J. K. Rowling’s Progressivist Spells are Backfiring

Fans of Harry Potter fans are turning on creator J. K. Rowling because she apparently betrays their religious faith.
on Feb 20, 2018 · 25 comments

The Revolution will now be cannibalized—and it appears J. K. Rowling is its latest victim.

This comes recently from The New Statesman’s Quick-Quotes Quills:

“I strongly dislike her,” Alice (who does not wish to disclose her surname) says. “I just think she wrote many beautiful things in Harry Potter, but she doesn’t live up to them in real life.”

What’s this about? Like too many issues in the last few decades: it’s all about sex. Again.

In 2007, Rowling announced that one of her main characters, Hogwarts headmaster Albus Dumbledore, was gay. Fans initially rejoiced at the news, but many became disillusioned after the character’s sexuality was never mentioned in seven books, nine films, and a two-part play. When the director of Rowling’s latest film franchise, Fantastic Beasts, announced at the start of February that Dumbledore would not be “explicitly” gay in the upcoming film about his youth, fans tweeted their anger at Rowling. She responded by muting them and insinuating that Dumbledore would eventually come out in one of the other three remaining Fantastic Beasts films.

As Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, summarizes:

Later in the article one young person said, and I quote, “When the news broke that Dumbledore’s sexuality would once again be kept out of the canon,” that is out of the books and out of the movies, “I was furious.” This young person said, “This is a series I’ve dedicated years of my life to, and one that continually let me down.” Her young liberal fans are also throwing back at her a line she put into the voice of Dumbledore. This is the line, “We must all face the choice between what is right and what is easy.” But now this newly liberalized generation of J. K. Rowling readers in Great Britain is saying, “She doesn’t make the hard choice. She tries to have it both ways.”

Now I, as a longtime Harry Potter fan, feel very divided about all this.

On one hand, Rowling has an absolute right to free speech. (A right that Rowling has rightfully defended, even on behalf of people she strongly disagrees with.) She ought to be able to talk about her own stories. She can create technically off-canon fanfiction about them, such as the “Dumbledore is gay” subplot. It’s not wrong to draw comparisons between her themes and current events—however tacky this often looks.

On the other hand, this kind of behavior is not only tacky, but ultimately weakens Rowling’s position even as an influencer for Progressivism.1

Rowling’s fans are already quite capable of drawing the, ahem, in-depth comparisons between Voldemort and the latest he’s-just-like-Hitler political leader du jour. Her fans can already strike a posture as a real-life version of “Dumbledore’s Army” (e.g. “the resistance” from another fantasy franchise). Her fans can already adopt the authorized fanfiction of Dumbledore as sexual-revolution hero.2

In other words, they don’t need her help.

But when Rowling steps before the stage as if to say, “It’s all JUST PRETEND, and here’s the REAL LIFE,” she weakens her role. And her stories lose their greatest power—to reach past the head and into the reader’s imaginative heart.

Now, in the face of Rowling’s seeming weakness, her fans have spotted apparent “holes” in her confession of religious Progressivism. Because of other factors—such as the needs of the story, with international film restrictions and other market factors—she’s not making “Gay Dumbledore” the rallying theme of the new Fantastic Beasts films.

Plot twist: even for Rowling, socio-political movements can rank second to other needs. Such as: creating a new series of onscreen stories set in her whimsical wizarding world, in which Newt Scamander finds fantastic beasts and Harry Potter backstory.

But what about soldiers in the “army” Rowling has raised? Does this group of souls, many of whom may be naturally convinced of their own rightness on the side of history, agree?

Based on this news story, no. Too many of these fans seem to view stories in a way that too many misinformed Christians view stories: as mere tools. As mere carriers of More Important Things: truths, doctrines, ideas, moral teachings. As the disposable bodily “shell” that holds the more important element inside: the “soul” of truth.

This makes a lot of sense if you’re a particular kind of religious person. After all, if you view the world in a religious framework—an original or perfect paradise, a “fall” from this state, a law and/or process of redemption, a villain to defeat, and a future utopia—why should we get sidetracked by other things? Ultimately, art becomes a means to this end: the end of that future paradise, in which (if you’re a Christian) everyone is holy and worshiping God, or (if you’re a Progressivist) everyone is diverse but united in absolute sexual liberty.

