In 1997, nearly 20 years ago, JK Rowling published her first of 7 novels in the Harry Potter series. Rowling, a single mother from Leith (a suburb of Edinburgh) said the inspiration for her best-selling books just came to her as she was riding on a train to London. When the concepts first started formulating in Rowling’s mind, she likely had no idea what a sensation would be produced. Today Harry Potter has made a mark in the modern literary world in a way few other novels have rivaled. Harry Potter merchandise, websites, video games, and fan clubs abound. Virtually everyone under the age of 30 has read, watched, or otherwise been influenced by Potter and almost everyone under 50 has at least heard of who Harry Potter is.
At the core of the Potter series lies a deeply inspiring novel about a young boy who defeats various challenges that inadvertently find him. Orphaned as an infant due to the wicked Lord Voldemort who murders both his parents and leaves Harry with a lightening shaped scar, Potter is forced to grow up with his unloving and unsupportive relatives, the Dursleys, who don’t believe in magic and are embarrassed by Potter’s involvement in it. Soon, Potter unexpectedly receives a letter from Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry inviting him to begin his training there. Potter stays on for 7 years, taking various courses, playing quidditch (a mash-up between American football, soccer, and rugby played on flying broomsticks), and solving problems. We learn of his adventures getting along well with certain professors and not so well with others, creating friends and enemies alike, and occasionally dodging the rules. Throughout the novel, the struggle between good and evil becomes apparent as Potter often displays courage and conviction to do what is right even in the face of adversity.
There are many good aspects of the Harry Potter series, yet there is also much controversy amongst liberal and conservative Christians alike as to whether or not these books are suitable reading material for young (and older) children. This blog will address some of these concerns as well as sharing my own experience of reading these novels ultimately leaving you with the opportunity to decide for yourselves whether or not this is something your kids and grandkids should be reading.
My Personal Journey With Harry Potter
I grew up in a fairly strict and conservative Christian family. From a young age I was taught to revere the Bible as the literal Word of God. This does not mean that in each and every case it is possible to take the Bible word for word, but rather that it is the inerrant instruction of the Father and it is not our place to tamper or proof-text verses to suit our own agendas. I also had the privilege of attending a quite conservative Christian elementary school. I remember being a young student and hearing about the Harry Potter phenomenon. When I went shopping it became apparent that this was the latest up-and-coming thing. I remember many of my friends going out to buy t-shirts or games and even hosting Harry Potter parties. Yet I also distinctly remember not being able to read the books or watch the movies myself. It wasn’t until I was in my final year of high school that my boyfriend (at the time) and I watched a Harry Potter movie together at my house along with his siblings. I was 17 at the time, approximately 10 years after the first book was released. I remember watching it almost with a sense of pride…doing something distinctly I knew my parents would be against. But I also remember not necessarily thinking there was anything inadvertently wrong with what I was seeing on the screen.
Looking back to my childhood days and hearing many of my friends share with me how they grew up on Harry Potter, still does not make me feel like I missed out on anything special. I recently read the Potter series for the first time in an attempt to formulate my own opinion on this religious phenomenon. I am not really interested in novels and fantasy, oftentimes preferring to read non-fiction and deeply theological and religious tomes. However, I must admit to an almost immediate liking to these books. They held my interest in a way that few other novels ever have. Although they might not be quite at the same level as some of the older classics, I still feel they are fairly well-written, fast-paced, suspenseful, and a delightful read. I am sure that they must be even more special and eventful to read as a youngster, and I am happy (in a way) that they are at least increasing childhood literacy. Nevertheless, I also see the wisdom in my parents not allowing me to read these books. I remember emailing my mom when I finished the first book – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in the U.S.) and her telling me that she also enjoyed it. I was surprised and emailed her back saying “I thought I wasn’t allowed to read it?” My mom responded that I wasn’t because the strict evangelical school I attended threatened to confiscate any Harry Potter books brought onto campus and even discipline children talking about these books during the school break. Yet my mom had wisely decided to read them on her own accord in order to better understand the arguments the school presented. My respect for her only increased when I learned this because it is so easy within conservative Christianity to become dogmatic on issues we know relatively nothing about. And that is also the reason why I chose to read Harry Potter – because as a theologian I didn’t just want to slam my foot down on something I have never explored myself.
