Posted Tuesday, May 18, 2004, at 8:45 AM PT - They are the titans of their literary universes.
Of the six best-selling books of the past decade, five have been Harry Potters. "Left Behind," the apocalyptic Christian series by Tim LeHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, has sold more than 60 million copies; currently there are four LeHaye-Jenkins books in the Christian-books Top 10.
Suffice it to say, some secular critics dismiss the Left Behind books as of the wackos, by the wackos, for the wackos. Based on the New Testament's Revelation, the series begins with the world's believers disappearing, "raptured" up to heaven. Those "left behind" must struggle through a seven-year ordeal in which the Antichrist comes, much of the population is murdered, and Jesus returns.
Some Christians view Harry Potter as anti-Christian because it glorifies witchcraft. "Where will the fascination and emulation end?" asks Richard Abanes in Fantasy and Your Family. "With experimenting with 'fun' practices like the divination or spellcasting at Hogwarts? With taking college classes on occultism? As Harry Potter fans mature, will they desire to delve deeper into occultism?" J.K. Rowling, he argues, promotes moral relativism because "Harry, Hermione, Ron, Hagrid and other 'good' characters habitually lie, steal, cheat, ignore laws, break rules and disrespect authority." Oh, and Hagrid is an alcoholic.
The series seem to live in parallel universes, as different as books could be. But as we absorb their latest milestones (the upcoming release of the third Potter movie, the recent release of the climactic Left Behind volume), I have bad news for both camps: The two have a lot in common.
Most obviously, in both cases, we see not a fight between individual good guys and bad guys, but a Manichean struggle between good and evil. That's the case in Left Behind from early in the first book. Harry Potter starts out as a more limited skirmish between Harry and the evil sorcerer Voldemort. But by the fifth book, the number of combatants has increased, with the entire wizard cadre the Order of the Phoenix battling a vast conspiracy of Voldemort-worshipers and death-eaters.
The good guys are not believed. Heroism is doubly admirable when the protagonist has to not only fight his enemies, but convince his friends. Harry's classmates don't believe that Voldemort is back, and non-believers don't believe that the Antichrist has arrived.
The evil one cannot stand on his own two feet. In both series, the bad guy must occupy a human "shell." In Left Behind, the devil takes the body of Nicolas Carpathia, the charming Romanian politician who becomes head of the United Nations (natch), creates a world government, unifies religions, and promotes abortion. In Harry Potter, Voldemort possesses the body of the stuttering professor Quirrell.
Bad guys' wormy sidekicks. Voldemort's helper is Wormtail. In Left Behind, it's the foppish Leon Fortunato and one named Cankerworm. Presumably they were influenced by C.S. Lewis' Wormwood, or in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.
Corrupt authority figures. Liberal Rowling and conservative LeHaye both distrust the government. Harry spends as much time in The Order of Phoenix battling the hapless (or wicked?) Ministry of Magic as he does Voldemort himself. In Left Behind, it's a takeover of world government by the Antichrist that puts the world at peril. In Harry Potter, the adults can't be trusted; in Left Behind, it's the non-Christians.
Political agendas. As the Harry Potter series progresses, it becomes clear that Voldemort and his death-eaters want power for a specific purpose: wiping out Muggles (non-magical families) and mudbloods (mixed families). The books become a plea for tolerance and against the nostalgia for ethnic purity. Hermione's campaign to liberate the house elves is even more transparent in its power-to-the-little-people message.
Left Behind presents a comprehensive conservative Christian agenda. The Antichrist is the secretary-general of the United Nations. He promotes a hit parade of classic liberal causes, including family planning, abortion, global disarmament, amniocentesis, Third World development, assisted suicide, and higher taxes. Yes, the Antichrist is a tax-and-spend liberal. "We will further finance our plans to inject social services into underprivileged countries and make the world playing field equal for everyone," Carpathia declares. Scarrrrrry.
Romance cannot wait. Despite the fact that the heroes in each book are busy waging life-and-death struggles against colossal forces of evil, they still need to attend to their social lives. When he breaks a date with love-interest Cho Chang to meet with Hermione, Cho whimpers that Harry's being insensitive. She views Harry's distractedness as being of the "boys-are-such-creeps" variety rather than the "it-must-be-tough-to-prevent-genocidal-wizards-who-killed-your-parents-from-taking-over-the-world" variety.
But imagine how hard it would be to maintain a courtship on the eve of the apocalypse. Early in the Left Behind series, newsmagazine reporter Buck Williams develops a crush on Chloe Steele, the daughter of series hero Rayford Steele.
"The timing was bad," he noted. "Who pursues a relationship during the end of the world?" So true.
Then there was Rayford's old friend Hattie, a flight attendant who later becomes Carpathia's mistress and gets pregnant, thereby creating a mind-blowing Christian dilemma: Is it OK to have an abortion if the father is the devil? (Answer: no.) What are the obligations of a friend in a situation like this? "What are you going to do, Chloe?" Rayford asks his daughter. "Tell her she's carrying the antichrist's child and that she ought to leave him?" Paging Jerry Springer.
The book has many lines you won't find in a Harlequin romance. One character gives someone a massage shortly before Jesus' return.
"You're tense," she said.
"Relax, love. Messiah is coming."
The little similarities go on. Both books present the media as corrupt or easily corruptible. The Left Behind tribulation takes seven years; so does Hogwarts'. Carpathia takes the form of a snake; Voldemort takes the form of a lizard, and Harry is able to tap into the evil world by speaking snake (parceltongue). And in both, the good guys bear a special "mark"—on their foreheads!—that protects them.
Finally, they both have a theology. It's not, as one might expect, that Left Behind is Christian and Harry Potter pagan, but rather that Left Behind is Protestant and Harry Potter is Catholic. One of the chief theological arguments between Catholics and Protestants has been over whether salvation is earned through faith or by good works. In Left Behind, the only thing that matters is faith in Jesus. Steele explains that church leaders had led so many people astray because they merely "expected them to lead a good life, to do the best they could, to think of others, to be kind, to live in peace. It sounded so good, and yet it was so wrong. How far from the mark!"
While everything is pre-ordained in Left Behind, in Harry Potter, by contrast, Dumbledore explicitly tells Harry that even though he carries some of the essence of Voldemort in him, he has the power to do good because he has the power of choice.
In that sense, despite their similarities, at their hearts the two series are different in a fundamental but not obvious way. Left Behind is fatalistic; Harry Potter sees outcome determined by individual actions. Both provide a roadmap for how to live a good life, but in one case the key is morality, and in the other it is faith.
Steven Waldman is editor in chief of Beliefnet, the leading multifaith spirituality and religion Web site.
Article URL: http://slate.msn.com/id/2100637/