It's hard to review a piece of a movie-which, for all its nearly three-hour length, is what this is. If you haven't seen the earlier Harry Potter movies, or read the books, watching this movie will be like entering a roomful of strangers all talking about people and incidents you have never heard of. There's no flashing back to make things clear, no explanations provided for anything. If you're not a Harry Potter fan, you can forget about understanding this film.
So why review it, then?
J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter novels have sold millions and millions of copies, and millions of movie tickets, too. This is the most successful series of books ever published, and it has revolutionized young readers' fiction. It would be irresponsible to ignore it.
Because Harry Potter is such a cultural phenomenon, and this movie is a slice of it, we can look at it to see what it can tell us about our culture. What has Harry Potter taken out of our culture, and what has it put in?
Magic and Science
In the alternative universe of Harry Potter, everything important gets done by magic-or "wizarding," as they sometimes call it. Witches, wizards, and warlocks are the elite of that world.
As a thought experiment, plug in "science" for "magic"-and you'll see that the Harry Potter world pretty closely approximates our own. By "science" we mean what Jean-Marc Berthoud calls "the cultural domination of our whole culture by a purely mathematical model of the universe (the so-called scientific worldview, valid in fact only in its strictly limited domain, that of the measurable) as normative of every aspect of reality."1
Materialistic "science" in our culture has excluded God. In Harry Potter-land, "magic" does the same. Given the awesome power of magic in that world, there would appear to be no place for God.
Despite various efforts to spin the Potter books as some obscure kind of Christian enterprise, we see no evidence at all in Deathly Hallows I that there is any Christianity at work in any of the characters' lives, or any other recognizable religion, for that matter. Yes, there is one brief scene in which we see a village church with people inside it singing Christmas carols. What of it? Millions of Americans celebrate Christmas as a generic holiday and are dead to its religious significance. And every now and then, a character in the movie says, "my God." But that doesn't mean that they believe in God. For millions of Americans, "God" and even "Jesus" are just words to be tossed casually into a sentence, stripped of all meaning.
J. K. Rowling has been accused of promoting witchcraft. But I think it important to note that in Deathly Hallows I, there is no hint of any power higher than that of the magician. Paganism is supposed to feature pagan gods and goddesses, but we see no gods here. The world of Harry Potter much more closely resembles the fantasy world of The Humanist Manifesto II than it does anything in paganism. Take the Humanist Manifesto and substitute "magic" or "wizarding" for words like "science" and "technology," and you will instantly find yourself in Harry Potter's universe.2
Thus we discover that Rowling is not promoting paganism. Wittingly or not, she is promoting humanism.
Good Guys, Bad Guys
For the humanist, man is the measure of all things, the decider of all things. There is no higher authority. Humanists like to say they arrive at morality by "reason" or by "consensus." But "reason" and "consensus" can take many forms, not excluding brute force, deceit and trickery, bribery, demagoguery, and mere expediency. In the opening scene of Deathly Hallows I, the bad wizards torture a woman and then feed her, still alive, to a giant snake. Doubtless they had a consensus that this was the right, reasonable, and moral thing to do.
Harry Potter and his friends are the good guys in this series; but how does Harry know what's right or wrong? There's no Bible, no Ten Commandments, and he doesn't go to church. Why doesn't he, too, torture people and feed them to snakes?
Aha-Harry has been instructed by good teachers. But what if he'd had bad teachers?
Some years ago, I read a Harry Potter book to see what all the fuss was about. One of the most noticeable things about it was that J. K. Rowling had to tell you who was good and who was bad: otherwise, you wouldn't have known.
In Deathly Hallows the bad guys are physically ugly and they have gone on to much nastier activities than they pursued in earlier installments-murder, torture, dictatorship, maybe a little bit of genocide. Plus they look scary. If someone looks really bad in this movie, you can be sure he really is bad. It's a pity this reliable moral barometer won't serve us in the real world. Here the human monsters sometimes look like Ted Bundy, the serial murderer who fooled everybody with his clean-cut, handsome, yuppie façade. And Mao Tse-tung had a placid, bovine, peasant's face. The real world tends to be a lot more confusing than any movie world.
