J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter & the Curious Case of the Christian ‘Moral Panic’

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter & the Curious Case of the Christian ‘Moral Panic’

“Parents [have to] realize this is more than a fictional book…It’s attached to the occult.”[1] ~Rev. Douglas Taylor

 

— Introduction —

J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, which began with ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, has achieved immense success both on bestseller lists and at the box office. Yet the controversy surrounding this series has, in numerous conservative Christian circles, matched and even exceeded the intensity of its fanfare. Some Christians, like Rev. Douglas Taylor, have even gone so far as to hold public book burnings, alleging that J.K. Rowling’s “sinister” series has real and tangible ties to the occult and witchcraft.[2] On the Christian website ‘Christian Answers’, Christian author Ken James writes: ‘The problem is, witchcraft is not fantasy; it is a sinful reality in our world’.[3] In the Christian anti-Potter documentary, ‘Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged – Making Evil Look Innocent’, Christian author Robert S. McGee stated: “If you say there is no real power in witchcraft, then you should have no problem with the Harry Potter books. But there are two problems in your line of reasoning: First of all, you are denying the experience of hundreds of thousands of people who have practiced witchcraft through the ages, plus, you’re saying that God’s warning in the Bible about divination, sorcery, and all the elements of witchcraft is actually worthless”.[4] McGee’s line of reasoning is, however, infused with illogicality. Firstly, the prevalence of examples of people practicing witchcraft in no way testifies to the efficacy or reality of the supernatural suppositions surrounding its practice, and secondly, McGee’s assumptions that a god exists, and that “he” authored/inspired warnings or even words is a prime example of the fallacy of begging the question.[5] Put simply, to argue that “God warned us about the dangers of witchcraft” begs three rather significant questions: 1. Does a god exist? 2. If a god does exist, is it McGee’s God? 3. Did McGee’s God actually author/inspire the Bible?

This essay will examine the ‘moral panic’ surrounding J.K. Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’, and the series in general. What is it about Rowling’s portrayal of magic in this book, and this series that garnered Harry Potter a cult following? In what respect did Rowling’s portrayal of magic cause an outbreak of ‘moral panic’ among predominantly conservative Christians in the US? What distinguishes the ‘Potter Panic’ from ‘witch craze’ of late-medieval Europe and Britain? These questions will be answered to assess the impact of Rowling’s Potter series upon minds that have difficulty distinguishing between fact and fiction, as well as examining the inhibiting effect of rationalism on such superstitious ‘moral panics’.

 

Magic in the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’

The brilliance of Rowling’s portrayal of magic in the ‘Philosopher’s Stone’ is that, like the platform (9 ¾) from which the train to Hogwarts departs,[6] it is only separated from mundane reality by a mere fraction. That is to say, Rowling made Harry’s extraordinary experiences so relatable and so close to the experiences of both average children and the ordinary nostalgias of her adult readers. Natov observes: ‘The two realms, characterized in literature as the genres of romance and realism, are located in the imagination, which is, always, created by and rooted in the details of everyday life. In fantasy, always we are grounded; the unconscious invents nothing, or as Freud put it, “In the psychic life, there is nothing arbitrary, nothing undetermined” (qtd. in Todorov 161). The realm of the fantastic, based on the unconscious, is firmly and inevitably a reconfiguration of everyday reality, transformed and disguised though it may be’.[7]    According to Natov, it is Rowling’s ingenious enhancements and amplifications of ordinary objects such as the living portraits of headmasters and headmistresses at Hogwarts, arguing and biting books and candy flavours which include vomit, ear-wax and booger, that make Rowling’s portrayal of magic ‘call attention to the awe and wonder of ordinary life’.[8]

 

