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Harry Potter and the Sacramental Universe

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.

Artwork from the cover of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" (Scholastic) by J.K. Rowling (scholastic.com)

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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About Rachel Hoover 1 Article
Rachel Hoover lives and writes in Nashville, Tennessee.

27 Comments

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful analysis of the Harry Potter series. The books were captivation for my brother and me who can only be described as “elderly.” We too waiting for the next book to come out. For me, the virtue of kindness and concern for others marked the character of Harry Potter, an acceptance of the persecution by his foster family without fighting back, made our hero endearing. As children we are always fascinated by magic and wish we had some so Harry Potter filled our unspoken need. The struggle between good and evil – with good winning – so characteristic throughout the series made us read on and on. The Harry Potter series is fantasy not reality just as Lord of the Rings is fantasy. Our imaginations were triggered (suppressed in the films)which is a good thing. My thanks to J K Rowling who gave children an incentive to learn to read for themselves.

  2. Ms Hoover,

    I found this article to be interesting and thought-provoking. I think you’re on to something with the concept, and I also agree with your bifurcated conclusion: either Potter will awaken readers’ sense of sacramentality and encourage more exploration, or it will sate it immediately and become a cause of spiritual complacency. I wonder if the conclusion might have a third option though: suppose readers are awakened to sacramentality but seek it through the occult. This extra exploration would then likely end in disaster. Better to stick with Tolkien or Lewis for this sort of fiction, rather than risk it.

    Also, I don’t think exorcists are primarily concerned with the fact that witches, wizards and magic are portrayed (even celebrated) in media since there are plenty of other books that have them as characters/themes and yet aren’t removed from libraries (Wizard of Oz, Will Wilder, Lord of the Rings, etc). I believe, rather, it is the fact that there are, on the pages of Potter, the names of real spells and real demons that cause alert Catholics to pause and tread cautiously. This might be nothing more than a chink in the armor; I suppose it’s akin to using a ouija board unaware of its true purpose. Still, that would provide a gateway for the occult and for demonic powers, and thus we should avoid them. It was recently pointed out on the interwebs that JK Rowling has a tattoo on her wrist of “solve et coagula,” the same words the Baphomet is depicted having on tattooed its arms, words which are also used by Freemasons as a sort of motto. I would guess if Gandalf were sporting a satanic pentagram tattoo, or if Glenda the Good Witch were a Freemasonic communist, they’d be suspect also. But, as it is, they aren’t. So they’re in the clear, and Potter’s out.

    • Thank you , for the gentle words on the topic , both in the article and the comment since an outright condemnation might incite deeper ego issues , fears , hostilities ,
      ? likely brought in by the influences of the series themselves .

      Came across this too , on person using the spell and burning down the house – https://www.womenofgrace.com/blog/?p=68207

      Persons in ministry mention how there can be spirits that make one have a distaste for the scriptures , thus , not being able to benefit from same , seeking out broken cisterns or worse instead .

      Many might already be familiar with the curse breaking prayers at the site below , to also be surprised at the nature of such curses invoked –

      http://www.sensustraditionis.org/Freemasonic.pdf

      Tomorrow , June 13th Sat. – second apparition of Fatima – children shown the power of The Queen ..
      may such power and peace be too that we too invoke in families often enough , to share with the little ones the good news about the holiness The Lord shares with them , to be also warriors like Elijah , to help burn away the fires that burn in the loins as impurities , its hatreds and greeds , instead to be filled with the holiness of The Living Water 🙂

  3. My Catholic faith journey was in progress when the last Harry Potter book came out. I can understand how some might view the magic in a fictional story as temptation into the ideation of magic. I however read the books with my kids to encourage the love of reading for the ” magical experience” (if you excuse the term) of being transported into a new world. The stories of Harry Potter are of a kid who had no one in the world to love him and inspite of the mistreatment Harry is a good character and becomes a brave central figure willing to sacrifice his own life for friends. I read the stories as symbols of good against evil and discussed this with my kids. We watched all the movies with enthusiasm to see how movie “magic” put JK Rowling’s words into a visual feast of adventure.

    I am a Catechist and believe our Lord can use anything for His Glory. We can see how these stories of magic explore the basic tenets of our humanity the good sides and our bad sides. These books allow the secular to explore our human frailty, our brokenness, our gifts, confirming that we need each other, and by extension are the hands and feet of God. The stories of Harry Potter enforce that we need friends, especially when we have no family. We can admire the courage Harry uses to fight for what is good.

    As a teacher of faith it is up to me to guide my children regarding the love of Jesus, God and The Holy Spirit. It is up to me to set an example of living the faith. It is up to us to show our kids what is good and bad in the world and in the spiritual world. We as Catholics have the gift of spirituality that a Protestant Christian would not have or may not know how to discuss or manage.

