Harry Potter's Magic

The Potter controversy shows that the struggle between science and magic isn't entirely settled.

BY: Alan Jacobs


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Harry is stunned because he realizes for the first time that his confusion has been wrong-headed from the start. He has been asking the question "Who am I at heart?" when he needed to be asking the question "What must I do in order to become what I should be?" His character is not a fixed, preexistent thing, but something he has responsibility for making; that's why the Greeks called it character, "that which is engraved"--the metal is capable of receiving and retaining a distinctive impression, but the impression once made is hard to erase.

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In this sense the strong tendency of magic to become a dream of power makes it a wonderful means by which to focus on the choices that gradually but inexorably shape us into certain distinct kinds of persons. Christians are perhaps right to be wary of an overly positive portrayal of magic, but the Harry Potter books don't do that: in them magic is often fun, often surprising and exciting, but also always potentially dangerous.

And so, it should be said, is technology that has resulted from the victory of experimental science. Perhaps the most important question I could ask my Christian friends who mistrust the Harry Potter books is this: Is your concern about the portrayal of this imaginary magical technology matched by a concern for the effects of the technology that in our world displaced magic? The technocrats of this world hold in their hands powers almost infinitely greater than those of Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort. How worried are we about them, and about their influence over our children?

Not worried enough, I would say. As Ellul suggests, the task for us is "the measuring of technique by other criteria than those of technique itself," which measuring he also calls "the search for justice before God." Joanne Rowling's books are more helpful than most in prompting such measurement. They are also--and let's not forget the importance of this point--a great deal of fun.

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