What’s missing in the Harry Potter series? According to Lev Grossman, it’s God. “Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn’t. Rowling has more in common with celebrity atheists like Christopher Hitchens than she has with Tolkien and Lewis.”
While not as popular as Harry Potter, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is more upfront in its fantasy world without God. He states, without apology, that his “books are about killing God” and “trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief.” Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara argue that “Pullman seems to have a metaphysical axe to grind, and he didactically champions a peculiar but inconsistent sort of materialism.” The key word is “inconsistent.” While Pullman disdains any thought of a personal God, except to say that if He does exist He must be “hiding away,” he needs everything a god is and does to make his moral universe work.
In Rowling’s fictional world, “Harry’s power comes from love.” Pullman’s fantasy opts for “joy” which he equates with heaven. All well and good, but in a world without God, how does one account for love, joy, and morality? Older works of secular fiction worked within a Christian matrix. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien immediately come to mind. The authors saw no way to step outside the perimeter of a God-created world for the simple reason that they never thought there was an outside perimeter. Those who tried were met by monsters of their own making. Any attempt to reject God meant that someone or some idea was always ready and willing to take His place. The absolute Authority of God, put in the hands of man, created a world of horror.
The film Forbidden Planet (1956) expresses this idea quite well. What unseen and unknown force wiped out the original expedition’s exploratory party and vaporized the Bellerophon as the final survivors tried to take off? Was it the same entity that was killing the crew members of the rescue expedition? Some of the mystery is revealed when Morbius, one of only two survivors of the original expedition, explains the history of the Krell, the planet’s original occupants and the creators of a once-great civilization.
The Krell were a highly advanced alien race who “were a million years ahead of humankind” and believed “they had conquered their baser selves.” But on the “threshold of some supreme accomplishment, which was to have crowned their entire history, this all but divine race perished in a single night.” The crew of the rescue expedition believed they were fighting a monster “out there” when some of them were savagely murdered, when in reality the monster was Morbius’s “own subconscious desire for lust and destruction” projected by Krell technology onto anyone who threatened his world.
In the end, Morbius realizes that he is the monster. “Guilty! Guilty! My evil self is at that door, and I have no power to stop it.” No matter how sophisticated the technology, the heart of man is still the problem. Krell science could be used to light cities and power factories or destroy an entire race of people “in a single night.” Good and evil are always in the picture. Even the most technologically advanced can’t get away from them.
It is impossible to create alternative worlds without God. There is always some outside standard looking in. Rowling could not escape creating a world using the “stuff” of God’s creation. No matter how much she may have wanted to de-Christianize her wildly popular series, there is no way she could. Susan Olasky writes:
[Christians will] see echoes in [Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows] of Lewis, Tolkien, Star Wars, and westerns. They’ll see a clear delineation between good and evil, with good triumphing in the end. They’ll see a familiar genre—the hero’s quest—used to teach the importance of courage and self-sacrifice. They may come to understand better the redemptive power of love and the corrupting effect of absolute power.
It can’t be any other way. Even Pullman is stuck with God’s “stuff” to create his anti-God alternative universe. In his attempts to denounce the moral order of Christianity and the church, he is still left with creating his own moral order, a form of “Pullmananity.” The characters Will and Lyra “must give up their personal desires—their freedom—and submit to a moral good, because it is the right thing to do.” Who ultimately says, and why should it matter? Pullman never tells us.
How does the purely material generate the immaterial? How does unconsciousness manifest consciousness? The life forces of today’s edgy children’s literature are joy (Pullman), love, and “decency and fair play” (Rowling). From where do they derive their reality and their moral certainty? In terms of material-only worldview, they are no more substantive as ideals than electricity passing through a wire or light emanating from a light bulb. The actions of the characters in Rowling and Pullman’s fictional worlds are driven only by chemical secretions in the brain stimulated by random electrical charges. Who cares what they think or do? Why curl up to read books about “people” who are nothing more than electrical and chemical entities passing through a bag of meat and bones? Why should anyone care what happens to Harry or anyone or anything else?
 Lev Grossman, “The Doubting Harry: Why we love a world where dragons are real and religion is the fantasy,” Time (July 23, 2007), 15. The article also appears on line as “Who Dies in Harry Potter? God,” Time (July 12, 2007): www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1642885,00.html
Steve Meacham, “The Shed Where God Died,” Sydney Morning Herald (December 13, 2003). Quoted in Tony Watkins, Dark Matter: Shedding Light on Philip Pullmans’s Trilogy His Dark Materials (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 21.
Alona Wartofsky, “The Last Word,” The Washington Post (February 19, 2001).
Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara, From Homer to Harry Potter: A Handbook on Myth and Fantasy (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2006), 195.
Grossman, “The Doubting Harry,” 15.
Quoted in Watkins, Dark Matter, 172.
Susan Olasky, “The End of the Wand,” World (August 4, 2007), 16.
Dickerson and O’Hara, From Homer to Harry Potter, 205.
“Kill Switch, X-Files (Season 5, Episode 11).