Theological Leanings and Harry Potter
When I first began theologizing Harry Potter I consulted a number of books and resources in order to formulate the best possible opinion on the matter. Any academic theologian will inform you that the greatest asset of a scholar is someone who is able to look at both sides of an argument in a representationally equal way. Thus I read two books in particular God, the Devil, and Harry Potter by a Church of Scotland minister John Killinger (self-described as “a defence in favour of the beloved novels”) and Harry Potter and the Bible by Richard Abanes (a conservative outlook on the craze). I also referenced my previous seminary training especially courses I took on spiritual warfare and the occult (as well as my general theological training), a few online articles namely: Harry Potter, Jesus and Me (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/julyweb-only/potterjesusme.html) and The Christian Message of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (http://www.dartmouthapologia.org/apologia/the-christian-message-of-harry-potter-and-the-deathly-hallows-part-1/) and also interviewed a number of my friends on both the conservative and the liberal sides including a number of other theologians (whether academic or lay), pastors, missionaries, parents, and general church-goers. So it is safe and fair to say that my research has encompassed a myriad of opinions and thoughts on the topic, further pointing to how controversial this issue truly is within the church.
Over-Heated Theological Garble
When asked if I would allow my children to read Harry Potter, my consistent response has been this, “yes, with reservations.” I do not disparage the fact that there are many areas of concern and alarm when it comes to these novels which I will discuss below. Yet, I am also of the opinion that much of the controversy surrounding Harry Potter is a bit excessive on both sides. There are differences of opinion regarding Rowling’s motivations and religious beliefs. According to one website, Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland and has never publicly denied the existence of God. Killinger also mentions that during an interview, Rowling specifically mentioned a high regard for Christ. Conversely scholars like Abanes mention that Rowling did specific research into the occult (perhaps even believing some of the materials herself). I find it highly unlikely that Rowling herself is a witch or practices Wicca, but I also find it hard to believe that she is a conservative, evangelical Christian. Having spent a year in Scotland I am well aware of the religious climate there. Many people are baptized as infants, and will maintain that they belong to a certain denomination regardless of whether or not they attend services or even believe in the major doctrines of that church. It would appear to me that Rowling is probably in this boat – someone who was perhaps baptized and confirmed in a specific church, but who likely does not believe core Scriptural doctrines. That being said, only God knows her heart and her motives and it is not my place to unnecessarily judge where she stands before the Creator. Given that I find it difficult to believe that Rowling is a Christian I believe any references in her novels towards Gospel themes are likely unintentional if not far-fetched. The truth is that the struggle for good and evil is a universal reality. Regardless of one’s religious and philosophical beliefs (or lack there-of) we almost entirely wish that the good guy will win. Thus it is highly unfair for scholars to over spiritualize the morals and action plot in these books. Though if it helps someone to see Christ in a greater way, than I suppose the means and methods don’t matter so much as the ultimate result.
Causes For Concern
For the most part, Harry Potter is a harmless, fun, and fantastic adventure written for both children and adults alike. Nevertheless, there are certain areas that Christian parents must be aware of if they do decide to let their children read these novels.
As I previously mentioned, my first attempt at reading these books was when I was 25. By this age I had already acquired 7 years of intense theological training at a conservative Bible college and seminary, had been a Christian for a number of years, and already knew where I stood on most issues of Christian life and practice. With children, there is much more at stake by letting their young and impressionable minds be exposed to such materials. Unlike adults, children often lack the full ability to reason and to differentiate reality from imagination. This is especially true of children who over-exaggerate what they believe to be real or not. We see this quite frequently, for example, in children who believe in the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus way past a suitable age. We also see it in young children who talk to their dolls and teddy bears as if these objects were alive. In a way, this is a generally healthy part of childhood. If a child sees objects as concrete or is unable to perform make-belief scenarios it often can point to cognitive disorders and dysfunctions. Nevertheless, when addressing a novel like Harry Potter we need to ensure that our children understand that creating their own magic, spells, and potions is not real and any magic that is real within this world has the potential to be gravely dangerous for believers. Additionally, my research into spiritual warfare has shown a pattern that children are often more susceptible to attacks from the Evil One than adults are. This may be in part due to their sensitive and trusting nature, but it is also the result of their inability to argue and counter Satan’s attack through Scriptures. Reading Harry Potter may not necessarily affect each child in the same way, and in fact, many will be able to read it as entertainment and nothing more. However, for a select few individuals, spiritual attacks and confusion may ensue. This was especially pointed out to me in a spiritual warfare questionnaire that addressed the various doors for evil spirits to enter into. One gateway being whether the person has read Harry Potter. Spiritual Gateways to the Enemy should never be taken lightly. It should not be assumed that Harry Potter in itself is evil – it is not. Just like alcohol can be a gateway to addiction, but not everyone who drinks alcohol will become an alcoholic. Nevertheless, some children may develop an unhealthy fascination with magic and the occult and this may lead them down a slippery slope later in life.
The Presence of the Occult and Dark Magic in Harry Potter
Regardless of whether you think Harry Potter is innocent or replete with occultic references, we cannot ignore the deeply spiritual aspects of dark/black magic in the series.
