Thursday, June 07, 2007

Do You Believe in Magic?

I’ve written about my friend Felicia before. When she was getting married, her gift to her husband was a dark ebony chest, exquisitely carved with Japanese pagodas and bonsai trees. Before she gave it to him, though, she sawed off the pedestal-feet, which were carved in the shape of grinning gargoyles. She wasn’t worried that these faces would startle her each morning as she stumbled, bleary-eyed, into her living room. No – her concern was that the faces are where the demons get in.

Felicia is the kind of person who puts stock in getting a house blessed before the move-in date, just in case any demons are lingering from the previous owners. (When I moved into this house, we found buckets of toys in the basement; we didn’t check for any left-behind demons.) Such magical thinking can take a positive spin as well: when Bub was getting up several times each night, one of her friends recommended that we play an audio-tape of the Bible while he slept – because there is power in the Word of God.

I believe in the power of the Word of God – but I’m old-fashioned about it: I think you have to read it and understand it before that power begins to work. I even believe in demons, but in the C.S. Lewis sense: in his preface to The Screwtape Letters, he argues that "There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them."

Lewis’s demons are goal-oriented: they want us to feel smugly self-satisfied, to believe that our unexamined opinions are intellectually superior because they are fashionable. They want us to eat lunch, to complain about our neighbours, and to show off to our friends – anything to distract us from beauty, and pleasure, and a sense of the divine. His demons are remarkably uninterested in making us speak Latin or spin our heads around like owls. And they display no interest at all in our interior d├ęcor.

Magical thinking assumes that good and evil have very little to do with volition. It assumes that purity can be achieved by sequestering oneself from tainted objects: Ouija boards, playing cards, R-rated movies – as if evil would not follow us behind our barricades, crouching in our jealous talk, our petty hearts.

Dani’s post about The Secret has reminded me that magical thinking takes many forms, with the New Age version being only slightly less offensive to me than the Christian one. The Secret, for those of you who have been living under a rock, purveys the idea that the universe will send back to us whatever positive or negative energy we put into it: if we think positively, we can have anything we want; if we think negatively, it’s our own fault if we get cancer. After I finished barfing, I left a comment: "God is not a cosmic vending machine. And neither is the universe." (This is not a popular sentiment, apparently – one commenter warned that remarks like mine may prevent innocent bystanders from thinking positively.)

One place I don’t find magical thinking is in the Harry Potter books. Nomo posted today about a friend of hers who refuses to read the books because she doesn’t believe in magic. Fairy tales, The Secret Garden, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – almost the entire canon of children’s literature would be off-limits to such a person. I don’t know the grounds for her objection. Is it a failure of the imagination? – an inability to suspend disbelief long enough to enter into the fantasy? Or is it a moral objection, a resistance to a world view that locates salvation in spells and wands instead of science, faith, or hard work?


Despite all the furor in conservative circles, I find the Harry Potter series to be far less invested in magical thinking than the rhetoric of its opponents, who want the books banned from libraries for fear that unwary children will be contaminated. At Hogwarts, magic is really little more than a kind of window-dressing, a tool to be used like any other. It does not take the place of volition; it does not mean that events are controlled by cosmic forces that can be roused to anger or placated by those who know the secret password. When characters hesitate to say Voldemort’s name for fear of summoning his presence, Dumbledore sets them straight.

Evil is not innate in these books, and it does not spread like a contagion one can pick up accidentally from a piece of furniture or a children’s story. Goodness, conversely, is a choice (and often a risky one), not a catalogue from which you can order an unlimited supply of candy, or a spell you can cast by playing special tapes while you sleep.

I don’t believe in magic. But I believe in Harry Potter.

35 comments:

Mouse said...

You're so right: the magic in Harry Potter doesn't involve magical thinking. It is something that must be studied and mastered, it can always be explained. Even when an event at first appears extraordinary (Harry's survival, the wands crossing in Book 4), there is an explanation.

Trillian has relatives who refuse to read the series because of its magic, and therefore Devil, promotion, etc. Neither they nor the people who have told them they should object to the series have read it.

