What Shall We Do With Harry?
by Lindy Beam, Youth Culture Analyst
"Reading the Harry Potter books promotes investigation by children into the occult? Preposterous."
"To in any way condone entertainment [such as Harry Potter] that glorifies that which is born in the pits of Hell is to court disaster."
I have to admit that I’ve spent more time wrestling over Harry Potter in the past months than over any other subject. Much of my soul-searching has been to discover how any two people could read my previous reviews of the Harry Potter phenomenon and react with such diametrically opposed responses as the two above (both of which I actually received). One believed fervently that I had condoned and even endorsed the series of books; the other that I had employed a 10-pound sledgehammer and bashed it to bits. It is these kinds of strong reactions that have prompted a new, elongated study of Harry Potter and how four small books have shaken up the world. Simply put, the goal of all this is to grow kids who are wise, thoughtful, culturally literate, pure, God-fearing and who can make a positive impact on their world. That said, enter Harry's world with me. . . .
Harmless Magic or Evil Personified?
The Harry Potter books highlight the adventures of a likable young wizard who is orphaned in infancy, raised by his non-magical relatives, and later informed of his magical abilities and invited to study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Harry Potter is a standard tale of good vs. evil, and good always wins in the end. Harry, the hero, often triumphs because of his upright character and pure motives. Unconditional love and courage are held as ideals of great importance. By following Harry and his best friend Ron, the reader gets a glimpse of true loyalty and friendship, as well as self-sacrifice. On the other hand, witches, wizards, and other magical characters play the lead roles. Harry and his friends practice spells and create potions. And face-offs with the Dark side are predictably intense.
From every indication given in both her books and in her interviews, author J.K. "Jo" Rowling has no intention of drawing children into the occult. Of the magic and wizardry in her stories, she says, "My wizarding world is a world of the imagination. I think it's a moral world." She even goes on to say, "I don't believe in the kind of magic that appears in my books . . ." She creates a world where magic is portrayed creatively and yet strangely stereotypically. Children who read about Harry will probably discover little about the true world of the occult. That’s why some Christian leaders and Christian publications find these books to be more fantastical than threatening. Christian author Chuck Colson describes Rowling's magic as "purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic," explaining that, "Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals—but they don't make contact with a supernatural world."
There are strong arguments both for liking and disliking Harry Potter. Some Christian parents see the themes of love, courage and character and decide that the magic in Harry Potter is "purely fantasy." "At least it has kids reading instead of watching TV!" they exclaim. But others see the witches and wizards and insist, "It's evil! It's from the Devil! Avoid at all costs!" So what is the truth about Harry?
those inclined to accept Harry with open arms,
let me plant three concerns in your
minds. 1) The Occult
For those inclined to accept Harry with open arms, let me plant three concerns in your minds.
1) The Occult
More accurate than calling these books an invitation to the occult, the danger of Rowling’s books is the fact that, though witches and wizards aren’t portrayed realistically, they (at least the "good" ones) are portrayed positively. For this reason, what some Christian critics said would happen—desensitization to witchcraft—is already happening. In an abcNEWS.com interview, practicing Wiccan (witch) Phyllis Curott says, "Sure, you are seeing witches in Harry Potter do things they don’t do in real life. But it is positive. They are friendly. They are good. The book might change the way people feel about us." With statements like these being made by self-proclaimed witches, it’s hard to argue that Harry Potter isn't exerting even a modicum of influence on children’s thinking and behavior.
2) Worldly Values
This is perhaps the most subtle of the dangers in these books, but not one to be overlooked. Since Rowling doesn't make a clear link between her kind of magic and true witchcraft, the spiritual fault of Harry Potter is not so much that it plays to dark supernatural powers, but that it doesn't acknowledge any supernatural powers or moral authority at all. Rowling does not write from the basis of Judeo-Christian ethics. So her characters may do "the-wrong-thing-for-the-right-reason," often lying, cheating or breaking rules in order to save the day. Additionally, mild swearing becomes more frequent as the characters age. Ostensibly, this is justified by its realism as a part of today’s teenage world, but realistic portrayals of culture aren’t necessarily helpful to parents who are trying to raise kids who live counter-culturally.
3) Violence and "Scary Stuff"
Had I read Harry Potter as a child, this would have been my biggest hang-up. Rowling’s rendering of the books’ battles are effective and descriptive. Only the reader’s imagination decides how graphic they are, but they provide plenty of opportunities for lots of gore and fright for readers who are willing and programmed to go there.