    As a side note The Harry Potter Books are by extension the story of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” It is interesting that there was no hoopla against that magical Disney story. Maybe because Harry Potter became more popular and was perceived as a bigger threat by those against the book series.:)

    In closing, we as parents and teachers of faith have to keep our perspective and hearts open to the good in the world and teach our children that evil exists in many forms. It is up to parents and catechists to help children navigate the world of literature and entertainment.

    It is up to parents and catechists to teach the Catholic faith so that our children may know God, love God and serve God so that they may be with God here and into eternity.

      • Agreed was meant for Mary’s comment! To Telma, I grew up about a half hour from Disneyland and went at least once a year sometimes many more. I am now in my 50’s. There are plenty of Christians who boycott Disney. I am one as in 2014 the Holy Spirit opened my eyes. There are sinister dealings behind it all. All Christians beware!

  4. Remember that the Devil can and does disguise himself, if he wishes, as an angel of light. He can and does make something attractive which in itself seems to be a good; only later is it revealed to be evil. Harry Potter is the ‘gateway drug’ for the occult. Do not be fooled by any other interpretation.

  5. Gabriele Kuby who thinks H Potter is evil, wrote a book:”Harry Potter-Good or Evil”, and
    sent a copy to Pope Benedict in 2003, who thanked for the enlightening information.

  6. I believe this viewpoint to be not only 180 degrees wrong, but dangerous. The Catholic World Report should take this article down before it does more harm. Harry Potter is a gateway to occult practices and undermines both the Catholic and Protestant faiths. I know this sounds conspiratorial and right-wing. Most will laugh at this. However, I watched several girls grow up into women while they were reading and re-reading these books, eventually becoming witches, pagan priestesses, and worshipers of ancient gods. (Boys were not affected in the same way.) Harry Potter, DiscWorld, vampires, and the “Hollywood” message are all subtle, but corrupting influences, and inimical to the Catholic world view. They also place Christianity in the context of just another religion and no better or worse than any other path in life. Mr. Potter, though, has done the most damage. I have seen it with my own eyes.

    • Thank you for the advice, but you seem to have missed the entire point of the essay. As the author states, “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?” In other words, she is not interested in promoting or attacking the Harry Potter books, but understanding some of the reasons they have been so popular. Yes, Catholics should take a strong stand against clear evils; we are also called to think more deeply and incisively, all the more so at a time when emotions are running high and denunciations are a dime a dozen.

      • You miss the underlying point of the article. You even miss the point behind the title: “Harry Potter and the Sacramental Universe.” Comparing the Harry Potter books and the sacred sacraments is simply wrong. No, they are not in the same universe. You are, however, correct in one of your statements. She does not on the surface approve or disapprove of the books, but you entirely miss the underlying positivity, a message that proposes some sort of vague connection between sacred sacraments with Harry Potter’s universe. She keeps things vague because none of this would stand up under a rigorous theological and typological analysis. No Harry and Jesus are not and never will be in the same universe. Read the article again, look below the surface, and hope that someone you know will not become one of the victims of these books. Again, it is irresponsible for the CWR to publish this article.

          • This is known as an ad hominem attack. In debating circles, this is classified as one of about two dozen types of logical fallacies. An ad hominem is typically used when an individual cannot deal with the arguments on a rational and professional level, and so resorts to an attack on a personal level.

          • Erasing comments, Carl? Please consider your actions and your duties as a moderator. First, an ad hominem attack, followed by erasing a perfectly valid comment explaining ad hominems and where they are used in formal debates. Are you ashamed of your actions, even a little? Is this an opportunity for self-reflection and improvement?

          • No one has “erased” anything. Comments are moderated. I think your rhetoric and approach speak clearly enough. No need for me to highlight what is obvious.

          • Please answer the previous question, Carl. Was your ad hominem necessary? Is not the duty of a moderator to moderate such things, not to perpetrate them?

          • You made assertions about the article and the author that do not correspond to what she wrote and it stated. You then attacked me. When I dryly noted the imperious tone of your attacks, you played the victim. “Ad hominem”? Sigh. Please.

        • You do your arguent no good, Susan Susitna, by frothing at the mouth and flailing.

          Also I find it amusing that you so politely call him “Mr. Potter.” He’s a kid in a series of books.

  7. As a senior citizen I grew up with fairytales and fairy godmothers, elves and trolls. I wanted a fairy godmother, but knew they weren’t real and the closest would be mother Mary.
    A half century later I enjoyed the Potter series as the series came on TV. It was something I could appreciate but felt a certain level of concern that I could not support financially. The concern was not as much for my grandchildren who were being well instructed on faith and morals at home and church, but for the many who were not getting a religious education either at home or in a religious school.
    My conclusion is that if faith in God, backed by religious training, is emphasized in the home the Potter series is just another fairy tale for older teens; but not impressionable little ones or anyone without a strong religious affiliation.