Christine said...

I've never read Harry Potter (i know, i know i am behind The times!), but would like to someday. I guess for me magic of the type in these books and others like The Hobbit for example, are about imagination and possibility and FUN. F-U-N FUN!!!!!! It just makes us smile and dream.

Julie Pippert said...

My father (and thus his family) is forbidden to read Harry Potter and books of that ilk. I was in Big Trouble for offering to loan them to my youngest brother (before I knew this was a Banned Book).

I asked this man, this intelligent, well-educated man, what his objection was and he said magic, and I said fiction and he said, "Buying and reading it only encourages Those People." By which I assumed he meant the real people who really believed in magic.

Did you Andrea at Garden of Nna Mmoy's post about The Secret?

I object not to magical fiction, magical realism, or magic, but I do object to dangerous magical thinking like The Secret.

slouching mom said...

I couldn't agree more.

And as my mother has battled cancer, I'd like to add that I find the notion that cancer somehow steers clear of those who think positively to be incredibly distasteful, and quite an affront to those who have had the misfortune (yes, the sheer bad luck, positive or negative thinking aside) to suffer from cancer.

Disgusting.

I'll get off my soap box now.

Lawyer Mama said...

I also have relatives who will not let their kids read the Harry Potter books. Although I had one cousin try to tell me that her problem with the book was not the magic (because apparently the Lord of the Rings were OK) but that it shows children disobeying authority in a good light. That scared me almost more than a religious objection!

kittenpie said...

My favourite books about magic are actually the Diane Duane series that begins with So You Want To Be a Wizard?

I like the explanation about what magic is there: All of nature shares a language, and if you learn the secret of it, you can ask all things to help you out and because other poeple don't speak the language, it appears to be some strange power. That kind of makes sense to my nature-loving, secular self.

Of course, I think magic makes for a great tale, and am not inclined to take these things too seriously.

Veronica Mitchell said...

Whenever I hear about the power of positive thinking, I remember a woman I met once at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting at a homeless shelter. She was an addict, homeless, and earned money by prostituting herself, but she firmly believed in "name it and claim it," the idea that believing in something would make it happen.

She was a terribly positive person, but I couldn't help thinking that her faith in faith itself was a tragedy. There are so many batter ways she could have improved her life than that.

I think I will muse about Harry a bit more and post a response.

Suz said...

Not only is magic not magical in the Harry Potter books, it's scientific. Wizards are who they are because of genetics. It's not something that mystically settles on you, but something that you were born with, like straight hair or brown eyes.

Omaha Mama said...

As you read in my summer reading list, I'm still trying to get into the FIRST Harry Potter book. I have this envy of those who have enjoyed the series and want to play along. Alas, my adult ADD always kicks in and something else grabs my attention. I still plan to try.

And I do believe in magic. Whatever form it may take. I avoid scary movies, for the mental images that get stuck in my head. Those are my demons.

Lawyer Mama said...

I had another thought after reading the stuff about The Secret.

There's really no "secret" to happiness and success. Maybe that's the REAL secret. There is power in positive thinking for some. Picturing what you want and how you'll feel after you get it - sports psychologists have been using that for years. It's just different packaging.

The hogwash about how negative thinking brings you negative things is just that - hogwash. I refuse to take anyone who thinks that negative thoughts cause cancer or AIDS or horrific accidents seriously. But I think it makes some people feel better to think they have some sort of control over the things that happen in their lives - positive and negative - and that's why they're drawn to things like The Secret.

Beck said...

Harry Potter doesn't make me uncomfortable for many reasons - it's more a book about boarding school life than anything else, although I will admit that Harry's constant rule-breaking does give me pause. Harry Potter's magic is the least magical storyboook magic I've ever read about - it just happens. I do have friends who will not let their kids read the books and for some of them, it's not a fear that Satan is going to come and poke their kids with a big red pitchfork, but rather that their kids will become interested in New Age-y type stuff as a result. I don't lump all fantasy literature into one goofy New Age group, but I do think that as a person of faith I should be aware of what my children are reading - and aware of whether their literature is quietly belittling and dismantling their faith. Not all books are appropriate for all children and all families and I find it distressing when the morals and values of families are held as being of little consequence. Even though I disagree with my friends who don't let their children read Harry Potter, I fully support their right to forbid it - although my sympathy does not extend so far as to allow them to keep my children from reading Harry Potter.

theflyingmum said...

