Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Harry Potter meets Cornelius Van Til: Part Two
07/21/2007 - Colin SmithIn the previous blog, we looked at some passages from the first three Harry Potter books and analyzed their underlying assumptions with a view to demonstrating that the Harry Potter series depends upon a Christian worldview. I am not claiming that these books are Christian, or even Christian allegory, or even that J. K. Rowling is herself a Christian (from interviews I have seen and read, she appears to be a typical nominal theist with a stereotypical suspicion of "organized religion"). But these books do make a number of assumptions about the way the world works, and about ethics and morality, that are inconsistent with anything but a Christian theistic, or Biblical, worldview. In other words, for her stories to "work," she cannot draw from the fallen humanistic worldview that gave us evolution (or neo-Darwinian macro evolutionary theory), Hitler, Stalin, and the moral decadence that is rampant in much of Europe (and sadly in the US too)--i.e., the natural worldview of fallen mankind. Rather, she has to borrow from the Christian worldview concepts that are foreign to the natural worldview for her story to have any kind of moral foundation. It is my hope that the following quotations from books 4, 5, and 6 of the Harry Potter series will serve to illustrate this, and also help to equip you as you bear testimony of Christ within the context of our culture.
Example 4: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
This excerpt is from the second task of the Triwizard Tournament where the competitors must rescue someone close to them from the bottom of the lake:
There were rocks littering the lake bottom. He dived and snatched up a particularly jagged one, and returned to the statue. He began to hack at the ropes binding Ron, and after several minutes' hard work, they broke apart. Ron floated, unconscious, a few inches above the lake bottom, drifting a little in the ebb of the water.
Harry looked around. There was no sign of any of the other champions. What were they playing at? Why didn't they hurry up? He turned back to Hermione, raised the jagged rock and began to hack at her bindings too--
At once, several pairs of strong grey hands seized him. Half-a-dozen mermen were pulling him away from Hermione, shaking their green-haired heads and laughing.
"You take your own hostage," one of them said to him. "Leave the others..."
"No way!" said Harry furiously--but only two large bubbles came out.
"Your task is to retrieve your own friend... leave the others..."
"She's my friend, too!" Harry yelled, gesturing towards Hermione, an enormous silver bubble emerging soundlessly from his lips. "And I don't want them to die, either!" (pp. 433-434)
In the story, the Triwizard Tournament is a big event, where three wizarding schools each put forward a champion to compete on behalf of the school. Victory would not only give prestige and honor to the champion, but also to the school. In this excerpt, Harry, one of two champions representing Hogwarts (read the book or see the movie if you need further explanation), is ahead of the others until he gets to where not only his friends, but the loved ones of his competitors are tied to a statue. Harry manages to free the captive he was supposed to "save," but he finds himself unable to leave the others there, especially since it appears the other champions are not coming. In an act of apparent heroism that jeopardizes his lead in this event, Harry tries to release the other captives. As it turns out, all but one of the other champions arrive to claim their friends, and Harry ends up not only rescuing Ron, but also the sister of the champion that did not arrive, for which he paid the price of losing the event. He is vindicated, however, when the judges decide to award him extra points for "moral fiber."
By now, I hope you can see for yourself the underlying assumption: love and compassion for others takes precidence over "survival of the fittest." This collides with the naturalistic worldview on two fronts: first, evolutionists tell us that mankind has reached its position in the world through a process of development that demanded that the stronger of the species overcome the weaker. If Harry's philanthropic impulse had dominated, according to evolutionists, we would have died out long ago, since it is this very impulse that drives people to care for and nurture the weak, not step on them for the cause of progress. Which worldview supports Harry's thinking here? Do you find love and compassion for the weak in Darwin or the Bible? Remember, neo-Darwinian macro evolutionary theory can only thrive in a worldview that does not make right-and-wrong judgments about human behavior. This is where Harry's compassion collides again with the naturalistic worldview: Harry was outraged that the mermen would have forced him to leave the others to, seemingly, die. Surely for Harry to win the contest, that would have been an acceptable loss. If not, why not? Which worldview best accounts for Harry's reaction?
Example 5: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
Harry returns to the Griffindor common room (for those who don't know, Griffindor is the school "house" to which Harry and his closest friends belong) after detention with Professor Umbridge, a particularly unpleasant teacher who has used a distinctly vicious form of punishment on Harry:
"Listen Hermione, I was just up in Umbridge's office and she touched my arm..."
Hermione listened closely. When Harry had finished, she said slowly, "You're worried You-Know-Who's controlling her like he controlled Quirrell?"
"Well," said Harry, dropping his voice, "it's a possibility, isn't it?"
"I suppose so," said Hermione, though she sounded unconvinced... "But last year your scar hurt when nobody was touching you, and didn't Dumbledore say it had to do with what You-Know-Who was feeling at the time? I mean, maybe this hasn't got anything to do with Umbridge at all, maybe it's just coincidence it happened while you were with her?"
"She's evil," said Harry flatly. "Twisted."
