"If war is ever lawful, then peace is sometimes sinful" — C.S. Lewis, God in the Dock.
Kirk Honeycutt, writing for the Hollywood Reporter, echoes the complaints of a number of critics that the Harry Potter films are becoming darker as the series progresses. This would be a valid point only if there were a consensus that fans (particularly adolescents) should be protected from the darker things in life (or in fiction that has real-world parallels). And though I think the criticism overwrought — the throngs of people who showed up for midnight screenings on Wednesday night certainly enjoyed the film — embedded in critiques of this kind is the belief that the hallmark of Harry Potter films should be fun. Inadvertently, such critics fall into the same mindset as that of J.K Rowling's arch-villain Dolores Umbridge: deny the existence of real, malevolent evil and it can't hurt you.
Oh, but it can.
In the latest installment in the saga of the boy wizard and his friends from Hogwarts, Rowling and director David Yates have constructed not only a captivating film, but a primer on how to — and how not to — respond to transcendent evil. In other words, this movie is about spiritual warfare. By making allusions to World War II — notably contrasting the rhetorical strategies of Neville Chamberlain and Winston Churchill — Rowling reveals, in her fiction, timeless principles that must be invoked in battling evil. C.S. Lewis, battle-hardened during the trench warfare of World War I (and no slouch as a fiction writer), also knew a thing or two about fighting dark forces. What both of them could agree on is that spiritual warfare involves recognizing a threat, effectively training for battle, and engaging the enemy.
Recognizing the Threat of Evil
In most stories, the threat of great evil immediately clarifies the participants in a conflict: those fighting for evil, those fighting for good, and those who turn a blind eye to the threat. Evil is represented by Lord Voldemort, along with his assorted Deatheaters and other minions. Good is represented by Professor Dumbledore, Harry, Hermione, Ron and certain members of the faculty and students at Hogwarts. One of the theologically astute elements of Harry Potter and The Order of the Phoenix is its refusal to assign absolute goodness or evil to its characters. People thought to be good can be lured into betrayals, or make immoral choices that put them in spiritual peril. Others, once allied with the evil Deatheaters, apparently repent and go over to the other side. You cannot choose to "become" a wizard in Rowling's world — you have to be born one — but we are not defined solely by what we are. As Sirius Black tells Harry, his godson, "We all have dark and light within us. What matters is the part we choose to act on." Or to put it another way, "You will know them by their fruits" (Matt. 7:20).
But while Harry and company recognize the danger posed by the revitalized Lord Voldemort, other powerful figures prefer to live in denial. If Professor Dumbledore, willing to fight evil to the death, is an embodiment of Winston Churchill, then Minister of Magic Cornelius Fudge and his sycophantic companion, Dolores Umbridge, represent the Neville Chamberlains of the Hogwarts world. They actually take Chamberlain one step further: Rather than treat with, or attempt to appease, the enemy, they deny his existence. They will not utter his name. Umbridge, in particular, is so vested in her delusion that she is willing to stoop to torture to try to get Harry to recant his first-hand, eye-witness, battle-tested knowledge of Voldemort's return. If true, the reemergence of Voldemort would tarnish Fudge's legacy of peace, and thereby permanently interrupt Umbridge's upward mobility. They remain silent, ultimately imperiling themselves and everyone else.
Lewis recognized the existence of transcendent evil, and the way in which it infects the human spirit. The character of Lord Voldemort is the ultimate representative of the kind of fallenness Lewis describes in The Problem of Pain: "It had turned from God and become its own idol, so that though it could still turn back to God, it could do so only by painful effort, and its inclination was self-ward. Hence pride and ambition, the desire to be lovely in its own eyes and to depress and humiliate all rivals, envy, and restless search for more, and still more, security were now the attitudes that come easiest to it." But Voldemort is not alone.
Harry, too, understands his own propensity toward evil — wondering aloud if he is becoming bad. That is an excellent question for any of us to ask ourselves. Lewis would argue that such an admission is proof that Harry is not. In Mere Christianity, Lewis describes how good and evil work in the hearts of those heading in either direction: "When a man is getting better, he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less…Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either."
At its core, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix explores how people react to the unveiling of evil in their midst. We muggles, I mean, humans, are in a very similar predicament. As Lewis notes in The Screwtape Letters, one of the most useful tactics of devils is for them to convince us that they do not exist. Academics all over the west continue to assert that there is no titanic struggle between good and evil in this world, because the whole idea of "good" and "evil" are merely "social constructions" rather than either end of an objective moral continuum. Screwtape would be proud. He tells his demon underling, Wormwood, "In peace we can make many of them ignore good and evil entirely; in danger, the issue is forced upon them in a guise to which even we cannot blind them." Recognizing the existence of evil in the world, or even in ourselves, is the first step toward combating it.