I think "The Secret" is just the latest fad. Anyone remember "The Celestine Prophecy?" There will always be people looking for the magic bullet to happinesss, wealth, etc., etc. In my opinion it bears no resemblance to the Harry Potter books, which, yes, are about F-U-N FUN!!! Like Christine said, but they are also about teen angst, and learning to deal with all those problems common in adolescence. I love the books for that. I love the way Ms. Rowling has cast a darker shadow over each successive book, mirroring the progression of moodiness from pre-teen to young adult.
ps - I haven't and probably will not read The Secret - not because of its message, but because I get bored with books like it.

Jen said...

Well it must be a big rock because I had not heard of The Secret. From what you have said I think I just might be speechless, the cancer part is just wretched. That is a slippery slope of thinking, that if you think negatively you get what you deserve. Insane.

Since I had not heard of The Secret and haven't read Harry Potter , not because I dislike Harry Potter I am just not interested in this realm of fiction. It is not the magic itself I dislike I just have never really been interested in fantasy or science fiction.

So that leaves me with the question, do I believe in magic? Tough to answer. I know that I don't believe in the magic like the gargoyle feet, or which way the bed faces or the healing powers of fancy stones. So why then do I knock on wood? Why do I think bad things happen in "3"s? Or, is it that these are habits and not really a belief in any type of supernatural.

Magic to me is more pure joy. The magic of a downy baby head, the first "Mama", finding your soul mate, and tropical breezes on a sunny beach.

Gwen said...

The idea that negativity causes cancer, for example, is hmmm ... I don't know what exactly the word is. My 43 year old friend who just died of cancer was the most positive person you would ever meet. But my dad? spent a small portion of every day surreptitiously feeling his body for tumors. They both died of the disease, regardless of their mental state. I think what all these systems are trying to give us is a belief that we can control our personal universe, and it's comforting to think that such a thing is possible.

Only it isn't.

I think I wrote this on someone's blog before but maybe it bears repeating. A family I know tangentially finally accepted the imminent death, from cancer, of their young son. They were Christians and wrote on their blog something about how they were trusting Jesus to bring their son to heaven. People had the nerve to tell them that their son was going to die precisely because they didn't have enough faith. Ridiculous! Hateful! That, to me, is evil, actually.

And I liked your description of devils. I'd forgotten how much I liked the Screwtape Letters.

flutter said...

I've been curious what you think of my pal Harry. I am so so so glad to have read this. I agree completely

painted maypole said...

I also believe in Harry. I read a book about Harry Potter and Christianity, interestingly enough, and the basic point of the book (Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger) was that, while the author did not think that the HP books were written as Christian Allegory, ala The Chroncicles of Narnia, that there were several themes throughout the book that supported Christian values, such as redemption, the value of life, sacrificing yourself for others, the choosing of good over evil, and much, much more.

i have not read the secret, and don't plan to. I don't think negative thinking brings you cancer. But I do believe a positive outlook in life can make a difference in HOW you deal with things that come your way, and all of that has repercussions throughout the rest of your life - whether that be health or happiness or hardiness or whatever. I think the apostle Paul would talk about it in terms of finding joy in whatever circumstance you find yourself.

Mad Hatter said...

Hey, I'll need to come back later when I'm not dog tired but I just wanted to say that I've been mulling over a post that will invoke Harry Potter. What with the JPs, though, it won't be up 'til next week.

Anyhoo, I'll try to come back and comment more thoughtfully on this post when it's not the middle of the night.

nomotherearth said...

Thank you! That's a big part of what I was trying to get at when I said Harry Potter is not really "about" magic, only you said it much better. The other part is that I believe, in essence, that Harry Potter empowers children. It makes them believe that they are special, even when they (and maybe others) see them as perfectly ordinary. That, to me, IS magic.

