What 'Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them' teaches about the danger of judging
Posted January 7
"Fantasic Beasts and Where to Find Them" — the prequel movie to the Harry Potter series — begins innocently enough, with wizard genius Newt Scamander stepping off a transatlantic boat in New York City.
Things begin to go awry within moments, though: His suitcase seems about to burst with an unknown creature, and shortly thereafter, the creature escapes, along with a host of others. Without giving away too much of the plot, Newt and his friends spend a fair portion of the movie trying to collect these rare animals without terrorizing too much of Muggle Manhattan in the process.
What emerges, though, is that the Muggles, nonwizards, are the least of Newt’s problems. The American wizarding government is suspicious of Newt because he’s British, they have no faith in his peculiar animals because they’ve never heard of them and they’re skeptical of Newt’s friend Jacob Kowalski because he’s a No-Maj — the American term for Muggle, or nonwizard. All this makes the American wizarding government part of the problem.
Intriguingly, though, it can be tempting for the viewer to focus on a different Big Bad when watching "Fantastic Beasts." Enter Gellert Grindelwald, the wizard who was friends with the young Albus Dumbledore, though they parted ways because Grindelwald believed in wizarding supremacy while Dumbledore wanted greater acceptance. Fans of the Harry Potter series know that Grindelwald is not a wizard to respect; he’s a proto-Voldemort, who is the villain in the Harry Potter series.
And yet, though he's supposed to be the antagonist, the plot also thickens because some of the good guys are so darn judge-y.
As a scholar who has studied J.K. Rowling’s writings extensively, I’ve found that the author often brings Christian themes to bear upon her fiction, and "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is no exception. One could say that this film reminisces John 8, where Jesus speaks to Pharisees who want to stone an adulterous woman.
“Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone,” Jesus says to them (John 8:7).
Now while no one in the film commits adultery, much of the struggle arises because some of the seemingly good characters judge others negatively.
Members of the Magical Congress of the United States undertake this stance with Newt and his animals. The problem, though, is that neither Newt nor the fantastic beasts he looks after are causing real harm. But they were there, and they were foreign and mysterious and unknown, and so it was easy for MACUSA to judge them, to blame them for things that weren’t their fault. They threw the first stone, but since it shouldn’t have been thrown, Newt and his creatures get scapegoated while the real evil character — Grindelwald — remains on the loose.
The plot of "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" reminds Christians that we must be very careful when it comes to judging or persecuting our neighbors. Things may well be more complicated than they seem, and so, instead of throwing the metaphoric first stone, we might do well to pick it up and inspect it a little, figure out why we want to throw it and do our research to make sure it shouldn’t be thrown elsewhere, including at ourselves.
Danger comes when we judge too quickly, without evidence, when we throw blame when it should be held back. That can be a challenging message to hear because it’s almost always easier to cast blame, to render complicated issues black and white. And yet, this is what we are called to do. So while "Fantastic Beasts" may seem like a tale from a fictional magical world, its message is a relevant reminder for people in our own world, a message that we Christians, in particular, must not forget.
Danielle Tumminio is an Episcopal priest who is also a three-time graduate of Yale University. She holds a doctorate in practical theology from Boston University, has taught at Yale and Tufts and is a professor at the Seminary of the Southwest.