Harry Potter, Steve Jobs and the Danger of Magical Thinking

By Eugene C. Scott

I was first introduced to J. K. Rowling and the Harry Potter books by a worried mother in my congregation in Tulsa.

“Pastor, what do you think of these Harry Potter books?” This was not a neutral question.

“I haven’t read them,” I answered.

“They’re full of witches, ghosts, and MAGIC! [emphasis mine] Aren’t they Satanic? The Bible’s against magic. I think they’re dangerous for our kids to read.”

Books are always dangerous, I thought but instead I said, “I’d be glad read them and let you know what I think.” I love reading good fiction.

Is the Magic in Harry Potter Dangerous?

What I discovered were books filled with magic. The first three books especially–brimmed with incredible creativity, engaging stories, themes and questions worthy of books on philosophy and theology, and characters that walked off the page and into my heart.

Magic, the kind that makes things appear and disappear, was secondary. Harry and the gang were witches and used magic in the same way Captain Kirk and his crew were space travelers and used not-yet-real technology. Harry Potter never calls on Satanic evil forces for help. Nor does he simply wave his wand and wish his problems gone. This waving of a wand, or a pill, or a prayer to make problems go away is called magical thinking and it is very dangerous.

Magical Thinking is Dangerous

Magical thinking is a way to use the things around us to hide from problems (like Harry Potter’s “invisibility cloak”), while appearing to do something about them. It is a flawed, shallow coping mechanism and may have contributed to Steve Jobs death. Walter Isaacson, biographer of the late Steve Jobs, said, “I think that he [Jobs] kind of felt that if you ignore something, if you don’t want something to exist, you can have magical thinking. We talked about this a lot.” Jobs spurned traditional medical treatment for nine months after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

Jobs is not alone. Most of us practice magical thinking.

Years ago, when my daughter was diagnosed with an eating disorder, I leaped into action, found a counselor, and hoped the problem was solved. Sounds like the right thing to do, doesn’t it? But I was guilty of magical thinking. I had waved the counseling wand at my daughter’s pain. But it did not go away. Not without traveling a long, painful road of discovery and healing, that would include the hardest work I’ve ever done including many counselors, doctors, friends, and episodes of heart wrenching arguments with God that showed me how shallow and hidden I was as a man.

We often think of modern medicine in this way. Just pop a pill and all the pain–the disease–will dissolve. Politics too. If we elect my candidate, she will solve all our problems. Religious people use prayer and God and the Bible this way also. Exercise, diet, education all are used as magic wands to banish our troubles.

Magical thinking is dangerous because it is a way to hide from ourselves, our world, and our problems. And it usually makes them worse.

Harry Potter never does this. In every case, his magic is a tool to help him go deeper into danger, closer to the heart of the problem. And his real solutions to his struggles come from the struggle itself. He engages his mind, his heart, his friends, even his enemies in the battle. He never settles for easy, comfortable, known answers.

My daughter is now a mother of two, healthy, honest, deep. She still struggles. But none of us who went through that with her, hide; we don’t wave God, or counseling, or prayer around like a wand hoping all the pain will disappear.

The magic in Harry Potter is indeed dangerous. Because it is the kind that calls us to face ourselves and our problems. It reminds us there are no magic answers.

Eugene C. Scott is co-pastor of The Neighborhood Church and would like a magic wand that could solve car problems and maybe clear traffic in front of him during rush hour.

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14 Comments

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14 responses to “Harry Potter, Steve Jobs and the Danger of Magical Thinking

  1. “…episodes of heart wrenching arguments with God that showed me how shallow and hidden I was as a man.”

    What a beautiful line.

    • Michael: Thank you. If it is a beautiful line then, this is how God makes beauty from ashes. Maybe it should have read “how shallow and hidden a man I can be.” Because I’m not over that hiding and magical thinking yet. Eugene

  2. Logical, reasonable…and yet incredibly emotional all at the same time! I love the way you express your feelings and thoughts, and your willingness to look deeper into yourself. This is the hardest task for any fellow human being, in my opinion. Most people have no problem analyzing other people or other people’s work, but, when it comes to turning that critical eye to oneself, we’re usually stumped or pretty resistant. I think it’s definitely because many of us feel so uncomfortable with or might be afraid of what we will see and reveal about ourselves, but I believe it is a necessary process to improve and become a better person (even if it sounds idealistic to say so, I believe in this strongly!)

    Having said that, I also like how you’re open-minded enough to try out something that you might feel uncomfortable with in the beginning, especially if magic is technically against your religion or may violate some cardinal rule. However, I don’t see fiction books about magic as evil or Satanism and rather I see these books as little miracles really and as having the potential to motivate and educate others about life themes as you mentioned as long as you focus on the moral and the author’s focus. I don’t think J.K. Rowling’s purpose was to introduce magic to people but to create a world in which people have the potential of becoming more than they are through hard work and determination while maintaining fidelity and compassion.