Of course, biblical Christians view (or ought to view) stories and art very differently. In our origin story, God the creator wants us to make creative culture (Gen. 1:28). In seeking to reflect his creativity, in truthful and beautiful stories, we glorify him in our worship. That’s part of the paradise he made us for, and which (in Jesus) we’re destined to rejoin.

Apart from this worldview, every appeal to stories’ value can only logically devolve into the hijacking of stories for alternate ends, such as politics, social causes, or sexual revolutions.3

And for fans who don’t know the ultimate purpose of stories, they can’t help hijacking the stories to serve their religion. And they can’t help feeling frustrated when their leader turns out to have different priorities than constant sexual-revolution classroom teaching, 24/7, without room even for Quidditch practice or recreation in the common room.

What do you think of J. K. Rowling’s political uses of her own fiction? What would you say if you met a Harry Potter fan who felt frustrated with Rowling’s Progressivism “failures”?

  1. I capitalize the term Progressivism to note that it functions exactly as a kind of religion, only a religion whose followers usually don’t want to admit they are religious.
  2. These fans perhaps forget Rowling’s in-canon loophole: that Dumbledore is never seen acting on his same-sex attraction, and that his initial SSA was toward Gellert Grindelwald, a wicked predecessor of Lord Voldemort, whom Dumbledore was eventually forced to confront in a duel. (Viewers of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them also witnessed Grindelwald creepily lavishing and manipulating the affections of Credence, a young man bullied by his abusive mother without any other father figure in sight.) Since that fateful duel, for all Harry Potter fans know, Dumbledore has led a celibate life.
  3. This may also explain why many very talented, creative actors and musicians end up using their platforms to promote these kinds of religious causes. Imagine rising to the “top” without knowing the purpose of making these stories for human recreation, and being led to wonder, really, what good all this is for anyway. Of course, many Christian entertainers seem to reflect the same impulse—acting, singing, or writing as if the only value in their creative works is the “content” of the work, not the work itself.
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Kessie says:

    This is a very good article. I have noticed that progressives (what are they progressing toward?) and the Left are very religious in the way they act. But unlike Christians, they don’t seem to have a central core to their faith. It’s like trying to pin down a Wiccan. “Well, it’s just about what you feel, you know?” I think the hijacking of Harry Potter is unfair and unrealistic. It’s just a story, guys. It’s not your gross Bible. Go use A Song of Fire and Ice for that.

    • notleia says:

      From what I picked up from some pagan-types that I internet-know, it’s more about the journey than the destination. And the first rule is: if it harms nobody, do what you want (often phrased in the archaic “an it harm no one, please yourself”). So I’d say the core to their beliefs is about lives well lived. Self-actualization with the least amount of jerk.

      But chances are that’s a rhetorical question and not actually something you were curious about.

  2. It took me a minute to grasp what you were saying but just so I know, you’re stating that because the movie is about the story and worldbuilding, not about a gay character, the fans are upset?

    I’m not into Harry Potter (I know, blasphemy!) but I would think if I love the world of the Harry Potter, being in that world would be more important than ONE CHARACTER’S sexuality.

    If this is what you mean, and correct me if I’m wrong, then I really like how you’re bringing both the secular and the religious worlds down the same parallel.

  3. Tyler says:

    Why are they acting like a character needs to constantly state their sexuality? Like, “Hello, I’m Dumbledore and I’m gay,” needs to be his catchphrase. I don’t feel the need to constantly state my sexuality because that is a very small part of my overall personality. People are ridiculous and hopefully J.K. Rowling won’t let that make her change anything planned for the upcoming movies into horrible decisions just to pander to them.

    • Dona says:

      For some reason, those who are gay, or whatever they profess to be that isn’t “straight”, seem to think that their sexuality is “who” they are, it defines them. Straight people know that their sexuality is “what” they do, it is a behavior, not the defining thing about them. I find it very sad. I’m in the camp that we should never let what we do define us. It is not who we are. I’m a Christian so I know that being a child of God is what defines me, not my behaviors.

  4. My World Religions professor defined “religion” as the “science of the meaning of life.” Thus, Progressivism is still a religion, albeit an atheist one.

    The problem with Progressivism/Humanism is that it elevates humans, like Ms. Rowling, to godlike status and then either places them above scrutiny or blacklists them when they fall short of the Progressivist ideal.

    Hence the cannibalism of the revolution, as you said. It’s really just sad. These were books for CHILDREN. Morality of homosexuality aside, just how overt do you want it to be?

