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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
An Orthodox Position on Harry Potter
The Brotherhood of St. Poimen has recently received various letters and e-mails asking us to comment on the Harry Potter issue. For our readers who do not already know, Harry Potter is the fictional character created by J. K. Rowling for the Harry Potter series of books and films, designed primarily for children. Harry Potter’s story is that of a youth raised in a school for sorcery who learns witchcraft with surprising speed and aptitude. He is portrayed as a so-called “good” witch (or warlock). Numerous articles have been written in favor or against the books in both purely literary and religious circles. Some Orthodox Christians have also taken part in these discussions from both sides of the fence. Some questions facing Orthodox Christians are the following:
1. Should anyone, especially an Orthodox Christian, read this series of books?
2. Is there such a thing as a “good witch” and is that relevant to the merit of a fictional story?
3. What is the proper Orthodox attitude toward these books?
It is the latter question which answers all of the former. The Harry Potter books are classed not simply as fiction but as fantasy literature. They use detailed imagery to produce an unreal picture in the imagination of the brain. The imagination has such a strong influence over mankind that we are warned by numerous Fathers of the Church to reject the images of dreams and scorn fantasies of the imagination in favor of what the Philokalic Fathers call “pure intellections,” that is, abstract thinking free of images.
St. Hesychios of Jerusalem writes in the first volume of the Philokalia, “When there are no fantasies or mental images in the heart, the intellect is established in its true nature, ready to contemplate whatever is full of delight, spiritual, and close to God “ (On Watchfulness and Holiness, #93). Here St. Hesychios is reflecting the patristic teaching that man, prior to his fall, had no use for imagination or fantasy. Imagination as we know it is a product of the fall.
But this is not to imply that we cannot use our imaginations to better our spiritual condition. Our Lord Jesus Christ made use of the powerful tool of imagery in His divine parables for the purpose of impressing upon our weak minds His eternal truths. St. Hesychios again comments, “Vaulting over all that lies between ourselves and death, we should always visualize it, and even the very bed on which we shall breathe our last, and everything else connected with it” (ibid, #95).
The Holy Fathers, in their perfect understanding of moderation and balance, advise us to limit as much as possible those things that stimulate the imagination and to be selective in what images we use to remind ourselves of the life beyond this life. It is for this very reason that icons are not painted in passionate forms, but written with symbolic imagery. Below are additional comments from the Philokalic Fathers about imagery and imagination:
“In the time of contemplation we must keep our intellect free of all fantasy and image...”
St. Diadochos of Photiki
“The effect of observing the commandments is to free from passion our conceptual images of things. The effect of spiritual reading and contemplation is to detach the intellect from form and matter. It is this which gives rise to undistracted prayer.”
St. Maximos the Confessor
“The fifth form of discipline consists in spiritual prayer, prayer that is offered by the intellect and free from all thoughts. During such prayer the intellect is concentrated within the words spoken and, inexpressibly contrite, it abases itself before God, asking only that His will may be done in all its pursuits and conceptions. It does not pay attention to any thought, shape, colour, light, fire, or anything at all of this kind; but, conscious that it is watched by God and communing with Him alone, it is free from form, colour, and shape.”
St. Peter of Damaskos
Because it is precisely through the imagination that the evil one first attacks us in order to lead the soul captive, Orthodox Christians are to avoid as much as possible not only the Potter series but all fantasy literature.
Regarding so-called “good witchcraft,” be it known that any practice which seeks to manipulate future events according to the wish or whim of the practitioner -- whether his or her intentions are “good” or bad -- is always evil, since it does not account for and even contradicts the Divine Will. Harry Potter, therefore, is not appropriate for anyone to read. The books are intended as an initiation into the world of witchcraft. For anyone who doubts or denies this, let him visit a Barnes and Nobles or Borders bookstore and observe which books accompany Harry Potter on display: the series is surrounded by books about witchcraft aimed especially at teenage girls, and it is rarely, if ever, prominently displayed among other children’s books.
Those in favor of reading the Harry Potter series have criticized those against the series as being led astray by Protestant arguments. Orthodox Christians do not base their decisions on what Protestants have and have not said. Regardless of its source, an argument is either valid or invalid, either true or false. If a Protestant has spoken the truth regarding Harry Potter, we must commend him.
Those in favor of Harry Potter also insist that the books are good because they inspire children and adolescents to read. Pornographic material also inspires adolescents to read, but is it appropriate reading material? The last resort for the pro-Potters is to declare that the Three Holy Hierarchs insist that we should learn anything secular. This idea comes from a selective reading of these holy fathers. With a closer look at the text, any school boy could see that Sts. Basil, Gregory, and John all favor a selective reading of secular literature, especially those works dedicated to virtue, logic, and rhetoric. St. Basil even gives a list of books to avoid. The “everything-secular-is-okay” argument, therefore, is based on false premises.
Of course, we cannot cover all objections in a short article. For this reason, St. Poimen’s Brotherhood is offering free of charge a booklet about the Harry Potter books. It covers a wide range of valid arguments, both Protestant and Orthodox. We encourage you to send us an e-mail or write to us for a free copy. If we do not already have it, please include your mailing address.
In conclusion, one very simple point in the debate is often sadly overlooked: on the great and terrible Day of Judgment, what will we say to our All-Merciful God when he asks us why we did not even read His commandments or pay any attention to the lives or writings of the divine men and women He sent to instruct us? “We left them, Lord, in favor of Harry Potter.”