The Harry Potter Phenomenon and Orthodox Reactions
By Bishop Auxentios of Photiki
The Orthodox Church, contrary to certain well-meaning but misguided efforts by the Faithful and some clergymen to prove other wise, is not opposed to science, progress, or human intellectual development. Even a cursory survey of the writings of the Church Fathers–from St. Basil the Great to St. Nikodemos the Hagiorite, to cite two notable examples–and those of our finest theologians lucidly demonstrates that the fear of secular knowledge, of the West, of science, and of secular intellectual trends is unknown to the Orthodox Church. St. Basil the Great instructs us to benefit from what is good even in pagan writers, while St. Nicodemos adapted more than one spiritual source of Western provenance to Orthodox usage. And the late and renowned Photios Kontoglou, a conservative and decidedly traditional Orthodox thinker, benefited from the writings of classical Greek philosophy and without reluctance fathomed the depths of such Western thinkers as Blaise Pascal. Anti-Western, anti-intellectual thinking is not part of the Patristic consensus, except as the Fathers approach the dogmatic deviations of Western Christianity. We must keep these notions in mind, as we confront technologies, ideologies, social thought, and intellectual trends formed in a changing world and in a secular context that some times challenges the immutable truths which shape our thinking and lives as Orthodox Christians.
Unfortunately, there has developed in the Orthodox world, of late, a kind of conspiratorial sensitivity to anything new or anything which we do not readily understand, partly reinforced by the exploitation of certain personal opinions in Church literature that, however piously put forth by unquestionably holy individuals, are often not part of the consensus of the Fathers. Bar codes, computers, globalization, and humanistic thinking seem to create a spectre of ominous doom and apocalyptic darkness in the minds of many, today. Preoccupied by the bizarre and irrational bugaboos of unsophisticated American Protestant fundamentalists, some Orthodox writers in Greece and Eastern Europe have even translated and disseminated works of purely Protestant provenance–often based on questionable, if not wholly false, “scientific claims” by individuals whose credentials in the domain of science are either exaggerated or dubious–, touting as authoritative voices from the West works and ideas that are dismissed by thinking Americans as crank fluff. Propped up by naive ethnocentrism or xenophobic tendencies (the fear of Jewish conspiracies, Masonic plots, Vatican intrigue, etc.), a growing–and sometimes ugly and irrational–anti-Americanism and disdain for the West, as well as an apocalyptic frenzy of an almost hysterical sort, this kind of conspiratorial thinking has gained such ascendency in a large part of the traditional Orthodox world, that one is hard-pressed to focus the attention of the Faithful on the real and menacing threats that pose such a danger to the Orthodox Church: a degradation in spiritual life; social, political, and unprecedented moral decline in the Orthodox world; religious syncretism and the erosion of our Orthodox identity in the superficies of an ecumenism which, instead of spawning religious toleration and mutual understanding, has divided the Orthodox Church into warring factions; and, of course, a deviation from the sobriety of the ecclesiastical ethos so long preserved and protected by the Church Fathers.
I do not, of course, deny that modern technology and intellectual trends can take a wrong turn, and even deliberately so. All things in science can be used and applied in a good or evil way. Thus, the same nuclear science that has led to the healing of disease and new sources of energy also once produced the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But whatever the potential for abuse may be, when we look at science from the perspective of its prudent and positive application, we must admit that computers, bar codes, televisions, modern advances in medicine, and technology in general have improved our lives in immeasurable ways. Indeed, to ignore the issue of the correct application of science and to imagine that all technological progress is malicious and that the Antichrist (an evil which has tempted and tortured mankind since the Fall) can be reduced to naive numerology, searching for the “Mark of the Beast” (which the Fathers of the Church more often than not left shrouded in mystery) in the simple number “666” and in hidden and clandestine form in bar codes, bars of soap, identity cards, phone cards, credit cards or any modern device–this is to reduce Orthodoxy to the level of sectarian pursuits and to let the psychological weaknesses of insecure believers sully the lofty and sublime teachings of the Church. It is the intellectual counterpart of placing a clove of garlic on an Icon, in order to “frighten away” vampires or the evil spirits that latex paints, a product of modern technology, might attract.
