Thou Shalt Not Suffer Fantasy

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” Exodus 22:18

This is a tale about two tribes of people and the way their perplexing feud sheds light on the social significance of fantasy literature. The first tribe consists of ‘secular fantasy consumers,’ Secularists, and it might safely assumed that they make up the majority of this audience. The second tribe consists of ‘fundamentalist fantasy eschewers,’ Fundamentalists, and it could be safely assumed that very few are present here today. This tribal feud, as you might have guessed, involves the recent and continuing furor surrounding J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books.

After examining the argumentative stakes the stakes of this feud, I hope to defend the following, superficially outrageous claim: that fantasy literature is far more than yet one more venue in our bread and circus society, it is invested with dizzying, almost apocalyptic significance.

So what is about poor Harry Potter that makes it impossible for Secularists and Fundamentalists to see eye to eye? One the one hand, Secularists the world over have raved about Harry Potter. Not only are J. K. Rowling’s stories exciting in their own right, they possess a strong moral centre, and, perhaps most importantly of all, they teach children the joy reading. What gift could be more invaluable? The Fundamentalists, on the other hand, have a far different story to tell. This is what G. T. Armstrong, son of the late Herbert W. Armstrong, the founder of the Worldwide Church of God, has to say about poor Harry:

“I don’t have time this moment or I would write a strong condemnation of the Harry Potter books which are filthy, demonic, satanic and blasphemous! I picked up a copy in an airport and scanned it briefly. It was FILLED with witchcraft, spells; one ‘witch’ talking to another, etc.. These books are not fit for any human eye to see.”

The special ‘Harry Potter web-site’ of the Garner Ted Armstrong Evangelical Association contains a battery of invective punctuated by choice biblical quotes, such as Leviticus 19:31 – “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.” Let me repeat that, reminding you that this is the word of God, here – all-powerful, all-knowing, GOD (we’re so well trained to attach significance to corporate tag-lines that we often forget this): “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.” Since salvation depends on proper interpretation, and proper interpretation depends on proper definition, (which is to say salvation depends on a good dictionary) they shrewdly buttress this quote with a convenient set of definitions for ‘defile’:

1. To make foul or impure; to make filthy; to dirty; to pollute.

2. To soil or sully; to tarnish, as reputation; to taint.

3. To injure in purity of character; to corrupt.

Makes you want to jump in the shower, doesn’t it? Could they really be talking about Harry Potter here?

Not all the internet condemnations of poor Harry are as extreme as G. T. Armstrong’s. At the Kjos Ministries website, for instance, one can find a number of balanced essays on the perils of exposing children to Harry Potter, as well as reams of critical responses. The responses are fascinating in of themselves. One finds mystified Christians who simply cannot understand how something so apparently positive in their child’s life could be so bad; outraged Wiccans accusing fundamentalists of slurring their faith; even young kids insisting that Harry is one of the ‘good guys.’ Doesn’t God like the good guys?

And the furor continues. Protests against the filming of Harry Potter. Local church groups successfully ridding their schools of Harry Potter. New Mexico church groups burning Harry Potter.

Why all the fuss? As one kid writes on the Kjos Ministries website, “It’s just a book!” And not merely any book, but, as someone else points out, ‘a fairy-tale,’ something as fictional as fiction gets. Poor Harry may be many things, but Holden Caulfield he is not.

In other words, Harry Potter is just fantasy. How could something like fantasy pose a threat to your immortal soul?

The knee-jerk response is to simply assume that the fundamentalist outcry against Harry Potter betrays an alarming inability to distinguish fact from fancy. How can anyone worry about wizardry when wizardry isn’t real? It’s this intuition, I think, that makes responses like Armstrong’s seem amusingly ludicrous, if not alarmingly delusional.

But here’s the rub: for Christian fundamentalists wizardry is real, as real as it was to those ancient poets or prophets (depending on your persuasion) who composed the Bible so very long ago.

1) Christians should avoid all things condemned by the Bible.

2) Wizardry is condemned by the Bible.

3) Harry Potter practices wizardry.

4) Therefore, Christians should avoid Harry Potter.