  8. If Harry Potter is to be condemned as a “gateway” to the occult–on anecdotal evidence–better get the pitchforks out for Lewis and Tolkien, too. Extreme Protestant critics such as Berit Kjos already have. Indeed, a survey of Neo-Pagans taken back in the last century when the Craft was just becoming prominent cited LORD OF THE RINGS as an important predisposing influence.(See DRAWING DOWN THE MOON by Margot Adler.)

    One gets weary after years of defending HP to have to refute the same old accusations. No, the magic in HP isn’t Wicca or any other form of magic invoking spirits. No, there are no names of real demons–not even Lucius, the name of several saints. If spells become “real” because they work in a piece of fiction, then we mustn’t sing “Bippity-boppity-boo” from the 1950 CINDERELLA either. (Oooh how deep the malignant designs of Walt Disney!)

    Now we have to contend with the motto “solve et coagula”, which is Latin for “dissolve and coagulate”. It’s a principle of alchemy, known since the 2nd or 3rd century AD, long before there were Freemasons or Satanists. It refers both to the processes of making the philosopher’s stone and the alchemist’s spiritual transformations. The structure and symbolism of HP is saturated with alchemy, hence Rowling’s tattoo. The alchemical basis of the books has been ably analyzed by John Granger, an Orthodox Christian.

    Meanwhile, Rachel Hoover’s interesting and admirable insights get lost in the noise.

  9. I would strongly suggest reading Fr. Jim Costigan’s work on the series. He actually read the books so as to be able to suggest them to his flock or reject them as demonic. It does not matter how “sacramental” or “incarnational” Potter is if it is seductive sludge from the infernal deceiver. Why do young people fall for this tantalizing garbage? Simple. Harry provides what the malformed and unformed want: license.

    Under the guise of some perceived good, Harry can do whatever he wants to be the hero and be lauded by all. Kids today (I ban Harry Potter in my class) want to do good for others AND they want to have as much fun and do as many sinful or at least questionable things to do that perceived good. This is the devil’s greatest handiwork. If he can convince a child to do this, he will up the ante. Why would a 12 year old need the Sacraments when he IS the sacrament AND victim of the devil? And he likes being his plaything..

    One other reason some Catholic kids give into this and Riordan and all the other stuff is that there is a spiritual void in young souls and very few children are having these needs met. Where there is an abscess, demons congregate! This is why I have developed a library of Saint books and books about spiritual warfare in the back of my class. They need something true and wholesome to fill the void.

    This completely ignores the advocacy of homosexuality in the books as well as JK’s past attendance in witch school…

    Virgin Most Powerful, Pray for Us!

  10. The only thing good about Harry Potter from a spiritual perspective is that it recognizes the value of the virtue of discipline. The authorities have a sense of justice that seems to be largely (and probably increasingly) lacking in the real world.

    The bad things are that Harry Potter is apparently an agnostic (at least) and that breaking rules is rationalized/justified (I am not certain which), provided that some good may be obtained because of it. There are justifications in cases of necessity in the real world, but it is best to be cautious and discerning.

    That being said, lying can NEVER BE JUSTIFIED. There is another lesser known forms of dishonesty such as lying in action (simulation). In general, it is clear from Holy Scripture and the teachings of the Church that evil must never be done, so that good may come of it.

    Of course, Harry Potter offers a vision of the world that is false, even if it can be entertaining (with regards to the strangeness of it all).

    The only sense in which there is such a thing as magic in the real world is by means of obtaining the aid of demons, or some kind of vain superstition. It is certainly SINFUL.

    There may be a strong possibility for the existence of latent undeveloped psychic powers in human beings, but that is not what Harry Potter is about. This would be a case for human beings making use of natural powers which are currently not (well) explained (but probably could be) by natural science.

    • Shawn if I may you touch on a long disputed ethical issue requiring further consideration. I’m frequently asked whether, Lying can never be justified. A priest theologian answered, Does everyone deserve the truth? Mental reservation or mental equivocation is an ethical theory and a doctrine in moral theology that recognizes the ‘lie of necessity’, and holds that when there is a conflict between justice and veracity, it is justice that should prevail. The doctrine is a special branch of casuistry, case-based reasoning developed in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance. While associated with the Jesuits, it did not originate with them. It is a theory debated by moral theologians, but not part of Canon Law. Canon Lawyer Saint Raymond of Penafort held that position. For example, He is not at home [to you]. Should the monastery doorman truthfully respond to the Gestapo searching for French Maquis that a group was indeed hiding in the cistern? Should the Dutchman or Italian tell Nazis demanding the truth that they were hiding Jews in the attic?

      • P.S.: I’m not a J.K. Rowlings fan. My sense is she does exactly as you say, create scenarios that lend to justify ignoring ‘Rules’.

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