    Still, I think you are mostly correct when you say that “books are always dangerous,” but should they be? Anything can become dangerous if not utilized or applied properly. As long as we understand what we need to understand from books and interpret deeply the meanings behind them, books can potentially change our lives for the better, I believe. I think it is not books that are dangerous…but people. Maybe we should pause once in awhile and look to ourselves and how we observe and think about our surroundings before we jump to conclusions. If our moralities and principles are strong, nothing can influence or change that, right? However, I do understand what you mean by this phrase, and I think that, in some situations, this is definitely an accurate thought.

    Anyway, I loved reading over this blog, and just had to respond, being a Harry Potter fan and all! (Sorry for the long reply!!) I am glad that some people realize how Harry Potter is not about witches or magic and related topics but about life in general (at least from my interpretation)!

    Good luck, and I’m glad your daughter is healthy!!

    • Mina, I enjoyed reading your reply, very thoughtful. I wonder if what eugen meant by books being dangerous is the fact hat they can change you for the good. If we content in our mundane, shallow lives and a book challenges that, it can be dangourous to our routine.

      And yes, Harry Potter is awesome. I read a bt of your blog, where are you studing English? I studieed English in my undergrad as well.

      • Thank you 🙂 (I do try!)

        I think I understand his point that books can drastically challenge our lives and our thinking. I just wanted to point out that this can be a good thing as well (in terms of how you use books) just to clarify my understanding and perhaps see a more positive light with reading books that may be controversial or against our beliefs (not to mention, it’s fun to read these kinds of books sometimes as long as we reserve our judgment until the very end, right? Unless you talk to those that say “ignorance is bliss” or some statement similar to that…heheh)

        I am studying education actually, but I did consider English when I was an undergrad. (I am really flattered that you like my comment enough to think I am a English major, and it’s definitely a boost of confidence!) I love to teach and to read, but this wasn’t always the case when I was little. It would of helped, of course, if I had had the opportunity to meet a great teacher to motivate me, but it didn’t happen. I ended up motivating myself with the support from my parents to learn to read and write well, and this became the beginning of my reason to want to teach. (Reading well came from finding a book I actually liked!) I think I can contribute in my own way (no matter how miniscule) through teaching and engaging children that grew up in a similar environment like I did.

        Anyway, that’s a whole another tangent! Heh, sorry about that! I do love feedback from others, though, so thank you so very much for your reply! I greatly appreciate any constructive criticisms, too.

    • Mina:

      Thanks for reading (especially since you say you love it and hate it at the same time). And thanks even more for such a thought provoking response. You are a careful and close reader.

      Like Michael said about my “books are always dangerous” quip, I meant that largely in a good sense. But I suppose it is also somewhat of a generalization. I’ve read some real sleepers that seem to contain not one challenging thought or idea. But maybe I was the one sleeping. Who knows?

      Anyway, I love books, even those I may not agree with and I believe every book has something to teach me. I was really playing with the word “danger.” Some people, especially those in conservative Christian circles, believe safety is life’s grand goal. I don’t.

      Thanks again and good luck with your reading and teaching. Eugene

  3. Georgie-ann

    omg,…lost one again!,…I don’t get what’s happening,…do over I guess,…

    I had complimented your article and topic, saying it was one of my favorite topics also,…why?,…because it has truly become an American disease (or nightmare!), — (and you are so “right on,” btw!), — the big problem, I see, being that the transition of our, by necessity, once time-limited exposure to the “fantasy arts” — (via a good book, or a paid visit to the local cozy 1-movie cinema theater of old, or a “big trip” to a live play on Broadway) — has become an electronic transmission and virtual “encampment of illusion” in our living rooms, bedrooms, and lives 24/7, via the omni-present, and substitute for real life, TV set.

    Ubiquitous, in this regard, has become a tragic understatement.

    There is a huge psychological difference on the viewer between meeting the bigger-than-life-sized Disney-esque Peter Pan and his crew, flying around on the cinema house movie screen once every few years, and only when available, and being able to consume and digest a much more personal and intimate-sized version of him from the age of two, at will, ad infinitum for years on end, at the simple touch of a button, while dazed and unconsciously munching on Cheerios (and making a mess that someone else will willingly clean, because they’re OH SO GLAD that we’re “entertained” — i.e., virtually hypnotized — and out of their hair for awhile).

    It’s so sad. The attention and interaction we should be enjoying with our beautiful, precious living children — loving and being fascinated by them themselves, nourishing their growing sense of self and being enriched by the new energy and love and spontaneity that they bring into our hearts and lives — we sell out so easily to electronic devices.

    Which also sadly, brings me to Steve Jobs as well. I “one-thousand per cent” agree with your analysis here as well.

    Denial — seeking to create and live in an alternate “magical thinking” universe of my own (or someone else’s) making, where “I am the king of the world” in each moment, “master of my fate” (even if it’s only in an electronic video game, serving to divert my attention away from the real needs of my soul) — creates more problems than it solves. Even a mechanical device needs the right fuel to run long and well. But it’s much worse and much more insidious for the living, biological and human soul, whose “needs” for life and growth and prospering and health and joy and happiness need to be nourished on so many living and interactive levels. A mechanical device can never “do the job” here — never — and often implants very unrealistic “expectation weeds” that are very hard to uproot later.

