Wizards and Witches in Mormon Consciousness

o-NEW-HARRY-POTTER-COVER-facebookWhen the series Harry Potter first came out, especially around the time the movie version was announced, a controversy was plastered all over the news. Many Christians (and a few Muslims) became concerned that young children could be introduced to real witchcraft and occult practices. The early years of the publication gave the scandal loving press a field day of news about a small group of frantic parents wanting to protect children against dark forces. The argument is that the book series may be fantasy, but it contains clear occult and magical elements. As one critic, Richard Abanes in an interview, explained:

Can my child find information in a library or bookstore that will enable them to replicate what they are seeing in the film or the book?’ If you go to The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings what you see in, story magic and imagination, it is not real. You can’t replicate it. But if you go to something like Harry Potter, you can find references to astrology, clairvoyance, and numerology. It takes seconds to go into a bookstore or library and get books on that and start investigating it, researching it, and doing it.

There is some truth to this, although taken to the extreme considering the story as a whole. There are magical incantations, potions, interactions with the spirits of the dead, blood oaths, and more mixed in with the purely imaginative. Children could research the “real” behind the fantasy and get into witchcraft. Then again, the same can be said about any topics in a work of fiction.

Very few Mormons got into the discussion, finding it foolish. The books were just a story with no power either in the magic or influence. It sold at and became popular with Brigham Young University students who had no problem identifying with the beleaguered main Harry Potter hero. Leaders of the Church have said absolutely nothing to discourage or encourage the book reading. Jonathan Decker in the conservative Mormon publication Meridian Magazine wrote about the series with “A Matter of Semantics” as a section subtitle:

Yes, there are wizards, witches, and magic, but the use of the same words and titles as modern scriptural translations does not imply shared meaning. This is to say that scriptural “sorcerers” were those who literally called upon the power of Satan to perform wicked works. . . While it is true that the villains of Harry Potter employ “dark magic” to acquire their power-hungry desires, the heroes use the powers of light to combat evil, protect the innocent, and maintain freedom.

Decker goes on to quote an address by Elder Holland:

“You are well aware of the Harry Potter books and movies by J. K. Rowling. One of the reasons the books are so popular, I think, is that they show children victorious in battle against dark forces. They give readers hope that, even in total darkness, there is that spark of light. Despite the powerful evil arrayed against them, they know they can defeat the darkness.

“But fundamental to the message of the Harry Potter books is the idea that children don’t – indeed, can’t – fight their battles alone. In fact, the one gift that saves Harry over and over again is the love of his mother, who died protecting him from evil. Without any question one of those best “defenses against the dark arts” – to use a phrase from the Harry Potter books – is close family ties. Parental love, family activity, gentle teaching, and respectful conversation – sweet time together – can help keep the generations close and build bonds that will never be broken” (“Let There Be Light,” May 2006; you can read the whole discourse here).

As can be seen by the above example, for Mormons the idea that a fantasy book loved by millions can bring widespread occultic consequences is itself fantasy. Perhaps it is the idea that “dark arts” can only harm those prone to allow evil in their lives no matter the source. The power of the books for good outweigh and overpower any bad that can come from the pages.

The Harry Potter series aside, there was one time when Mormons and Evangelical Christians did agree that a Satanic influence was possible. A new game came out in the 1970s called Dungeons and Dragons that almost from the start had a bad reputation. Although no General Authority ever made a statement, several local leaders did speak out against the game. No popular Mormon outcry represents this better than the 1080 Heber City incident. A local school took up the game as a way to help honors student socialize. Local parents, both Mormon and non-Mormon were concerned and eventually successfully had the game banned as official use by the school. Although the Satanic elements were front and center, other concerns were brought up about gambling and pictures of scantily clad women.

dungeons-dragonsHysteria about the Satanic nature of Dungeons and Dragons continues for a few, but a concerted effort to warn of its influence has long since vanished. Part of this is because live roll playing games are rare, replaced by computer games like World of Warcraft. Magic and the occult elements might still exist, but they are not discussed with the physical roll of a die that sparks the imagination of a young curious mind. Far more likely is too much time spent playing online. Of course, such obsession can happen with any activity.

