If you want to start an argument in a roomful of Christians, say “Harry Potter.” Ever since J. K. Rowling’s series about a school for young wizards and witches hit the shelves, Christians have debated whether the books and movies are acceptable material for their children to consume.
On the one hand are the fans (sometimes self-named “Potterheads”), normally those who grew up enjoying Harry Potter themselves, who see no harm in imaginative literature that encourages the virtues of friendship, courage, and loyalty. On the other hand are the skeptics, who point out that all witchcraft is, in reality, evil, and to portray it as neutral or good is dangerously misleading to children. The skeptics include several exorcists—among them, one who made national news for removing the Harry Potter series from his parochial school’s library last year—who believe that reading the spells in the books risks granting demons a foothold. Fr. Chad Ripperger has also pointed out that millennials in particular seem obsessed with the series, hinting that there is something sinister about the amazing hold this franchise has on them.
The debate is heated, to say the least. My aim here is not to blow on the coals and cause a flare-up of the argument, nor is it to douse the whole thing with a pat answer: if exorcists and armies of fans haven’t been able to solve this debate yet, I certainly can’t. Instead, my purpose is to offer a perspective that, I hope, will make further debate on this topic more fruitful and constructive from both sides. The question I want to ask and answer is: why is Harry Potter so popular in the first place, particularly with millennials?
The first part of the answer is a powerful nostalgia. Many millennials not only grew up reading the books, they grew up along with the characters. They remember receiving the first book for Christmas, reading the fourth book on a certain family vacation, going to the theater at midnight in costume when the last movie came out. They associate memories of their own lives with the events of the story. I hear certain pop songs and am instantly brought back to the particular year when the song was most popular; how much more is a book series nostalgically wound up with one’s life if one reads it over years, seeing the characters handle the difficulties of school and first crushes while you are, and yet… their lives are exciting while yours is rather dull. It is both a reflection of and an escape from your real life. So far, there is nothing sinister about this, nor does it necessarily mark the books as great literature either; this is simply how a successful series works.
But I don’t think this is the whole answer. If it were, any series of adventurous school stories would do just as well. There is something about Harry Potter, and the best word I can find for it is “sacramentality.” Before accusing me of blasphemy (or cheering me on as a champion for Catholic “Potterheads”), please understand that I do not mean that there is anything literally sacred or holy about Harry Potter. Breathe deeply and allow me to explain.
What is a sacrament? According to my New St. Joseph Baltimore Catechism, a sacrament is an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. That is, a physical something (matter, such as water) and words to go with it (“I baptize you…”) that Jesus has provided as a means to convey His own divine life to our spirits. This is possible because the ultimate Spirit, God, became matter Himself. He uses the matter of His creation for spiritual purposes because both matter and spirit are His handiwork.
Catholic thinkers have noted that this sacramental element, this incarnational reality of grace, extends in some way to everything in the universe. God created a world that is, to borrow a phrase from Gerard Manley Hopkins, “charged with the grandeur of God.” Because the Holy Ghost broods over the world, everything we encounter can convey God’s grace to us if we are open to receiving it. This is called a sacramental view of reality.
Now, most people today do not automatically have a sacramental view of reality. Pre-Christian pagans had a sort of pre-sacramental view of reality because, to them, everything material had a spirit behind it. They saw the sun and thought there must be a god of the sun. They needed rain for their crops, so they begged a rain-god to send rain. But today, we do not see this. We know that the sun is a burning ball of gases spinning dizzily through a void and that the rain falls because of the water cycle. In short, we do not see much meaning behind material things. We see only what we can see.
And in fact, material things themselves are in short supply in the modern world. Not that we have less stuff than we used to, but our lives are increasingly lived through digital means, in less-embodied ways. Experiences that once required physical presence and proximity to other people—like a symphony or drama—can now be experienced alone, without any change of location or attire. This dis-incarnating serves a purpose (even books and letters are ways of disembodying experiences to carry them elsewhere), but a life saturated with mere information, sight, and sound grows tiresome. It is better to hear the symphony live in the symphony hall, and not just because the acoustics are better.
We believe in, on the one hand, matter with no mind, and on the other hand, mind with very little matter. This is the opposite of a sacramental view of reality. And it is easy to see that millennials were affected by this trend more than previous generations, given the advent of the internet and smartphones, portable sensory-informational devices.
Now, how does this relate to Harry Potter? When people are saturated with informational input and told that the universe makes perfect sense if you just know the scientific facts, when men have walked on the full moon and found it a cold rock and meteorologists tell us when it’s going to rain…when we have lost the sense of material and mystical going hand-in-hand, we feel a lack. We crave a universe that has a certain logic to it, and yet a certain element of mystery. We crave a life that sees physical objects as having meaning and purpose.
This is precisely what J. K. Rowling created: a world where a material wand has a mystical power, in the hands of the right wizard who can choose the right words and motions. There is a logic to be learned, so the children go to Hogwarts to learn it, but the realm of magic is never lacking in mystery, either. Even the physical objects in Rowling’s world tick with life: the balls in the sport called Quidditch have minds of their own, and the wastepaper basket chews and swallows what you put into it. Whimsy abounds and mystery is mingled with rationality in a way that feels deeply satisfying and convincing. A tangible object such as a wand, in the hands of a specially gifted person who can speak the right words, can make important things happen. This is the key element on which the whole series hinges, and it is a sacramental vision: a world where matter and form work together to make something supernatural occur. This does not address the issue of demonic influence, but it explains the compelling attraction of Rowling’s world.
Now, the question of whether this particular aspect of Harry Potter is good or bad becomes relevant. It could be good for a disembodied, mystery-less generation to have their imaginations awakened to the fact that matter is meaningful because it is necessary for something nobler that lives beyond the senses’ reach. Ultimately, that nobler something is part of a war between good and evil, raging below the surface of humdrum “muggle” existence in this fictional series as it does in the spiritual realm in real life. If young people have a natural craving for the sacramental, that craving may be awakened and sharpened by such books, and the reader led to look for more. God can use anything to begin to lead a soul to Himself and His Sacramental Church; even Catholics may have a new appreciation for the mystery and poetry of the Faith after reading literature that forms the imagination to look for it.
On the other hand, perhaps the craving is simply sated by the wrong sort of food, and the youth are led further astray because the pseudo-sacramentality of Harry Potter tastes enough like the real thing to make the reader stop there. As I said in the beginning, I cannot solve this debate, but let us at least understand why the thing we support or oppose is important enough to debate at all.
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