Critiquing Wohlberg Critiquing Harry Potter

S. Wohlberg’s “Exposing Harry Potter and Witchcraft” Destiny Image Pub. PA. 2005

 

Wohlberg’s book seeks to inform Christians for their own protection about the snares of their enemy, the devil.  His starting point is scripture, specifically those prophecies that indicate that the last days shall be a ferment of witchcraft and deception.  The Harry Potter books, he says, deceptively promote witchcraft. 

A secondary aim of the book is to promote the gospel using Harry Potter analogies for Christ i.e. as the fulfilment of prophecy, as the scarred one, etc (Ch.s 15 – 17).

Unfortunately neither aim comes off.  Rather than informing Christians, he deceives them in his turn; probably not deliberately, but through poor research and argumentation; in fact through propaganda.  And any non-Christians who are reading the book and who might be willing to consider Christ because of the Harry Potter analogies would be turned away from the message because of the 14 chapters of untruths which proceed it. 

His basic argument that Rowling (or Satan through Rowling) has disguised witchcraft as entertainment is ultimately neither unprovable nor provable, as any analysis such as mine which disputes his conclusions about specific features of the text can be countered by his saying “but of course it doesn’t look like witchcraft – it’s in disguise!”  On this logic, anything that doesn’t look Satanic might be.  This is ‘finding demons under every bush’ with a vengeance. 

The books perhaps do, probably unwittingly, promote witchcraft, and for that reason the hype surrounding them is definitely a bad thing.  Nevertheless, the same thing could have been said about a great many other excellent books which, like Rowling’s, have mingled elements of British and European mythology and Christianity.  Examples include Elizabeth Goudge’s “The Little White Horse”, CS Lewis’ “Narnia” series and his “Cosmic Trilogy”, Tolkien’s entire corpus,  The Neibelungenliad, and others.  They escape attention, however, because they just haven’t been as successful. 

Wohlberg’s basic attitude is apparently shaped by a belief that the only truth that exists comes directly from the scriptures (as in the Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which he recommends) and any other literature must be seen to be ‘lies’ and therefore Satanic.  In attacking Harry Potter he is really attacking literature in general.  Harry Potter is an apt target, because of the association with Witchcraft, but one gets the strong impression that he is uncomfortable with any other source of truth than the scriptures.  His God is too small.  He leaves no room for the Creative work of the Holy Spirit, for the Cosmic Christ or for the Father of all nations outside a very narrow range of understanding.  Underlying his analysis there seems to be a belief that every book should be no more than a biblical tract, and any book which departs from that restriction is to be banned.

The analysis which follows gives some examples of the above charges. 

 

Ch’s 1 – 5 outline the situation in a slightly biased but generally accurate fashion, reporting trends and events.

Ch. 6 argues that the books are not ‘just fiction’ but teach.  This is clear and easily demonstrated.  In asking what is taught, however, the author makes some far from certain assertions and in doing so misrepresents the text.  E.g. Pg 53 His statement that “Harry sneaks into Dumbledore’s private office to make use of one of his occult tools” “breaking into his cabinet” is untrue; Harry went into the office at the invitation of Dumbledore for a different purpose.  While there he ‘sneaked a look’ into the Pensieve which, as the text Wohlberg quotes clearly shows, was left open to view.  This illustrates the way in which the author consistently tends to enlarge upon the negative aspects of the book.  It is significant in this case because he then makes the ‘blackness’ of Harry’s actions a reason for rejecting Dumbledore’s gentleness towards Harry.  Similarly pg 57 he paints Dumbledore as being deceitful because he says “truth is generally preferable to lies.”  In fact, the phrase is intended to be a mildly humorous understatement consistent with the character of Dumbledore and the situation.  He lifts it out of context and treats it as a text on ethics.  The whole tone of the book is affected by flawed exegesis like this; it deceives those who haven’t read the book, and irritates those who have.