Vigilance against evil and the spirit of Antichrist is not achieved in external and irrational fear and a constant search for plots, secret signs, and hidden meanings and symbols; it is to be found in internal watchfulness, in which Christ Himself guides us to “true wisdom,” as St. Nilos the Ascetic (a fifth-century Saint and disciple of St. John Chrysostomos) tells us. We must seek “in Christ” a sagacious spirit, prudence, discretion, deliberation, an understanding of the difference between good and evil science and technology (evaluated on how their products and theories are used and applied), and insight into the subtlety with which evil attacks the world. A crude, irrational fear of progress and the forces of evil, disallowing for positive progress through the rational application of science and technology, does not prepare us to encounter and combat the wiles of fallen human nature and the clever deceptions of the Evil One; rather, it clouds our vision, distracts us from the true nature of evil, and makes us theological dullards.
It is also true that globalization and the marring of natural distinctions between peoples can lead to the nightmare of universal social and political conformity and the diminution of individual rights. Humanistic thinking, by the same token, can so distort human nature and man’s dependence on God, that human beings, drunk with arrogance and self-reliance, run headlong into disaster and reject both the role of God in society and His indispensability in positive human achievement. However, mutual understanding, common human goals, and universalism, when placed in perspective and protected from abuse, can serve the most sacred of Christian goals.  If we properly direct and form the alms and goals of globalization and humanism, bringing them into conformity with Christian thought and meeting the challenges which they pose to correct Christian apology, we can enlist them in our efforts to transform the world and save it from the very evils of phyletism, ethnocentricity and ethnic strife, selfishness, provincialism, war, and terror that global visionaries and humanists themselves would strive to confront but which, lacking transformation in Christ, they are not only unable to conquer, but often, with the best of intentions, turn into more hideous evils. In embracing universalism and humanism in a Christian context, we are carrying out the mandate of the Gospel, which calls us to see all men as our brothers and to transcend the selfishness of family, country, and kin; to focus on our Heavenly homeland and not the fleeting world of today; and to spread the message of Christianity across the whole globe, embracing others in unconditional love, which is the true mark of Christianity and the true Christian.
Finally, I cannot deny that the Orthodox Church has suffered from the plots, assaults, and intrigues of hostile forces–sufferings often misunderstood or ignored by unfair and myopic Western historians and writers. If anti-Semitism has sadly and shamefully marred the Christian witness (both in the East and West) from early Christianity to modern days, there have also been reprehensible instances of anti-Christian violence among less-enlightened Jews (a fact to which more militant Zionism attests in our very days). Similarly, though the Orthodox are surely not without their faults in the mistreatment of Roman Catholics, the Fourth Crusade and the Uniate movement leave a huge and indelible black mark against the Vatican in its abuse of Orthodox believers. There is also no doubt that many organizations (such as the Masons) which are today–while incompatible with Orthodoxy, on account of their doctrines of religious syncretism and their maintenance of quasi-religious rituals of highly questionable origin–largely benign social clubs and benevolent societies (in America, at least) were once deeply involved in activities inimical to, and frequently a direct threat against, the Orthodox Church, its ethos, and its activities. But to maintain, on the basis of often fanciful, deliberately-forged, and inane evidence that the historical rivals of Christianity are engaged in a relentless desire and immense common conspiracy to corrupt, harm, and denigrate the Orthodox Church in our days is to make a mockery of our Faith.
With regard to the West and America specifically, neither the Western world nor America can claim to have treated the Orthodox world fairly at all times. Western European and American policy in Eastern Europe, the Balkans, Cyprus, and the Near East, the traditional centers of Orthodox Christianity, has not been without faults. American policy, for instance, has often been misguided and not always marked by pure motivations free of economic and political self-interest. But it is a great leap from these observations to an assumption that the West is some how the enemy of Orthodoxy, thereby aligning the attitudes of traditional Orthodox populations with those of militant Islamic fundamentalists and terrorists, who witlessly call America the “Great Satan” and who have, ironically enough, inflicted their violence to some extent on almost every Orthodox land (indeed, the same kind of Islamic imperialists who, more than half a millennium ago, reached the gates of Vienna in Western Europe itself). America has its oil interests, as any objective observer will admit. Its Mid-East policy is not, in the opinion of many, a very balanced or prudent one. However, the same country that can be accused of these foibles in policy and aims also helped rebuild Europe after World War II. It gives hundreds of millions of dollars to the Moslem neighbors of Israel, has–whatever its policy towards oil–suffered at the hands of Islamic terrorism at the same time that it has tried to overthrow tyrannical regimes in the Moslem world (albeit some that it unwisely supported in the past), and cannot be faulted for its admission of past wrongs, such as racism and social inequities, which it has tried to address and to correct. To vilify the West for its faults, without acknowledging its good points, simply reinforces a provincialism in the Orthodox world that is unfair, unjustified, counter-productive, and even ungrateful, given that the West and America have made gargantuan efforts to aid the emerging countries of Eastern Europe. The resulting xenophobia once more obfuscates the spiritual splendor of the traditional Orthodox world and impedes the inimitable spiritual force of Orthodoxy in a century which was meant in every way to be its own.