It is interesting to contrast the Mormon reaction toward Dungeons and Dragons and the Harry Potter books. At first the theory was going to be an explanation on Mormon beliefs about the power of the Priesthood’s ability to overcome Satan. To quote Pres. Spencer W. Kimball, “When he is challenged, Satan is angry, as he was with Moses. He cried with a loud voice, trembled, and shook, and he departed from Moses who was resolute. … There was nothing else for him to do. He has to leave when you say, ‘Depart from me, Satan.’ Every soul who has mortality is stronger than Satan, if that soul is determined” (Spencer W. Kimball, “The Blessings and Responsibilities of Womanhood,” Ensign, Mar. 1976, p. 71; italics added). Mormon belief that fantasy charms and occult practices are no match for God’s real Priesthood might still have something to do with the differences. However, more likely the lessons learned during the D&D era seem to be a clearer reason.

All the fears and anxiety about what would happen with the game’s widespread popularity never came to fruition. Geeks became geekier and video games took over its place. A rise in occultic activities and wiccan membership never materialized. If something as concrete and visceral as a set of board games wouldn’t change the religious landscape, a set of popular books with themes of good and evil left no concerns. In fact, Mormons often saw in the Hogwarts students a specialness in themselves to protect the world from evil and ignorance while looked down upon as strange and even dangerous. The magic was metaphor rather than descriptions. Interesting that the Force of Star Wars was never seen as Satanic while an actual Jedi religion sprang up from it’s idea. More than anything else, Feminism has inspired Mormons to take up the Wiccan religion out of devotion to speculations on the Mother in Heaven. This is a small minority, but one with real applications that do not exist for the Harry Potter books or Dungeon and Dragons’ games.

With such little concern about Wizards and Witches, it is safe to say dressing up for Halloween in those costumes will do no harm. Enjoy the stories of Harry Potter and the school of Hogwarts. Just don’t spend too much time playing World of Warcraft, or other computer games. Regdardless, Mormons should be careful to avoid the direct involvement of the occult because Satan is real and spiritually dangerous. For example, many have testified that Oiji boards are not a game and actually calls up evil spirits. Fun and entertainment always comes with caution.

17 thoughts on “Wizards and Witches in Mormon Consciousness

  1. One must determine the amount of good and evil is in anything they are involved in, and determine if the good greatly outweighs the evil. I’ve played D&D over the years, always playing good characters. However, I see some people who always choose evil characters, and gain no true value from it. The same with Harry Potter and other events. However, I am more concerned with many of the Halloween movies that we see every year that seek to scare us by showing gore and murder as things to glorify in. Some video games are like that, too. While fighting the enemy in WoW may be neither good or bad, there is no redeeming value in Grand Theft Auto, etc. You’ll note that Elder Holland pointed out the good things that bring value to us from the Harry Potter books. Without concepts of good triumphing and a mother’s love, the books would have little to no good value for society.

  2. I don’t have much to add, although I note that former Dungeons and Dragons game designer and author (in the Dragonlance setting) Tracy Hickman is a devout Mormon.

    He also wrote a series of essays on Ethics, religion, and Dungeons and Dragons. They don’t appear to be on his website, but I found them on the internet archive:

    Part 1: That Evil Game!
    http://web.archive.org/web/20060215091803/http://www.trhickman.com/Intel/Essays/Ethic1.html

    Part 2: Concerned About Role Playing
    http://web.archive.org/web/20060708031221/http://www.trhickman.com/Intel/Essays/Ethic2.html

    Part 3: The Moral Imperative of Fantasy
    http://web.archive.org/web/20110927071519/http://www.trhickman.com/Intel/Essays/Ethic3.html

    Here’s a quote from the second one:
    “I offered to run a Dungeons & Dragons game for the youth group in our church last month. Believe me, if there was ever a group of young men who needed to play this game, these were it. They were disorganized, unkind to each other and generally uncooperative. They weren’t bad boys — they just hadn’t learned how to value each other yet.
    I was honestly surprised when my Bishop gave me a call to cancel the game.
    ‘Someone’s objecting?’ I was stunned. I had been writing these games for over five years. It had certainly been no secret to my fellow church members. Now someone, it seemed to me, was calling into question my very faith and worthiness.
    ‘I’m sure it’s just that they don’t understand,’ said the Bishop. ‘I honestly don’t know anything about the game. I haven’t played the game, so I can’t very well tell them it’s all right. I think it would be best to just cancel the activity.’
    And do we just cancel me? I thought. I’ve tried to forward good teachings in every game I ever put a hand to — do we just cancel that?
    I had to swallow a lot of initial anger.”