Wohlberg says that the book teaches, but that the context for that teaching is a school of sorcery and that we should therefore reject the teaching.  It is true that the book teaches and that it has as its context the school of sorcery, but it is also true that the setting is clearly the most fictitious part of the whole book!  While ‘lessons’ about love and choices are expected to be taken seriously, the ‘stage’ is not.  At the end of his first cosmic trilogy book, “Out of the Silent Planet” CS Lewis assumed the voice of one of his characters, apparently writing a letter to another character, and said something like, “it doesn’t matter whether or not people believe our story (about a voyage to Mars and what they found there), what matters is that people become familiar with certain ideas…”  Much the same as in the Narnian stories; he never expected or desired people to take the invented “other worlds” seriously, but the ‘ideas’ – that is the gospel – were important to him, and were what ultimately gave the stories their heart; they were poor enough in many other ways.  JK Rowling has made similar statements, saying that while she has used elements of known ‘Occult’ practices and persons, she has made up most things, she emphatically does not believe in magic or witchcraft, and she herself is certainly not a witch. 

Wohlberg says (56-7) “Is it reasonable to assume that the only values kids will learn from those witch-craft-made-funny pages are good ones?  I don’t think so.  The truth is… the Harry Potter books teach much more than what appears on the surface, such as the value of being a good witch and the importance of occult practitioners sticking together with those who are like-minded.”  This illustrates his basic attitude towards the books; while they contain some very good things, they put those good things in a context that is inimical to scripture.  In the light of the rapid growth of pagan religions and consumer witchcraft, the positive spin given the occult by Rowling is a bad thing.  I agree …partly.  I think that there is far more to the books than Wohlberg is granting.  In fact, the most important aspects of the books are the interplay of characters, the relationships and the decisions people make; these are very life-like and relevant to almost anybody.  The magic, however, is unrealistic.  While it can be seen to promote real witchcraft it is in itself clearly fictional.  It is an exercise in imagination and fun.  It is not a danger to most people because most people can clearly see that it is make-believe, whereas the human interactions are far more realistic – and are, in fact, the core of the story.  Rowling has said, and an objective analysis of the books supports this, that she has written about the way in which human beings deal with death, and about love.  This is what she is teaching about, not magic.  In fact, her books can be seen to be a significant critique of the human desire to use magic of all kinds (especially technology – which has always been the analogue of magic) to attempt to defeat death on our own terms.  She argues instead for self-sacrifice for the sake of love.

In his next chapter (7), Wohlberg points to the mixing of fact and fantasy; i.e. names of real historical people are used, actual place names (Britain, Sussex), actual artefacts (cauldrons, wands).  He pays particular attention (pg 66) to the teaching of astrology.  What he ignores is that throughout the book, astrology is held up to significant ridicule, and even when it is portrayed as, at least potentially, valid, it is accompanied by statements about the difficulty of actually getting it right, and the very limited applicability of the information, and the likelihood of it’s being wrongly interpreted anyway.  He also ignores the presence of astrology in the Christian story – the three Magi who came to worship Christ because of the star seen in the east. 

Similarly he says that the books promote magic amulets and talismans.  In fact the books on several occasions shows that these items are bogus, money-making schemes by unscrupulous con artists.  Wohlberg persistently ignores the often negative context given these elements by Rowling.

On the other hand, he is correct when he describes Trelawney’s prophecy as resembling a spirit-channelling trance.  Although the vast majority of mediums (if not all) are fakes, they often do behave in the way Rowling has Trelawney behave when she delivers her second true prophecy.  Interestingly, however, Rowling calls it a prophecy, not a ‘message from beyond’ or such-like.  For Wohlberg to say she ‘channelled Voldemort’s spirit’ (pg 107) is to unjustifiably read into the text what is not there.  Wohlberg correctly says that divination is wrong.  Rowling says that it is, if possible for humans at all, contradictory and confusing and a poor guide for action.  Prophecy is another thing, however.  Wohlberg’s repeated identification of Trelawney’s trance and altered voice as spirit channelling (as, again, on pg 144 and 170) is worrisome – but the same form of prophecy is found in the Christian classic “That Hideous Strength” by CS Lewis.  So what is happening here?  Spirit channelling or prophecy?  Rowling refers to no spirit but does use the word prophecy.

Wohlberg’s ch 14 opposes biblical prophecy to Rowling’s.  In doing so he claims (again) that Rowling’s form of prophecy is spirit channelling.  This is possible, but I think unlikely given Rowling’s insistent advice against trying to contact the dead and her complete avoidance of ‘spiritual’ beings such as demons or gods or angels. 

