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First Parish Universalist Church
790 Washington Street, P. O. Box 284, Stoughton, Massachusetts 02072 
(781) 344-6800
Worship: 10:30 AM
Church School: 10:45 AM
 

Is Harry Potter Evil?

Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, November 14, 2010


In the Halloween classic, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Linus is sitting and writing his annual letter to the Great Pumpkin when Charlie Brown comes along. “Why are you writing the Great Pumpkin?” Charlie Brown asks. “You should be writing to Santa Claus instead.” Linus disagrees, and a brief theological discussion ensues. Finally, Charlie Brown walks away, shaking his head, and saying, “We are obviously separated by denominational differences.”

 

At Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, they don’t make that distinction. Like us, they celebrate both Halloween and Christmas—and maybe write to both the Great Pumpkin and Santa Claus, just in case.

 

At Hogwarts, a great feast takes place every Halloween. The Great Hall is decorated for the occasion with live bats, and lighted jack o’ lanterns, and real spider webs (complete with real spiders), and there’s a bounteous feast of every kind of goodie you can imagine, all served on golden platters that float through the air. At Christmas, there is another great feast, and the hall is hung with holly and mistletoe and there are twelve sparkling, glittering Christmas trees. The golden platters reappear once again, this time filled with traditional Christmas puddings and sweets.

 

It seems like a pretty open-minded and inclusive way to approach things, with “denominational differences”—mere differences of theology—never allowed to get in the way of a good meal. It is an approach with which most of us, I would dare say, are quite comfortable.

 

But, as Professor Dumbledore himself might say: I have disturbing news. You see, not everyone is as open-minded as we are. (I know that must shock you.) Not everyone is as open-minded as the authorities as Hogwarts. No doubt, there are those in our world who would have Hogwarts closed and shuttered (if not burned to the ground).

 

Out in New Mexico, not too long ago, a Baptist minister led a book burning of the latest Harry Potter volume, not long after its release. Claiming that J.K. Rowling’s books taught children to turn to wizardry, rather than Christianity, the pastor insisted, “Harry Potter is the devil and he is destroying people.” Then, he added, pointing to Harry’s picture on the cover of his latest book, “Behind that innocent face is the power of satanic darkness.”

 

A little closer to home, in Lewiston, Maine, a few years ago, a group of local Christian ministers marked the opening of the latest Harry Potter movie. Here’s what the Boston Globe wrote about their gathering:

“A public ‘book-cutting’ took place at which Rev. Douglas Taylor of the Oneness Pentecostal Church and five other pastors tore a copy of the J.K. Rowling book, on which the film, is based, to shreds last night before a clapping audience of 100 people at a local hotel.

 

“’It’s no secret I enjoy what I’m doing now,’ said Taylor, who added that he would have preferred to burn the book….The pastor had asked Lewiston officials if he could… but the request was rejected as a ‘toxic emission’ Taylor says…”

 

I think the most toxic emission being spewed forth in that hotel in Maine were the narrow-minded, myopic, absurd charges of such ignorant men.

 

Now, we can rest assured that as the penultimate Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part One) awaits its release next weekend, theological nutcases like Rev. Taylor will be back out in force again over the next few weeks.

 

But, as Harry’s faithful friend, Hermione Granger might exclaim: “We need to help Harry!” Harry Potter needs to be defended, and that’s why I’m here this morning—especially since Elizabeth and I have just finished watching (again) the first six Harry Potter movies in preparation for the big premier next weekend.

 

So, what is it between the covers of these seven best-selling books (and in the frames of those six, soon to be eight, box office blockbusters) that makes the Religious Right twitch and harangue and holler—and that makes the rest of us (or at least a good percentage thereof) stand up and applaud and rejoice? First of all, why is the Religious Right so uncomfortable with Harry Potter?

 

Because, they say, these damnable books further witchcraft, and lure children into the occult. They claim as their proof text the eighteen chapter of the Old Testament book Deuteronomy, which says:

 

“There shall not be anyone found among you who makes his son or daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead. For whoever does these things is detestable to the Lord.”

 

That sounds like just about every member of the faculty at Hogwarts!

 

The Bible says it. They believe it. That settles it. That’s how the minds (such as they are) of these people work.

 

But, as we know, the fact of the matter is that the Bible—especially some old and arcane parts of it like the book of Deuteronomy—says a lot of things. It forbids a lot of things; it permits some, too-- things that you’ll get in a heap of trouble for if you try to practice them in modern society. For instance, just a couple of pages down from the verse we just read, the twenty-first chapter of good old Deuteronomy gives us this advice for dealing with a fairly common topic, disobedient children, something with which many of us, no doubt, have had some experience in the course of our lives:

 

“If a man has a stubborn or rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives… Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death… so you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

 

The Bible says it. That settles it?  Let’s do it? Wow! Should we follow this biblical injunction, too? Of course not! As Voltaire put it, God did not create us with reason and common sense so that we should not use them. And so, the rantings of the Lunatic Right are quickly dispersed in the presence of just a modicum of common sense, as far as the real lessons Harry Potter teaches are concerned.

 

For there are some very important lessons beneath all the trappings of “witchcraft” which these books (supposedly) contain—amidst all the casting of spells and spouting of incantations and making of potions--  amidst all these derivations from the timeless literary genre of fantasy which goes back before J.K. Rowling, before C.S. Lewis, before Tolkien, way back to the works of Milton and Dante, before that to the Arthurian legends and Sir Gawain and the Green Night, before that to the tale of Beowulf, and before that to the ancient Greek epics of Homer and the ancient Indian epics of  the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. And we can throw in some of the works of Shakespeare, as well, for good measure. That’s a literary family tree second to none! And Harry Potter holds his place well here, and deservedly.