    • notleia says:

      I’m using your post to springboard my feels-like-obligatory dissent: “Progressivism” is not a religion. Your religions professor is using “science” in this case as a metaphor, not as something an actual scientist would recognize. (Because science can self-correct, while religions, not so much.)
      There is no law of conservation of worship. It is a useful fiction (and not even that useful) for religious people to pretend that nonreligious people somehow sublimate their supposed units of piety into a weird worship of something else.
      Feels-like-obligatory link: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/rolltodisbelieve/2016/06/03/christians-and-the-law-of-conservation-of-worship/

      • Autumn Grayson says:

        I think when it comes to the ‘is it a religion’ argument, a lot of the issue stems from people using different definitions of religion. Atheists tend to balk at the idea because to them a religion involves bowing down and worshiping something, while to many religious people, it is defined more as a way of life, and/or represents what someone fervently devotes their life to.

        • notleia says:

          Yeah, I’ll agree to that, but there is actually a technical definition used by sociologists about what constitutes a religion, and the stuff Burnett includes in “progressivism” does not meet the requirements.

          • Autumn Grayson says:

            Yeah, though I think when we have these conversations people need to actually clarify what they mean, otherwise the conversation isn’t productive. Just because sociologists have a definition doesn’t mean that that is the one that is being used in the conversation.

            • notleia says:

              Normally that’s not a problem, but in this case, it’s being used to make a false equivalence.

              • Autumn Grayson says:

                Not necessarily, depending on what she actually meant. Reading over her post again I see a few different potential meanings to different parts of what she was saying. I’m trying to teach myself to be less long winded, so I won’t get into all that unless you wanted me to.

                As a side note, though, thanks for being willing to discuss these things. It’s nice to talk to someone that thinks differently without it constantly turning into a flame war 🙂

      • When advocates of progressive ideology can cease acting with the zeal and fervor, even rage, of the most religious zealots, then we can safely conclude they are not part of a religion.

        As it is, many folks want to receive credit for their moral vision, without also recognizing that this is part and parcel of being in a religious faith. You can’t have one without the other. And in the worst cases, this attempt leads to arrogance and an insistence on placing one’s self somehow separate or above the rest of humanity.

      • Randy Culver says:

        I can tell you that religious people are steeped in and think obsessively about the nature of faith and religion. We think about the messages inherent in just about every piece of art, news article or other expression we come across. Is social justice a religion? Feels like one to me. It’s adherents’ fervor rivals any fundamentalists’ I know. It is based on belief and not science (I can be whatever gender I want to be today. Yippee!). It seeks to convert or destroy those who don’t believe (Make my gay wedding cake or I’ll destroy your business). It’s language is inherently moral and uses good/evil type dichotomies. It believes in a type of original sin (whites are inherently and uniquely racist. See Tanehisi Coates). Etc. Etc. Etc.

        • notleia says:

          Seems to me like all your exposure to social justice ideas are second- or third-hand. I can totally give you some links to some cool progressive-type blogs, but I’ll wait for you to ask.

  5. notleia says:

    There’s also been some flak about Rowling’s expansion into America, what with its colonialist ripoff of Hogwarts and ignoring any possible Native American influence. Then again, it’s not exactly wrong, that colonialism would be the dominant influence in America, but I think in the 60’s or something there’d be a new startup that focused on integrating Native American, African American, and other nonwhite influences. And their mascot could be the banana slugs.

  6. Autumn Grayson says:

    It’s perfectly fine for fans to express outrage or disappointment, but for them to act like she has to write things in her stories exactly as they want her to? That’s not cool.

    That quote they use doesn’t really prove anything either. Anyone can use it, but it’s akin to a fan saying ‘Rowling, you need to do what I think is right.’ Anyone, whether they are conservative or liberal, can step up and tell her that she needs to do the right thing instead of the easy thing and feel an extreme amount of conviction while doing so. Consequently, she is probably pulled both ways by both sides.

    I’m fine with fans expressing their personal opinions, and I may or may not agree with an author’s stories for moral reasons, and I may think there are some time, place and manner conditions that should be met when it comes to where a story is published(a story with mature content needs to be published as an adult book, for instance), but overall authors should be allowed to write what they wish. To an extent it’s kinda disturbing to see fans acting like they own the story and should dictate what the author writes/demonize the author for choosing to write something different.

