Monday, December 17, 2001

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling

I want to talk to you this morning about a little book that has been the occasion for a lot of controversy. The book is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling.

Conservative Christians have boycotted both the book and the movie, calling both threats to Christianity and to the mental health of children. Instead, what they are displaying is dangerous closed-mindedness of self-righteous zealots who claim to be in sole possession of The Truth.

Having been raised a Mormon in Salt Lake City, called Zion by these claimants to the throne of Chosen-ness, I am all too well aware of just how narrow is the world of those who claim chosen status. According to the Mormons, the only route to the Celestial Kingdom, the highest of the three rungs of heaven, is via the sacraments of the Mormon church. Women can get there only through the status of their men, and non-Mormons cannot get there at all. But not to be too hard on the Mormons, Catholics, too, claim their sacraments to be the only road to glory, and there are countless other claimants to the throne of truth and righteousness.

Rowling’s little book (now books) is, at the very least, harmless. There is no doubt that too much has been made of these books, both by those who fear them as corrupting sources and by those who praise them as works of art. I was urged by a good woman friend, a fellow reader whose judgment I respect, to read the first of these little tales, and I’m glad I did. Let me say immediately that Rowling is good enough as an author to have maintained my attention, and since I am a fairly demanding reader, that says something. I have to add that I doubt I will bother to read any other books in the series. That, too, says something. Once I had read The Hobbit and the first volume of Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings, I was hooked, and I simply had to read the rest—not out of simple and rather idle curiosity, but because I was engrossed by the story. Rowling is not on the same level as Tolkien, or even that of the Christian fantasy-tale writer C.S. Lewis. But the fact is that kids love these books, and that, too, should tell us something.

I would urge all of you who have children, especially those who have children who are reluctant to read or who prefer television to books, to give them the whole Harry Potter series. At the very least, these little books might be gateway books to bigger and better things. Many adults, even those who are college educated, seem to think that being a reader means simply knowing how to read. Nothing could be further from the truth. I went to school with a lot of people who now openly boast that they have not read anything but magazines and newspapers since they left college. If this is so, then clearly their college education failed. School is not a place where empty vessels get filled, so that once we have finished school, once our vessels have been filled, we are finished. Instead, school should be a place where we get in the habit of reading, where we come to want to read, even to come to love reading. For it is true that the desire to read (rather than the mere ability) can be liberating. It can bring us into the larger world, into the world of left-liberal politics; it can help us to see the world for what it really is (instead of seeing it as the corporations and rulers of our little world want us to see it).

From what I can see so far, Rowling does her part in bringing about this metamorphosis from mere ability to read to lover of the written word. Perhaps if you start your children on Rowling, you may steer them next into a far more important writer like Ursula Le Guin. You may find them reading The Earthsea Trilogy or The Word for World is Forest, and who knows, they may graduate from those little morality tales into genuinely political fantasy fiction like The Left Hand of Darkness or The Dispossessed.

While there are clearly much better children’s writers around than Rowling, and certainly ones who have a much deeper message for our children, Rowling is not bad. The struggles between light and dark, good and bad, right and wrong that take place at least in this first of the series are, all in all, simple and informative ones. We find that even witches and wizards who come from rich families tend to be corrupt and spoiled, and that even with the powers of wizardry, the children of poorer wizard families do not use their talents to gain power over others, or even to gain riches. While I don’t think that Rowling intends to give a political overview in her books, perhaps her own rather humble financial condition before striking it rich is responsible for her suspicions of the wealthy and her aversion to those who seek power over others.

Again, I would claim that Rowling argues for genuine tolerance, for humility, for the so-called Christian values that are so much not practiced by those conservative religious folk who brand her writing as the work of the devil. As I was growing up, the Mormon leaders who were my teachers told me that the ministers of other religions were (though usually unwittingly) disciples of the devil—a doctrine that has since been abandoned by the Mormons, though only quite recently. So, in their claim to ascendancy, to sole possession of the Truth, they were willing to condemn other seekers as not only mistaken, but as corrupters, as evil. I see a clear parallel in this frenzied and neurotic condemnation of Rowling by conservative Christians. Not enough for them to say that she has it wrong and they have it right; rather, they must insist that she is a spokeswoman for the devil, for evil. If Rowling is mouthpiece for the devil, then what will these same people say of Jews, of Muslims, of any and all who, in seeking for the way, announce a view different from theirs? All of these claims to chosen status, to sole possession of the truth, are clear signals of the many ways in which religion can go wrong, and instead of being in some way or other forces for moral insight become, instead, causes of a dangerous, inbred myopia that is a morally lethargizing rather than energizing force.

Rowling is not a great writer and this is not a great book, but she is a good story-teller, and I would guess that she is a good and decent person as well. While our children may not become fighters for the good simply by reading her, they may become avid readers, may come to love reading, and that may bring them to an understanding of the world in which they live that will make them as fierce in their fight against corporate injustice as Harry is in his battles with the dark forces.

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