And my friend from work? I think it's a lack of imagination. That's what makes me so sad.

Blog Antagonist said...

((SIGH)) if only the people who most need to read posts like this would, my life would be a whole lot easier. LAURA MALLORY, this means you!!

Terriffic post, as usual. I found myself nodding in agreement, but then...I always do. :?)

Karen said...

My beloved SIL does seem to believe that if you put love and good into the universe it will come back to you. The problem is she has absolutely no explanation for cancer; she's too kind hearted to blame the patient - and she has no explanation for evil and she does tend to blame God. I find it hard to see eye to eye with someone who thanks the impersonal universe for financial success but blames God for letting people die. I love her; I love that she is too kind to blame cancer patients, but her position makes me crazy as it is not consistent even within itself. It's its own non-sense magical thinking. The other day I revealed my confusion to her, my true feeling that I wasn't entitled to have the universe reward me for being good, b/c weren't there people suffering from hunger out there who did nothing to deserve it, how could I feel entitled to wealth and health knowing that those moms love their kids just as much as I do? She was floored. It never occurred to her that as a Christian, I would see it that way. She self-defines as Buddhist and seemed genuinely shocked that I had a horrible pit in my stomach about the give back to the universe theory of happiness. I just can't make sense of it at all. I can't believe I deserve better than some. Long comment and still not sure I said what I meant too. Very thought provoking post - yah Potter! yah books! Yah fairies!

Luisa Perkins said...

You state your position with conviction.

Have you read The Death of Satan, by Andrew DelBanco? P had some classes with him as an undergrad; he's a great thinker. The book is fascinating.

DaniGirl said...

Great post, B&P, and interesting comments, too. Funny, as you know I've just watched the Secret DVD (but not read the book - and seeing excerpts from the book around the blogosphere has given me considerable pause) and have been diligently working my way through the HP books from start to finish in anticipation of the new book this summer. I just started Order of the Phoenix last night. You're post is exactly where my head is at!

I don't think any book should be 'banned' from a family, school or library, especially if the sole reason is that it shows a world view different from ones own. IMHO, those are the books that should, if not must, be read.

I'm not sure I'm on board with your definitions of magic, but I can't put my finger on which part is dissonant. When I see the magic in the HP books, it's very much a practical tool, something you use to get things done. Isn't this what the Secret is advocating? That you have within you the metaphysical tools to change your life? I know I have taken a rather narrow reading of the Secret, and basically taken the bits I liked and discarded the rest, but I think this is what it boils down to. As I said in my post, there are a lot of bits of Catholicism and Christianity with which I strongly disagree as well, but I am working on not letting that sour me on the broader themes with which I do agree.

kgirl said...

I've tried to avoid all things The Secret, as it makes me wanna barf too. I believe in day-to-day karma, but if someone told me that my dad was dying of cancer because he didn't think positively, I'd kick their ass. Hard.

Jane Plane said...

The thing about The Secret (as I understand it, because my mom is very into the law of attraction, so she's told me all about it) is that I totally get the Norman Vincent Peale power of positive thinking kind of thing. The idea being that if you focus your intentions, prayers, thoughts, whatever, on something you will bring yourself closer to it. It seems like cognitive behavioral therapy to me, actually, in that it is reorienting oneself to control our own responses.

The element that escapes me, that offends me, is the idea that by focusing on something you somehow bring it closer to you. That metaphysical part is so dangerous, and it's where all the blame-the-cancer-victim comes in, not to mention the risking of one's income at the casino, etc.

bubandpie said...

Jane Plane - Thank you - that is such an articulate way of putting it. And I would add that thinking positively is a powerful tool of self-manipulation for optimists. But there is also value in negative thinking: anticipating worst-case scenarios can actually help manage anxiety - even though that behaviour would be rejected as overly negative by many people. (There is a fundamentally positive function to such negative thinking: by anticipating the worst outcome, I reassure myself that I'm capable of handling it, that it won't take me by surprise.)

Kelly said...

