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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

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Name: jrichard

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Harry Potter is the devil?

The third Harry Potter movie is out, and I have yet to see it. I came very late to the series, only reading the books when the fifth book was released. And I read all five of the first few books in just a few weeks.

What intrigued me about the series were not the rave reviews or the shining endorsements from all of my literary friends, but actually the strong resistance and criticism posed by the more conservative religious brethren in our country.

“Harry Potter teaches witchcraft” and “Harry Potter is not family friendly” were just two of the cries delivered when conservative Christians began to rail against this book series. So I had to see what all the fuss was about.

In a nutshell, the series is quite good. And though it does contain elements of fantasy and magic, it is hardly as heavy as the Lord of the Rings series, a series that Christuans seem to praise.

This paradox has always amused me. While I think that people are not entirely rational in their choices of what is socially acceptable (ok, I know that was a rather large understatement), I think that Tolkein gets clearance by the Christian community because his books have weathered the test of time and they have received historical support.

Many people who oppose contemporary mass culture are actually fighting against the unfamiliar. And certain properties that have a traditional standing are not easily dethroned.

I believe a characterization of the argument would sound like:

"I've got to be careful and protect my children from negative influences. Harry Potter? This isn't teaching the Christian message. BAD. BAD. The Hobbit? Well, my dad used to read me the Hobbit when I was a kid. I know it's not overtly Christian, but it made me feel good and I love the memory of listening to my father's voice trilling through the dark night as I lay huddled in my covers. It made me feel good, and that means it couldn't have been bad. So I guess that means there was an indirect Christian theme in the book. Yeah, now that I think about it, Bilbo IS kind of a Christ figure. He has to sacrifice his comfort (by leaving his home, which Hobbits NEVER do) and travel through a dangerous land with a rag-tag group of people (kind of like the apostles?) in order to save the world from what is probably just Tolkein's metaphor for Satan. Yeah, that's it. My father WAS reading me a Christian story. And if it was good enough for my father to read it to me, it will be good enough for me to read to my children ..."

I have heard similar mental gymnastics applied to everything from Dr. Suess to the Matrix and even to several John Woo movies (I recently had a friend who kept trying to convince me that Mission Impossible 2 was a metaphor for the gospel story. I found his arguments rather unconvincing.). The Matrix example really galls me, because I think the point the screenwriters were pushing for was that the world is about perception, and perception is formed by those who control perception. Some are able to see through the control of the powerful, but they will always be in the minority, and though they fight for the salvation of others, they will rarely be recognized for what they are.

This really comes out in the second installation, where several seemingly divergent worldviews are brought into conflict, suggesting that how we organize reality and meaning is more dependent upon where we are in the system than what actually is true. Hardly a Christian story.

Even so, the third installation parallels more of the proto-religious theme of the first, and viewers from many different walks of life looked to the series for inspiration.

But, the real reason I am galled by the interpretation of the Matrix as a specifically Christian story is that if it were, the story would convey the wrong messages about Christianity. If Neo is Christ and Morpheus is John the Baptist, there are many factual problems with the story. The virtue of the Morpheus character IS in recognizing the Christ figure, but having him being more aware than the Christ figure is more representative of the Buddha story than the Christ story.

And what kind of Christ is Neo? The selfless defender of the innocent and weak? Maybe after a fashion, but not one consistent with our story. Christ did not seek to topple Rome, but to help those who were being crushed under its yoke. He always diverted from any sense of political struggle to directly intervene in the affairs of the actual people in need. Christ seemed less concerned with power politics and policy than with relieving suffering wherever he encountered it. I really struggle with accepting a Christ figure who is less concerned with the survival of the individual pod-people than with toppling the system that enslaves them.

I guess the fact that so many Christians consider the Matrix a popular spin on the Christian story embedded in a new style of text bothers me, because it makes me think that either they are willing to compromise the point of our story to get SOME elements of it into popular discourse, or that they have missed the point of the story themselves.

But the Matrix, the Harry Potter books, the Lord of the Rings books and the Chronicles of Narnia all have virtues in their storylines. Some more than others. But whenever we try to replace the real story with anything from our popular entertainment, I think we lose too much.

I guess I'm suggesting that while portions of most works of fiction are consistent with our ideals, none of them hold the monopoly on consistency. And if one reinforces a particular set of ideals better than another, a closer look usually reveals that it does so at the expense of another set of critical ideals.

I think reading Harry Potter is fine. And I think that people who rail against it should read more of the Old Testament. There are a lot of stories there that contain dark forces and evil intentions by the characters in the storylines. And while we do censor such stories from children's storybooks about the Bible, unless we are prepared to start editing the actual contents of the Bible, I think we are in danger of hypocrisy at condemning stories just because they contain power sources not consistent with our beliefs.

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