Types of Training
The training ground for battling evil takes place at the Defense Against the Dark Arts classes held at Hogwarts. In most of the films, so far, the teachers have been a mixed bag. Professor Quirrel had been twisted by Voldemort. Professor Lockhart was a vain, preening fraud. Good Professor Lupin taught by example and put the students through their paces. Alastor "Mad-Eye" Moody was a demanding teacher (who turned out to be played by an imposter). But Dolores Umbridge represents, by far, the most damaging of the Professors for Defense Against the Dark Arts, not because of what she taught, but because of the presuppositions she attempts to place in the heads of her students: primarily the belief that no enemy exists, therefore no practical training will be required.
Lewis, in The Abolition of Man, describes teachers like Umbridge as "Conditioners." Unburdened by any obligation to universal principles, conditioner-style teachers are motivated solely by self-interest and their own impulses in determining the direction of their students' studies. Harry knows that battle is coming and wants to be prepared to fight. Umbridge tells the students that there is no battle, and that theoretical knowledge will be sufficient. Soft knowledge is substituted for hard skills. After all, Umbridge tells the students, the purpose of education is to pass exams, not to train for action in a conflicted world. Her desire for a "risk-free education" only exposes her students to greater danger.
The reason C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia are so bracing is that when the children arrive in Narnia, they are thrown into situations in which they must learn what to do and then act. Lewis, despite being a professor himself, had a negative view of modern "educationalists." By the time Umbridge is through "improving" Hogwarts, it begins to look suspiciously like Experiment House — the horrid school run by idiots and filled with cruel, bullying, children from which Eustace Scrubb and Jill Pole escape in The Silver Chair. Umbridge turns Hogwarts from an academy designed to mature its students, into an institution of infantilism. Students must be managed, controlled, turned into informants, divided from one another — not in the interest of the students, but in the interest of the administrator. What they are carefully denied is an opportunity to grow up.
Similarly, how often is Christian "sword training" demoted to a strictly academic (in the worst sense of that word) exercise? People learn "about" God, but never truly know Him. They learn about the spiritual battles facing humankind, but lack the training to actually engage. They have the right answers, but rarely the right actions. They can pass the examination, but are losing the war.
Some of the students at Hogwarts take it upon themselves to learn. What happens at these private training sessions more closely approaches the idea of discipleship than anything Umbridge teaches. The students choose Harry Potter to conduct classes because he has been in battle and prevailed. Appropriately, Harry is also humble about his victories, so he is some safeguard against undue pride. Possessing knowledge and experience, Harry is a good and effective teacher.
Leaders in the early church were doers. St. Paul repeatedly put his life on the line for the faith and even he only wanted to be imitated to the degree that his life was an imitation of Christ's (1 Cor. 11:1). The writer of Hebrews also has action heroes in mind as leaders and examples: "Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith" (Hebrews 13:7). James tells us that it is doers of the Word, and not hearers only, that are blessed in what they do (James 1:22-25). One of the draws of the Harry Potter films is that, though they take place in a school, the students inevitably wind up having to apply their academic knowledge by taking active part in the battle.
Engaging the Enemy
Harry and his friends are, like it or not, embroiled in a war. One of the reasons these books are so invigorating to readers is that they metaphorically express what most readers intuitively know: the world, along with each of us individually, is in the midst of a great war between the powers of light and darkness. And while the ultimate outcome of that war is beyond doubt, the battles that rage along the way expose our tactical and practical weaknesses, while giving us opportunities to strengthen successful strategies.
The Apostle refers more than once to the devil's "schemes." Satan does not believe in his own impending defeat. He has plans. Some of his tactics involve undermining our strength through isolation, by indirect attack, and temptation to desert the field for personal gain.
One of Harry's greatest weaknesses is the direct outgrowth of an overemphasis on one of his strengths. He loves his friends and is willing to do anything, including isolating himself from them, in his vain attempt to protect them from harm. Harry's appropriate sentiment toward the virtue of loyalty has taken a wrong turn, and has led him into an odd sort of dangerous hubris — his belief that he actually can protect them by isolating himself. It is Voldemort's desire to isolate Harry because he knows that in single combat (at least for now) Harry is no match for him. So Harry finds himself afflicted by sadness at the loss of his childhood, a loveless home life with his ugly relations, smear campaigns designed to separate him from marginal friends, and even abandonment by well-meaning mentors. If Lewis is correct, and "peace is sometimes sinful," then we must recognize that even our heartfelt desire for friends' peace and safety, just like an over-emphasis on our own, can be a liability in spiritual warfare.