Into the intellectual, ecclesiastical, and cultural atmosphere which I have described–an Orthodoxy turned in on itself, beset by superstitious and silly provincialism and fundamentalistic preoccupations borrowed from outside sources, and possessed by a fear of technological progress and of intellectual trends that it views with xenophobic suspicion or in a spirit of anti-intellectual simplism–the advent of a series of children’s books, the Harry Potter series, written by a thirty-seven-year-old single mother from Scotland, J.K. Rowling, has prompted an outcry of fear in Greece, Bulgaria, Russia, and in some Orthodox circles in Romania that has Westerners looking on in astonishment. In Western Europe and the United States, a few fundamentalistic groups have also condemned the Harry Potter series (now numbering five volumes) as a nefarious plot to poison Christian children with the evils of black magic. These stirrings in the West, however, have simply been dismissed as the typical anti-intellectual inanities of unthinking individuals. Unfortunately, this kind of ridicule has also been expressed by those Westerners who have studied the reactions to the Harry Potter series in Orthodox countries, since the rationale for the opposition in these countries seems to be precisely that of the fundamentalists in the West (from which that rationale is, in fact, borrowed).
Typical of these Orthodox reactions to the Harry Potter books are several volumes published recently in Greece (see, for example, “Nai e OCHI sto Chari Poter” [Yes or NO to Harry Potter?], by loannes Meliones [Athens: The Panhellenic Parents’ Union, 2002]; or Mathemata Magias kai Satanismou apo ton Chari Poter [Lessons in Magic and Satanism from Harry Potter], by K.G. Papademetrakopoulos [Kantza: Photodotes, 2002]). In Greece, as in Bulgaria, Russia, and Romania, the Harry Potter phenomenon (dubbed “charipoteromania,” or “Harry Potter-mania” in Greece) is clearly seen, at some level, through the jaundiced eyes of xenophobia and a certain fear of what is “global.” Almost every critical article or book on the Harry Potter series in these countries emphasizes that these books are “foreign,” that they have been sold in many millions of copies in several hundred countries, that the series has been translated into almost fifty languages, and that it has won many literary prizes. Indeed, such statistics would normally constitute impressive accolades; but instead, as a young Romanian student of theology wrote to Archbishop Chrysostomos earlier this year, “…for the Orthodox world the popularness [sic] of these books is [a] sign of the coming end of the world, brought about by the transformation of our children into magicians by ‘practitioners’ of magic from [the] foreign lands of Antichrist and above all of them–forgive me–America.”  It is often pointed out that the Harry Potter books, purportedly by the author’s own admission, contain genuine “magical incantations,” that they constitute an attempt to make a distinction between “black” and “white” magic (and thus in essence advocate magic), and that they are, as Mr. Meliones (vide supra) observes, “an irresistible [akatamacheto] weapon of the New Age of Aquarius in the proselytization of our children.” 
Despite these ill-founded xenophobic and perhaps hyperbolically fearful elements in their writings, I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of many of those who have joined the crusade in Orthodox countries against the Harry Potter phenomenon. (Indeed, even the American fundamentalist Protestants whom they mimic, however naive and unfounded many of their accusations and fears, are not generally individuals of ill intention.) Mr. Meliones, for example, is certainly to be commended for his care for the welfare of Greek children and his desire to protect and preserve the better things of Greek culture and an Orthodox outlook on life which, though it is obviously and rapidly disappearing, has nonetheless been essential to that country’s survival as a Christian nation. Undoubtedly, the majority of Harry Potter critics in Bulgaria, Russia, and Romania are motivated, in their efforts, by similarly sincere goals. However, these goals, prompted in part by a sense of hysteria–expressed in the frenzied apocalyptic tones of Protestant fundamentalism–and insufficiently filtered through the prism of Patristic sobriety and reflection, degrade into hyperbole and a kind of black-and-white approach to literature: an approach which is both intellectually dangerous and misleading. For example, as we shall see subsequently, while one may, however presumptuously, argue that the Harry Potter books provide lessons in “magic,” to argue (as do many Protestant fundamentalists in the U.S., as well) that they teach “Satanism,” as Mr. Papademetrakopoulos (vide supra) does, is to push the proverbial envelope past speculation and presumption to speciousness.
