Thursday, August 16, 2007

The Potter problem and some philosophy to boot:

Two weeks ago a friend of mine gave me the first 5 Harry Potter books. I had yet to read any (or watch any of the movies), because it was just so trendy. I felt like reading them would be the equivalent to listening to N’Sync in the 7th grade. It was a matter of principle. It didn’t help that I’m not too keen on magic and the like. I try to avoid books/movies/shows that make magic look fun and cool and innocent. If you believe in the supernatural (which I openly admit that I do), then magic is nothing to take lightly. Those who do practice magic aren’t channeling positive forces (even if they think they are). If you remember my post on CS Lewis’ Screwtape Letters, I really believe that there are spiritual powers at war in this world. Any time you tap into a power not from God, well you can guess where I think it comes from. So I just never bothered to read the books. They were too trendy, and they make little kids think magic is cool (and I admit, after reading them, there have been several occasions where I’ve wished I had a wand to stupefy my students in swim lessons).

But even though I didn’t read them, I didn’t think they were any worse than every other secular book out there (unlike many other vocal Christians in the US that ardently boycott the series). A book without God is just that, a book without God. Of course there are wonderful books with God, and I love many of them (Narnia, Rings, etc). But that doesn’t mean that any book without God is bad to read just because He’s missing from it. Literary achievement isn’t limited to the pious, and there’s a lot you can learn (I know this is obvious) from those who don’t write from a religious perspective (see my Golden Compass post for one example). So I’ve decided to write about Harry Potter from my perspective, and I know many other Christians have already done this but I haven’t read a word of it because I didn’t want anything to be spoiled (so forgive me if I repeat what other thoughtful writers have already written, it isn’t intentional). And I think my discussion of the merits of Potter lends itself to a short discussion of whether we should introduce philosophy to children through their own literature (a subject I have never thought about myself, but have recently been introduced to by Professor Brighouse).

I don’t know if I’ll spoil the books for anyone, so don’t read this if you haven’t read them but plan too (though I don’t think I’ll give away too much, and I doubt there are many people left who haven’t read them yet).

The central plot in HP is one of a war between good and evil, a common enough story line. Voldemort, the evil antagonist, does a Satan slash Darth Vador move by moving to the dark side. His move was motivated by pride and a lust for power. Then you have Harry who is not extraordinary in himself, but rather becomes extraordinary by the combination of the love in his life and his willingness to do the right thing. In the end, love conquers all. Without love, you just can’t win, and you’re pretty miserable in the process. No amount of power can replace love. So minus the glorification of white magic (which, I suppose, is a powerful enough objection on its own, but I don’t think it outweighs the importance of the message in the books), the book does a good job of promoting the story of all time. Why do so many stories focus on the battle between good and evil? Why does love always seem to win out in the end? Why are the underdogs able to do extraordinary things? Well, you can guess what I have to say about that. Love wins because God is love. Evil is here because moral agents are prone to pride, and they have the choice to abandon God is they want. God’s love will win anyways, so those who embrace it (and those people tend to be the underdogs, those who need all the help they can get) also gain the power of His love. It’s a universal story because the battle is etched in our hearts. The God hole is there, the temptation to follow the route of pride is there, the love is there for the taking… The story can come in any shape or form, the characters may change, the setting may be different, but the conflict is the same.

The fact that so many stories have the same conflict speaks to the need that we have for God and His love. By reading secular novels (and going to secular movies and listening to secular songs) you witness humanity’s longing for it. I’ve always thought that sheltering yourself from the shouts of humanity for God is tantamount to ignoring God Himself. We need to listen to everyone else so we can begin to show them the love that we prize so dearly. A few years back some friends of mine and I decided to make a CD about God, but it would be filled with only secular songs. The songs we found spoke of love and redemption and second chances and the need to belong and be satisfied and have a purpose. The overwhelming cry of humanity is this very deep need for love, the unconditional and extraordinary kind. When I read Harry Potter, I hear this cry.

Well I was going to say more on that, but I fear I may just be repeating what other Christians have no doubt figured out already. So that’s all really. Not earth-shattering, but I thought it was worth saying again, as it’s an important lesson or us (believers) to learn.

Here’s where I was going to write about how HP and books like it lend themselves very nicely to discussing philosophy with children, but I think I’ll save that for a future post. Expect it soon enough.

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