This argument is very straightforward, as well as strangely compelling. Given a certain understanding of what it means to be a Christian, the first premise is obviously true: Christians should avoid all things condemned by the Bible. And no one would argue with the second premise: that wizardry is condemned by the Bible. The same might be said of the third: Harry Potter obviously practices sorcery. Given the truth of these premises, then, it simply follows that Christians should avoid Harry Potter.

But the fact is, most Christians would be extremely uncomfortable with this argument. Most Christians think God is bigger than a single doctrine or book, and so would vehemently disagree with the first premise that Christians should avoid all things condemned by the Bible. This problem is easily fixed, however, by simply emending our argument somewhat, and making it more precise:

1) Fundamentalist Christians should avoid all things condemned by the Bible.

2) Wizardry is condemned by the Bible.

3) Harry Potter practices wizardry.

4) Therefore, Fundamentalist Christians should avoid Harry Potter.

By doing this, the brouhaha of what it means to be a proper Christian is nicely separated from the issue of what Christians should do with Harry Potter. If you are an evangelical Protestant, say, then you should avoid Harry Potter – it’s as simple as that.

Even though this has the effect of limiting the argument and its censorious conclusion to a certain group of people, many of us, I suspect, would still want to attack it, to say that it’s just plain silly, even for fundamentalist Christians, to avoid something as benign as Harry Potter. They would want, I suspect, to revisit premises (2) and (3), that wizardry is condemned by the Bible and that Harry Potter practices wizardy, and demand a distinction between real wizardry and fictional wizardry. They would further emend the argument, so that it becomes:

1) Fundamentalist Christians should avoid all things condemned by the Bible.

2) Real wizardry is condemned by the Bible.

3) Harry Potter practices fictional wizardry.

4) Therefore, Fundamentalist Christians should avoid Harry Potter.

Given this distinction in wizardries, the conclusion does not follow. Given that the Bible condemns real wizardry, it does not follow that Christians, no matter what their stripe, should avoid fictional wizardry. This is the thrust, I think, of all the ‘but it’s just a story’ responses. And it also explains something of the exasperation and wry condescension that accompanies these responses. Harry Potter stories, after all, are not just fictions, they’re fantasies. Don’t those damn fundamentalists realize that fantasies are not only unreal, but especially unreal? How on earth can a fantasy character in a fantasy world imperil the immortal souls of our flesh and blood children? Given this understanding of the situation, burning Harry Potter literally becomes an example of delusional behaviour, an act motivated by an inability to distinguish the real from the fantastic.

And of course, most of us would just identify this as common sense. ‘Get real, Mr. Armstrong,’ we’d say, ‘we’re talking about fantasy here, not some orgiastic Rastafarian chicken sacrifice.’ Let’s call this argument the Common Sense Position.

So does this mean the sober, clear-thinking, level-headed, secular fantasy-consumer has the last word?

The first thing to note is that the Common Sense Position utterly depends on the distinction between real wizardry and fictional wizardry. If this distinction collapses, then, best-case scenario, we’re thrown back into the lap of the fundamentalist’s prohibition, or worst-case scenario, we’re thrown into the Lake of Fire to gnash our teeth in eternal torment. So the question becomes: Does the wizardry in Harry Potter refer to something real?

And this is where things become very strange.

If you hold the Common Sense Position, then the answer to the question of whether wizardry in Harry Potter refers to something real is an obvious ‘No!’ In fact, fantasies are fantasies because of the wizardry they involve. The depiction of magical or enchanted worlds is one of the things that makes fiction fantastic, or especially fictional.

If you hold the Fundamentalist Position, on the other hand, then the answer to the question of whether wizardry in Harry Potter refers to something real is an equally obvious ‘Yes!’ As the living word of God, scripture depicts what is real, and the world depicted by scripture is an enchanted world, which is to say, one containing magic and divinity, supernatural practices and agencies.

