Touchstone: ‘Picture Imperfect’

In this month’s Touchstone magazine, there is an article by S. M. Hutchens called ‘Picture Imperfect: On the Discovery of Dirt in Potter’s Field.’ I cannot link to this piece yet because it hasn’t been posted to the magazine archives online but I am obliged to recommend the article — and the magazine as well.

Touchstone claims to be a “Journal of Mere Christianity,” and, given that hat-tip to C. S. Lewis, you’d expect it to be brilliant, eloquent, and combative, with an engaging sense of humor to boot. You’d also think it would be a place to find insightful thinking about social issues, faith, and quite a lot about literature. Touchstone is all of these things and has won the awards to prove it.

For Rowling readers, this lively traditional and ecumenical periodical has proved itself to be a remarkably consistent voice in the Public Square both for taking Harry Potter seriously and for admiring the artistry of the series. The editors published, for example, ‘The Alchemist’s Tale’ in 2003 when the Harry Wars were still very much in progress and the end was by no means settled and more recently offered ‘Book Binders’ on Harry Potter as the Shared Text of the young century. Their articles by Leonie Caldecott on Philip Pullman, ‘Paradise Denied‘ with its explicit comparisons with Hogwarts and Perry Glanzer on Rowling’s implicit morality, The Surprising Trouble with Harry: On Harry Potter & Public-School Moral Education, helped raise the critical bar and make Harry bashers less likely to deride casually readers who enjoyed the books as morons or soft-on-the-occult.

The Touchstone editors haven’t shied away from publishing criticism of the books (see Eric Barr’s ‘The Power of Evil and the Shape of Hope’ for one I still find borderline incredible) but the good stuff they printed on Potter has been some of the best reading on Harry in any magazine. Take the conclusion of Baylor Professor Perry Glanxer’s essay as an example:

Christians who take the idea of a cosmic struggle between good and evil seriously should see the Potter series as an ally because it reinforces a core Christian belief currently under attack. In Harry’s world, good and evil are not just “socially constructed” rules made up by those in power to keep themselves in power. An actual cosmic struggle between good and evil exists.

Most importantly, this struggle gives meaning and drama to our world. Rowling provides something for students that American public schools do not. She illuminates why character education, values clarification, Kohlberg’s moral reasoning, or getting stricter about rules will never do what we wish. Moral education within the public schools of a liberal democracy will never capture children’s moral vision and imagination.

Children need more than a set of virtues to emulate, values to choose, rules to obey, or even some higher form of reasoning to attain. They long to be part of a cosmic struggle between good and evil. And that’s why children want to read Harry Potter.

I have even seen a change of heart in critics on Touchstone‘s staff about the value of the Potter books. S. M. Hutchens, most notably, said in 2002 that:

The knowledge that fantasy is fantasy serves as a protective barrier, except where it is breached by some weakness in the spirit of its reader. The overall message of the five Harry Potter books I have read thus far, the principal statement of the imagination projected on the hard wall of reality, does not seem to be, “magic can be good, and one should seek to be a good witch,” for no one can or ever could practice the magic found in these books, but a very conventional and quite attractively put message that good is good and evil is evil: good triumphs in the end and it is desirable to ally oneself with it.

Even, however, if we take this to be so, there are serious flaws in the story that might make a Christian very reasonably reject it as reading material for the child or the adult, and I would blame no one who did it.

[Between Icon & Idol: Harry Potter & Imagination’s Symbolic Life]

In a ‘View’ piece in this month’s Touchstone, he writes in contrast:

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?

He argues that the series is essentially about Christian symbolism, not unlike what I have written here and elsewhere of Harry as a Christian ‘Everyman’ or allegory of the Heart’s purification. Mr. Hutchens seems to think that those who don’t “get this” meaning probably wouldn’t have understood the gospel message, either, if it were new. He concludes his short piece:

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.

Please remember that last paragraph the next time you read (and, alas, there will be a next time, and soon) a critic dismiss the interpretation of a book — Harry Twilight, Star Trek, whatever — because its Christian imagery is “confused” or “unclear” or insufficiently scriptural (y’know, it’s just another ‘dying god’ story, right?). Mr. Hutchens has drilled the absurdity of these criticisms in the line “it makes for dreadful literature, and for another, oddly enough, characters sanitized to our standards for good never, ever, look like the Lord.”

Your thoughts and corrections, please. I urge you, too, to subscribe to Touchstone today. This consistently thoughtful, bracing, and surprising voice about the intersection of faith and culture deserves the support of Harry Potter readers specifically and serious readers of all kinds.


  1. Thank you so much for recommending this article!

  2. revgeorge says

    I desperately need to resubscribe to Touchstone.

    By the by, I can say I’ve never criticized Twilight “because its Christian imagery is “confused” or “unclear” or insufficiently scriptural…” 😉

    Thanks for this article, John. Will have to read it in more depth sometime when I’m not getting ready to go out of town for a week. It looks like an article to savor.

  3. Thanks for the article, John. And I just subscribed.

    It’s interesting that a lot of what is said about the nature of our heroes goes along with what L’Engle says in “Walking on Water”, which I’m now reading. I think that Travis first mentioned that one. I’m finding her insights on the relationship of Christianity (or any religion) to art, especially literature, to be quite good. And it all fits in with the quotes that you included.

    It’s always nice when all sorts of different sources point us in the same direction.

  4. 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


    I make a similar point in the book I am currently at work upon, The flawed master:

    He [Thomas Merton] also wrote that “God Himself was put to death on the cross because He did not measure up to man’s conception of His holiness… He was not holy enough, He was not holy in the right way.” Thus, one of Professor Snape’s most important lessons, I would suggest, is that

    If I am to be “holy” I must therefore be something that I do not understand, something mysterious and hidden, something apparently self-contradictory; for God, in Christ, “emptied Himself.” He became a man, and dwelt among sinners. He was considered a sinner. [quoting Thomas Merton]

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