Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
Harry Potter meets Cornelius Van Til: Part One
07/20/2007 - Colin SmithThis weekend, the publishing phenomenon that is Harry Potter reaches its conclusion with the official release of the final book in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Outside of the millions of people, young and old, who have invested money and hours of online time to these books, there are those, especially within the Christian community who will certainly not be sad to see Harry's story come to an end. Regardless of which category you fall into, these books have become a part of our popular culture, and as Christians who are in the world (though not of the world), like Paul in Athens, we should be willing to take that which is a part of our culture and use it for apologetic ends (see Paul's example in Acts 17:23).
Over the next week or so, you, or your child, might find yourself in (or close to) conversations around the book series and the events of the final installment. I thought it would be both timely and useful (and, let's face it, fun!) to present a way in which the Christian--regardless of whether he or she has actually read the books--might use such conversations as a means of bearing witness to Christ. If you understand the presuppositional approach to apologetics, you will already be familiar with the method I am proposing to use. If not, may this serve as an introduction to the method, and for further study I recommend you spend $4 on the mp3s of the Greg Bahnsen-Gordon Stein debate on the existence of God from Covenant Media Foundation. :-) In these blogs, I will be presenting passages from the first six Harry Potter books and demonstrating how it depends on a Christian worldview; in other words, Harry Potter could not have been written without assuming Christian presuppositions.
The Scriptures often speak of the distinction between "the spirit" and "the flesh," or the way we used to think, and the way we think now we are in Christ, redeemed and reborn by the Spirit of God (Ephesians 2:1-7, for example). Biblically speaking, there is no middle, or neutral ground. You either see the world with fleshly eyes, only accepting what you can see, smell, touch, taste, and hear, or you see the world through the eyes of faith, as Scripture presents the world, allowing for the supernatural. Beyond this, though, the Christian also sees men as creations of a holy God that have fallen into sin, and as a result sin reigns in the hearts of men. Within this worldview, concepts of moral standards, good and evil, redemption, and so forth make sense, because the Christian believes there is a God who can set the standards, and also understands the condition of man to be one of always failing to meet those standards. The humanistic worldview, the worldview of "the flesh," however, can not explain moral absolutes, because the humanist does not have an ultimate arbitrator between right and wrong, good and bad. For the humanist, therefore, these things are "conventions": each society determines its own rules and standards of behavior.
The problems the humanist worldview encounters as a result of this perspective can, I think, be exemplified through the following samplings from the Harry Potter series. Given my appreciation for original languages, all quotations from the Harry Potter books will be from the British editions. :-)
Example One: Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone
Hagrid the half-giant explains to Harry how his parents died:
"... See, there was this wizard who went... bad. As bad as you could go. Worse. Worse than worse... Anyway, this--this wizard, about twenty years ago now, started lookin' fer followers. Got 'em too... Terrible things happened. He was takin' over. 'Course some stood up to him--an' he killed 'em. Horribly... All anyone knows is, he turned up in the village where you was all living, on Hallowe'en ten years ago. You was just a year old. He came ter yer house an'--an'... You Know Who killed 'em. An' then... he tried to kill you, too... Never wondered how you got that mark on yer forehead? That was no ordinary cut. That's what yeh get when a powerful, evil curse touches yeh..." (p. 45)
Let us look at the underlying worldview assumptions in this quotation. First, for a wizard to go "bad," one must have a moral standard with which to compare this wizard's behavior. Further, for Hagrid to be able to describe this wizard as "bad" and expect Harry to understand him, this standard must be universal. If we bear in mind that, in the context of the story, Harry has been living in England, and Hagrid has come to him from the "Wizarding World," the idea that each society creates its own moral standards goes out the window. On what basis could Hagrid assume that Harry's worldview would agree with his assessment of murder as "terrible," and the attempt on Harry's life as something that resulted in an "evil curse"? Of course, it is critical to the plot that Hagrid doesn't have to explain his worldview to Harry, or convince him that murder is not a good thing. But which of the two worldviews allows for these presuppostitions?
