Pokemon, Harry Potter, and the Magic of Story
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In C. S. Lewis’s fictional Narnia, the land was cursed by being "always winter but never Christmas." The current pervasiveness of Pokmon and Harry Potter, which deal with magic power, witches, and wizards, may make our world seem like "always Halloween and never Thanksgiving." But Christians can reap valuable lessons from these products’ phenomenal popularity.
This article explores three things this craze should teach us—or remind us about. In a later article we’ll look at one response to the Pokmon-Potter challenge with those things in mind. But first, let’s look at Pokmon and Potter.
Did you see the news footage last summer? Bookstores all over the English-speaking world threw publication parties for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire on June 30. Kids lined up outside the stores in their witch and wizard costumes—way past their bed-time. They wanted to get their hands on the book as soon as it was released at the magic hour of midnight, before it sold out.
That turned out to be a good strategy: It did sell out, despite a record-breaking first printing of 3 million copies. Those Halloween-in-summer scenes helped the fourth Harry Potter become the fastest-selling book in history. Bookstore owners know that the only books to compare with this kind of buying craze were . . . the previous Harry Potterbooks. Thirty-five million copies of them have been sold worldwide in four years, and now a Chinese translation is well under way.
Meanwhile, Pokmon video games recently held the top five positions on sales charts for all computer platforms. Sales of $3 billion are projected for 2000. Let’s not even bother with statistics about the animated TV series, the playing cards, the comics, and the feature films. Suffice it to say that if all the Pokmon playing cards in circulation were taken into space and stacked on the sun, many parents would think it a good start.
What they’re all about
Parents and others have reason for concern: Magic power is what both Pokmon and Harry Potter are about. "Pokmon" is a Japanese word meaning "pocket monsters." Players battle their pocket monsters against each other in order to capture more pocket monsters, which they will then train in hopes of becoming the greatest trainer on the block. The Pokmon fight each other with supernatural powers.
Likewise, Harry Potter is the humble star-student of the Hogwarts School of Wizardry. He gets trained in magic powers too. The books are humorous and the characters are flat. But, not to put too fine a point on it, adolescents in this school daily learn to do the kinds of things for which the God of Mount Sinai commanded the death sentence.
True, the witchcraft in the book is more the drug-store-Halloween-costume kind than the "Earth-first" beliefs of modern Wicca. But the two still have much in common: Magical power gets exerted over nature and other people. They also share many of the same trappings—clothing, spells, herbal potions, even contacting the dead. As our kids rise through the school grades, they may well meet peers exploring actual witchcraft or even Satanism. Harry Potter could easily become an imaginative bridge connecting them to these dangerous interests. It all begins in the imagination.
So what should we do? One Colorado pastor burned Pokmon products and sliced them with swords in front of his Sunday school class (which, by the way, makes for an interesting mental picture). Is that the answer? Probably not.
First, let’s look at what the Pokmon-Potter phenomenon means. There are three important truths that Christians should reflect on from observing these crazes, the first of which is so obvious it shouldn’t need saying—but it does.
The magic of stories
We love story, and so we should. Kids especially love stories. The Potter books (I’ve read two) move quickly and have exciting climaxes. Take away Potter and kids will read other stories. Take away the other stories and they will make up stories of their own. (Hmm. I wonder if that’s one answer.) Indeed, many parents have defended the Harry Potter books by saying, "they’ve got my kid reading," instead of watching TV, playing video games, and so on.
And there is no denying that adults love stories too. Despite all our learned sophistication, our ears never fail to perk up when a speaker switches to an anecdote, a story.
But why do we love story so much? The biggest reason is probably that, of all forms of human expression, stories are by nature most like life, with characters, conflicts, and chronology. And God himself encourages our notice of the resemblance. It is not an accident that the center of the Christian faith is a story (a true one, of course), not ideas or "rules for living."
You may counter, "the center of the Christian faith is Christ!" I would have to agree. But we know about Christ largely through the story delivered to us by his followers. And I would point out that Christ is, as Madeleine L’Engle creatively puts it, a "god who told stories." Scripture says he "never spoke to the people without a parable" ().
Story, then, can connect us with the most real things of all.