The Success of Harry Potter as the Catalyst for Controversy

Had Rowling made Harry depart for school from platform ten on an ordinary train, bound for an ordinary school, and had he been merely an ordinary boy, the story would still have been an entertaining tale centred around the heroic orphan archetype.[9] Yet Rowling’s unique blend of realism and fantasy is what made Harry Potter a fictional icon of our age. However, the qualities and nature of that fiction, i.e., witchcraft, wizardry, the occult and sorcery, is also the very source of the controversy surrounding the Potter series. If Rowling did not employ her unique blend of realism and fantasy that underscores the popularity of Harry Potter, it is unlikely her series would have achieved iconic status, which in turn would have probably meant that it would not have registered on the radars of religious fundamentalists. The fundamentalists who have failed to appreciate the imaginary nature of Rowling’s particular ‘reconfiguration of everyday life’ view Harry Potter as a sinister gateway to what might reasonably be described as an equally imaginary evil. Hence, it may be argued that the immense success of the Harry Potter series, which made Rowling the second richest women in Britain and nearly sparked a trade war between the US and Britain, was the catalyst for the controversy surrounding the series; a controversy so intense that it saw book burnings and made Harry Potter ‘the most frequently challenged’ book of 1999.[10]

 

Harry Potter and the Christian Moral Panic 

By 2010, Harry Potter had topped the bestseller lists in both the UK and the USA and the films based on the seven Potter books earned over $200 million each, and over $750 million worldwide.[11] According to ‘Time Magazine’, the Harry Potter series has sold over 450 million copies worldwide and been translated into 73 foreign languages.[12]  The global success of Harry Potter has meant that millions of children around the world are familiar with, if not fans of, Harry Potter.[13] The success of Potter became the catalyst for the Christian moral panic which gripped conservative Christendom in recent years. Millions of children were, and remain, heavily influenced by Rowling’s relatable boy-wizard, and so many children want to be Harry Potter and even attend Hogwarts.[14] The rise of “Pottermania”[15] meant that scores children were becoming interested in the world of Harry Potter – a world of witchcraft and sorcery, which, for conservative Christian parents is believed to be the exclusive domain of the “Devil”.[16] The nature of Rowling’s Potter series, which draws upon her major at university, mythology,[17] may be argued to be the ‘substance’ or ‘source’ of the moral panic among many conservative Christians.

Soulliere, drawing upon Cohen’s definition, describes a “moral panic” as ‘a period of heightened concern over some group or issue in which the societal reaction is disproportionate to the actual seriousness of the event’.[18]  Applying Cohen’s “moral panic” to the disproportionate reaction among Christians over the Potter series, Soulliere remarks: ‘The legacy of the Potter Panic seems to be mostly in inciting debate, at times contentious, within the larger and diverse Christian community (see Creegan 2000; Jackson 2007; Toalston 2000; Wingfield 2001). This debate has raged for nearly a decade and has encompassed Christians from diverse religious groups as well as from varying backgrounds’. Soulliere argues that the failure of conservative Christians to induce a full-blown moral panic lay in a number of factors: The fringe-nature of those trying to induce ‘Potter Panic’, the diverted attention of panic-inducers, who at times became distracted by other “evil” authors and publications, and challenges to the ‘Potter Panic’ by others within the Christian community, who view the Potter series as harmless and even enjoyable and Christian-like fantasy.[19] An example of the resistance to the ‘Potter Panic’ within the Christian community can be found in John Granger’s book, ‘Looking for God in Harry Potter’. Whilst sharing fundamentalist Christian concerns regarding the “dangers” associated with the occult and demonic forces, which Granger argues is a common concern in all of the world’s major religions,[20] Granger writes: ‘But I do think that her [Rowling’s] secret world within our world coincides with rather than contradicts the worldview of Christians’.[21]

 

