Reflections on Harry Potter

“I cannot get a cup of tea large enough nor a book long enough” –C. S. Lewis

HarryPotterLogoMuch like C.S. Lewis, since I acquired the ability to read, I have always greatly enjoyed the reading of books. Lots of them. In fact, during elementary school I once read so many of the books in our classroom that I resorted to reading the World Book Encyclopedia in order to prevent myself from re-reading too many things. The more books I have read, the more I have come to realize two critical facts: First, there will always be more books to read. By this I mean that no matter how many books I read, there will always be more ideas and narratives to engage (this I see as a great thing, in case you were wondering). And second, there are such things as good books and bad books. That is, the content and worth of all books is not inherently equal. Some great works of literature are clearly more valuable for understanding the human condition than others. To see this, one only need to compare something by Shakespeare with any modern paperback Harlequin romance novel (or perhaps the Twlight series, but I won’t go any further into that hornet’s nest). Of course, there are less drastic comparisons and rankings, but that’s not the point of this post. Instead, I want to delve into a discussion of some (relatively recent) works of literature that have elicited a variety of judgment calls, especially among American Christians: the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

American Christian reactions to the Harry Potter series have run the proverbial gauntlet of perspectives. Run an Amazon search for “Harry Potter Christian” and you’ll find works such as Baptizing Harry Potter, Looking for God in Harry Potter, What You Need to Know About Fantasy Books and Movies, Harry Potter and the Bible, Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged, and The Gospel According to Harry Potter, to list but the first few. The point here is not to agree, disagree, refute, or otherwise build upon any of these works, but to note the range of attitudes toward these books as shown by the titles of these books. From my discussions of Harry, there is a similar range of responses among American Christians as well, running from enjoyment and borderline affirmation of inspiration to horror and claims of demonic possession. Given this range of responses, it should be clear that thinking about the Harry Potter series from the Christian perspective is a complex issue, and it is not our purpose here to provide a book-by-book summary of contents or offer sweeping judgment claims about whether all Christians should or shouldn’t read these books.

harry-potter-books-LARGERather, I want to offer some thoughts based on my own experience with the books. You see, when the first four books came out, my parents bought them, and I started reading them. Unfortunately, I only got through the beginning of The Prisoner of Azkaban before they were removed from our home at the urging of some Christian expert on the radio who argued the books were demonic and unsuitable for reading by Christians. I don’t remember the name of this man, though I do remember listening to him speak over the radio and talking with my Mom about what he had said afterwards. The books having been taken away, I paid little attention to Harry Potter for the next several years apart from noticing in passing the release of a new book or movie. Having enjoyed the first few books, I wasn’t totally convinced that they were the embodiment of evil seeking to seduce young Christians. However, since I hadn’t read the entire series either, I wasn’t sure they were worthy of my attention. After graduating high school, I attended a summer conference run by Summit Ministries, where Harry Potter came up again, this time within the context of being familiar with at least the basic parameters of important cultural movements. Unfortunately, I didn’t get around to re-starting (and subsequently finishing) the series until my senior year of undergrad.

I say “unfortunately” because, as a theology major, I found the series, in addition to being well written and engaging, to touch on a number of theological themes, as well as conveying (at times very explicitly) Christian and Christological parallels. Looking back, I think the lessons and stimulation of the Harry Potter series could have made some rather angst-y junior high and high school years a more positive experience. With frustration I think about the wonder of a meaningful and formative story that was denied me because some “Christian expert” (irony quotes key here) thought they were Satanic. I want to be clear that I don’t blame my parents here– they were simply doing what they were advised was best. Reflecting back upon my overall experience with the Harry Potter series after finishing the series, I have become increasingly perplexed: why do so many Christians abhor these books?