    • notleia says:

      I find the practical way to sort my feelings about this are about what constitutes harm. Like, compare/contrast Rowling and, say, Stephenie Meyer. Rowling is largely harmless. Could she have done a better job about Dumbledore’s gayness? Yeah, but she didn’t really contribute to harmful gay stereotypes. Meyer? Heck yes she contributes to a lot of harmful stereotypes about relationships and women.

      Luckily, history is far more likely to remember Harry Potter than Twilight.

      • Autumn Grayson says:

        Yeah, though when it comes to the moral stuff, it comes down to time, place and manner things. If something like 50 Shades is going to exist, for instance, it needs to be published as erotica and not regular fiction. People should also point out that it is unhealthy, even if they shouldn’t necessarily force the author to do anything(don’t like the book, don’t read it, eventually the story dies in obscurity)

        Just about every story is going to arguably have something very harmful in it. Although we can learn a lot from stories, people need to learn not to let them dictate their lives. We can have a moral opinion on a story and discuss it, but it isn’t for us to say that the author can’t write that under any context, especially since everyone has a different idea of where the exact line of harmful is. If anything, Twilight’s existence offers us a record of some of society’s unhealthyness that way we can all address it. Though, as you sort of pointed out, a lot of people don’t take Twilight that seriously.

        Though I will disclaim that I haven’t read Fifty Shades, Twilight or Harry Potter, so it’s hard for me to say too much as far as specifics go and exactly how the authors handled things.

  7. notleia says:

    And this the also the part where I talk about the literary concept of “death of the author” and how authorial intentions kind of don’t matter when the piece has grown its own place in the collective consciousness. “Black Hermione” is an alternate interpretation that its own life and has even gotten a thumbs-up from Rowling herself. And there’s a plethora of ones that haven’t necessarily, like alternate takes with gay Harry (usually being shipped with Draco, with varying degrees of quality).

    There’s nothing wrong with taking the cafeteria approach to canon and fanon. I.e., my personal theory is that whatever Nintendo wants us to think, there is little to no chronology to the Legend of Zelda games beyond immediate sequels and the relation of individual games to each other is more of a web map than a timeline.

    • Autumn Grayson says:

      I kind of like seeing different fan takes on things, and sometimes I like fan stuff better than the actual canon. It isn’t really right for fans to act like the story is actually theirs to make money off of or for them to act like the author needs to write what the fans want, though. There’s a difference between fans having fun and fans trying to control/disrespect the author and their work.

  8. To an extent, this sounds similar in nature to the complaints and possessive attitude of Star Wars fans. Being a Star Wars fan and having invested a substantial amount of time into exploring that fictional world, I can understand how fans come to feel they “own” the franchise, even as I understand that fans do not. I think it’s part of the package deal that comes with selling art. If we as artists wish to keep our art completely free of misinterpretation and possessiveness by those for whom the art is intended, then we can keep it private. The moment you put it out in the world and ask others to participate with you in the creative process by consuming the art, then you’ve got a sort of implicit contract. Again the lines are very blurry there between author prerogative and reader delivered imperatives, but it is unavoidable. We simply get to see it played out on a larger scale with major franchises. (NOTE: None of that is to say I agree with Progressivists.)

    Hopefully I don’t sound too contentious, but I feel like this may have taken the position on the purpose-of-writing as art too far from center. Art for the sake of art is fine and good, but realistically, with storytelling, there is no avoiding that the story must mean something. Storytelling by its very nature is meant to impart meaning. When it doesn’t, its off-putting. Try telling someone that there was a fire and a cat was nearby it and they’ll be concerned, emote something, but nothing like if you contextualize it to say, “Your cat is too close to that fire.” The moment elements of communicated knowledge come together to form a story, meaning inherently comes along. So, it is very natural to expect some meaning to be imparted in any work of writing. I personally feel fiction needs to have a strong poignancy for a reader’s life, it does not have to be strict allegories for daily life, but if fiction doesn’t help a reader confront the harsher realities of life in the relative safety of fictional worlds, then we’re really offering them something that muddles things. If you have a pleasant read and then return to the harsher realities around you, how does one cope then? Fiction could become solely escapism for escapism’s sake and that is dangerous.
    Again, please forgive me if I come off contentious here, but I just feel very strongly that writing is about balancing demands. Whether its the author’s and reader’s or the duty of art to be beautiful for beauty’s sake while being poignant.

