When I encountered Harry Potter my first thought was this: silly children’s story. If you had told me then I would read all seven books and, unless I die first, see all seven movies I would have laughed. But the truth is the books are good writing with compelling story lines that feature likable protagonists engaged in a struggle against evil in the midst of a wildly imaginative and coherent world. When the final book in the series was released in July 2007, a record 8.3 million copies were sold in the U.S. in one day. All seven books combined have sold over 400 million copies worldwide. Each Harry Potter film has grossed between $249 and $318 million in the U.S. with “Deathly Hallows” poised to repeat the feat as countless muggles have already purchased their tickets in advance. For me, Harry Potter was an enjoyable read brought to life in entertaining films that allowed me to lose myself in a world of wizards, witches, wands, and whomping willows.
For some however, Harry Potter is much more – it is an escape. It is a story and a world so compelling that it overtakes real life and demands devotion. This is evident in the 400 colleges and 300 high schools where ‘Quidditch’ (the game played by Harry Potter) has become a competitive sport. Quidditch involves wizards and witches flying on broomsticks scoring points with a ball called a ‘quaffle’ while avoiding enchanted balls called ‘bludgers’ hit at them by ‘beaters’ all while two players chase an elusive enchanted ball called a ‘snitch’. When the ‘snitch’ is caught, the game is over and the team with the most points wins. You might be asking – how on earth can this game be played by the non-magical? On these school campuses players compete while holding a broom between their legs using a partially deflated volleyball as a ‘quaffle’. The beaters throw dodgeballs (standing in for ‘bludgers’) at the opposing team. The part of the ‘snitch’ is played by a player dressed in yellow with a tennis ball in a sock sticking out of his shorts and he runs around the field until caught.
Why is this highly impractical game flourishing among normal humans? Because it reinforces the escape offered by the world J.K. Rowling created. While it is easy to label those who play Quidditch, show up at theaters dressed as Dumbledore, and discuss the books endlessly in online forums as ridiculous, they are merely escaping into a reality not their own. While more respectable than Quidditch matches and Star Trek conventions, the man who meticulously follows his fantasy sports league is attempting the same thing. So is the gamer that spends hours each day on Xbox Live. So is the movie lover who goes to the theater even when there is nothing they want to see. So is the teen girl reading Twilight, the man drinking away his problems, the mother living for ‘Dancing with the Stars’, and the college boy viewing porn online. They are all attempting to escape and immerse themselves in a reality not their own.
We live in a culture obsessed with escapism. Many people move from one escape to the next while avoiding real life which is that annoying thing that happens between games, books, movies, YouTube videos, and Quidditch matches. Is there anything wrong with a little escape? Assuming it is not done in a sinful way, no. The problem is a little escape can quickly become a life of escape. Escapism is essentially idolatry. We turn to a savior other than Christ to rescue us from our painful or painfully dull life. We then give that savior our entire devotion – sacrificing countless hours, innumerable dollars, and endless passions on the altar of our little god. That god then blesses us by providing the escape we desire.
This is tragic among Christians, many of whom invest more time, money, and energy into their escapes than they do into Christ. The abundant life that was supposed to be lived to the glory of God is now being whittled away in empty pursuits.
Psalm 1:1-2 says, “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked… but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.” Escapism says blessed is the man who meditates on his favorite basketball team day and night while the Bible gathers dust.
Matthew 9:36-37 says, “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful but the laborers are few.’” Escapism says forget about God’s world, the people in it, and God’s mission and drown them out in variety of entertainment options on your television or computer screen.
Romans 1:16 says, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes…” Escapism says the story of Harry Potter, Twilight, Star Wars, etc. is more compelling than the gospel and deserves our devotion.
If we have more time to study fantasy sports than God’s Word, if we have more passion engaging Halo: Reach than God’s mission, if we are more inspired by Harry Potter rescuing Hogwarts than Jesus Christ rescuing sinners then escapism is destroying our lives. Worse than that, we have given something other than God the position of glory and have committed idolatry.
So go see “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” and even better, read the book. Enjoy movies and video games. Cheer for your favorite team, real or fantasy. Pick up a hobby you enjoy. Visit Walt Disney World. Play Quidditch… well, only if you’re really a wizard. But be careful, lest escapism begin to capture your life and become your god. There is no better way to waste your existence than to hand it over to meaningless activities in an effort to escape your reality.