Harry Potter and the future of the West
An English nerd named
Harry Potter is arguably the greatest phenomenon of the new
millennium so far. This pre-adolescent orphan has taken the
literary world by storm in what Time Magazine calls "one of the
most bizarre and surreal" success stories in the annals of
Adult best-seller lists have
become dominated by four titles authored (for children!) by the
previously unknown single mother, JK Rowling, forcing the likes
of Stephen King, Tom Clancey and John Grisham into relative
When my wife and I returned on
furlough recently from Europe, bookstores were throwing Harry
Potter parties ('bring your own broom') throughout New Zealand.
The release of the fourth Harry Potter title was causing a price
war that caught the headlines for days.
The commercial success has been
such that a new proverb could be added to the English language: A
Rowling tome gathers no loss. And that would be true for other
tongues too. Harry's adventures are being translated into many
languages, major and minor, including Icelandic, Basque, Korean
American humorist, Dave Barry,
protested in a recent tongue-in-cheek column that he was "not
jealous of the woman who writes the Harry Potter books. It does
not bother me that her most recent book, Harry Potter and the
Enormous Royalty Check, has already become the best-selling book
in world history, beating out her previous book, Harry Potter
Let me confess at the outset that
I have not yet read a single Harry Potter book. Some of my
Christian friends have, and tell me they make a great read. I'm
told they are witty, richly imaginative, and are full of suspense
and emotional realism. So I'm not qualified to give an in-depth
analysis of the merits or evils of this new twist on an old genre
of the English schoolboy story.
However, a rather bizarre and
surreal experience I had myself last year has aroused in me a
shrewd suspicion that the Harry Potter phenomenon is a
significant indicator regarding the West's future. But first,
just in case you've been on a desert island for the past six
months, let me explain some salient biographical facts about our
The fictional Harry Potter is
orphaned as an infant when his wizard parents are murdered by an
evil lord. He is left on a doorstep to be raised by his aunt and
uncle in the world of 'Muggles' - or non-magical folk, who hold a
"repressive, medieval attitude" toward magic. Yet the powerless
infant has received a prophecy that there "will be books written
about Harry: every child in our world will know his name" (a
prediction moving uncannily towards fulfilment!).
Harry's break comes when he later
attends the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, preparing
him to enter into his true spiritual identity and destiny. On his
eleventh birthday, Harry is transported to a parallel magic
world, much more exciting and captivating than Muggle 'Flatland'.
And so our Harry - and each of his young readers - is initiated
into an intriguing world of transfiguration, divination,
broomstick flying, dungeons, poltergeists and headless
Spells are also part of the
fascination Harry Potter's magic world holds for his young fans.
Browsing through a booklet entitled Why kids like Harry Potter, I
read of a young girl who said she too would love to be able to
cast spells on all the bullies at school, and that her favourite
character was the poltergeist.
So, is this just perfectly
innocent childhood imagination? After all, Christian fantasy
writers like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien drew on themes of magic,
witches and wizards. Well-known evangelical writer and speaker,
Chuck Colson, told his radio audience that "the magic in these
books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is,
Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn
themselves into animals - but they don't make contact with a
A Christianity Today
editorial1 declared that Harry was definitely on the side
of light - fighting the 'dark powers', and eulogised the series
as a "Book of Virtues". But frankly, these comments from usually
reliable evangelical sources strike me as being
uncharacteristically naive. They underestimate the significant
shift in the 'plausibility structures' - what people consider to
be plausible or believable - that has coincided with the
When Tolkien and Lewis used
supernatural themes last century, few believed literally in the
reality of witches and wizards. They wrote in an 'age of
innocence' (or of unbelief) about such things. Readers understood
the tales to be allegories of spiritual truths. But through the
cheerful normalcy with which Harry experiences the magical realm,
is not Rowling communicating to her global audience of young
readers something much more? Namely, that witchcraft, magic and
wizardry are normal and good. Anyone who does not accept this
obviously is still captive in the dysfunctional world of
Today's readers are much more
likely to accept the literal reality of the spiritual realities
behind crystal balls and spells. Perhaps they don't believe in
demons or spirits, but in some kind of spiritual energy or force
As for changing into animals, does
Colson really believe this to be natural and not supernatural? I
happened to catch a television film recently in England about a
girl who believed she changed into a wolf sometimes at night and
attacked people. Afraid of the harm she might do in wolf form,
she eventually found a believer in her story, who helped her get
permanently released as a wolf on a secret reservation in
Scotland. This new expression of an ancient shamanistic
phenomenon certainly stretched my 'plausibility structure', but
obviously had an audience sufficient to warrant it being
broadcast on British television.
While using techniques of magic
and mythical creatures, Christian fantasy writers like MacDonald,
Lewis and Tolkien develop their imaginary worlds within their own
personal commitment to orthodox Christian belief in a sovereign
God. Rowling does not share that commitment. Although she denies
any personal belief in the magic her books portray, she still
tells her readers, "It's important to remember that we all have
magic inside of us".
