Just in case you have been living on Mars for the last decade, Muggle is the term used in the Harry Potter books to designate non-wizards and witches, i.e. human beings. Unlike the Narnia books or The Lord of the Rings where there are separate fantasy worlds portrayed, the idea of J.K. Rowling’s wildly successful series is of a clandestine and parallel wizard society alongside and sometimes intersecting with human society. The seven Potter books follow three children who grow up and go to school learning to be witches and wizards and who must confront and engage an evil presence that threatens them and their world.
The children and adolescents (Muggles!) who have grown up with the Potter series read these books avidly. My husband and I have three children, now in their 20’s, who have all grown up with Harry Potter and the tension remains high in our household about the release of the 7th book. I read Harry Potter books as well and love the movies. I know many adult Muggles who do.
Religious conservatives, on the other hand, have objected to the series, often to the point of working to get the books banned from use in schools, because they “teach witchcraft.” There has also been an outcry by the Christian Right because the young protagonists, Harry and his two friends, sometimes lie or steal in their fight with the arch villain, Voldemort and his magical minions.
This struggle, like many other skirmishes in the culture wars, reveals the deep divide in how we regard education and the role of imagination in the development of an educated human being.
But the conflict over the Potter books and movies also reveals a deep division in how we regard religion and its purpose and meaning in our lives. On one side of this divide is an understanding of religion as primarily fixed and rigid; religious education in this sense is memorizing doctrine and rules and applying them directly and without question in your (and your family’s) life. Morality in this view is fixed and clear.
On the other side of the divide stands an understanding of religion as a life lived in the struggle to understand this world and to find transcendent meaning in the midst of conflict, sorrow, loss and death as well as in achievement, joy and community. In this latter view of religion, the development of a moral sense is a deep engagement with the conflicting demands on human beings and the choices we make as we try to be accountable and responsible to a higher purpose.
J.K. Rowling herself has observed that it is “blindingly obvious” that the moral lesson of the books is the development of the sense in children, and the adults with whom they live and study, of the complex moral universe in which we live, the importance of resisting tyranny and the refusal to take the easy way out.
This is the heart of children’s religious development. Children know, from a very young age, that the world is not perfect and that goodness is not always rewarded. Evil is a real presence in the world. One of my children had a third grade teacher whom we eventually realized was not simply harsh, but deliberately cruel. Our son, who suffered with this teacher, knew far sooner than his parents that this teacher hated children. But he was also stuck for a time in the powerlessness children feel when faced with a truly corrupt adult. The Potter books help children realize that there is good and evil in this world and you should not remain passive in the face of cruelty but name it. In the age of the Internet, kids are subjected to cyberspace teasing and threats that make my son’s third grade experience pale by comparison. The teachers and parents in the Potter books are also imperfect and not always right, but the good ones are on the side of the children and the bad ones are not. This is a critical lesson about community and how values are sustained despite the machinations of the wicked.
Another striking theme of the Potter books is that of death. The villain, as I noted above, is named Voldemort, the wish for death. Good people die in the Potter books, both young and old. The wicked also die, but often are able to subvert plans to incarcerate or even kill them. No child growing up in this century is insulated from the violence of war, murder, kidnapping, and a host of other threats to life and limb, both real and fictional. Compared to an average weekday night at 7 p.m. on TV, the violence of the Potter books can seem quite tame, but all the same the books present the reality of violence because the adults in the books cannot always shield children and young adults from these threats. Neither can real adults.
Kids know magic isn’t real—but they know that there is cruelty and downright evil in their world and they often feel helpless and alone. Community, taking action in the face of wrong, facing the conflict of the need for moral discernment among competing goods, these are the themes of the Potter books and they teach lessons that are very necessary to the growth and development of a moral compass for children in a very difficult world.
And finally, the books teach about courage. If you have never defeated a dragon in your imagination you will be unlikely to do so in the real world.
“On Faith” panelist Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite is president of Chicago Theological Seminary. She has been a Professor of Theology at the seminary for 20 years and director of its graduate degree center for five years. Her area of expertise is contextual theologies of liberation, specializing in issues of violence and violation.