The misleading nature of the hyperbole employed in these popular fundamentalistic condemnations of the Harry Potter books, both in the West and in Orthodox countries, is very well addressed in a recent book by John Granger (a Reader in one of our parish Churches here in the United States), The Hidden Key to Harry Potter: Understanding the Meaning, Genius, and Popularity of Joanne Rowling’s Harry Potter Novels (Port Hadlock, WA: Zossima Press, 2002). Quite rightly, Dave Kopel, in a review of this book in the widely-read, conservative American political magazine, The National Review, says that Mr. Granger
…demonstrates the absurdity of the claim that Harry Potter is anti-Christian. And even if you’ve never worried about charges brought by misguided fundamentalists, The Hidden Key will substantially augment your understanding of what’s really at stake in Harry’s adventures. 
Mr. Granger is, indeed, at his best when forming his arguments against American fundamentalists of the “Evangelical right” and their citations of evidence for occult, anti-Christian, and Satanic teachings in the Harry Potter books. These arguments are especially pertinent to what I have said about such claims by Orthodox writers. Among the various fundamentalist commentaries on the series that he scrutinizes is Richard Abanes’ Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon Books, 2001), a book which is a veritable encyclopedia of fundamentalistic interpretations of the Harry Potter books and one from which almost all of the Potter critics, including Orthodox writers abroad, have drawn. Noting that, in his “close reading,” “nothing escapes Mr. Abanes’ microscopic examination of the books in his search for what is wrong with them–except, of course, their larger meaning,”  Granger contends that Abanes
..reads the Bible as a Muslim reads the Koran: as an ideological guide and work of jurisprudence, rather than the voice of tradition understandable within that tradition. Ms. Rowling as a traditional and orthodox Christian is of an incomprehensible world view to Mr. Abanes. It is [thus] difficult to read his book after the first few pages, because it descends into a diatribe and harangue. 
In his more expansive treatment of Abanes’ grasp of the images of good and evil in the Potter books, Mr. Granger admits that, while Abanes’ “concerns about careless spirituality and the dangers of the occult are real ones,” his preoccupation with these concerns “blind him to all and everything good in Harry Potter.”  He goes on to give us an example of this blind fundamentalistic approach:
Take…his charge of moral ambiguity. At first blush this seems a stretch. Harry Potter is a good guy and Voldemort the bad guy and there seems little common ground for confusion or ambiguity. To Mr. Abanes, however, because the ‘white’ hats are a little gray, not lily white, and the ‘black hats’ are not inhumanly evil without any redeeming virtues, the picture of right and wrong has been clouded. Let’s hear him explain it [:]
‘Rowling downplays Harry’s other moral issues by elevating two virtuous characteristics above all others: bravery and courage. As she herself has stated, “If the characters are brave and courageous, that is rewarded.” What Rowling seemingly fails to realize, however, is that even in her own books “evil” characters are brave and courageous, too. …The only difference between them [the good and evil characters–B.A.] rests in the rules that they choose to break, the lies they choose to tell and the goals they choose to pursue. (Abanes, Magick, p. l36) 
This example tells us much about the “careless” scholarship of the fundamentalists, who, in their search for what is evil and for every threat lurking behind what is not within their domain of thought and Weltanschauung, lose objectivity; they find what they want to find at all costs. It is tragic that this weakness in approach is also all-too-characteristic of most Orthodox critics of Harry Potter, who once again–their occasional anti-Western bias notwithstanding–have adopted and mimicked the style of their Western counterparts in the world of Protestant fundamentalism, thereby also inheriting their mentors’ foibles.
