Sunday, August 2, 2009



Some Christians think that Halloween and the Harry Potter books are bad, as encouraging witchcraft. I will not talk about Halloween here, but I will talk about the Harry Potter books. I've had occasion to praise them recently, because while my son and daughter were in the hospital we read one of them out loud, and it was useful for them and for me. It distracted from their physical pain and from all of our pain from recent loss of loved ones, allowing switches back and forth from mourning to imagination. Harry Potter's world worked this magic because it is a mixture of the mundane and the wondrous, because it has many novel contrivances, and because it is full of suspense. A few other books can do this too--- the Oz series, for example, or Tolkien, or Narnia--- but the hospital happened to have Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone at hand.

On the other hand, what of this passage from Deuteronomy 18?

Deuteronomy. 18:10-12. There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch. Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For all that do these things are an abomination unto the LORD: and because of these abominations the LORD thy God doth drive them out from before thee.

At first sight, this passage seems to condemn not just Harry Potter, but Tolkien and Oz. (Narnia is exempt, I think-- I don't recall good magic in it.)

But wait. We must ask what the words in Deuteronomy mean. Some Christians use the Ten Commandments to condemn not just murder but the death penalty, war, and resistance to crime. Indeed, one could use it to advocate vegetarianism--- does "Thou shalt not kill" have an exemption for animals? Actually, what about killing plants? So we must pay attention to translation and meaning.

In the case of Deuteronomy, what do enchanter, witch, charmer, wizard, and necromancer mean? I don't have time now to go to the Hebrew, though that is clearly relevant. Note first, though, that here we seem to have five distinct kinds of magic, besides the other kinds in the passage which don't apply to Harry Potter's kind of magic at all. (I know there's divination in the novels, but it's peripheral and Harry and his friends don't do real divination and consider the subject "pseudo-magic".)

Whatever they mean, I don't think it can apply to what Harry Potter and friends are doing. What they are doing is not really magic, but science. Harry, Ron, and Hermione do not reach into a supernatural world to engage the power of spirits. There are a few ghosts in the book, but notice how no spells make use of them, and how little different the ghosts are from people except in their immortality and nonphysicality. Rather, what the Hogwarts kids do is learn how to use wands to manipulate things, and what kind of magical creatures and plants lurk in the world unobserved by ordinary people. Most people-- Muggles-- can't use wands, just as most people can't do calculus (and never could, because they're not smart enough). Those who can have to go to school and learn it just like biology or trombone. It's called "magic", but how is it different from "chemistry"?

I'll have to continue later. But I'll make a second point here. Look at the context of Deuteronomy 18:10-12. What's in front and behind it?

18:9 When thou art come into the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of those nations....

18:13 Thou shalt be perfect with the LORD thy God.

18:14 For these nations, which thou shalt possess, hearkened unto observers of times, and unto diviners: but as for thee, the LORD thy God hath not suffered thee so to do.

It's "the abominations of those nations" that is condemned. The Canaanites are condemned in the Bible to a degree beyond any other people. Thus, it may be just their forms of magic that are being condemned here. Or, it may just be their evil use of it.

A couple of references (which do not make the points I make above, I think):

"Are all witches equal? Six types of Witchcraft" (note: I suspect this site is not to be trusted farther than you can test their arguments yourself--but that is usefully far).

"Religious debates over the Harry Potter series," not to be considered as unbiased as most Wikipedia articles, but moderate in tone, fair, and with lots of citations so you can check up on it.

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