Unlike the Christian fantasies of
MacDonald, Lewis and Tolkien, Harry Potter is a post-Christian
creation set within an occult cosmology. And his phenomenal
popularity with both young and old is a strong signal indicating
where our western culture is headed.
Which brings us to my own
encounter with Danica, a woman who herself could have stepped
straight out of the pages of a Harry Potter novel. Frankly,
Danica rattled my cage. She shook my presuppositions. She
challenged some of my comfortable beliefs about God. She forced
me to do some hard thinking about the spiritual realm. And she
awakened me to a likely and unsettling scenario for the future of
Danica and I were the only
English-speakers among half-a-dozen passengers stranded at the
airport in Budapest last year, after missing our connection to
Sarajevo. The next available flight would not be for two days! So
we were bundled off in a minivan to a hotel.
En route we inquired of each
other's business in Bosnia. I was to teach in our YWAM
Discipleship Training School in the war-torn city, while Danica
explained that she conducted therapy groups for Bosnian women who
had been raped or lost their menfolk during the recent war. I was
intrigued by this very practical hands-on reconciliation work, so
we agreed to talk more over a meal in the hotel dining room.
As the conversation unfolded,
Danica explained that she was into the pre-Christian beliefs of
Old Europe. She handed me her card. On the reverse side was
listed a number of tours she conducted to ancient sites including
Malta and the labyrinth of Knossus in Crete. Then there were the
tours to Celtic sites in Ireland with the Sisters of Wisdom,
staying at places with intriguing names like the Inn of the
She then described herself as a
pagan, Jungian (disciple of Carl Jung), archetypal, feminist
psychotherapist! I had a sudden feeling I was getting out of my
depth. I began to doubt the wisdom of pursuing this conversation
much further. But Danica was getting into her element.
"Old Europe enjoyed a golden age
of peace as a matriarchal society", she explained
enthusiastically, "worshipping the Mother Goddess." But the
advent of the bronze-age skygods, including the Biblical Yahweh,
had ended this harmonious age and the patriarchal age of violence
and gender-suppression began.
Old European societies, she
continued, had deep insights into spiritual realities which had
been smothered by later patriarchal eras. They had even known the
exact locations of sacred centres, dimensional thresholds or
gateways into the other-worlds or parallel universes . . . .
Despite a degree in history, I had apparently missed this part of
my education. Growing up in New Zealand, the classical period had
not appealed to me as being particularly relevant to modern life
I tried to assess this woman
sitting opposite me. She was urbane, articulate, self-assured,
well-read, very contemporary - and yet was deadly serious about
everything she was telling me. She was the first devout pagan,
packaged as a civilised, sophisticated westerner, I had had a
conversation with. She was a real believer in the deities of
What sort of weird, esoteric,
fringe person was she? I wondered. And what was I doing listening
to her gobbledegook?
"Danica, who do you think Jesus of
Nazareth was?" I asked, trying to steer the conversation towards
my world. "There you go with your patriarchal 'either-or'
thinking!" she smiled indulgently. I was up against the disdain
mystics had towards historical events being able to reveal
As I retired to my hotel room, my
head was buzzing with questions. What was this all about? Was
this a diabolical trap? Or could it be a divine encounter? Was
there any truth in Danica's analysis of Europe's past?
As I lay on my bed, I traced a
mental map of our conversation covering subjects we ranged over
and questions raised - a map I would later reproduce on paper in
We were poles apart in worldviews.
Yet something about Danica's perspective rang true. What was it?
Unlike so many Europeans, Danica strongly affirmed the spiritual
realm, and was not impressed with the pursuit of the western
materialistic dream. That in itself was refreshing. We shared a
common understanding of the reality of the spiritual - if not a
common understanding of the truth about that realm.
She was concerned about the
environment, about realising one's full potential, about peace
and justice, about the balance between being and doing, about
gender issues - questions that ought to concern biblical
Christians. Yet her vision for a New Europe would be that of a
revived Old Europe. Old, animistic, pagan Europe - in a new
Vaguely I began to recall
something Lesslie Newbigin had predicted about Europe. Newbigin,
a former missionary bishop in India, challenged western church
leaders to recognise where European society was heading. "What
made Europe 'Europe'?" he would often ask. The ethnic, religious
and linguistic roots of the Europeans were all eastern. Yet
somehow Europe had developed an identity distinct from Asia. It
had became known as The Continent - when it was the one
'continent' that was not a true continent! It was simply the
western peninsula of the Eurasian landmass.
So what then had made Europe
'Europe'? The simple answer, Newbigin said, was that about 2000
years ago, messengers came to Europe with a Book that told a
Story that brought Hope - and transformed European society. But,
he warned, if Europeans rejected the Book, forgot the Story and
lost the Hope, Europe simply would merge back into its eastern
roots. Europe would become re-Oriented!