In view of what I have said about the intellectual, cultural, and religious climate in which the more negative Orthodox views of the Harry Potter series of books have been formed, there are a few general points which can help us as thinking, rational Orthodox Christians to answer precisely the question that one of the Greek critics of Harry Potter whom I have cited laconically poses for us: “‘Yes’ or ‘No’ to Harry Potter?” In enumerating these points, it behooves me, as an incidental note, to point out that fundamentalists have a proclivity towards the sensational, often predicting calamity and the end of the world with something akin to excitement and glee. In fact, “Harry Potter-mania” will doubtlessly fade in the public memory almost as quickly as it appeared; and, despite the popularity of the series, there is some evidence that book critics and apocalyptic soothsayers, alike, have already gone on to more fertile fields of late. Nonetheless, the insight provided by the points that I would like to make about the Harry Potter phenomenon certainly generalizes to, and helps us to understand, the task which I set forth at the outset of my essay; that is, the confrontation of technologies, ideologies, social thought, and intellectual trends formed in a changing world and in secular contexts that sometimes challenge the immutable truths which shape our thinking and lives as Orthodox Christians.
In approaching the Harry Potter books, the fundamentalists, both Orthodox and heterodox, have fallen to a classical logical fallacy–post hoc, ergo propter hoc–in literary form; i.e., maintaining that, because the magical imagery used in the Harry Potter books corresponds, in modern times, to the nomenclature and artifacts embraced by ancient alchemy and magic, it follows that the former have their conceptual roots in alchemy and magic and, by extension, advocate the latter. Between the past and the present, many years have passed; and science, as well as individuals educated in the arts and sciences, would seriously challenge the idea that the incantations of alchemists and ancient and medieval witches are efficacious and to be taken seriously. There is, of course, a sure case to be made against the deliberate invocation of evil through such devices, since evil manifests itself where evil is conjured up. However, the power of magic and wizardry lies not in words and incantations (a primitive belief), but in the evil which empowers them; and, to be sure, such empowerment rests on the intentions and goals of those who purposely invoke evil. The use of historically accurate alchemical and magical imagery and language by an author wishing to create a world of magical fantasy to capture the imagination of children–this is a pursuit as innocent and as old as Greek mythology, Aesop’s fables, and the fairy tales of the brothers Grimm, which present–in a world of magical fantasy replete with witches, pagan gods, and talking animals–lessons in enduring values, examples of the triumph of virtue over evil, the tragic hubris of false gods marred by human passions, and the power of purity and innocence over the intentions of the wicked.
Ms. Rowling is not a Satanist, as I have pointed out, but a believer in Christ. (I will not address, here, the fundamentalist and parochial view that, because her Christian confession may not be that of an Orthodox Christian, she is not a believer and is therefore a miscreant, if not a Satanist, by default. I leave it to the fundamentalists to argue that issue out in the quagmire of their religious bigotry.) Suffice it to say that she says of herself in a passage quoted by Reader John Granger from Michael Nelson: “I believe in God, not magic.’ … ‘If I talk too freely about that,’ she told a Canadian reporter, ‘I think the intelligent reader–whether ten [years old] or sixty–will be able to guess what is coming in the [next] books.”  And what is coming? Images of death, resurrection, and the triumph of good over evil. Hardly the stuff of Satanism! In fact, Mr. Granger places Rowling in the tradition of those literary figures, such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose writings, as Kopel comments, may “never mention Christianity overtly,” but “aim ‘to baptize’ the imagination of the reader” and lead that reader to struggle “for the right, no matter how powerful the forces of evil may be.”  And, indeed, Rowling has openly admitted that she is a great fan of Lewis and Tolkien, who both use magical imagery and the fantastic world of fairies and talking animals to convey, in their celebrated literary genre, distinctly and indisputably Christian ideas and values–a powerful apology for Christian teachings in Western literature that has never been associated with black magic or Satanism, except by intellectual troglodytes of the darkest ilk.
The Harry Potter books, then, were not written to portray some esoteric struggle between “black” and “white” magic, are not meant to teach lessons in magic incantations, and have nothing to do with Satanism. The religious “right” from which our Orthodox fundamentalists have adopted such notions is made up of the very same individuals who, here in America, characterize the Orthodox veneration of Icons as “idol worship” and who mistake the traditional dress of Orthodox clergymen as “the black robes of Satanists.” Such individuals are as ignorant of the tenets and history of Orthodoxy as they are of the history of alchemy (which, in fact, played an important role in the development of chemical science), its distinction from wizardry and witchcraft, and the difference between the complex historical development of these latter two phenomena and overt Satanism or devil-worship. They also display an appalling nescience of literature, the classical analogies, similes, and tropes used in literary expression, and the principles of developmental psychology which explain why the world of magic and fantasy can innocently focus children’s attention on moral lessons and help form their Christian consciences, without furtively leading them into some realm of the “dark sciences of Satanism.” Failing to understand literature at anything but a parochial level, both Protestant fundamentalists and their Orthodox followers have failed to see the profound Christian symbolism in the Harry Potter books, as well as their value in teaching fundamental Christian values to children.