In her book To Loose the Chains author Sergine Snanoudi writes, “In the Bible there are 510 passages and 1,250 verses related to occult practices. God guards His people against these since because they blind and hinder understanding of the Word and its being put into practice, even though it may be frequently heard.” (p.33) Throughout Scripture in both the Old and the New Testaments we are warned of the consequences for someone who practices magic – and it is never positive. We are told that followers of Christ are to reject these types of behaviours in favour of holiness and righteousness that belongs to God alone. The problem with magic is that it suggests that we have the authority to take that power away from God. In reality, God remains all-powerful and no one can counter His reign, but by allowing ourselves to gain control through means outside of ourselves and outside of the Scriptures we are declaring that there is a better way than the one God Himself gives us.
According to the Oxford Dictionary the meaning of the word “Sorcerer” is “the one who practices magic with the help of an evil spirit” whereas a “Philosopher” is “a thinker, theorizer, or theoretician.” This may be nothing more than a matter of mere semantics since the UK refers to the first book as the “Philosopher’s Stone” whereas the US refers to it as “the Sorcerer’s Stone” however the significance is not lost on me. Whether the discipline is simply the result of magic (and moreso evil magic) as in the case of “sorcerer” or else is a more academic discipline (as in the case of “philosopher”) greatly impacts how we view the rest of the series.
Furthermore, we must recognize the myriad references the book uses to talk about magic: divination, herbology, witchcraft, fortune-telling, charms, potions, and astronomy are all portrayed in a positive light. Contrast this with Biblical teaching that God alone knows the future and we should rely on Him and His Word rather than turning to crystal gazing or horoscopes. Additionally, Professor Trelawney (Head of Divination) often speaks maledictions on her student’s destinies – whereas Christians are called to consult God in faith trusting His divine guidance and providence for their futures.
Another concern I have with the Potter series is the almost Halloween-like fascination with death. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Nearly Headless Nick hosts a Halloween party to celebrate his 500th death-day anniversary. Harry, Ron, and Hermonie go as a favour to him and are introduced to an eerie other worldly fascination. Fast forward to Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban in which death once more is displayed as something to be feared. This is entirely contrary to the Christian message which promotes death as the gateway to eternal life and jubilation with Christ. Christians are told not to mourn like those who have no hope, but to look forward for what awaits them: a world far better than anything this life could ever render (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1%20Thessalonians%204:13-18). This is so different to C.S. Lewis’s The Last Battle where he pens, “The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.” Lewis, as a devout Christian, recognized that this life is transitory and our hearts long for the next, whereas, Rowling makes it appear as if this world is all there is and the afterlife is a scary place. Nevertheless, she did re-align her thoughts somewhat later on when Dumbledore dies but chooses not to become a ghost because for him it is a natural progression to move forward. Nearly Headless Nick even mentions that he wished he would have chosen this life for himself rather than staying stuck only in what he knew and that this mentality was a mistake on his part.
Final Remarks: Harry Potter – Worth a Read?
There are many excellent books out there, but none have garnered as much attention and debate as the Potter series. Some conservative Christians try to justify reading Narnia or Lord of the Rings (also which use magic) saying that the magic in these books is much different than that of Harry Potter because the former two were written by Christian authors. I agree with this thought to an extent. It is very easy to see the parallels between Narnia and Scripture precisely because of Lewis’s background and in the first two cases, magic is used quite sparingly with a clear distinction between the real and imaginary. The problem with Harry Potter is that it blurs these lines which can often leave children confused (as was already pointed out above).
Nevertheless, I still maintain that there is nothing inherently wrong with permitting children to read these novels as long as a parent, pastor, or teacher is there to help guide them explaining that what they are reading is mere fantasy and fiction. Christian children should be presented with Biblical truths, but also be given the opportunity to read and explore other types of literature. If anything, this will increase their faith by allowing them to see how different the Christian faith is from what the world has to offer. However, each parent is responsible for their own children and each parent knows what is right for their young one. If you as a parent are uncomfortable reading about magic to your children or if you think you lack the ability to explain these concepts to them, then it would be in your best interest to veer away as much as possible from the Potter series. Conversely, if your children demonstrate a good grasp of fact and fiction, this might be the perfect opportunity to allow them to enter into a superb adventurous tale. My greatest encouragement to you would be that if you haven’t read these novels yet yourself, take the time and effort to become familiar with them. Make sure that when you tell your children you are against something you have good reasons for it – reasons which they will understand and later come to appreciate. When we do this we not only save our kid’s soul from potential damage and disillusionment, but we also practice training up a child in the way he should go so that he will not depart from it later in life. This is the goal all Christian parents are called to, and I hope it is the ideal that you also will work towards reaching.