  3. I think this can be applied to everything. Moderation is the key.

    I really enjoyed Harry Potter, and I reread the series every year. I pretty much skunk my whole family play HP trivia games.

  4. It honestly feels like Mormons don’t really like to think about the implications of their theology. Most members state ghosts aren’t real, but our theology suggests that spirits are separated from our bodies when we die so wouldn’t that actually support the ghost theory? Exorcisms are just make-believe scary fun in horror movies… unless you’re reading the NT or on a mission in a third-world country. Those who have spiritual experiences and visions are cuckoo and likely need anti-psychotic medication… unless they lived in biblical times or were 19th century Mormon pioneers. The feminist/wiccan tie is another great example — it’s one thing to vaguely believe in a Heavenly Mother, it’s another thing entirely to actually attempt to bring any sort of application of that belief into one’s daily life. I don’t have easy answers for any of these, but it definitely feels like there’s a disconnect somewhere.

  5. I don’t personally believe there’s much danger in these escapist fantasy stories that many Mormons (including myself) find enjoyable, and I’m glad we’ve progressed from the folk magic beliefs that were so prevalent among our 19th century fore bearers. Sometimes I wonder, though, if our modern culture has so downplayed spirituality that we act as if there is no devil (2 Nephi 28:22) even though we pay lip service to the idea on Sundays. We talk of the protection of the garments, of daily gospel living, of angels standing guard, but it doesn’t seem like we ever want to admit there’s anything worse out there than the potential for ourselves to sin.

  6. Good post – covers the issue well.

    I wonder how much of the problem about HP came from the idiotic decision to rename The Philosopher’s Stone as The Sorcerer’s Stone for US publication? Sorcerer would set of alarm bells in a way that philosopher would not (aside from the fact that there are no ‘sorcerers’ in the book, and that ‘the philosophers stone’ was a real historically-referenced entity)

    Also, the profoundly Christian viewpoint of these books did not become explicit until the final volume – nor did the emotional depth of the story taken as a whole – therefore for the early books, the HP phenomenon seemed like a relatively trivial book with rather serious risks; rather than what it is: a profoundly Christian book with insignificant risks.

    All this is complicated by the fact that JK Rowling seems to have turned against Christianity since the HP series was finished; and has become a more mainstream, ‘subversive’ and active propagandist for Leftist causes (apparenntly close personal friends with Gordon Brown (and his wife) – the Labour Prime Minister) – and this may cause the Christian aspects of HP to be downplayed and re-framed over the coming years.

    Some of this swing of JKR against Christianity was very probably triggered by the un-informed, unrestrained, hate-filled and malicious anti-HP hysteria from some US self-identified Christians – so they must take a share of blame.

    (Bearing false witness is a sometimes forgotten sin – compounded by resistance to factual correction.)

    Anyone interested in the Christian underpinnings of HP would benefit from reading John Granger’s books on the subject

    http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/johngranger/

    (John has become a penfriend of mine, since I read his books, and he is a serious Christian – being a Russian Orthodox Reader.)

  7. Mormon folkways regarding unnatural evil (e.g., avoidance of face cards) have a fascinating history. Alas, those who adhere to the folkways sometimes have no idea what that history is.

    My main objection to D&D was that in the one game I ever participated in, the dungeon master was tedious and took two hours of my time without any action occurring in the game itself.

    As for most historical accusations of witchcraft, they were based on male suppression of women utilizing healing arts.That strong historical bias in the west against women healing was possibly a factor in the reluctance to continue encouraging female blessings as the Church became more integrated into mainstream culture in the 20th century.

    Spirits possessing individuals and bodies floating through the air aren’t common, but have been attested to by individuals in positions of influence that I have heard talk. However I would personally be far more concerned by those wrongs that would make up 80% of the sins that cut individuals off from loving God, rather than the tiny minority of activities that involve the occult.