A cursory reading of Mr. Granger’ s book avers all that I have said about the positive intent and value of these books. Although it may be a stretch to deduce this from his assertion that “Harry Potter” pronounced with a Cockney accent is a key to the Christian core of the series (i.e., that Harry is “heir” to the Potter, or “Creator,” and thus a Christ image), and though his attempt to establish Harry’s [spiritual] “royalty” by associating him with “Harry Hotspur (the Prince of Wales)” represents an uncharacteristic gaffe in his many and accurate literary allusions (an error, incidentally, which Mr. Kopel cites without apparent notice in his review of The Hidden Key to Harry Potter ), Granger lays open the Christian content of the series with skill and in a persuasive manner. The evil antagonists in the series, Draco (the serpent) and Malfoy (a man of evil faith), for example, emerge in contrast to the virtuous antagonists, such as Harry’s parents, James (the brother of Christ) and Lily (the Easter flower).  Granger also identifies many of the myriad symbols of Christ in the Harry Potter books (Chapter 8), themes of transformation and transfiguration (Chapter 6), and issues such as prejudice, freedom of will (choice), temptation and selfishness, each centered on the force of moral choice and consequent spiritual growth. One leaves his book with a firm conviction that the fundamentalist critics of the series, whom he objectively and charitably exposes for their total lack of understanding of Harry Potter and his fantastic adventures, have missed the spiritual forest for the sake of their fixation on the magical imagery of the literary trees. In so doing, he highlights, again, the unfortunate religious myopia of our Orthodox fundamentalists, who, despite their well-intentioned zeal, have reduced the open, intelligent, and expansive intellectual view advocated by the Church Fathers to a kind of literalistic religious myopia which little serves Orthodoxy, its witness, or, in the final analysis, our youth.
I am not, in making the observations that I have made–observations perhaps painful for our Orthodox brethren who have unwittingly succumbed to fundamentalism–, arguing that there are not, perhaps, better ways to teach Christian values than through literature that employs magical imagery and which reaches out to the youthful love of fantasy. I am saying, however, that such a literary tradition, to which J.K. Rowling clearly belongs, is not evil, Satanic, or harmful, even if it is not of Orthodox provenance. It is also my conviction that, if we set aside the xenophobia, subtle religious bigotry, and anti-Western phyletism that have led Orthodox fundamentalists to a blindness about the good things of the Western and heterodox world, we can certainly accommodate literary traditions such as those represented by Lewis, Tolkien, and, indeed, Rowling. Supplemented with readings in the lives of the Orthodox Saints, inspiring spiritual literature from Orthodox writers, and the moral fables of the pre-Christian world of Greek classicism (which are also foundational texts for the instruction of children in the Western world), works like the Harry Potter series can serve to instruct our children in a harmless way.
Let me further say that there is nothing negative about a series of books that introduces children to reading. I dare say that children who have heretofore never touched a book–children largely bereft of instruction in moral choice, the confrontation between good and evil, and the presence of Christian symbolism in the secular world and the realm of fantasy–have found in the Harry Potter books a wonderful and challenging new world. They have opened their minds, embraced learning, and found a path which, however secular it may be (and I would maintain that Rowling’s writings are not really secular), will one day lead them to open the writings of the Fathers and explore their Orthodox Faith. All of us know, whether we wish to admit it or not, that our Church is suffering from a plethora of unread “experts” and a dearth of those who, in the traditional spirit of seeking and reaching out, have been humbly formed in the spirit of the Fathers, which rests not in social and intellectual paranoia, but in a vision of what is universal, expansive, overwhelming and as rich and exhilarating, in its Christian essence, as fantasy and magical imagery are to children. If we, as serious scholars of the spiritual life, must eschew fantasy and the imagination, as the Fathers teach us, our first encounters with the guides who lead us to a mature spiritual foundation begin with the formation of our immature minds in those things of the world that appeal to us and which teach us, in shadows and imperfect images, the values and moral precepts that eventually lead us to an encounter with the Perfect Image.