Voldemort attacks indirectly. He magnifies Harry's fears. He attacks Harry's friends. Voldemort makes the cost of resisting high so that Harry might lose heart and give in. By making himself appear invincible, Voldemort's hope is that Harry will quit the struggle and abandon the field. As Lewis notes in his essay, "Membership," Satan is like a "good chess player, he is always trying to maneuver you in to a position where you can save your castle only by losing your bishop." Those who fear to lose anything will risk nothing. There is no such thing as a battle without risk.
None of this means that Voldemort is above striking a bargain to get what he wants. Through one of Voldemort's minions, Harry is offered something he greatly desires in exchange for his cooperation. Surely this is a devil's deal — unlikely to end well — but it would be foolish not to recognize it as a potentially effective strategy. Satan, himself, tried to tempt Christ in much the same way (Matt. 4:8-9). Lewis argues that the reason so few of us understand the significance of temptation is that we so quickly give in to it. He writes, "Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is." Those who choose to engage in the battle need to know that they will be sorely tried.
Fortunately, Harry does not have to go it alone. In fact, isolation would have been his undoing. He can rely on trustworthy principles, and the support of his mentors and friends. Together these serve as an effective arsenal against Voldemort's attacks.
One of the more refreshing aspects of many of the Harry Potter films is the emphasis they place on making right choices. We are, in large degree, what we think and do. Dumbledore, in The Goblet of Fire, tells Harry that everyone will soon have to choose "between what is right and what is easy." Sirius Black reinforces this idea in The Order of the Phoenix by telling Harry that the quality of our lives is determined by our choices. Those choices are informed by universal principles. In The Abolition of Man, Lewis explores the importance of right belief in the value of moral principle, and how its absence would doom humanity to an animal existence. Where there is no sense of right or wrong there can be no moral violation — anything goes. But where right and wrong are recognized, even though their particular expressions may vary a bit, they serve as guidelines for action.
The Order of the Phoenix also places great store in fellowship. Harry has friends who share his commitment to do right: particularly Ron and Hermione, but there are others as well. He has protectors, such as Dumbledore, Sirius Black, "Mad-Eye" Moody, Professor Lupin and other members of the Order. They are there to instruct and guide Harry, and to protect him when they can. All are willing to sacrifice, even endanger their own lives, for him. Lewis notes in The Four Loves that, "Friendship is something that raised us almost above humanity. This love, free from instinct, free from all duties but those which love has freely assumed, almost wholly free from jealousy, and free without qualification from the need to be needed, is eminently spiritual. It is the sort of love one can imagine between angels."
It is precisely love — particularly the capacity to give and receive love — which ultimately separates Harry from Voldemort. If there were a word to describe Voldemort's most significant weakness, it would be supreme self-confidence. G.K. Chesterton (one of Lewis' influences), in Orthodoxy, compares self-confidence to madness: "…a man will certainly fail, because he believes in himself. Complete self-confidence is not merely a sin: complete self-confidence is a weakness." Love of God, and even love of others, is a time-tested biblical battle strategy. Voldemort self-confidently relies on the fear his power evokes, but as the Apostle John points out, "perfect love casts out fear" (1 Jn. 4:18).
How Harry Can Help
Some might point out that no one needs to read Harry Potter in order to understand spiritual truths, and they would be right. Nevertheless, it is my contention that it is the spiritual truths embedded in the story of the boy wizard that magnify its allure for readers. Despite the denial of some academics, and the scientific materialists among us, people are drawn to stories that contain the ring of truth — in this case the truth that the world is an inherently moral place where a great battle is being waged. Books and movies allow us to be transported to the site of the conflict while remaining at what many of us believe to be a safe distance.
The responsibility of the careful critic is not to dampen the sentiments aroused by the Harry Potter books by objecting to the fantasy, but to use the principles that excite readers and moviegoers to ignite considerations of the way these stories represent real-world parallels. Lewis wrote that in his early academic years he loved running into the gospel everywhere except in the Bible. He credits his conversion to the fantasy writings of George MacDonald. Lewis claimed that MacDonald's fantasies evoked a longing in him that he could not explain in any way, other than that they were longings beyond this world. It was his first step into the supernatural.
We are, in fact, in a spiritual war. The enemy wants to destroy us and to recreate our world into the image of hell. There are those who would convince us that all we need to do is ignore the battle and it will go away. They are ready and willing to punish those of us who would insist otherwise. Because we face a cunning adversary, we need to be trained by those who have long been in the battle. We need not only to learn from them the right answers to the problems that face us, but also to imitate their lives as they model the life of our Great Commander. In that way, the battle will be enjoined. And though the end is not in doubt, there will be setbacks along the way. But by adhering to and acting by principle, surrounded by friends who share our convictions and lend their support, we can move toward victory, all in all not a bad set of real-world ideas to be found in what is ostensibly a kids' film. I think C.S. Lewis would have approved.