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Harry Potter, Magic, and the Dark Ages in Tennessee

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There must be some deranged thrill in burning books, some rush of the delusion of power over the minds of other people. Because I have never read MAUS and must now wait at least an extra month and a half for the copy I have ordered, I suspect the banning and burning are having their traditional effect upon book sales, driving them up. The poet Carl Sandburg wrote humorously of the predictable effect of forbidding some previously untried or not-yet-imagined fruit:

“Why did the children
put beans in their ears
when the one thing we told the children
they must not do
was put beans in their ears?”

How many people, I wonder, would have paid to see the movie, “The Last Temptation of Christ,” if the Roman Catholic Church had not sought to prohibit Catholics from seeing it? There has long been a half-joke that if you want to get more people to see a movie or read a book, get a church to ban it.

There is no magic in the Harry Potter novels. Yes, I said that. Because magic is a continuous and central feature of J. K. Rowling’s seven Potter novels, let me explain what I mean by that seemingly ridiculous statement that there is no magic in them.

In a few passages, the Bible’s contempt for sorcery breaks the surface, and so we know it’s there, just as when a bass jumps out of the water to catch an insect, I know there are bass in the lake. I then know also that more are swimming beneath the surface, and so it is with the Bible’s scorn for sorcery: there is much more beneath the surface than a few prohibitions, and the principal concern is not with witches or wizards but with religion itself and the people’s relation to their sovereign God.

In the Potter novels, what is called magic or witchcraft does not involve the conjuring of supernatural powers, divine or demonic. Even the worst dark wizard, Lord Voldemort, does not conjure. He merely possesses an overabundance of innate magical power which is really more like a super power (think Marvel and DC comic book characters) than like conjuring that summons and seeks to control the supernatural. The Potter books touch upon and develop many very human themes, somewhat in the tradition of Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings, among which are courage, redemption from past misdeeds (Sirius Black, for example), friendship, power that seeks to dominate, societal caste systems (pure bloods, half-bloods, mud-bloods, and muggles), and the greatest power of the apparent weakness of love even to the extent of love that will lay down its life for another. But there is no conjuring or “true” witchcraft, no connection to the demonic or satanic.

The God of Israel – of Moses, the prophets, and (for Christians) of Jesus – cannot and will not be conjured. That profound insistence upon God’s freedom from any use of religion or magic that might seek to conjure (assure God’s presence by force of sacrifice, prayer, or ritual) or obligate God (by any form of piety, goodness, or charity) breaks the surface powerfully in the third chapter of Exodus. There, at the burning bush that is not consumed, Moses asks God for a name by which to address or call the God who cannot be summoned. God replies with a name that can be spoken only in the first person singular: “I AM WHO I AM,” or (I think more helpfully, following Martin Buber’s translation), “I WILL BE (with you) WHO I WILL BE.” This name fits with the command that Moses remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground, made holy not by virtue of place on earth but by the presence of the God who alone is holy.

Moses, the human now called into service, cannot conjure God and must not try. God will be known by the human only as God self-reveals and self-commits freely. Keep your distance, human! is the message, but only half the message – the crucial but less important half. What God tells Moses after warning him to back off and never try to control or manipulate his God is, “I will be with you.” That’s the greater half of Moses’ call to service for the sake of the Hebrew people and, ultimately, all the world’s people and all its creatures, the whole creation. God cannot and will not be controlled or obligated in any way, but will self-commit freely to being with this human for God’s own redemptive purpose.

Attempting to conjure God is always a grave temptation for the religious. The very practice of religions smacks of magic. People ask me, “Do you believe in the power of prayer?” I say, “Yes,” because I sense that what they are really asking is whether I think God cares enough about them to be responsive to their distress, and, yes, I do. But the real answer, which would likely be wrong to explain to someone who just wants God’s help, is that I believe in the steadfast love and mercy of God. Prayer is not to be a tactic for wheedling blessings or favors out of a reluctant God, as a child may pester a parent to give what the parents have refused (or just ask grandma).

It’s not that we have to get everything just right, not at all. A good parent sees through the child’s attempts at wheedling to some real need or distress behind the perhaps annoying behavior. But the child’s awkward plea for help differs greatly from religion’s various attempts to con people into believing that the right method, the big contribution, or the prescribed spiritual experience with its formulated words will work (on God!) to generate and dispense blessings and even miracles. That kind of religious con game works on people’s magical thinking much more truly and dangerously than anything in the Potter books.

At worst, the Harry Potter novels are harmless fantasies intriguing children into reading willingly and with interest. At best, they may get children or adults thinking about the dangers of seeking power over others and about the far better but harder way of love willing to be vulnerable and, maybe, even give up life for the sake of others in danger. Greater love has no one than this, that he (in the books, Harry) or she (in the books, Harry’s mother) lay down his/her life for those loved (also in the Gospel of John translatable as “friends”).

In the Dark Ages, people believed magic of the conjuring kind was a real thing and a serious threat. So it was that people with power, especially in the church, could inflame the fears and resentments of the ignorant and whip them into a frenzy ready to do violence against innocent foes, people who were made to seem inhumanly evil. Give people unnecessary and irrational fear and so turn them against a fake enemy, and you can gain power over them, power for yourself. And so we come back to book burning in Tennessee. One further point: look at the timing. I strongly suspect the real issue is not Harry Potter but black history and MAUS. Alleged witchcraft, however, provides cover by presenting a supposedly demonic threat that gives pious rightness to the rage. Of course it’s not about black people and Jews (yes, I’m being sarcastic). It’s about witches and wizards. How long ago were the Potter books published? I think it really is about black people and Jews.