Clearly the immediate context of the narrative, a school of witchcraft and wizardry, could be perceived as troubling. However, I would suggest that only a highly superficial reading of the books could indicate that the Harry Potter series is about witchcraft and wizardry. Fear of the unknown or mysterious (here, as is often the case, something apart from “American Christianity”) does not necessarily mean that the unknown is evil. It very well may be. But God gave us minds, and use those capacities to learn and understanding seems like a much better use of those gifts than simply rejecting that which we don’t know. In reading the Harry Potter series, witchcraft and wizardry are very much the backdrop of the story. Much more meaningful were the themes of friendship, making hard decisions, sacrifice, the battle between good and evil, and (above all) love that permeate the entire series from beginning to end. Rowling is on record as saying that most important passage of the book includes the Bible verses found in the cemetery at Godric’s Hollow. Rowling takes shots at a number of influential institutions and practices in the series, critiquing the education system, prisons, the legal system, racism, sports, hero worship, and (perhaps above all) government. The one institution that is only ever portrayed in a positive light is the Church. Writing in an English context, this portrayal speaks volumes about the underlying message of the series.

Lumos in Action

Lumos in Action

The casting of spells also commonly comes up as a topic of critique, with some critics going so far as to suggest that Rowling intends to train an army of Wiccans through her books. Of course, no actual Wiccan (or practitioner of any other form of “magic” for that matter) reads the books as anything of the sort. In fact, anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Latin immediately knows exactly what one of Rowling’s spells means and is intended to do — precisely what the word (or root word) means. Perhaps the most common “spell” in the Harry Potter series is lumos, derived from the Latin lumen, meaning light. We are not surprised then that this “spell” elicits light from the end of a wand. Even the “major exception” to the Latin-basis rule, the “killing curse,” comes from another ancient language, Aramaic.

Another criticism I often hear is that the characters in Harry Potter sometimes lie, cheat, steal, return evil for evil, etc, thereby making them negative role models for the teens/young adults reading the books. In comparison these examples are, of course, consistently placed next to Biblical characters who are exemplars of flawless virtue such as Abraham (a liar), Jacob (really a liar), Moses (a murderer), David (a murderer and adulterer), Peter (who abandoned his Lord), and Paul (who went around killing Christians). The point here, and more importantly the point of the character flaws within the series, is not that people are perfect, because they’re not. Everyone sins, even our role models. Dumbledore, for all of his virtues, is purposefully revealed as far from perfect. The point of the Harry Potter series is not that we should look up to flawed people, it’s that whenever we look up to people, we must remember they are flawed no matter who they are. This is one facet of the series that I found to be far more realistic and prefatory for real life (as opposed to the myriad of Christian narratives where people are all too perfect).

Are the Harry Potter books perfect? Of course not. Are there potentially objectionable things that make them unsuitable for certain people and audiences? Sure. Can they be used as tools for Satan to enter our minds? Only insofar as we allow other forms of media and entertainment to control us. If you assume that all of non-Christian culture is inherently evil, then it follows that the Harry Potter series, which isn’t put in the “Christian book” section, is necessarily evil. But if you believe that God’s truth can be found (at least in part) anywhere there is truth and that there books outside of a Christian bookstore that are not directly from the pit of hell, then you should think about reading the Harry Potter series (if you haven’t already). We Christians need to stop condemning things that they don’t understand. This is not to suggest a retreat into postmodern “tolerance” where the things we don’t understand are necessarily good and always acceptable. What I am saying is that many Christians decided that the HP series was dark, demonic, inappropriate, anti-Christian, *insert your negative description here* without reading the books. This needs to stop. Of more appropriate and honest response, I think, would have been to thoughtfully engage the books within their historical and literary context, perhaps through someone like John Granger.

If you despise reading, can’t tolerate KJV-style English, or have an attention span that only allows you to read one page of a book at a time, then you probably won’t enjoy the great words of Western Literature (of course here one could argue that we should interact with great literature regardless of our enjoyment of it, but that’s a post for another time). If you don’t enjoy fantasy, long and complex narratives, and literary alchemy, then Harry Potter probably isn’t for you. And if you feel that your spiritual state is such that you shouldn’t read something like Harry Potter because it may have a negative impact on your soul, then by all means, don’t read the books. But from the other side let me tell you, you’re missing out on a meaningful adventure.

A few concluding notes: First, this post was not motivated by anyone person, experience, or conversation, but rather by my recent reflections upon a collection of experiences. Second, I have refrained from going into more detail (which I hope to do at a later date) because Hayley is currently reading the Harry Potter series (she’s in the middle of Deathly Hollows), and I don’t want to spoil things for her. Third, I welcome any responses, critiques, questions, snide remarks, etc concerning this post in the comment section below. Thanks for reading.

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