But everyone was waiting for the magic moment: midnight. Potter
publisher Scholastic Press had forced booksellers to sign affidavits
agreeing not to sell the book until Saturday, July 8; hence,
the Friday night parties. At the stroke of twelve, store employees
raced to the storeroom, wheeled out boxes of books, and ripped
them open. As the first hefty, green and gold copies of J. K.
Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire appeared,
the children gasped with delight—and their sleepy parents
reached for their plastic.
Including me. My own two Potterheads—14-year-old T. J.
and 12-year-old Travis—insisted on buying individual copies
of Goblet so neither had to wait for the other to finish
it. As we drove home that night, they asked me to flip on our
minivan’s dome light so they could start reading immediately.
They’d been given special permission to read all night,
if they wished.
They almost made it. Peeking in on T. J. at 4 a.m., I found
he’d finally drifted off to sleep—The Goblet
of Fire open on his chest.
Clearly, with a record-breaking 4.8 million first editions
of the latest Potter tome printed in America and England, kids
are wild about Harry. But some Christian parents wonder if he’s
a suitable role model for their kids.
The four Potter books (of a total of seven in the works) trace
the adventures of an 11-year-old orphan boy who discovers that
he’s a wizard, endowed with magical powers. He begins
attending the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where
he takes classes in magic and learns how to play Quidditch,
an aerial game involving balls and broomsticks.
The books are great fun—but should Christian parents
worry about their use of magic? After all, the Bible strongly
condemns involvement with witchcraft.
It may relieve parents to know that the magic in these books
is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. Harry and his
classmate are born with the ability to perform magic—much
as real life kids are born with musical or mathematical ability.
Students at Hogwarts learn to cast spells, read crystal balls,
and transform hedgehogs into pincushions—but they don’t
attempt to contact the supernatural world.
But isn’t it wrong to expose kids to any kind
of magic and witchcraft?
Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs has a wonderful response
to this concern. In the journal First Things, Jacobs
notes that it’s only recently that magic and science were
viewed as occupying different realms.
"For much of their existence," Jacobs writes, "both
magic and experimental science were viewed as a means of controlling
and directing our natural environment." It took several centuries
of dedicated scientific experiment "before it was clear to anyone
that the ‘scientific’ physician could do more to
cure illness than the old woman of the village with her herbs
and potions and muttered charms." Magic was gradually viewed
as a false discipline.
This history helps us understand the role of magic in the Potter
books. The author "begins by positing a history in which magic
is not a false discipline," Jacobs writes. Instead, magic,
like science, is "a means of controlling the physical world."
In this world, Jacobs writes, "magic works as reliably, in the
hands of a trained wizard, as the technology that makes airplanes
fly and refrigerators chill the air."
No less a Christian than C. S. Lewis makes the distinction
between mechanical and supernatural magic in his Narnia series
for children. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Father
Christmas gives magical gifts to the Pevensie children. To Susan,
he gives a horn, guaranteed to summon help during times of great
need. To Lucy, he gives a vial containing an elixir that will
heal even the deadliest injury. The magic of horn and elixir
works without the need for the children to call upon supernatural
beings. They are perfect examples of mechanical magic.
Like J. K. Rowling, Lewis has created a world in which magic
works, and in these fictional worlds it is not magic per
se that is morally troublesome.
In Prince Caspian, by contrast, Lewis describes a less
innocent form of magical power. A dwarf named Nikabrik
desires to bring back the long-dead White Witch to help the
Narnians defeat their human enemies. When Prince Caspian realizes
what he is proposing, he’s outraged. "So that is your
plan, Nikabrik! Black sorcery and the calling up of an accursed
spirit. And I see who your companions are—a Hag and a
Wer-Wolf!" The prince and his animal allies instantly kill the
three (Just, one might add, as the Old Testament commands).
In a sense, whether or not mechanical magic "works" in the
Potter books is beside the point. At Harry’s Hogwarts
School, one educational goal overrides all others: To help students
develop the character and the moral discernment to use a particular
technology—in this case, magic—for the common good.
In that sense, the Potter books teach children a great lesson:
They, too, must develop moral discernment about real-life technologies—such
as the Internet—along with the character to exploit them
in ways pleasing to God.
If the Potter books can teach kids to harness technology for
good instead of evil, then I say more power—scientifically
speaking, of course—to Harry Potter and his wizard friends.
A caring friend will be there to pray with you in your time of need.