In trying to frustrate the plans of the bad wizards, and save the world from them, Harry and his friends are obviously doing good. They also exhibit and exercise certain virtues that we recognize: friendship, courage, and even a degree of self-sacrifice. Then again, Harry and the other "good" witches do practice witchcraft, which God condemns, in the Bible, in no uncertain terms. But we believe all the "wizarding" in Potter-land is just an indirect way of writing about humanistic, man-centered power.
On what ground does Harry's virtue rest? If you really could just teach people to be good, then wouldn't everyone be good? The great humanist edifice of public schooling is built on that foundation. Unfortunately, we can see at a glance that it simply doesn't work-and never has.
It is the fond dream of humanists that people can be "good without God." But no human civilization has ever tried to be good without God until very recent times-and these recent entries have done a miserable job of it. In the world of Harry Potter, as in the secular world today, man functions as his own god, exercising godlike powers with magic in the Potter world and by means of "science," money, politics, and violence in our own fallen world. You can make it work in a movie or a fantasy novel because those are not real worlds. In the real world, you can't walk along the ceiling. In the real world, the philosophical highway of humanism is usually a one-way ticket to the Gulag Archipelago.
Raw Power Rules
Meanwhile, Harry and his friends have to track down and destroy certain magic doohickeys, each of which contains a piece of Lord Voldemort's soul. As long as even one of these talismans survives, the chief of the bad guys can't be killed. And if you can fit that into any known scheme of Christianity, you need a theological refresher course.
The "Deathly Hallows" are three more magical artifacts, so powerful as to constitute a trump card. Everybody's looking for them, and whoever finds them first will control the world. Note that it doesn't matter whether the nice witches or the naughty witches own them: because in the Harry Potter universe, there is no sovereign God-only raw power waiting to be used by whoever gets it first.
That's not Christianity. That's humanism.
The whole Harry Potter enterprise reflects the debased values of the godless, secularized culture in which it was spawned. It is the love child of the British welfare state and a theologically emasculated, pietistic, ineffectual church. It's vastly more successful than any rampaging zombies video game, reality TV show, or rap music, but it shares their cultural DNA.
What does Harry Potter put into our culture? The short answer is, "More of the same, and then some." On the surface, it glamorizes witchcraft and the occult. But below the surface, it is preaching humanism. It's the same old spiel with which the serpent beguiled Adam and Eve: "Ye shall be as gods."For many decades now, too many Christians have been content to take the popular culture as they find it. In this we have greatly erred. The God-free zones in people's lives grow bigger and bigger, without them giving it a second thought. Our popular entertainment instills in us a habit of godlessness.
It is this, more than anything else, which makes the Potter books and movies objectionable. But if one looks at the book and ticket sales, one wonders who's objecting. In a country wherein the great majority of the people identify themselves as Christians, an anti-Christian humanist icon in witch's clothing is the all-time best-seller.
1 Jean-Marc Berthoud, Pierre Viret (Tallahassee, FL: Zurich Publishing, 2010), 50.
2 For instance, consider this introductory paragraph to The Humanist Manifesto II, with substitutions in italics.
"The next century can be and should be the wizards' century. Dramatic magical, thaumaturgical, and ever-accelerating social and political changes crowd our awareness. We have virtually conquered the planet, explored the moon, overcome the natural limits of travel and communication; we stand at the dawn of a new age, ready to move farther into space and perhaps inhabit other planets. Using magic wisely, we can control our environment, conquer poverty, markedly reduce disease, extend our life-span, significantly modify our behavior, alter the course of human evolution and cultural development, unlock vast new powers, and provide humankind with unparalleled opportunity for achieving an abundant and meaningful life."
The most disturbing thing about this little experiment is how few changes need to be made to this document to make it sound like J. K. Rowling wrote it!