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