Not long ago, I posted some one-off quote from J.K. Rowling about the subtle Christian structure of the Harry Potter series, how she never goes into much detail about her faith because it would make the whole story "obvious." Revelife picked up this short post, and I was surprised to see that a good number of Christians (the kind who read Revelife, anyway) feel that Harry Potter is off-limits, regardless of any underlying Christian theme.
The mere presence of magic and its use disqualifies it. I call this "magical thinking," not because it's about magic, but because it grants a sort of inherent power to a plot element.
Now, I suppose this kind of magical thinking is fine, but most Christians I know use it very selectively. If you are opposed to your kids reading Harry Potter, you had better not be okay with them watching Pirates of the Caribbean, as piracy is as much a sin as witchcraft.
But I don't think this kind of magical thinking is necessarily tied to Christian thinking, but rather arose along with post-Christian modernity, around the late 1500s.
We can see this by charting the way the early and medieval church approached the issue of witchcraft generally - not fictional stories about witches, but potentially real ones. Now, to read a middle-school or high-school history textbook, you would assume the following narrative:
Christians, like all religious people, are very superstitious and fearful of things like "demons" and "magic." At first the church had no power, but after they became the official religion of Rome, and then of all Europe, they began, as a practice, killing witches, generally by burning or drowning. As time went on, humans became less religious and more scientific, and began to realize that witches do not exist, so we left off killing them.
So, looking at this story you would expect history to be a gradual decline in the number of witch-burnings, as scientific progress became more and more generally known, and as the church became less and less powerful. But we actually see quite the opposite. During the so-called "Dark Ages," the punishment for witchcraft was not execution, but something akin to pastoral counseling, or in unrepentant claims, excommunication. The primary task the Catholic church undertook when an area began suspecting witchcraft was to quell the hysteria.
They did this mainly by preaching that while witches may exist, they are not to be feared, as their master, Satan, had already been defeated. When a local population wanted to drive suspected witches out of town or kill them, the clergy instead drove them to protect themselves by being faithful Christians - receiving the Eucharist, giving alms, confessing - these things protected a person from all forms of devilish attack, including witchcraft.
Throughout most of the Middle Ages, though, belief in witchcraft altogether was discouraged by the church. St. Patrick's Synod, in the fifth century, actually anathematized those who believe in the actual power of witches. Charlemagne made it a crime to execute witches. Pope Gregory VII did the same in 1080 in Denmark. Some bishops, like Bishop Burchard of Worms, prescribed penance to those congregants who were so "timidly faithless" as to believe in the power of witches. And when a Dominican encyclopedist named Vincent of Beauvais was confronted by a congregant claiming to be a witch with the power to slip through keyholes, he proved to her that she was mistaken by locking the door of his chamber and chasing her around the room with a stick, exhorting her to escape if she could.
But once the power of individual nation-states overtook the authority of the church, and once rationalism overtook the enchanted worldview of medieval Christianity, witches became something for individuals to fear and for states to use as easy scapegoats. The early Baconian scientific worldview did not make it obvious that witchcraft did not exist, and many scientists throughout the 1600s believed witchcraft to be scientifically demonstrable.
Rather, science recast the role of witches. Magic now was simply tapping into naturalistic laws unknown to most people: much like chemistry. The kind of magic we see in Harry Potter is of exactly this variety. You just need the right tools and the right knowledge.
So, ironically, it was the advent of scientific rationalism that led to the kind of magical thinking these Christian opponents of Harry Potter are employing.
For my part, while I believe in something like the magic that permeates Tolkien's literature (and the sacraments, for that matter), I don't believe in anything like the wizarding world of Harry Potter. But I do believe in the themes of grace, sacrifice and redemption that underscore it, and I would advise any Christian to give the books a shot. (But my advice is to skip the first couple of books and just watch the movies. Book three is a fine place to start.)What do you think? Is there a difference between watching Harry Potter and watching Pirates of the Caribbean? Is the magic in Harry Potter incompatible with Christian thinking? Should we resume the practice of witch-burning?