d say that Harry the Christ Figure will prevail over Harry the Antichrist. Not that this is likely to matter much to the millions—billions?—of Potter fans from Timbuktu to Kalamazoo. For them, the appeal of the series would seem to lie elsewhere. But Dobson and company may not be wrong in their intuition that witchcraft and magic as such represent something important in Rowling’s moral vision—something that is not unrelated to the series’ immense appeal.

The conceit at the core of Harry Potter is that a magical world of witches and wizards exists in the very midst of the mundane one that we, the Muggles, inhabit. The wizarding and Muggle communities live apart, but the former is intensely preoccupied with the latter. Indeed, the plot of the entire series centers on what might be called The Muggle Problem—the problem of us.

It is the goal of the evil Voldemort to purge the wizarding community of “mudbloods”—witches and wizards with Muggle antecedents—and (it seems from the final volume) ultimately to establish some kind of hegemonic rule over Muggle society. In the end, the villain is defeated and the world made safe for Muggledom.

Not that the Muggles realize it. Throughout the saga they remain but dimly aware of the wizarding world. However—and this is the point—it has not always been thus.

In Rowling’s imagined history of the West, there came a point when the wizarding community decided to split itself off from the Muggle world. Allowing for some small discrepancies among the volumes, the Great Divide occurred between 1689, when a Statute of Secrecy was signed by the International Confederation of Wizards, and 1692, when additional steps were taken to go into hiding.

Why was this withdrawal undertaken? If actual history is any guide, it can’t have been because of some increase in Muggle hostility. To be sure, the Salem witch trials took place in 1692, but that was a provincial afterthought to the extensive European witch hunting of the 15th and 16th centuries. By then, the prosecution of witches in the British Isles and Western Europe had all but ceased. (Louis XIV, for example, prohibited witchcraft trials in 1682.)

The one significant piece of English legislation passed in 1689 that might bear on the question is the Act of Toleration, which granted religious freedom to Protestant dissenters from the Church of England. The act did nothing for Catholics or Unitarians, however, and Wizardkind might have felt similarly on the outside. According to A History of Magic by a witch called Bathilda Bagshot (quoted in Deathly Hallows), after 1689 wizarding families went to live in remote villages “alongside tolerant…Muggles.”

Yet wholesale withdrawal would seem an extreme reaction to a mere refusal on the part of the Muggle Parliament to extend formal toleration to Wizardry. In Deathly Hallows, Voldemort, going abroad on Halloween, notes with disgust “all the tawdry Muggle trappings of a world in which they did not believe.” What persuaded the wizarding world to go underground, I submit, was not persecution but the Enlightenment.

Pre-modern Westerners lived in a world of mysterious beings and occult forces. Learned and unlearned alike believed that spirits benign and malignant were at loose in their communities, and that human adepts could engage them for good or for ill.

But by the latter part of the 17th century, such belief was in retreat. To cite only the most relevant example, in the early 1690s educated Europe was reading The World Bewitched by Balthasar Bekker, a Dutch theologian heavily influenced by the thought of Descartes. Arguing that the Devil does not act to affect human affairs or nature, Bekker contended the there was “no other magic than that which is in the imagination of men.”

Rowling’s historical argument seems to be that wizards disappeared from the Muggle world because the Muggle world was ceasing to believe in wizards. (For what it’s worth, “Balthasar Bekker” bears a remarkable alliterative and syllabic resemblance to “Bathilda Bagshot.”) The Harry Potter storyline would thus revolve around a grand wizardly plot to exact revenge on us Muggles for our disenchantment of the world.

A disenchanted world is not necessarily irreligious. Cartesian though he was, Bekkar held to a traditional Calvinist view of the economy of salvation. Nor is an enchanted world necessarily religious. In the Harry Potter books, wizards celebrate Christmas in the same jolly, de-Christianized way that most English people have celebrated it since the 18th century.

What an enchanted world does is provide a degree of wonder and mystery—a plenitude of metaphysical possibility—that is missing in most post-Enlightenment culture. Of course, all fantasy fiction deals in enchantment. What makes the Potter series so beguiling is how thoroughly and engagingly it re-enchants the very world we think we’re living in.

Modern secularists have something to reckon with here. And so do modern religionists.


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