The first thing to note, then, is that the secular fantasy consumer’s attempt to make Harry Potter safe for even fundamentalist fantasy eschewers fails. The distinction between real and unreal wizardries they draw in order to defeat the Fundamentalist Position simply begs the question. For fundamentalists, even fictional depictions of wizardry refer to something real, the same way fictional depictions of actual geographical places or historical personages refer in some manner to someplace or someone real. Say Harry Potter was a gunslinger instead of a wizard. Given that gunslinging is real and is bad, do we really want our children identifying with Harry Potter gunslinger extraordinaire fictional or no? Of course not. For the fundamentalist fantasy eschewer, wizardry is every bit as real as gunslinging and even more perilous.

The Fundamentalist Position, given fundamentalist assumptions, is sound. If you are a fundamentalist, you have no business reading Harry Potter, or anything else involving wizardry. We may laugh up our sleeves, crack dismissive jokes, ruefully shake our heads whenever we bump into the Fundamentalist Position, but the bizarre thing is we really have no way of arguing against them, short of impugning belief-system altogether. (And since their belief-system is founded on faith and scriptural authority, rather than reason and argumentation, this is idle.)

Why has Harry Potter found itself in this imbroglio? Is there something about fantasy literature that makes religious book burnings, such as the one in Alamogordo New Mexico at the beginning of this year, inevitable? Could it be that fantasy should be burned?

Certainly we’re now in a position to understand why a fundamentalist fantasy eschewer might think fantasy should be burned. They literally live in a world fraught with supernatural practices and agencies, an enchanted world which, to them, is every bit as real as our disenchanted world is to us. (Recently, in London Ontario, a young man suffering a mental breakdown was inadvertently killed by his parents who thought he was demonically possessed). In this world-view, children identifying with Harry Potter the wizard is just as disturbing as children identifying with Harry Potter the gunslinger. Harry is a witch, and witches should be burned. Remember Exodus 22:18: “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”

And yet I mentioned earlier that the depiction of enchanted worlds, worlds where supernatural practices and agencies are real, is one of the things that makes fiction fantastic, or especially fictional, for secular fantasy consumers. Wizardry is what makes Harry Potter fantasy.

In other words, what makes Harry Potter anathema for fundamentalist fantasy eschewers makes Harry Potter harmless fancy for secular fantasy consumers. The depiction of supernatural practices and agencies that makes fantasies fantasies at once constitutes a threat to your immortal soul and harmless fancy depending on what tribe one belongs to.

Before turning to the question of how this bizarre state of affairs has come about we need to appreciate just what is at stake. For the members of the secular tribe, the members of the fundamentalist tribe quite plainly live in a fantasy world. They are delusional. What’s so bizarre about this, is that the ‘fantasy world’ the fundamentalist lives in is nothing other than the world of the Bible, the world of scripture. Why is it a fantasy world? Because it depicts supernatural practices and agencies. Because it is enchanted. Differences aside, Biblical Israel shares the same fundamental structure as Middle-Earth.

If nothing can be more true than the world of God, and the Bible is the living world of God, then the world of the Bible is the truest of worlds. Fantasy worlds, on the other hand, are fantastic because they are the untruest of worlds. Somehow we have reached a point in our cultural evolution where the fundamental structural characteristics belonging to the truest of worlds have transformed into our principle means of identifying the untruest of worlds.

Somehow we have come to a contradiction. What indicates the especially true in a religious context, simultaneously indicates the especially untrue in a literary context. Scripture and fantasy, it seems, occupy two sides of the same impossible coin. For fundamentalists, fantasies are misapprehended scriptures, and for secularists, scriptures are misapprehended fantasies.

Of course such nifty inversions, despite their dramatic punch, should be greeted with scepticism. The world is rarely so cut and dry. And indeed, this is exactly what I intend to argue. This contradiction is not neatly divided into the fundamentalists in one corner and the secularists in the other. What I want to suggest is that all of us, to differing degrees, are fundamentalists in one sense and secularists in another. Our own beliefs, as it were, are divided into contradictory tribes. Nearly everyone in our culture lives this contradiction every day, and fantasy is its primary mass cultural expression. Fantasy is far more significant than the adolescent escapism it’s typically thought to be.

Let me put it to you in the most grandiose terms possible: Fantasy is scripture stripped of content, the very form of salvation. Fantasy is a return to a meaningful world.