    I can remember many many moments of suddenly and precipitously “returning to reality” after finishing a good book, or leaving a darkened movie theater, as a young person. The strong impulse to counter the almost inevitable momentary “let down” syndrome — after leaving the elevated world of imaginary perfection and transcendence that I had been visiting — was most often to seek human company/conversation and have something warm and reassuring to eat or drink. Ah, how sweet and comforting life itself can be! And, thankfully, I was blessed to have this kind of available companionship for most of my growing years. This is a great lesson to be able to learn — the separation and relative values of life and fantasy. I think we’ve dangerously allowed these lines to become blurred, if not completely obfuscated for some.

    Humans are not robots. We are unique, living, fascinating, deep and multi-layered beings, capable of thinking in more than “sound bites,” designed to fill our hearts with the right nourishments — love and consideration and personal worth and value for ourselves and others being foremost. Living should be a heart-warming adventure of discovery and acceptance, rather than stoic preeminence and exclusion. Simplicity becomes a virtue — (compared to the “sights and sounds and confusions” that are drowning out and minimizing our personal significance and relevance these days). And, through wholesome life experiences, we are also designed to “find God,” within and without.

    Acts 17:28 “For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.”

    Ephesians 3:16-19 (Paul prays a blessing: … )
    16 ” … That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;

    17 “That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love,

    18 “May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;

    19 “And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.”

    Just one haunting look at the remnants and raging emptiness of a rapidly fading and aging former “childhood actor/ress,” who was led and promoted into “shooting for the stars” of televised fame, glory and wealth, but ended up side-lined and damaged way before their time, is absolutely heart-breaking. It is one of those “visible testimonies” in which the pain and desecration of “human bankruptcy” is made visible to our eyes. Our cultural addiction to these non-stop “entertainment” distractions and escapist and narcissistic “magical thinking” modes is creating a lot more invisible “inner bankruptcy” than most seem to realize. May God lead us all in the path of realization (“seeing”) and healing.

    Blessed are those who see with God’s eyes, feel with God’s heart, and return to Him. He is able:

    Ephesians 3:20,21
    20 “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us,

    21 “Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”

    • Georgie:

      I’m not much of a gamer. But I do wonder what our addiction to electronic games and such is doing to us. Are they simply the tip of the iceberg as far as our capacity to hide our hearts and lives in subterfuge? The real issue is our hiding not what we hide in.

      Thanks again for reading. You always read so deep and offer challenging responses. God bless, Eugene

      • Georgie-ann

        Well, one of my motives for commenting is that simply due to age, I actually have “something else” to compare this “taken for granted” modern lifestyle to, and think that some of the comparisons are important enough to be considered.

        My fear is basically that younger people have no way to recognize (by comparison) the impersonal, dispassionate but consuming, electronically-driven, attention captivators, that actually get a grip on their soul energy, limiting and distorting — in a form of “semi-possession” — their normal bonding, caring, and reaction potentials.

        I was thinking along these lines: what would it be like to describe the TV set as a “family member?”,…you know: Mommy, Daddy, Big Brother, Big Sister, Little Brother, Little Sister, Grandpa ‘n’ Grandma, Fido, Fluffy and Bubbles, Aunt Suzie, Uncle Charles, TV set, Cousin Theo, Cousin Emily, Car Name, etc.,….because it really has assumed, or been given, the place of one,…

        Where would TV set really come in the list with respect to say: time spent “buddying-up,” degree of warmth of companionship and fellowship offered, very stimulating and interesting to be around, always faithful provider and encourager, great help with homework, shows an interest in the things I do and think about, I smile and feel all warm and nice when I see it, perfect bed-time company,…???

        Frankly, I think TV set is near the bottom of the list, compared to a real, concerned and interested person, in most of the categories, except for time spent,…it just seems very disproportionate and unbalanced,…and so many of the showcased TV examples of what a human is like, thinks like, acts like, talks like — (some Simpsons come to mind at the moment) — is flat out unnerving if you consider them to be the “family members” that they have become,…default setting, of course!,…(doh!)

        just sayin’,…

  4. Mike

    Well, Eugene, I was going to say “nice job” but after reading these other lofty responses it sounds a bit shallow. How about “the best analysis of J.K. Rowling’s creation I have read”? Of course you have completely offended the conspiracy theorists!

    Mike

    • Georgie-ann

      “Harry Potter never calls on Satanic evil forces for help.”

      Very true, Eugene,…but he faces and struggles with, and survives eventually, in pure unadulterated victory, over many! ,…and with the kind of opposing help and power that can only come from on high,…and he also shows that “it’s not a simple-minded cake walk,”…and that “you gotta have heart!”

      To God be the Glory!

    • Thanks, Mike. Your response is perfect and much appreciated.

      Offended the conspiracy theorists? That could be dangerous. I hear they have a powerful underground network that monitors blogs and then sends out teams to eliminate offenders. Do you think that’s true? Should I hide?

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