I am thoroughly convinced that the Fathers would never have endorsed the pedestrian and provincial anti-intellectualism of today’s Orthodox fundamentalists. It is a discredit to the Fathers for us to imagine so. Therefore, while I do not doubt, as I have said, the sincerity of Orthodox critics of the Harry Potter series and other such readings, I would remind them that, in their fundamentalistic fury, they are bowing to such human passions as ethnocentrism, crude religious intolerance, and attitudes inimical to the Patristic witness. How, indeed, can we attract our children to their Orthodox Faith, which we hold to be the criterion of Christianity, if we denigrate and fear, with narrow-mindedness and foggy thinking of foreign provenance, that which we have not even tried to study or grasp? The negative reactions to the Harry Potter phenomenon that we see today are, in essence, neither truly Orthodox nor expressed in the spirit of catholicity which is the core of Orthodox Christianity.
1. Our failure, as Orthodox Christians, to understand the universal dimensions of our earthly mission has led us, as I argued above, into the ills of phyletism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and even Christian exclusivism (perhaps the most striking of all oxymorons). I will make my point vividly with the following anecdote: Several years ago, an Orthodox clergyman–an active ecumenist and a well-known theologian and representative of one of the so-called “official” Orthodox Churches (an appellation that has become popular among Orthodox and which, from a psychological standpoint alone, should cause alarm and misgivings immediately)–told a group of Greek students that the spread of Orthodoxy in the “Western world” was creating a diluted faith, bereft of the “blood cells” of “pure” [i.e., ethnic–B.A.] Orthodox believers.” If this observation has any merit, it convicts “pure” or “official” Orthodoxy (which represents the majority of Faithful in the West) of irresponsibility in its missionary efforts. However, of greater concern is the solution which this clergyman proposed to this problem: A concentrated effort to increase the number of Orthodox in the homeland through large families; the maintenance of “pure Greek Orthodox blood lines”; and a conscious effort to “avoid the efforts of the ‘Masonic-Jewish’ forces of globalization and humanistic atheism in the West” (non-Western Israel was the designated chief culprit in this plot) to “extinguish the zeal of true believers.” What this says about the sincerity of the Orthodox ecumenists (who have drawn their putative “official status” from the ecumenical movement itself) is one thing. What it says about opposition to globalization and universalism, when we contrast it to the following words of our Lord Himself, is quite another: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, Baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit…” (St. Matthew 28:19).
2. A.M., Bucharest, Romania, to Archbishop Chrysostomos, April 27, 2003 (electronic transmission); document in author’s hands. It is perhaps worth emphasizing that the author of the Harry Potter series is, of course, not an American. However, a Greek-Canadian critic of Rowling, observing that the author hails from Scotland (Skotia, in Greek), ends one of her articles with the triumphant exclamation: “Ti allo theleis” [What more do you want?”]. (See “O Harry Potter kai ta Magia” [“Harry Potter and Witchcraft”], Salpigga Sophias [Trumpet of Wisdom], No. 17 [March 2003], p. 35). I should note for those who have no Greek, that “Skotia sounds like the Greek word for darkness, “skotos”, though the former word is differently spelled and derives not from the Greek word for “darkness” but the Latin for “Scotland”: “Scotia.”
3. Quoted in Hagios Kypriańos (St. Cyprian), No. 313 (March-April 2003), p. 224 (inside back cover).
4. “Deconstructing Rowling,” The National Review, June 30, 2003.
5. The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, Appendix B, p. 354.
6. Ibid., pp. 354-355. Note that Mr. Granger describes Rowling as an “orthodox Christian,” using the adjective “orthodox” in the lower case and in its alternative English form; that is, describing her as a “conformist” to the doctrines of her Presbyterian confession.
7. Ibid., p. 74.
8. Ibid., pp. 74-75.
9. Ibid., p. iv.
10. Kopel, “Deconstructing Rowling,” op. cit.
11. See “Deconstructing Rowling,” op. cit.
12. The Hidden Key to Harry Potter, op. cit., p. 252.
From Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XX, No. 3 (2003), pp. 14-26. http://goo.gl/tZno5n