  9. Tim Brown says:

    I wasn’t very aware of this controversy, not being a close follower of the HP franchise, but it aligns with the attitude that I’ve seen among Star Wars fans: an attitude of entitlement and ownership – and not so much a healthy sense of ownership that entails care and nurture, but a nasty territoriality. It seems that nowadays being a ‘fan’ is not so much about what one truly enjoys, but how upset one gets over perceived shortfalls within the subject of one’s particular ‘fandom.’ It’s not enough to apply reasonable criticism to a work of art, nor is it satisfactory to allow room for different tastes; there is only the Good And Right Way – idiomatically defined, of course – and all others must be labeled and condemned. Vociferously. The word ‘fan’ has indeed returned to its roots: fanatic.

  10. This was an interesting article for me to read. The first half, I was about ready to click away because there’s much I don’t agree with.
    My first reactions to this article come on 2 levels: 1) I’ve been reading and following the Harry Potter franchise nearly all my life. I grew up with the original books, and I continue to read/listen to them at least twice a year; and 2) I’m a writer. Not yet the author of a novel, but I’ve been writing nearly 6-7 years and I’ve studied the craft extensively.
    I’ll take the author side first: the story ultimately belongs to the writer. And, depending on the writer’s creative process, sometimes it doesn’t seem that way to the author. Rather, the story belongs to its characters. When I’m inspired for a story, it’s always the characters who come first, and they tell me their story: who they are, who they know, and what’s happening in their lives that’s begging to be told. From that perspective, I cannot feasibly and convincingly change a character at the basis of who they are and their beliefs. If that’s the case, the story comes off forced and the characters fake.
    Moving along from that perspective, on to Harry Potter: J.K. Rowling, as the author, has the inherent right to tell the stories of her characters as they are, and as they have always been (specifically to her) in the many years she’s known their stories. In revealing Dumbledore as gay, she’s revealing his character. No, it’s not explicitly stated in the books, though it is hinted at. But honestly, there was no reason or point for it to be explicitly stated. Dumbledore (or anyone else) is not the summation of his sexuality. He is a character/person whom has learned much from his long and difficult life. He made mistakes along the way, as we all do, but he learned from them and that is what made him a great mentor to Harry, and why there are so many beloved quotes from him, I.e. what is right vs what is easy. When we begin to learn about Dumbledore’s past, and what Dumbledore himself reveals at the end of book 7, this specific quote is something he learned by *not* always adhering to it. He made mistakes and endeavored to help others in avoiding those same mistakes.
    The way I see it, Rowling is likely not having the character of Dumbledore be “explicitly” gay in the next Fantastic Beasts movie simply because that is not a part of his story that falls within the constructs of the movie. It’s her right to portray the character as he is and always has been, and to deviate from his base character and backstory she’s already given to fans would be more of a disappointment and a cheap trick as an author.
    As to the idea that the Fantastic Beasts movies are about Dumbledore and his sexuality? Um, sorry but no. The title is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is a schoolbook used at Hogwarts and researched and written by Newt Scamander. Thus it is his story, and not Dumbledore’s that should be (and with the first movie, is) the main focus of the 5 part series. Dumbledore is again a character, but he is not the main character and this should not be the focus. Instead, let’s focus on Newt, who is shy, adorable, and doesn’t conform to many societal norms inherently in our culture. Let’s discuss J.K. Rowling’s brilliance in bringing us more of the world we so love, new ideas, and new perspectives in which to view things. Let’s look at why Newt is such a lovable character, though he is awkward and doesn’t seem to be able to connect socially as society seems to seem we should.
    J.K. Rowling is telling her stories for those that want to hear them, for those that want them because they are hers and she is a brilliant storyteller. I, for one, will take them as they come, will delve deeper into this new story and a world I grew up loving, and will fall in love with new characters, and likely with old characters anew. I will exhort that we humans are more, much much more, than our sexuality, and I will take the canon Rowling gives as she tells me the stories of characters who are so dear to her.
    I implore to fans not to attack an author for something they unltimately have no control over. When an event in a character’s life happens, it happens. As authors, forcing that to be their entire identity or trying to force it earlier in the story is unnatural, clunky, and a huge disservice to our readers, viewers, and fans. We write for ourselves and our readers. But we can only tell the story a story it is, and we should not be attacked for it.

What do you think?