The image of the invisible
But there is a certain kind of story from which the human race will never loosen its grip. The second lesson the Pokemon-Potter popularity makes clear is that the visible world is not enough for us. Thus, realistic stories are not always enough for us. We may try to suppress it, but the longing for something beyond—for the supernatural and wondrous—will have its day.
Part of it is that the supernatural can be fun. Kids recognize intuitively that you can have more fun with the universe when you allow your imagination to stretch beyond the things you see and touch every day. This is true even if a given use of the imagination is just an extension of the everyday reality. It’s fun, for example, to recognize that an electricity pocket monster is in big trouble when he meets a water-based pocket monster. It’s even fun to read about Harry Potter and his schoolmates playing a transmogrified soccer while flying through the air on souped-up broomsticks with cool model names just like kids’ bikes.
But adults long for a supernatural element too. This longing is seen on both individual and cultural levels. Cultural? Consider Western society in the 1800s. The Enlightenment had no sooner excised the supernaturalism of Christian belief from the serious consideration of thinking people than spiritualism became a popular pastime. Middle and upper-class folk—even, famously, Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes—met in their parlors to contact the dead. Some did so only out of curiosity or for entertainment; others wanted spiritual guidance or to contact their "dearly departed." But they were all attracted to sances because the church down the street no longer taught them how to relate to God as a real yet supernatural presence. And even if it did, who would be so credulous as to believe it? But spiritualism, now!
Today’s culture continues down the same track. The same longing still moves people. Adults and adolescents who are alienated from or ignorant of the love and power of the Holy Spirit often get involved with "New Age" religions—including neopagan forms like Wicca and witchcraft—out of the innocent, or at least nave, desire to experience something transcendent.
Pokemon, Harry Potter, Narnia, religious art, the symbolism in churches, the communion bread and wine—all these things reflect our innately human desire—need—to imagine and put shape and substance to things not of this world. Each of us holds intuitions of a realm that exists beyond the senses, or at least of a realm beyond the senses that we feel could or ought to exist. And though it is beyond the senses, we nonetheless want to bring it into this world for seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling.
These intuitions of the supernatural may be heavenly and true. C. S. Lewis masterfully described such in his landmark sermon, "The Weight of Glory." These intuitions may be diabolic and deceptive (like the versions presented lightly in Harry Potter and Pokmon and more seriously elsewhere). But they are all significant, because they reverberate with something in us that is also beyond the senses—our souls. There is in us something that is perhaps too real to be made of matter in thisreality; the soul within us will live even if the earth burns into cinders around us. As one of Shakespeare’s characters said, "we are such stuff as dreams are made of"—God’s dreams, I would add.
These intuitions of other realms may never be understood or proven. God has revealed very little about heaven and hell. Like the "mystery of iniquity," like God’s grace working in us, our intuitions of the spiritual realm are mysteries of the heart.
If we ignore these mysteries of our hearts in the daylight they will follow us into our dreams. We cannot repress them. Instead, we need guides. Particularly until we can develop maturity and discernment, we need to know which visionaries, which prophets and creative writers, to follow. My third point makes that all the more urgent.
The power and the glory
Story can deliver and plant truths—or lies—within us more deeply and effectively than can any other mode of expression. This final point has special power and relevance for the Christian because, as philosopher Gilbert Meilander reminds us, stories teach by indirection. Over time, they can change our affections and so form our characters. The best stories do this by showing us the good and leading us to desire it instead of simply knowing about it.
Pictures can make us feel. Expository writing can make us understand. But only story is intrinsically able to do both at the same time. In story, feeling and understanding can combine with synergistic power. Theologians may argue ad infinitum over how salvation works. But the story of the Prodigal Son can make us feel and know what it is.
This is doubtless one reason that the prophets of God always used the kinds of stories called parables. Parables preeminently have the power to get "the word of the Lord" into people effectively enough to actually change behavior. Few examples are better than the prophet Nathan’s subversive story of the lamb, told to King David in 2 Samuel 12. David angrily condemns the story’s villain, that heartless man. "You are the man!" Nathan tells him, and David breaks down, for the first time seeing himself as the cruel murderer he has become.
Jesus was the master of the parable, for he was the master at bringing truth from heaven into the human heart to cause repentance and rebirth. He ends his Sermon on the Mount with a stern parable of warning about those who merely hear his words and do not act on them. His power to move people through parables is shown by his listeners' reaction here. In Kenneth Wuest’s amplification, "the crowds were struck with astonishment to the point of the loss of self-control, for he was teaching them in the manner of one who possesses authority . . ."