I can't imagine a life without that kind of fantasy. I can't imagine saying no to flights of fancy, to that kind of escape.

Bon said...

you are so damn articulate, woman. and you build your arguments so beautifully, so carefully, so thoughtfully, that i gasp in appreciation. and, of course, agreement, but that's secondary.;)

i was amazed the first time i came across someone (who happened to be a fellow semi-academic, which particularly surprised me) who condemned the HP series because of the 'magic' involved and the fact that the Bible condemns witches. no discussion of the issue of semantics could sway this otherwise intelligent person to consider that perhaps a random translation of Aramaic or Hebrew and a modern conventional usage might not necessarily refer to the same things, the same 'evil'.

i was not clever enough to see that the objection to magic resides in magical thinking, of course...but you made me smile. sadly. because as you pointed out, and others have already commented on vehemently, the whole flip-side of this "if we just believe hard enough, Dorothy, and click our heels together" is that it's then YOUR FAULT if you get cancer or are otherwise sideswiped by a cruel turn of fate. bah. underneath my anger at that kind of idiocy is a deep, deep sadness at the inability to empathize that it implies. it reeks of the old conflicting Calvinist strain of "pull yourself up by your bootstraps" belief in the elect, to me.

but i think C.S Lewis would agree with all you said. which i intend as the highest compliment.

Mimi said...

Huh. I'm cogitating about this and about The Secret and Mad's comments about individualism and about magic and now ... my head is full.

Must go think now. Thanks for such an intriguing post.

mcewen said...

Sounds like you might be spending to much time in unfriendly waters, there again, I know you can't resist a challenge.
Best wishes

Jenn said...

Magic and Harry Potter.

Who would want a world without them?

I'm an adult and part of me still hopes that somewhere, there is a place that Harry Potter can actually exist.

And that is where magic lives.

Amy said...

Let me begin by saying that I love the Harry Potter series, and absolutely cannot wait until the final book comes out.

As a teacher, I have noticed that so many kids these days lack wonder, curiosity, imaginiation, the belief in magic, etc... In other words, some kids just aren't kids anymore. They are only eight years old, and I'm sure you can imagine the things that they worry about. We have lockdown drills twice a month at my school, for Pete's sake. In this age, with so many global problems, the kids often are worrying about adult issues.

The Harry Potter series takes them away from all that. Thankfully, my district has banned few books, and I enjoy reading the first Harry Potter book aloud to the students. They absolutely love it. The wonder on their faces is priceless (even though they've all seen the movie) and Read Aloud is the only time of day when the students are motionless.

There's a lot of crappy children's literature out there. When I find quality writing like that of J.K. Rowling, I am happy to share it.

They also love The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo. Has anyone read that? The students are fascinated by that story. That, and The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles by Julie Andrews Edwards.

Catherine said...

Have I mentioned how much I love Harry? *sigh* *swoon*

I once told my husband that I had a crush on Harry Potter. He was hurt and offended. So I don't say that anymore (outloud).

Anyway, I agree with you on all counts...

Heather said...

Great post. Although apparently I've been living under a rock. "The Secret" really? Someone left me out of that one...thank goodness.

This is an ongoing conversation in our family, our circle of friends, our circle of church people.

Somewhat because we love the magic & mystery in art & literature, children's literature including. I do not think it's inherently bad to have magic & mystery in a children's story...it helps a child understand what mystery is...and what faith is. It's not magical thinking...it's

Also the conversation goes on because my husband plays D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) and has gotten some pretty ridiculous flack and concern from people who think his soul is in grave danger because of it.

Lady M said...

I'm with the earlier commenter who said she loves things that encourage creativity, and I believe that Harry Potter does that, far more than it would encourage a child to decide they wanted to study dark magic or join a cult.

the mad momma said...

I love this post. growing up on a diet of grimma fairy tales and the wizard of oz, i think we've turned out alright. it seems ridiculous to just look for a reason to ban harry potter. with the world around us changing it just makes sense to have fantasy and fairy tale books that move with the times too... arent all children supposed to believe in magic? fantastic post.. you've done it again.