The Potter Panic vs The Witch Craze of late-medieval Europe and Britain

Granger argues that in a world that has become purely rational and grounded in a scientific understanding of reality, Harry Potter is a breath of fresh air for those who ascribe to a less-than rational, religious worldview.[22] And here is where we might find an important omission within Soulliere’s assessment of the failure of fundamentalist protagonists to produce a full-blown moral panic over Rowling’s series. Soulliere concedes that the ‘Potter Panic’ was more pronounced in the US, where Christian fundamentalists have the greatest foothold,[23] and it may be precisely this factor that predominantly resulted in the failure of the kind of full-blown moral panic experienced in late-medieval Europe, Britain and America over the perceived threat of witchcraft. Prior to the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment, the majority of people in Europe and America believed they lived in a world inhabited by, and largely controlled by, supernatural forces.[24] This superstitious environment was fertile soil for the fomentation of the witch craze, which, in Europe and Britain, was the result of a number of natural and man-made coalescing factors,[25] one of which was the publication of the then bestselling “non-fiction” book on witches, ‘The Malleus Maleficarum’. Ben-Yahuda observes: ‘‘It was to become the most influential and widely used handbook on witchcraft…Its enormous influence was practically guaranteed, owing not only to its authoritative appearance but also to its extremely wide distribution. It was one of the first books to be printed on the recently invented printing press and appeared in no fewer than 20 editions….The moral backing had been provided for a horrible, endless march of suffering, torture, and human disgrace inflicted on thousands of women’.[26]

 

Prior to its publication there was no uniform concept of witches and witchcraft, but the Canon Episcopi held that witchcraft was little more than a vain and largely impotent heresy.[27]  The Malleus directly challenged this belief by successfully propagating the notion that there was a diabolical conspiracy to undermine God’s order, and that this conspiracy was being carried out predominantly by females at the behest of Satan.[28] The panic which ensued, as Ben-Yahuda and primary historical sources attest, led to a moral panic that saw policies changed and thousands upon thousands of predominantly women strangled, burnt, drowned and hunted with the frenzied enthusiasm of Christians gripped by a moral panic that later became known as the ‘witch craze’.[29]

 

Thus, the distinction between the successful propagation of the moral panic in late-medieval Europe, Britain and America and the modern ‘Potter Panic’ is probably the result of the markedly more rational and scientific environment from which Granger saw Rowling’s Potter as a refreshing escape. If such is in fact the case, which both reason and evidence suggest, then Granger’s primary complaint with the modern world was the very quality that gave both Granger and Rowling room to freely express their creativity without being burnt at the stake, drowned, or otherwise harmed.

 

Conclusion

Rowling’s ingenious ability to make the extraordinary ordinary is probably one of the key components to the success of her Harry Potter series. With the catalyst of success and widespread publication of a fictional series about a young wizard who practices occult witchcraft, predominantly US Christian conservatives became gripped by a relatively mild yet noisy moral panic. The source of their panic was directly related to the occult content, which they viewed as a real and tangible threat to an omnipotent god’s plan for us here on earth. Notwithstanding zealous attempts by radical Christians, the moral panic burned out with only relatively minor incidents. It could be argued that had Rowling published ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ in the late-medieval period in Europe, Britain or America, the moral panic would have been far more acute and contagious. Thus, the rationalistic and scientific worldview which prevails in the west, although being a source of complaint for Christian Potter fans, is the one thing that enables them to enjoy Rowling’s well-researched portrayal of magic in Harry Potter, which, thanks again to the rationalism of our age, these Christians are able to correctly identify as being nothing more than entertaining fiction.

 

 

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End Notes

 

