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Wonderland or Christianland?
In his letter titled “Gnostic Gnashing" (May 11-17), Mr. Robert Trexler offers an interesting Christian interpretation of the Harry Potter series — a reading defended by Christian critics such as Alan Jacobs, Serge Tisseron, Pietro Citati, Massimo Introvigne and Catherine and David Deasel (authors of the forthcoming book Philosophy and Harry Potter.)
Yet the very test questions I proposed (and Mr. Trexler used to prove Harry Potter's Christian worldview) reveal, instead, its Gnostic soil.
First, the question about the divine. Mr. Trexler points out that Lord Voldemort is an evil wizard, representative of Satan, rather than a “demiurge" with god-like attributes. He is right. The problem lies elsewhere.
Contrary to Msgr. Peter Fleetwood's personal opinion about the Christianity of Harry Potter, which in no way constitute an official “Vatican" endorsement of the series, the Vatican-based journal La Civiltá Cattolica published an article titled “Il fenomeno ‘Harry Potter’" (March 2, 2002, pp. 474-483), in which the author, Father Antonio Spadaro, SJ, acknowledges that its worldview seems to be incompatible with the Christian world-view. “The implicit model of the character [Harry Potter],” Father Spadaro writes, “is that of a man who has ‘powers’ (i.e., ‘power’ tout court) and who has in himself everything he needs without giving room for any transcendence.”
Transcendence is the point. In Tolkien's and Lewis’ stories every power is not intrinsic but received — transcendence is in the background. In Rowling's books the divine is not a Transcendent Personal God, the giver of all goods, but an impersonal immanentistic power — the magic. The divine is dualistic: There is a good (white) magic and “the dark arts” — something analogous to the Star Wars “force" and its “dark side.”
Second, the concept of man is also Gnostic. It is true that Harry Potter is sometimes saved by others rather than by his own powers. Mr. Trexler interprets the tears of Professor Dumbledore's phoenix as a symbol of God's grace with reference to Christ. (Gnostics like interpreting Christian symbols in the light of their own philosophy.) Yet in this and similar cases Harry Potter is not saved by the grace coming from a divine person but rather by the powers or powerful possessions of well-trained wizards (the Gnostics), particularly by those of the school headmaster Dumbledore.
In the end, “Rowling portrays Harry's victory as the fruit of esoteric knowledge and power,” as Canadian writer and literary critic Michael D. O’Brien points out. “Thanks to his magic Harry Potter seems to be substantially self-sufficient,” Father Spadaro writes. Consequently, the message of the story “can become a thrust to self-centeredness — believe in yourself and you’ll make it.”
Third, a dualistic view of the cosmos emerges in the series. The physical world is not presented as bad or illusory. Yet it is portrayed as less “real" than the wizard world — the fantastic realm of powers whose gate can only be opened by the key of esoteric knowledge. Doesn’t the reader feel more “at home" at Hogwarts School than in the boring material world of Muggles?
Harry Potter is not as obviously Gnostic as the Star Wars and The Matrix. That's why some Christians may read its pagan Wonderland as “Christianland.” Harry Potter provides us with elevated entertainment, valuable lessons and admirable heroes, but all in the context of a Gnostic worldview, as I believe the test questions show.
The ultimate test, however, is the readers’ and moviegoers’ life. Do the novels and movies reinforce in them a Christian mindset — or do they rather inspire a desire to an esoteric knowledge that will make them more powerful?
FATHER ALFONSO AGUILAR, LC Thornwood, New York
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