Example Two: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Toward the end of the book, Professor Dumbledore gives some background information on the evil Lord Voldemort:
"Very few people know that Lord Voldemort was once called Tom Riddle. I taught him myself, fifty years ago, at Hogwarts. He disappeared after leaving the school... travelled far and wide... sank so deeply into the Dark Arts, consorted with the very worst of our kind, underwent so many dangerous, magical transformations, that when he resurfaced as Lord Voldemort, he was barely recognisable. Hardly anyone connected Lord Voldemort with the clever, handsome boy who was once Head Boy here." (p. 242)
This Tom Riddle, consorted with the "worst" of wizards in his pursuit of the "Dark Arts." It may seem redundant to observe that this is said with a negative overtone, i.e., that this was not a good thing to do. However, if we are to examine the worldview underlying this thought, we must ask why this would not be a good thing to do. Is it simply because such activity altered him from being "clever" and "handsome" to something other than these things? Or is it because of the moral destruction that occurred as a result of his activities? From a literary point of view, the transformation Tom Riddle underwent could be seen as an external manifestation of his gradual internal corruption, but this only goes to underscore the point: why is this a bad thing? What made the people Riddle consorted with "the worst"? If it was their behavior, then who is Dumbledore to judge their behavior? What standard is he applying? Is this merely a convention? And surely a wizard as powerful as Tom Riddle would see himself above such standards, and so by what superior standard would Dumbledore assess his condition?
Example Three: Harry Potter and the Prizoner of Azkaban
Sirius Black and Remus Lupin confront Peter Pettigrew, the one responsible for betraying Harry's parents to Voldemort:
Black and Lupin stood shoulder to shoulder, wands raised.
"You should have realised," said Lupin quietly. "If Voldemort didn't kill you, we would. Goodbye Peter."
Hermione covered her face with her hands and turned to the wall.
"NO!" Harry yelled. He ran forwards, placing himself in front of Pettigrew, facing the wands. "You can't kill him," he said breathlessly. "You can't."
Black and Lupin both looked staggered.
"Harry, this piece of vermin is the reason you have no parents," Black snarled. "This cringing bit of filth would have seen you die, too, without turning a hair. You heard him. His own stinking skin meant more to him than your whole family."
"I know," Harry panted. "We'll take him up to the castle. We'll hand him over to the Dementors. He can go to Azkaban... just don't kill him."
"Harry!" gasped Pettigrew, and he flung his arms around Harry's knees. "You--thank you--it's more than I deserve--thank you--"
"Get off me," Harry spat, throwing Pettigrew's hands off him in disgust. "I'm not doing this for you. I'm doing it because I don't reckon my dad would've wanted his best friends to become killers--just for you." (p. 275)
Black and Lupin are ready to avenge Harry's parents by taking the life of Peter Pettigrew. Assumption: the murder of Harry's parents was a bad thing. I know, that seems obvious, but remember you only think that because you are operating under a presupposition that murder is wrong. Why do you presuppose that? Which worldview enables you to agree with Lupin's judgment, as oppose to just writing it off as just the way his mind works? Is he operating under a convention that says murder is wrong? Surely that would impact the popularity of the stories in other parts of the world? But that's not all. Harry rushes to intervene. He doesn't want vengeance inflicted upon Pettigrew, but rather justice. Why? Well, you could see Harry as acting out of compassion and mercy--which, of course, raises more problems for the humanist, since evolution teaches him that humanity survives as a result of "survival of the fittest," a concept within which mercy and compassion has no place--but even if we regard Harry's "mercy" as merely not wanting his father's friends to become killers, why is this? Because he doesn't want them to get in trouble? Or because there is something wrong with being a killer?
In part two, we will look at some quotes from books 4, 5, and 6, and draw our conclusions.