  1. David Serchuk, ‘Harry Potter and the Ministry of Fire’, Forbes Magazine, 1st, 2006, cited at: http://www.forbes.com/2006/11/30/book-burnings-potter-tech-media_cz_ds_books06_1201burn.html, accessed on 11th Jan., 2017.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ken James, ‘Is the “Harry Potter…” Series Truly Harmless?’, Christian Answers, cited at: http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/harrypotter.html, accessed on 11th, 2017.
  4. Caryl Matrisciana and Robert S. McGee, Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged – Making Evil Look Innocent, Documentary, Jeremiah Films, 2001, cited at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xd6zC9hUB7M&t=864s, accessed on 14th, 2017.
  5. Howard Kahane (ed.) and Nancy Cavender (ed.), Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life, 10th, Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2006, p. 59.
  6. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, New York: Scholastic, 1998, p. 70.
  7. Roni Natov, ‘Harry Potter and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary’, The Lion and The Unicorn 25 (2001) pp. 310–327.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Danielle M. Soulliere, ‘Much Ado About Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic’, Journal of Religion and Culture, 22.1, (Spring 2010), cited at: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA238178966&v=2.1&u=dixson&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=1fcced6d8a9e18bc88aefe6f95cc2382, accessed on 14th, 2017.
  11. Ibid.
  12. ‘Because it’s His Birthday: Harry Potter by the Numbers’, Time Magazine, July 31st, 2013, cited at: http://entertainment.time.com/2013/07/31/because-its-his-birthday-harry-potter-by-the-numbers/, accessed on 13th, 2017.
  13. Diana Patterson (ed.), Harry Potter’s Worldwide Influence, Exeter, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009, p. 2.
  14. Caryl Matrisciana and Robert S. McGee, Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged – Making Evil Look Innocent, Documentary, Jeremiah Films, 2001, cited at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mZpqQq4bkyI, accessed on 12th, 2017.
  15. Michael Ostling, ‘Harry Potter and the Disenchantment of the World’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, 18, No. 1, (2003), pp. 3-23.
  16. Bruce David Forbes, America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015, p. 143.
  17. Yurie Hong, J.K. ‘Rowling Speaks of Classics at Harvard Graduation But Not for the Reasons You’d Think’, Gustavus Adolphus College, (June 5th, 2011), cited at: https://classics.blog.gustavus.edu/2011/06/05/j-k-rowling-speaks-of-classics-at-harvard-graduation-but-not-for-the-reasons-youd-think/, accessed on 13th, 2017.
  18. Danielle M. Soulliere, ‘Much Ado About Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic’, Journal of Religion and Culture, 22.1, (Spring 2010), cited at: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA238178966&v=2.1&u=dixson&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=1fcced6d8a9e18bc88aefe6f95cc2382, accessed on 14th, 2017.
  19. Ibid.
  20. John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter: Is there Christian Meaning Hidden in the Bestselling Books, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006, p. 3.
  21. Ibid. p. 8.
  22. John Granger, Looking for God in Harry Potter: Is there Christian Meaning Hidden in the Bestselling Books, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006, pp. 87, 175.
  23. Danielle M. Soulliere, ‘Much Ado About Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic’, Journal of Religion and Culture, 22.1, (Spring 2010), cited at: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA238178966&v=2.1&u=dixson&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=1fcced6d8a9e18bc88aefe6f95cc2382, accessed on 14th, 2017.
  24. Michael D. Bailey, Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007, p. 215; Brian A. Pavlac, Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment From the Inquisition to the Salem Witch Trials, Westport Connecticut: Greewood Press, 2009, pp. 22-23.
  25. Wolfgang Behringer, ‘Climate Change and Witch-Hunting: The Impact of the Little Ice Age on Mentalities’, Climate Change Journal, 43 (1999), Kluwer Academic Publishers, p. 339; E. William Monter, ‘The Historiography of European Witchcraft: Progress and Prospects’, The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 2, No. 4, Psychoanalysis and History (Spring, 1972), p. 445; Peter T. Leeson and Jacob W. Russ, Witch Trials, p. 12, cited at: http://economics.yale.edu/sites/default/files/witch_trials.pdf, accessed on 14th, 2017; Bengt Ankarloo, Stuart Clark, William Monter, The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, London: The Athlone Press, 2002, p. 27.
  26. Nachman Ben-Yahuda, ‘The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 86, No. 1, (Jul., 1980), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, p. 11.
  27. Rosemary Ellen Guiley, The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, 3rd , New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008, p. 50; Canon Episcopi, cited at: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/witch/canon.html, accessed on 2nd April, 2016.
  28. Hans Peter Broedel, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003, pp. 22-23.
  29. Hugh R. Trevor-Roper, The European Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries, Toronto: Penguin, 1990.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

 

 

Primary Historical Sources

 

Canon Episcopi, cited at: http://www.personal.utulsa.edu/~marc-carlson/witch/canon.html, accessed on 2nd April, 2016.

 

 

 

Secondary Sources

 

Ankarloo, Bengt, Clark, Stuart, Monter, William, The Athlone History of Witchcraft and Magic in Europe, London: The Athlone Press, 2002.