The sensory properties of stories make them not only moving but memorable for the long term. I still remember the main characters in a life-changing novel that I read when I was twelve. I still remember how I felt about it.
For it’s not only biblical parables that move us to action. Modern novels can too, both culturally and individually. The most famous modern example is probably Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In God Through the Looking Glass (Baker 1998), Aida Besanon Spencer recounts the novel’s effect:
Anne Terry White writes: "No novel before or since stirred [the United States] so deeply" . . . In 1852 eight power-presses, running day and night, were barely able to keep pace with the demand . . . Even President Lincoln said to Stowe that she "wrote the book that made" the Civil War.
Stories can also plant highly motivating lies about right and wrong deeply within readers. A famous example is the Russian novel What Must Be Done, also published in the 1800s. This (I am told) crude and didactic work so captivated one young man that he read it five times one summer. It changed his life. He decided to model himself after the steely, ruthless, militant revolutionary that is the novel’s protagonist, and he did. The young man’s name was Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. The power of stories can be dangerous.
No need to be wild about Harry
Let’s put the three points together.
First, stories are both honorable and inevitable. Second, so-called "realism" is not enough for us; we like and need stories that may bring us truth about the supernatural realm that we have such kinship with. Third, stories can plant truths—or lies—within us more deeply and effectively than can any other mode of expression.
Where does this leave us regarding Pokmon and Potter?
I don’t think Pokmon or Harry Potter are going to do much to plant seeds of evil and deception deep in kids’ hearts. I don’t see the Antichrist being shaped here. Unlike prophetic parables, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and What Must Be Done, they are not very earnest enterprises.
And even if they do plant seeds, the news is not all bad.
In the Harry Potter books that I’ve read, good and evil are painted pretty much in traditional black and white and not in shades of gray after the modern fashion. Children’s fiction holds worse and more subtle dangers today than the exterior trappings of magic. For that matter, the Harry Potter books themselves hold worse and more subtle dangers. These include the ego-stroking of Harry’s messiah-like specialness—he’s born as a wizard of wizards (of course, he’s humble about it)—and the derision of non-magical people as "Muggles." But frankly, if Christian parents can’t or won’t talk their children through such negative aspects in these books—and in games like Pokmon—then I would say their family has worse, more internal problems to work out.
But getting back to the redemptive side, the first Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, has a rather moving and life-affirming denouement as a mystery in Harry’s past is solved. We learn that a mother’s love for her baby (Harry himself) became externalized as a sort of magic power. The power was strong enough to protect the baby even from his world’s most powerful evil sorcerer, who, after killing Harry’s parents, tried to kill their baby too (none of which is portrayed, by the way)—but this magic killed him instead. My gut does a little pinch just remembering it.
But as I hope you gather, this article is not meant as a comprehensive Christian critique of Pokmon or the Harry Potter books. We have bigger fish to fry.
Walking on water
Jesus said "seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened to you" and "whatever you ask for in my name, you shall receive." He also helped Peter walk on water.
Jesus is a realist—the shrewdness of some of his sayings is unimpeachable—but his words and actions make clear that his reality is different than ours.
What is also clear is that he intends—even commands—our reality to become like his. He is making available more to us by faith than was ever offered by any magic kingdom in a fairy tale. He tells us, "Greater things than these shall he [who believes in me] do, because I go to the father" (). He offers a whole new life, a life quite unlike that of the modern neopagan or skeptic. Reading and obeying his teachings and parables is one way to get that life within us; holy communion is another. There are many more still.
One of the other ways is to develop an imagination that is redeemed and ready for Christ’s reality.
Are there any stories that can help do this—that can effectively help plant and nourish Christ’s new life within us and our kids? Should we stick to the Bible, and perhaps the Chronicles of Narnia? Is there nothing else but Harry Potter and whatever else the world brings by (soon to be imitated by the drivel stacked in your local "Christian" store)?
Actually, there are many good answers to these questions. But in the next article I will introduce one writer who I think is best, after C. S. Lewis, at channeling living Christian truth deeply and effectively into the human heart. In fact, Lewis referred to him as his master.
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