So what about Wohlberg’s charges of contacting the dead?  These charges fail because in each case that Wohlberg cites, the dead are not ‘summoned’ or sought or ‘contacted’.  They appear through ‘magical’ accident; i.e. they are ghosts, the shades of real people who are too timid to fully accept death.  Or they are the ‘echoes’ of the real people left by the killing curse.  They are none of them the real people themselves because, as Rowling repeatedly says, “you can’t bring back the dead!” 

But then in the last book, she does this – and in fact, has Harry deliberately do so.  She introduces a new magical technology (the ‘Ressurection Stone’) which allows the actual dead to be brought back.  However this stone comes with the clear warning that to attempt to bring back the dead is harmful for both them and the living – much as with Saul’s recall of Samuel.  This is a restatement of Dumbledore’s warning to Harry in the face of the mirror of Erised; our longing to be with our dead is illegitimate when it takes us away from life and reality.  The one exception to this rule seems to have been Harry’s use of the stone to call his dead (James, Lily, Remus and Sirius) to be with him when he was, in fact, going to join them.  There is an echo here of the appearance of Moses and Elijah who talked with Christ of his impending death, and an echo also of the ‘cloud of witnesses’ of Hebrews who cheer us on in our race.  Given the explicit Christian symbolism of what follows, I prefer my reading to one which would condemn it as evil. 

What about the discussion with Dumbledore (who is dead) after Voldemort ‘kills’ Harry?  At this point, Harry himself is standing in the doorway of death.  Are the almost-dead forbidden to talk to the dead if they just turn up gratuitously? 

The other point Wohlberg makes in Ch. 14 is that the biblical Daniel sought wisdom from God, where-as occult practitioners seek their own wisdom and sneer at ‘muggles’ (pg 175).  This is an element of ‘Gnostic’ hunger in the HP novels, the sheer delight in knowing what others don’t.  This is, however, acknowledged as an evil in itself in the books, and Harry triumphs not because of secret knowledge, but because of virtue.  As early as the first book Rowling has Hermione say to Harry that while she might ‘know’ more, he’s the greater because of his (Christian!) virtues. 

Wohlberg’s conclusions are that Rowling is disguising the promotion of real occult practices in the real world by mixing them up with silly and obviously fictional elements.  In some ways this is an unfair accusation.  If we were to be suspicious of Rowling because she uses real place names (pg 61), we’d have to throw out all fiction set in the real world.  Goodbye Dickens, Hardy, Tolstoy…  Similarly real names.  Rowling has made no secret of the sources of her names, and her use of well-known names such as Adalbert, Blavatsky and Flamel is an appropriate and light-hearted use of real-world elements for a fictional enterprise.  These individuals have all been exposed as charlatans; if she really wanted to introduce people to the occult surely she would have mentioned, for instance, Alistair Crowley.

Wohlberg repeatedly mentions Rowling’s single use of the name Llewellyn – also the name of a prolific publisher of occult books.  However, Rowling gives the character the full name ‘dangerous’ Dai Llewellyn, and probably had in mind the profligate welsh playboy, Dai Llewellyn, once engaged to three women in a single year! Rather than an internet-based American publishing house.

Her use of real ‘occult’ elements such as wands and cauldrons is firmly within the British magic story tradition.  She couldn’t have written her story and not mentioned these stock elements.  It would be like a science fiction story having robots and ignoring Isaac Asimov’s laws of robotics. 

Nevertheless, while believing Rowling to be, in all likelihood, free of insidious intent, I can agree that the impact of her books has been to give a fillip to the real world of the occult – as well as sneering at large parts of it. 

In chapter 8, Wohlberg gives himself away.  He tells us that he bought the books because he was writing this book and needed to do the basic research of reading the HP series himself.  In other words, he’d started writing about HP before he’d even read the books themselves.  He came to the series with his opinions already formed, and read it with the purposes of this book in mind.  So when he gets a few pages into the first book he says to himself “If I was an average boy and not a Christian man, after having read this, I would probably want to learn more about the secret world of witches!  Yes indeed.”  (pg 76) He went to the text with a specific question in mind and found there the answer he expected.  In the same way the Mormons find convincing evidence for the reality of reincarnation in the bible, because their other book, the book of Mormon, tells them that it is there.  No-one else can find it.  Similarly, Wohlberg has his authorities, and places them before the text itself.

