We’re pleased to publish this guest feature by Bart Gingerich.
Why do progressives like Harry Potter? Ever since the election of Donald Trump, the left has been regularly referencing to JK Rowling’s popular books in order to rally the opposition to the new president. When you read the books closely, however, it’s a strange move. The contradictions of Millennials’ self-perception and insertion of themselves in the Harry Potter narrative can be quite drastic:
Opposing the Death Eaters in fiction while supporting abortion, euthanasia, and transhumanism in real life
Loving the boisterously warm-yet-poor Weaselys while visibly troubled by large families (and the sacrifices necessary to keep them)
Fascination with the authoritative traditions that order life in the Wizarding World while doing everything they can to destroy and dilute the same in the actual world 1
Reveling in the concept of godparents like Sirius Black while not actually participating in the baptismal liturgies and vows of the Church that create such relationships in real life
Longing for the committed, sacrificial love of the Potter parents while hesitating to enter marriage themselves and blowing up said institution by co-habitation and legal redefinition
Most recently, progressives have leaned on the series to oppose Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, identifying the newly minted secretary with Dolores Umbridge. How an advocate for less government oversight, more freedom of school choice, and the potential for increased moral formation in education could be conflated with a bureaucrat enamored with state oversight and questionable curricular hegemony is almost beyond me. Almost. But that is precisely the point.
Even Progressives are Conservative
The reason DeVos is identified with Umbridge is the fact that she is thought to be a threat to the schooling status quo (whether that perception beoverblown or not). In America—particularly progressive America— there’s a mythos around the the public school system. It’s treated as sacred. In fact, and even more troubling, a couple generations have spent more time in schools during their formative years of youth than they have with their own families and religious communities. It’s an identity issue.
The implication is that good, normal Americans go to public school and are public schooled. Alternative models (particularly homeschooling) are for “you weirdos over there.” The same kind of suspicious posture was present in the days of Horace Mann over and against the Catholics once they started up parochial schools. This gets toa point made by David French: Now one of the religious “freaks” runs the Department, and everyone is losing his mind. It’s an act of sacrilege.
As one of my friends observed, this is conservative (if misled) in posture. “Local schools have become for many the only ‘little platoon’ [most Americans] have left because so many others have been lost,” he said, “There is a sense in which the reaction against DeVos is a conservative impulse, however unconscious.” The public school is loved because it’s a (the?) place of identity and community for a majority of Americans. DeVos was labeled a threat to that institution by certain cultural gatekeepers. And now DeVos is perceived as Umbridge. No matter how many protests and revolutionary ideas about society, family, and morals that Millennials may hold, they still love a certain status quo. They want an institution and liturgy of life (in the James K. A. Smith sense) which can give them norms (which, by definition, must actively exclude other standards, beliefs, and behaviors).
LARPing on Sunday
This brings me to a phenomenon that I call “Episcopal Syndrome,” where rites and ceremonies have an ornate and “traditional-ish” flair, but lack traditional Christian doctrine and ethics. For these progressives the essence of religion is found in the liturgies, not the doctrine. Doctrine is a fairly elastic thing that exists around the rituals. Therefore, doctrines can change with the times while the rituals provide us with a kind of grounding, a feeling of connection to something larger than ourselves. Thus, you can find a group of people bowing at the name of Jesus, crossing themselves, and half-heartedly confessing the Nicene creed, all while denying the divine lordship of Christ, His atoning substitutionary death on the cross, and a whole host of other fundamental dogmas.
It’s basically LARPing on Sunday. It’s a kick for a large section of the populace. The Harry Potter fandom offers a similar service, only without the more intimidating, explicitly religious overtones.
A school with cathedral-like Oxbridge architecture? Check.
Manner of dress more befitting the clergy than any other class in modern society? Double check.
A calendar of events and seasons remarkably similar to that of the Church? Yes.
A strange panoply of cultural expectations and manners? Yep.
This is all reminiscent of theological revisionists’ love of things “liturgical,” even if those liturgies are radically at odds with the actual Christian liturgical tradition (befitting of the heretical doctrines and aberrant ethics one finds in Mainline denominations like the Episcopal Church). Theological revisionists cannot resist the flair of enacted ritual: prayer labyrinths, choose-your-own-adventure liturgies (influenced by Gregory Dix’s “four-fold shape” thesis as well as diverging theological camps within the Mainline Protestant denominations), “protest” Masses, corporate prayers of political activism, etc. Even heavy-handed and somber Anglo-Catholic ritualism can be carried out by a minister who denies essentials of the faith and the basic tenets of the Christian life. Incense and lace do not orthodoxy make.
Neither the beliefs nor some of the liturgical rites would be recognizable to, say, St. John Chrysostom or Thomas Cranmer. But there is a thrill in pomp and circumstance, majestic architecture, antique titles, vesting oneself, and performing archaic acts of worship (to what deity, let the reader discern). These rites represent an “entering into” that has been present in many religions, and man—even progressive man—is a religious creature.
A Place for Conservative Traditionalists?
On the flip side, many younger conservatives love Harry Potter because they can inhabit and long for this world more fully, and they see the aforesaid true themes of Harry Potter and how they contradict with the progressives’ interpretation of and desires for the world. Even if Rowling herself might cast them into the mold of Slytherin-like intolerance, the fact is that traditionalists are the ones who could sustain the manners and mores that give the Wizarding World its appeal, whereas, as Samuel James said, progressives destroy the cultural foundation of the same.
Traditional Christians, particularly evangelicals, also understand religion, liturgy, and doctrine to interact differently in accordance to the Old and New Testaments. In their liturgy, orthodox Christians worship a God Who desires truth in the inward parts (Ps. 51:6), Who prefers obedience to burnt sacrifice (1 Sam. 15:22), and finds sacrifices abhorrent if His people oppress the poor and worship half-heartedly (a theme running throughout the prophets). Indeed, Christ Himself desired true piety in the heart rather than rote fulfillment of the Law and ceremony that neglected the love of God and neighbor. As our Savior made clear in Matthew 23, He hates hypocrisy. It logically follows that the external truths and powerful grace would intrude into His people’s hearts, which in turn transforms them. This transformation allows for that same Body to enter into the grand story of time that is unfurling as we speak.
In some ways, Lord of the Rings could be a similar case of “who fits best.” The mythic grandeur of Middle Earth is popular with all sorts of people who’d find Tolkien’s own views horrendous simply because it’s such a good universe and story. But how deeply can you enter that story and universe? Traditionalist conservatives have a leg up in both, for their favorite sword is the imagination, and they are the grateful heirs and often members of the same Body that produced Christendom, the historic and idealistic reality that undergirds both Tolkien and Rowling. What is more, orthodox Christians allow that reality–so mediated and taught by tradition–to fully invade their own hearts and lives.
Bart Gingerich is a deacon at St. Jude’s Anglican Church in Richmond, VA. He is also the Managing Editor of the Evangelical channel at Patheos.com.