 

Bailey, Michael D., Magic and Superstition in Europe: A Concise History from Antiquity to the Present, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007.

 

‘Because it’s His Birthday: Harry Potter by the Numbers’, Time Magazine, July 31st, 2013, cited at: http://entertainment.time.com/2013/07/31/because-its-his-birthday-harry-potter-by-the-numbers/, accessed on 13th Jan., 2017.

 

Behringer, Wolfgang, ‘Climate Change and Witch-Hunting: The Impact of the Little Ice Age on Mentalities’, Climate Change Journal, 43 (1999).

 

Ben-Yahuda, Nachman, ‘The European Witch Craze of the 14th to 17th Centuries: A Sociologist’s Perspective’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 86, No. 1, (Jul., 1980).

 

Broedel, Hans Peter, The Malleus Maleficarum and the Construction of Witchcraft: Theology and Popular Belief, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003.

 

Forbes, Bruce David, America’s Favorite Holidays: Candid Histories, Oakland, California: University of California Press, 2015.

 

Granger, John, Looking for God in Harry Potter: Is there Christian Meaning Hidden in the Bestselling Books, Tyndale House Publishers, 2006.

 

Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft and Wicca, 3rd Ed., New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2008.

 

Hong, Yurie, J.K. ‘Rowling Speaks of Classics at Harvard Graduation But Not for the Reasons You’d Think’, Gustavus Adolphus College, (June 5th, 2011), cited at: https://classics.blog.gustavus.edu/2011/06/05/j-k-rowling-speaks-of-classics-at-harvard-graduation-but-not-for-the-reasons-youd-think/, accessed on 13th Jan., 2017.

 

James, Ken, ‘Is the “Harry Potter…” Series Truly Harmless?’, Christian Answers, cited at: http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/harrypotter.html, accessed on 11th Jan., 2017.

 

Kahane, Howard (ed.) and Cavender, Nancy (ed.), Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric: The Use of Reason in Everyday Life, 10th Ed., Belmont, CA: Thomson-Wadsworth, 2006.

 

Leeson, Peter T. and Russ, Jacob W., Witch Trials, p. 12, cited at: http://economics.yale.edu/sites/default/files/witch_trials.pdf, accessed on 14th Jan., 2017.

 

Matrisciana, Caryl and McGee, Robert S., Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged – Making Evil Look Innocent, Documentary, Jeremiah Films, 2001, cited at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xd6zC9hUB7M&t=864s, accessed on 14th Jan., 2017.

 

Monter, E. William, ‘The Historiography of European Witchcraft: Progress and Prospects’,

The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 2, No. 4, Psychoanalysis and History (Spring, 1972).

 

Natov, Roni, ‘Harry Potter and the Extraordinariness of the Ordinary’, The Lion and The Unicorn 25 (2001).

 

Ostling, Michael, ‘Harry Potter and the Disenchantment of the World’, Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 18, No. 1, (2003).

 

Pavlac, Brian A., Witch Hunts in the Western World: Persecution and Punishment From the Inquisition to the Salem Witch Trials, Westport Connecticut: Greewood Press, 2009.

 

Patterson, Diana (ed.), Harry Potter’s Worldwide Influence, Exeter, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2009.

 

Rowling, J.K., Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, New York: Scholastic, 1998.

 

Serchuk, David, ‘Harry Potter and the Ministry of Fire’, Forbes Magazine, 1st Dec., 2006, cited at: http://www.forbes.com/2006/11/30/book-burnings-potter-tech-media_cz_ds_books06_1201burn.html, accessed on 11th Jan., 2017.

 

Soulliere, Danielle M., ‘Much Ado About Harry: Harry Potter and the Creation of a Moral Panic’, Journal of Religion and Culture, 22.1, (Spring 2010), cited at: http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA238178966&v=2.1&u=dixson&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=1fcced6d8a9e18bc88aefe6f95cc2382, accessed on 14th Jan., 2017.

 

Trevor-Roper, Hugh R., The European Witch-Craze of the 16th and 17th Centuries, Toronto: Penguin, 1990.