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From the May, 2009 issue of Touchstone


Picture Imperfect by S. M. Hutchens

Picture Imperfect

S. M. Hutchens on the Discovery of Dirt in Potter’s Field

I am embarrassed by the complaints of critics who condemn the Harry Potter books as vade mecums in the transgression of the Judeo-Christian moral canon. Typically they identify Harry and his young friends as excused exemplars of rule-breaking, disobedience, lying, vengeance taking, and the like, triumphantly noting that the final installations, containing the revelation of the Snape–Dumbledore murder-suicide pact, insinuate the virtue of euthanasia into the minds of young readers—not to mention that all of this is done in a pagan context by witches and wizards.

My reaction is—yes—but are they missing something? Like the Point of It All?

Our Story

The Rowling fantasy, for those who are willing to see it, is a very typical moral tale of the Judeo-Christian West: It is the story (I have said elsewhere that this is the only real Story there is) of the hidden prince born in troubled obscurity, who finds it in himself to love good and oppose evil, and who, aided by a rather motley lot of companions, in the end offers his life to destroy the kingdom of the Evil One, finally coming into his own and living happily ever after. It is the story of the Gospel; it is Our Story. To love it is to love the story of Christ and his Church—and I believe to love, by the grace of God, Christ and his Church themselves. Harry Potter is an imperfect Christ, to be sure, but what sane and reasonable person would confuse the Lord with the plaster and paint of his images?

There seem to be a great many, however, who think that since the principal characters are in many ways flawed, the piece should be kept away from Christian children instead of given them for edification. One wonders just what kind of literature people like this can read. By their measure Christians are apparently supposed to require that every story they hear be a monochromatic moral tale, operating on the maxim that those in whom the Spirit of God Almighty dwells as a result become passive nincompoops who are what they read, and who cannot see the glory of the forest once they discover a slug on its floor. If this is the case—and with many it seems to be—we are a sorry lot indeed.

No—Christian children who are old enough to read Harry Potter are old enough to understand the imperfections of heroes, and capable of judging the flaws of literary characters—if they have been given the standards by which to render the judgments. Shall we instead train their instincts to flee imperfect human beings rather than love and embrace them—not for the imperfection, but in spite of it—in hope of redemption, both of their imperfect selves and those they embrace? If we train them to flee, those who mock our faith for making people who hate first themselves, and then, by extension, others, are quite correct about our faith, but wrong in thinking it Christian.

These children are also old enough to understand that murder-suicide pacts are the sort of things that can be entered by pagans with noble and admirable intentions, but which Christians know to be sinful. They are old enough to understand what is splendid even in the virtutes paganorum, and to think of Dumbledore and Snape accordingly. If Dumbledore’s creator thinks of him as a man of homosexual orientation, why does that mean Christians are obliged to ignore his excellences—particularly if he lives, as he is depicted, a chaste and celibate life? In that case, might homosexuals be justified in saying we train our children to hate the sinner along with the sin? If they did, and we did, they would be right about our faith, but wrong in thinking it Christian.

One wonders what these critics do with Odysseus, with David or Solomon, with Simon Peter, with Hamlet, Lear, or Bunyan’s Christian. The Christian literary tradition, because it is grounded in the perfection of God, the primordial goodness of creation, and a redemptive teleology, does not require perfection of its heroes, only perfectibility, and—this is critical—the ability to re-present Christ, whether by authorial intention or not.

Not Like the Lord

Given what we are shown of our Lord in the Gospels, I strongly suspect that if he were accurately depicted by friendly and sympathetic eyes in accounts that did not have the status of Holy Scripture, and without the overlay of a developed piety, we would see a good man, but flawed, perhaps deeply and fatally flawed. This, indeed, seems to be the way his disciples saw him until his Resurrection. Although he would not in fact have the imperfections we would lay to his account, he would be far, as Lord Russell so scathingly observed, from measuring up to our expectations for a perfect man. He would not be prudent enough, respectful enough, humble enough, patient enough, pious enough, obedient enough, considerate enough, kind or dutiful enough, to be God Incarnate (and only rarely are we visited by the capacity to admit that we secretly attribute the same flaws to God himself). He would be far too Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox, to be a really good Christian.

Even though we would notice prodigies of every virtue in him, we would also see evidence of their lack in certain instances—of inconsistency. We would see his tragic end on the cross as heroic, perhaps, but it would not surprise us, given certain qualities we had observed, connected, perhaps, with persisting questions about the moral uprightness of his parentage.

It is for this reason he can be represented to us, while imperfectly, in stories of imperfect heroes; it is why these stories can lead back to him. It is because we are what we are, and God has regarded our low estate, that we can—that indeed, we must—make imperfect images that are transparent to the glory of God in Christ Jesus.

The Evangel, in fact, is always mediated to us through imperfect heroes, or heroes we may easily assume share our imperfections. We should be instructed by observing that God loved, for no readily apparent reason, that cheating rascal Jacob, that one of the most despicable sinners in the Old Testament is called the man after God’s own heart, and that the keys to the Kingdom were delivered to the most robustly flawed of all Christ’s disciples. This is why we should be uncomfortable with the attempt to create perfect heroes. For one thing, it makes for dreadful literature, and for another, oddly enough, characters sanitized to our standards for good never, ever, look like the Lord.

S. M. Hutchens is a senior editor and the book review editor of Touchstone.

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“Picture Imperfect” first appeared in the May 2009 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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