Other points from ch 8 are that Rowling paints muggles as bad and witches as good.  It is true the series starts that way because the only muggles in view are the Dursley’s.  But even in the first book, the far more dangerous issue of magical contempt for muggles is raised, and this, rather than muggle fears and ignorance, becomes the key danger.  Again, Wohlberg is majoring on minors and ignoring the elephant in the sitting room.  Rowling does believe that muggle fear and aggression towards ‘magic’ is misplaced, but is far more concerned about the inappropriate use of power (magical or otherwise) and thus, to some extent, vindicates the ‘muggles’. 

He also says that Rowling taps into the common human need to belong, and makes it a core motif, as Harry longs to belong to the world of magic.  I agree that that is potentially dangerous, but it is also potentially helpful!  Christ offers a far more potent, real and accessible ‘secret world’ than modern occultism.  We just need to open the doors to all the ‘Harrys’ out there, and get them onto God’s platform 9 ¾ ! 

Ch 9 Wohlberg presents a traditional speculative angelology.   

Ch 10 presents the biblical prohibitions against witchcraft.  No arguments here.

Ch 11 talks about how the books actually do engage teenagers in witchcraft, and I agree with him here.  It was largely because of this that I initially opposed the books myself.

Ch 12 is perhaps the best chapter in the book as it analyses Wicca and advocates respectful dialogue with the aim of sharing God’s love. Especially pertinent is the analysis of Wicca as pantheism (or monism) as opposed to Christian monotheism.  His poor reading of HP, however, does give me cause for concern when it comes to his reading of Wiccan texts.  Can I trust his information here when he has shown himself to be so egregiously inaccurate in an area I know about?

Ch 13 is again a very poor reading of the HP texts; both because Wohlberg implies that Rowling glorifies Harry’s bad behaviour (when in fact she consistently shows him reaping the consequences of it – especially in terms of its impact on his relationships) and because he seems to assume that characters in fiction have to be consistently virtuous for the fiction to be worthwhile.  This is clearly not how good literature works.  The fact that Harry makes bad decisions and has moral flaws makes him a much more interesting literary character, and one much easier to relate to.  Yes, it makes him more likely to be a role model!  Much like the Pevensie children of Narnia, each of whom made major blunders and could be petty and stupid and disobedient and wilful.  Is this good or bad?  I think it is definitely good that when he does wrong in the books he is shown to be doing wrong!   The major exception to this, and one which has created a lot of debate in the HP online fan community, is when he actually performs ‘unforgivable’ curses in the last book and appears to be justified in doing so.  These exceptions do, however, prove the rule because they are just that: exceptions. 

Ch 14 is dealt with above.

Ch.s 15, 16 and 17 tell the good news in a winsome and useful way, clearly opposing Wiccan religion.  Unfortunately, no-one who has actually read the Harry Potter books will have much sympathy for anything Wohlberg has to say by this point.

 

In sum, Wohlberg deals badly with the HP books, reading them from a very skewed perspective.  His argument for treating Wiccan religion with respect needs to be extended to Rowling – especially since she is more likely to be Christian than Wiccan!  He consistently misreads the texts in order to bolster his hypotheses, and consistently treats the books as if they should be Christian tracts or even the bible, then is disappointed that they don’t live up to those standards.  They are, in fact, exceptionally well-written fairy stories and should be treated as such.  They also clearly echo Christian faith at a number of points.  Wohlberg’s core concern that they also (unintentionally?) promote and validate witchcraft in a culture that is falling rapidly into paganism is valid, and for that reason the HP books should be treated with caution.  Nevertheless, they should not be banned, nor should they be attacked as though they are missives from the mouth of Satan.  Let them be what they are, and where we disagree about the extent of the danger they represent, let us take a differing stance towards them with respect and integrity, not resorting to sloppy research or propaganda. 

 

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