"She's horrible, yes, but... Harry, I think you ought to tell Dumbledore your scar hurt." (pp. 249-250)
By now you probably don't need my commentary. Did you spot the phrase? "She's evil." What gives Harry the right to say that about Professor Umbridge? After all, according to her worldview, Harry had behaved in a manner worthy of punishment, and, according to her worldview, the punishment she inflicted on him fitted the crime. In Harry's eyes (and the eyes of the however-many-millions of people that have read the book and seen the movie) the punishment was cruel to the point of being more like torture--but isn't that just Harry's worldview? Umbridge's estimation of Harry is that he is evil, because he is trying to undermine her position and authority. If such a tension truly existed in the minds of the readers of these stories, would they have been as popular as they are? Indeed, Rowling depends upon the fact that you will regard Umbridge as "evil" to drive the plot of the story. If you were left thinking, "well, perhaps Harry's the evil one here," why would you bother continuing to read, especially when it is Harry that is vindicated at the end, not Umbridge?
Example 6: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
Harry and Dumbledore have just watched a memory from Voldemort's past when he, Voldemort, as a young Tom Riddle, was told by Dumbledore that he is a wizard and has a place at Hogwarts. They are discussing what they saw:
"Yes, Riddle was perfectly ready to believe that he was--to use his word--'special'," said Dumbledore.
"Did you know--then?" asked Harry.
"Did I know that I had just met the most dangerous Dark wizard of all time?" said Dumbledore. "No, I had no idea that he was to grow up to be what he is... His powers, as you heard, were surprisingly well-developed for such a young wizard and--most interestingly and ominously of all--he had already discovered that he had some measure of control over them, and begun to use them consciously. And as you saw, they were not the random experiments typical of young wizards: he was already using magic against other people, to frighten, to punish, to control..."
"And he was a Parselmouth," interjected Harry.
"Yes, indeed; a rare ability, and one supposedly connected with the Dark Arts, although, as we know, there are Parselmouths among the great and the good too. In fact, his ability to speak to serpents did not make me nearly as uneasy as his obvious instincts for cruelty, secrecy and domination." (pp. 258-259)
Of particular interest with this example is Dumbledore's last statement: what made him most uneasy about the young Riddle was his instinct for cruelty, secrecy, and domination. Aside from, again, the underlying assumption that "cruelty, secrecy, and domination" are not good things, and even ominous signs of potential future behavior, Dumbledore suggests that these inclinations of Riddle's were instinctive. That is, he didn't learn them; they were part of his character. Now, I recognize we are not on entirely firm footing here, since the final book may reveal details that further explain this, but as it stands, we are being told that there are some people that are "wired differently." Harry and Riddle both grew up under difficult circumstances, where they had both lost their parents at a young age, and were raised in unloving environments. However, Harry turned out to have qualities deemed "good" (at least according to the worldview under which Rowling writes): courage, loyalty, love, compassion, and yet Riddle developed qualities deemed by Rowling to be "bad": cruelty, secrecy, domination. What makes the difference? According to naturalistic presuppositions, it is not their moralities that are at odds, but their worldviews. Harry and Riddle see the world in very different ways, but within each of their worldviews, each is right, or good, and the other is wrong, or evil. You cannot stand outside their worldviews and determine which is right, because to do that you would need some overarching moral standard by which to compare each one, and such a standard cannot exist within a naturalistic frame of reference. Also, the fact that Riddle's propensity toward malice appears to be something within, as opposed to being something he learned, where did it come from? If it is just a quirk of biology, you cannot say he is bad and punish him because it has nothing to do with him--especially if you don't accept the existence of a higher moral standard, since you then have no reason to judge his behavior anyway. Of course, the Christian worldview allows not only for moral absolutes that would easily identify Riddle's behavior as bad, but also it allows for supernatural revelation, such as we have in Scripture, which also testifies to the sinfulness of the human condition, and God's sovereign grace that, for His purposes and to His glory, would permit sin to take particular root in some hearts and not in others.
Hopefully, this somewhat light-hearted study has helped you to appreciate the fact that the naturalistic worldview fails precisely because it cannot account for the intangible. We all make moral judgments--our judicial system depends upon them--but a naturalistic worldview cannot explain why any of these judgments should be considered objectively correct. When humanists propose that moral systems are merely social conventions, why do they then complain when a certain Muslim country executes people for adultery? Surely that country has a right to define its own morality, and if that morality has no concept of grace and mercy, then on what basis can they object? Indeed, their own worldview cannot account for grace and mercy, so why should they expect others to? The fact of the matter is that God has written His law in the very fabric of the universe, and into the hearts of all men. Theologians refer to this as God's Moral Law, and from the first murder in Genesis 4, to the command to gather manna on only six days of the week in Exodus 16 (note, both events prior to the giving of the Ten Commandments), God has held these standards up for all mankind to obey. Of course, man in his sinful state fails to obey them, and by that same standard their sin is revealed, and they stand condemned before the most holy God. It is only when this understanding of the universe is grasped and applied does anything really make sense. And, as I hope I have demonstrated, it is only within the framework of this understanding of the universe that popular fiction such as the Harry Potter series can have meaning and connect with people.
Of course, Harry Potter is not the only cultural phenomenon that depends upon the same Christian worldview. Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and even the classic British sci-fi series Doctor Who all have to borrow from the Christian worldview for their moral compass. As we engage our culture on a day-to-day basis, we should be aware of this, and look for ways to challenge the people we interact with to examine their worldview consistently, and ask them if it truly explains the world as it is. In the previous blog, I recommended the Greg Bahnsen/Gordon Stein debate on the existence of God as a good practical example of this apologetic method. For further reading, I would also recommend Dr. Bahnsen's excellent book Always Ready, available from the Alpha and Omega Ministries bookstore.