 

For there is much wisdom in these seven books, and the values which Harry learns are Hogwarts  are values we should all wish for our children, and for this world of ours.

 

First of all, the Harry Potter books are all about building character, about living our values, and making good decisions based on those values.

 

In his long journey through childhood into adolescence and beyond, Harry learns to face head on the adversities of his life—and there are plenty of them for him, including the loss of many of the people he holds most dear, including the murder of his parents before his own eyes when he was still an infant. Rowling’s is no sugar-coated view of what life can deal out to us. Barely beyond childhood, he is plunged into struggle with monumental and powerful forces of evil. Through all of this, he is called to live a life based on compassion and resilience—and not on rage and revenge.

 

Harry learns that although life may hurt us, we are not doomed to be its victim—and that the surest way to live a blest life is to join with all people of goodwill in a common cause.

 

At Hogwarts and beyond, Harry learns to develop good, strong values (like friendship and hard work and tenacity and courage) and he makes his decisions based on these values. That is the ultimate test of character, after all: how we live out the values we say we affirm. “It is not our abilities which distinguish us,” the wise Headmaster Dumbledore tells him, “but our decisions.” Our decisions are our character—and Harry’s story reminds us that doing the right thing trumps everything—convenience, pleasure, personal gain, power, even our very lives, if it comes to that.

 

Secondly, the Harry Potter books declare to us that the dark forces in our lives can be overcome. And they can be overcome by every day people who look and talk and act and react like you and I do. They can even be overcome by kids. They can be overcome by all of those who do not give in to the darkness, but let their inner lights shine forth in the world.

 

In Harry’s world, evil takes many forms. From the evil wizard, Voldemort, who has returned to finish the evil he began a generation before, and seek lordship over all creation. To the stooge of the Ministry of Magic, Delores Umbridge (one of my favorite characters in the whole Harry Potter saga), who is evil with a smiley face, always dressed in pink, always so cheerful—all the while seeking to stamp out Dumbledore’s insistence that Voldemort is back and must be fought. Umbredge is a perfect example of Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the “banality of evil”, and is given to uttering such newspeak nonsense as “Progress for the sake of progress must be discouraged, let us preserve what must be preserved, perfect what can be perfected, and prune practices which ought to be prohibited.” All the while, she is plastering the wall of the school with endless, inane rules and regulations, while the powers of evil grow stronger and stronger.

 

Then, there is that darkness that lurks within each human soul. “The dividing line between good and evil crosses each human heart,” Rev. Richard Gilbert has said, and Harry, too, must face the darkness that dwells within. During her time as a single parent, Rowling was diagnosed with clinical depression, and says that she even contemplated suicide. From this experience, she drew the characters of the Dementers, soul-destroying creatures who seem to suck out all the happiness in the world.

 

In Harry’s world, there are all manner of mysterious dangers that beset him, and he attempts to defeat them by whatever means are at his disposal—whether it’s making the right potion, or casting the right spell, or whether it’s just by means of good old-fashioned, this-worldly moral determination and grit. He also learns that he can’t do it all alone, and that he has to work closely with others, especially with the rational Hermoine and the altruistic Ron. He learns that diversity is a blessing and not a curse—and that whether the enemy is evil spiders or a giant snake or any other manifestation of evil (or, in our own world,  whether the evil we face is racism, or AIDS, or poverty, or violence, or terrorism), it will take the gifts of all—the insights of all—the tenacity of all—to solve the problem. The stakes are too high, and we can’t afford to shut the door or exclude anyone. “Differences of language or habit are nothing at all if our aims are identical and our hearts are open,” Dumbledore tells his students. Or, in the words of a great old Unitarian hymn:

 

Gifts in differing measure,

 Hearts of one accord,

 Manifold the service,

One the sure reward...

 

Thirdly, the Harry Power books remind us to listen to the voice within and to rely upon the power within, and upon those greater powers beyond in whom we have our being.

 

This is blasphemy, I suppose, to those who want to create a God as small as they are, fenced off in a tiny part of celestial real estate somewhere. But we preach a God as great and large as the entire universe, a God who dwells and speaks in each and every inherently worthwhile human soul.

 

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we are told that the wand chooses the wizard and not the other way around. So it is that faith chooses us, and not we it, and faith takes us where it will. Harry Potter learns that the power he needs to overcome evil is already within his soul—waiting to be unlocked and used for the common good. The tools of his trade—charms and potions and chants and incantations—might help him to unlock his power. So, the tools of our faiths—prayers and songs and symbols and rituals—rosaries and prayer rugs and incense and drums and bells and candles—can help us to unlock the power of Goodness that dwells within us.

 

We each possess an array of spiritual gifts. And the greatest of these is love.

 

"Your mother died to save you, Harry,” Dumbledore tells him. “If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s love for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign…to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. It is in your very skin. That evil person, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, could not touch you for this reason. For him, it was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.”  

 

Love has left its mark on us all. Not necessarily a lightning-shaped scar, but we are all deeply marked, nonetheless. Love demands that it be redeemed in how we live our lives, And love demands, too, that we, human wizards all (in our most-Mugglelike ways) dare to stretch our imaginations-- and cast our spells of music and poetry and laughter and tears and hard work in the face of the evils of our day. For we know that “a mind stretched by new ideas can never go back to its original dimension”. And we know, as Judy Blume has said, that “It is a wondrous thing when a child loves a book.” And we know that men and women and boys and girls of goodwill and sacrificial spirit can—and do-- age after age, usher in that kingdom of magic and mystery, hope and courage, faith and love.

 

 


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