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the morality of fantasy

July 26, 2011

One of my dearest friends is a mother of three and a conservative Christian. Her oldest son is basically a genius; he’s literally the smartest kid I’ve ever met. He reads a lot, so she’s got her work cut out for her keeping up with what books are out there and what he should read at his age (versus what he is able to read, which is a different thing altogether). Last time I saw her I asked how she felt about the Harry Potter series, wondering if she shared the Christian community’s opposition to the books. She said she had some concerns about them, but hadn’t made up her mind. She’s now reading them and she sent me links to a couple of interesting articles on the topic of Christians who like Harry Potter. In this article from Crosswalk and this from Christianity Today, bloggers  discuss the ways they came to appreciate the Christian undertones of the book. They relate the Right’s move away from concern about Harry Potter to the fact that the series as a whole leaves a very different impression than did the first few books when they first came out. Both writers find in them the Christian themes of sacrifice and of choosing Good over Evil.

These themes are the things that make Harry Potter like The Lord of the Rings (in terms of religion, not writing; Lord of the Rings is much better writing). Lord of the Rings is largely considered a Christian book even though religion itself does not exist in it. No one prays; no one worships. But the story is undoubtedly, at least in part, an allegory for spiritual warfare, and the lesson is “stick with your friends, try to do good, and you can overcome evil.” The message in Harry Potter is the same, right down to the emphasis on fellowship.

In fact I’d say where Harry Potter fails as moral instruction is in making these ideas too simple. In The Lord of the Rings, Boromir struggles mightily with his thirst for power but ultimately chooses the side of good. Friendships are formed through difference, such as between Gimli and Legolas. Gollum journeys several times in his wretched life from the possibility of good to the possibility of real evil.

In Harry Potter, the good guys are the good guys and the bad guys are bad. One yearns for some struggle in Malfoy, some moment in which he (even accidentally) does the right thing. One seeks in vain for a flaw in Hermione, the character I believe Rowling loves most and who, it turns out, is always right. All the kids you thought were mean on the first day of school do indeed turn out to be pretty mean. Even Snape’s flirtation with the dark side is entirely in the past.

A more nuanced representation of this kind of internal spiritual warfare, one that mirrors the external battle of Good versus Evil, would make the lesson more applicable to real life, which is never so simple as always right or wrong, completely good or completely bad. It would also allow for another Christian theme to develop: redemption. Why, in Harry Potter, can none of the bad guys be saved? (Again, Snape was saved before the series begins, and though Rowling allows readers to go back and forth in their estimation of him, the character itself does not change.) Not inconsequentially, it would also make them better books.

I worry more about books like Twilight than I do about Harry Potter. Harry Potter creates an alternate world, and even when it touches upon the real one it is part of a fictional England in which the Prime Minister has actually always known about the wizarding world. The magic in the books bears no similarity to Wiccan or occult practices today in that, again, no one prays and no one worships. Twilight is set right here, right now, and imagines this secret world existing just under the surface. No, the books don’t say, “there really are vampires and werewolves,” but they do what vampire stories have always done: physically manifest subliminal sexual fears in the body of a man.  There is no allegory here of demons and angels, orcs and elves, or good magic versus the Dark Arts, just the simple simile of “men are like vampires.” The resulting message is similarly shallow: young women should be very afraid of men, love, and sex, because the same guy who wants to kiss you really wants to kill you.

Surely this message was more appropriate in Dracula’s age. I’m not too keen on the over-sexualization of young women in our culture, but the answer is not to make young people distrustful and fearful about sex. The answer is to inform them of the facts and nurture in them an awareness that women’s sexuality belongs to them, not to men. We must teach young people that women are not walking temptations but rather fully developed people in their own right, that women are capable of making good decisions, and that men are in fact capable of controlling themselves. We must teach them that when a man fails to do so, it is not because the woman was too tempting. It is because the man failed to do so. And we must teach them that it’s not sexy or romantic when that happens, it’s violent.

But I’ve wandered. It seems to me it would be very difficult to keep your children from Harry Potter (or your teenagers from Twilight for that matter). He’s rather hard to avoid. There is lots in there that can entertain an imaginative mind, and a little that can educate it, too. I like to think that I’ll teach my kids to read like I do: with a critical engagement that allows me to immerse and enjoy myself at the same time that I see the larger picture for what it is. I like to think that I’ll teach them that.

Anyone know how to teach that?

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