So that is what this encounter was
all about. Danica was not just some strange leftover from
Europe's pre-Christian past. She actually represented a very
likely future for Europe - and the west in general. She could be
a preview of tomorrow's Europe!
The cover of a tourist magazine at
my bedside caught my eye: "Visit the labyrinth of Buda Hill".
Labyrinth? The word jumped off the page at me! Danica had just
talked about a labyrinth - in Crete. I doubt I had ever had a
conversation with anyone about a labyrinth before in my life, and
now here was a magazine in my room telling me about a labyrinth
just down the road! What sort of coincidence was this?
I hardly knew what a labyrinth
was, other than that it was an underground maze of some sort. But
the article described labyrinths as pre-literate poetical and
philosophical statements about the meaning of life. They
expressed a worldview. I was intrigued and apprehensive at the
same time. This was a little spooky. What was going on here?
The next morning, Danica was
equally surprised to hear about this labyrinth, this being her
first visit to Budapest. We had time to kill, so I suggested we
meet that afternoon on Buda Hill to explore this new
We met near the St Mathias
Cathedral, with its commanding vista over the timeless Danube and
the city of Pest on the opposite bank. I was rather apprehensive
as we descended the stone stairway, especially when Danica said,
"wait 'til my colleagues hear I visited a labyrinth with a
Christian minister!" What was that supposed to mean? What was
We found ourselves in a reception
area with tunnels leading off in various directions, like
something out of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I had read in the
tourist magazine that the remaining SS troops in Budapest had
taken their last stand against the Red Army at the end of the war
in these very passageways. This gruesome subterranean tomb had
only recently been renovated into a fascinating museum tracing
the history of the Hungarian people.
Danica immediately found herself
at home in the first section of the labyrinth, portraying the
world of the pagan Old Europeans, worshipping and appeasing gods
and goddesses. Shaman figures and sacrifice stones were part of
this 'animistic' worldview, which believed the physical or
natural world to be animated by the spiritual or supernatural
world, as a hand might animate a glove. Animism was Europe's
original belief system. Like the Greeks, Romans, Germans, Celts,
Norsemen and the Slavs, the early Hungarians too had been
We came across two wide vertical
pipes, one above the other, called the 'axis of the world',
depicting a sacred centre or dimensional threshold, just as
Danica had mentioned the night before. So there were more people
around who shared Danica's world, I began to realise. Maybe she
wasn't as 'fringe' as I had thought!
The labyrinthine passages then led
us into the Christian phase of Hungarian life, when life and
society was ordered by 'Theism', the belief in a personal,
infinite, sovereign Creator God.
Lastly we found ourselves in a
satirical section on the modern era of 'homo consumus', the
product of the age of 'Materialism' which followed the
At a crossroads in the labyrinth,
we met a group of lost, giggling schoolgirls. They couldn't read
their map and in desperation asked us the way out. What a picture
of today's European, I thought, lost in history's maze without a
map! No Book. No Story. No Hope.
After we ourselves emerged into
the Budapest sunlight from the labyrinth, Danica led me across
the square to the St Mathias Cathedral, also on Buda Hill.
Although this was her first visit there, she began to explain
knowledgeably to me item after item of pagan symbolism built into
this historic place of Christian worship.
Carl Jung's observation sprang to
mind: "Europe is a cathedral built on pagan foundations". Never
before had I been made so aware of the pagan undercurrent of
European civilisation throughout the centuries.
By now, I was awakening to a new
realisation of Europe's - and the west's - possible future. The
labyrinth had led us through each of the major worldviews,
depicting European progress from Animism to Theism and then on to
Materialism. But westerners today were at a crossroads, I
reasoned, rejecting Materialism as a world view. For the first
time in history, westerners had tried all three options in turn -
and then rejected each of them. Where could they turn to now?
The sobering conclusion was
becoming obvious to me: unless there was a revival of Biblical
Theism, the future would be Animism in a new 21st century guise.
Newbigin was right. My encounter with Danica was opening my eyes
to the spiritual realities of post-Christian Europe, a Europe
that could increasingly resemble pre-Christian Old Europe - a
Europe where Harry Potter would feel very much at home.
Unsettling? Yes, especially when
we recall that the last occasion when paganism made major inroads
into European culture was under Hitler. He took the ancient
Germanic gods seriously; his henchmen Goebbels and Himmler were
into sinister forms of witchcraft and wizardry themselves.
But God is not surprised. This is
nothing new for him. The Bible unfolded against this sort of
animistic, pagan background. Moses and Elijah confronted pagan
gods. Paul spoke the gospel into Athen's pagan, animistic world.
The Irish Celts joyfully transmitted the good news from one pagan
people to another, and evangelised much of medieval Europe.
It's been done before. What was
their secret then? How can it happen again?
Perhaps I had better go and buy
one of Harry's books - and begin to wrestle with communicating
God's truth in this new pagan spiritual world.
1 Editorial, Christianity Today,
Jan 10, 2000.
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