At the very least, Harry Potter is not for young children and may be too much to handle for some older children. But that's not the end of it. . . .
those already loudly decrying Harry, consider
For those already loudly decrying Harry, consider this:
While Christians have good reason to be concerned about Harry Potter, something has gone sadly awry in how these concerns have played out. Specifically, I’m troubled by two things: that we’re missing a huge opportunity to be salt and light in our world, and that we’ve taken too simplistic a view of what our reaction must be to the problematic elements of Harry Potter.
Clearly the church is not gaining any ground over this issue. We may succeed in defending our own homes against the "invasion," but we are not winning unbelieving hearts and minds to Christ. Why are we missing out on the opportunity afforded by such a far-reaching phenomenon? Part of the reason is that, by our reactions, believers confirm the world’s suspicion that ours is a faith easily knocked down when we expose ourselves to contrary ideas. Not so! We have a faith that is absolutely true and relevant to all areas of life, and when we confront the ideas of the world or of false religions, we will always find that Christianity offers a better and more true answer. But few Christians live as if this were the case. We’re afraid to test our faith against other ideas—or at least we act like we’re afraid. The world sees this and automatically discounts Christianity as a shallow faith with little to offer for answering life’s ultimate questions.
Harry Potter is popular, in part, because it touches on deep human questions about a reality beyond the physical. Christians have an opportunity to intelligently challenge the dangers we see in Harry Potter and give evidence of a better answer found in Christ. But instead of capitalizing on this opportunity, our fear gives us an excuse to be reactionary, remain ignorant or both. If we continue to choose these approaches, the church will remain a small voice shouting from the bleachers rather than a quarterback in the cultural huddle.
Specifically, we’ve oversimplified what the church’s approach to Harry Potter should be. We have taken to heart the biblical admonition to "have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness . . . ," but we have neglected our responsibility to "expose them" (Eph. 5:12). In other words, we’ve done the reactive part, but we’ve dismissed the proactive part of what God calls us to do. We know God hates the practice of witchcraft (Deut. 18:10). But we have committed a fault of logic in saying that reading about witches and wizards necessarily translates into these occult practices. I would propose instead that reading Harry Potter produces curiosity and that it is what we do with that curiosity that makes all the difference.
For many children, the curiosity cannot be met in a healthy manner. Children who will glorify or be enamored with any of the problematic elements, whether it be magic, violence or secular values should not read Harry Potter. However, we must remember that avoidance is a defensive action, not an offensive one. And while our short-range goal is defensive (to protect our families from the negative influences of society), our long-range goal is offensive (to change society from the inside out). To be on the offensive, we need to raise up more Christian thinkers who can enter the realm of entertainment armed with a critical knowledge of both the Scripture and the false world views they’re combating. One father I’ve spoken with has decided to read and discuss Harry Potter with his daughter because, "She's a bit more mature than most 11-year-olds, powerfully grounded in the Christian perspective for her age, a careful and thoughtful child who loves both to read and write for the glory of God, and whose motivation, beyond being entertained, is to be ‘salt and light’ to the many friends, both Christian and non-Christian, who are reading the series." Indeed, it is these Christians who will have a redemptive effect on society, making positive changes for the long run.
So what does this mean for Harry Potter fans (or "wannabe" readers) and their parents? At best, it's a sticky question. Offensive skills are best learned through exposing ourselves to areas of culture where the opportunities to learn the truth outweigh the dangers to our spiritual lives. Little by little, we gain ground and are able to take on bigger battles. Truthfully, Harry Potter is not the best place to begin this learning process. It’s too advanced for many just beginning to learn critical thinking. But because Harry has become nearly unavoidable, I think it’s important to address these principles in relation to the series.
Critical Thinking Principles for Entertainment
Out of the Comfort Zone
Christians more inclined to react to the world often are quick to label anyone who reads Harry Potter as, at best, a worldly Christian. Others have jumped too far the other way and have developed "reasons" to devour Harry Potter for entertainment’s sake, often without thinking critically about it. Because we’re human, we struggle constantly with the balance of being real to a lost world while holding unswervingly to the truth. Jesus managed it perfectly. He ate with tax collectors and sinners but refused to accept compromise when the rich young man wanted to "have it both ways." Often, the struggle to imitate Him seems too much for us and we retreat into our comfort zones, sacrificing either truth or relevance. Our doctrines—not inherently bad—become idols, and the church is relegated to the margins, not making much of a difference in the culture at large. To be salt and light, we need to recognize which position we’re most likely to embrace and make a deliberate effort to move out of that comfort zone. Those wallowing in the world need to get out completely for awhile until they can examine it without embracing it. And those avoiding the world need to roll up their sleeves and engage the culture with a critical Christian thoughtfulness.
Click on the covers to read in-depth reviews of each book.
Copyright © 2001 Focus on the Family
All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
(800) A-FAMILY (232-6459)