  8. rameumptom, I agree with everything you wrote. Nothing to add or comment on. I know old school heavy metal that used to be considered harmful that have more morals than a Gaga song.

    Ivan W., I was thinking of using a few quotes from those articles. Don’t know if I agree with everything he says, as there are clear problems with D&D from a religious standpoint. Not that those problems are any worse than some of the video games that exist today that make the roll playing game tame by comparison. Like I said in the last sentence, “Fun and entertainment always comes with caution.”

    I’m actually more of a fan of the Harry Potter movies than the books. They are often too long and a good editor could have shortened them without losing the story flow. Twilight, on the other hand, could have used a whole rewrite.

    mary ann, I don’t think its that Mormons lack thinking of the implications of the theology, so much as we are living in a doubting and critical western society. It rubs off on how we view our own beliefs. Also, its not that easy to actually run into the paranormal. I have studied ghosts, U.F.O.s, Bigfoot, etc. since I was in gradeschool and have yet to have more than a passing experience with hauntings that could be explained away. To quote Mulder, “I want to believe.” My experience with the Holy Ghost, on the other hand, has been very strong at times. I am perfectly happy to consider my capacity to sin the closest to pondering the existence of Satan I will ever get. Growing faith in God is hard enough.

    Bruce, thanks for the comment. My own problem with the Harry Potter books, and the reason I was resistant to them, was how he got away with everything. He almost got him and his friends killed on more than one occasion and all they gave him was a slap on the wrist. I thought it taught rebellion in the guise of some greater good. Me and him would not have been friends, even while I have always been an outsider myself. All that magic and stuff? I’m a reader of fantasy and science fiction, and so nothing new or remarkable there.

    Meg, sounds like you had a very bad Dungeon Master. That can make a very big difference. They didn’t plan the campaign or pick a better game. A really good one throws their own monsters in the mix (not that hard to do) if it gets slow, and must be a great storyteller that sets the scene like you were actually participating in a novel. “And the great Orc stood up in the back of the room, eyeing the four intruders. In the shadows surrounding him were his five orc brothers snarling and ready for a fight. The odds would have been near even, if it wasn’t for the size and power of the monsters. Do you attack first hoping for surprise or let them attack to spread them out? Of course, there is the door you came in from to leave with hopes they just don’t want to be bothered.” You just don’t get that with a computer game.

  9. Yes, I suspect my D&D experience was atypical in a negative way.

    My mother is a storyteller, and when she told us stories, they reflected her worldview. When she told us Cinderella’s tale, there was no fairy godmother. It was the gardener and his wife, who had made her a beautiful dress with small vials that were filled with fresh blooms for each of the three dances (that occur in the original story). I forget what caused the midnight crisis, however.

    She also had an entire world that provided stories, with a capital city called Zaremla, with wonderful tales of love and courage and daring. The one “magic” was a stone which shone brightly to the pure in heart. The faithful would make pilgrimage to the holy city in robes of white and green. And one theme was an evil group who preyed on maidens, particularly prizing Mareklan women (anyone familiar with the “mlk” stuff in the Book of Mormon?), which caused the Mareklan merchants to barricade their women in their caldera home city. Lots of strong women characters, with plenty of opportunity for drama between the stupid pigheadedness of men being overprotective at home and the evil ones attempting to kidnap and murder.

    Good times. Glad the drive from home to Primary on weekdays was so long. We and the half-dozen kids we’d take with us to Primary each week would listen in wrapt attention. Makes me want to get a copy of the twelve-volume series of books she ended up writing to capture the stories and re-read them again.

    Anyway, I don’t recall folks reacting negatively to the witches and wizards portrayed in the C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books or Tolkien’s world of hobbits and elves. I suppose that was because the works he and Tolkien produced were so obviously trying to portray the fight between good and evil, and their witches and wizards had a world and magics completely different from the historical practice of magic in human history.

  10. @Meg – Actually, I have come across several YouTube videos – some long and detailed, arguing that CS Lewis and Tolkien were evil, demonically motivated men; mostly due to their portrayal of magic – these apparently coming from a US ‘evangelical Protestant’ type of background. At first I thought they were joking, or that it was a parody, but it seems some people really do sincerely think that way.

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