Saturday, January 26, 2008

A Christian Defense of Harry Potter

This came from my friend Strider Elfstone, who's an Episcopal minister and the mom of three young children.

This is written from an explictly Christian point of view, but it is not saying that you have to be a Christian to read Harry Potter. It IS saying that the argument to which the writer is responding is not an adequate one for Christian critics. I think it's one of the best-thought- out defenses of HP I've seen.

The Helpful Discovery of Dirt in Potter's Field
by A.M. Hutchens

I recently read yet another Christian complaint about Harry Potter. The critic's thesis was that Joanna Rowling is a "contemporary transgressive artist par excellence," who holds lightly to the canons of Judeo-Christian morality and of traditional children's literature in the west, the Potter tales being a catalog of rule-breaking, disobedience, lying, vengeance-taking, and whatnot, its final installation containing the revelation of the Snape-Dumbledore murder-suicide pact that insinuates euthanasia into the minds of children--not to mention that all of this is done in a pagan context by witches and wizards, no less.

My reaction was--yes--but did he miss something? Like the Point of it All?

One wonders just what kind of literature a person like this can read. Must everything be reduced to black and white, not only with unwelcome details smoothed over, but with tools that, by neutralizing elements the critic prefers not to see in his desire to define the work by the ones he finds obnoxious, guts it and renders invisible the message of the whole?

The Rowling fantasy, for those who are able to see it, is a very typical moral tale of the Judeo-Christian west: it is the story (I have said elsewhere that this is the only real Story there is) of the hidden prince born in troubled obscurity, who finds it in himself to love good and oppose evil, and who, aided by a rather motley lot of companions, destroys at the forfeit of his life the kingdom of the Evil One, finally coming into his own and living happily ever after. It is the story of the Gospel; it is our story. To love it is to love the story of Christ and his church. Harry Potter is an imperfect Christ, to be sure, but what reasonable person would confuse the thing itself with its image?

Here, however, was someone who thinks that since the principal characters are in many ways flawed, the piece should be kept away from Christian children instead of given them for edification. Christians are apparently supposed to be people for whom everything is a monochromatic moral tale, and who operate on the maxim that people are what they read. But this is only true of fools, and one cannot account for the actions or opinions of fools.

Christian children who are old enough to read Harry Potter are old enough to understand the imperfections of heroes, and judge the flaws of literary characters, if they have been given the standards by which to render the judgments. Shall we train their instincts to flee imperfect human beings rather than love and embrace them--not for the imperfection, but in spite of it--in hope of redemption, both of their imperfect selves and those they embrace? If we train them to flee, those who castigate our faith for making people who hate first themselves, and then by extension, others, are quite correct about our faith, but wrong in thinking it Christian.

These children are also old enough to understand that murder/suicide pacts are the sort of things that can be entered by pagans with noble and admirable ends in mind, but which Christians know are sinful--they are old enough to understand what is splendid even in the virtutes paganorum, and to think of Dumbledore and Snape accordingly. If Dumbledore's creator thinks of him as a man of homosexual orientation, why does that mean Christians are obliged to belittle his excellences- -particularly if he lives, as he is depicted, a chaste and celibate life? In that case might homosexuals be justified in saying we train our children to hate the sinner along with what we allege to be the sin? If we did, and they did, they would be right about our faith, but wrong in thinking it Christian.

One wonders what critics like this do with Odysseus, with David or Solomon, with Simon Peter, with Hamlet, Lear, or, Bunyan's Christian, for that matter. Or the Bible. The Christian literary tradition, because it is grounded in the perfection of God, the primordial goodness of creation, and a redemptive teleology, does not require perfection of its heroes, only perfectibility, and--this is critical--the ability to represent Christ, whether by authorial intention or not.

Given what we are shown of our Lord in the Gospels, I strongly suspect if he were accurately depicted by friendly and sympathetic eyes in accounts that did not have the status of holy scripture, and without the overlay of piety, we would see a good, but flawed, perhaps deeply and fatally flawed, man. He would not in fact have the imperfections we would lay to his account, but he would be far from measuring up to our expectations for a perfect man. He would not be prudent enough, respectful enough, humble enough, patient enough, pious enough, obedient enough, considerate enough, or kind enough to be God Incarnate (and only rarely are we visited by the capacity to admit that we secretly attribute the same flaws to God himself).

Even though we would notice prodigies of all these virtues in him, we would also see evidence of their lack in certain instances--of inconsistency. We would see his tragic end on the cross as heroic, perhaps, but it would not surprise us, given certain qualities we had observed--connected , perhaps, with persisting questions about the moral uprightness of his parentage. It is for this reason he can be represented to us, while imperfectly, in stories of imperfect heroes; it is why these stories lead back to him. It is because we are what we are, and Almighty God has regarded our low estate.

The Evangel, in fact, is always mediated to us through imperfect heroes, or heroes we may easily assume share our imperfections, handsome princes though they may be. It is no coincidence the keys to the Kingdom were delivered to the most robustly flawed of all Christ's disciples. This is why we are uncomfortable with the attempt to create perfect heroes. For one thing, we can't do it, so the attempt makes for bad literature, and for another, for some reason characters sanitized to our standards never look like the Lord.

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