≡ Menu

How Harry Potter Made Me a Believer

My daughter is caught up in the Harry Potter craze. And I couldn’t be happier.

After attending last Thursday’s midnight showing, she gushed about the film. I teasingly said she was no better than a Twilight fan, to which she bristled. Then, to my utter surprise, she said, “Do you know what Stephen King said about that?” Now she had my attention.

”Harry Potter is all about confronting fears, finding inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.” – Stephen King

I was momentarily stunned, not because she quoted Stephen King verbatim or that he dissed the sparkly vampire saga, but that my daughter was culling deeper, more substantial elements from the boy wizard. In so doing, she demonstrated one reason why Christian critics appear to be softening.

Apparently, there’s more to Harry Potter than just magic.

When the series burst on to the scene in ’98, some Christians immediately denounced the book. Potter is a primer for witchcraft, they asserted. Several small independent churches publicly burned the books. In fact, the series ranks first in the American Library Association’s Top Banned/Challenged books from 2000-2009.

In Was Harry Potter a Good Christian?, one Georgetown professor, Lauve Steenhuisen, is quoted as blaming the criticism squarely on “conservative Christians.”

“In conservative Christianity there’s two kingdoms: the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan. If (Harry’s) not on one side, he’s on the other.”

Our desire for a black-and-white world and a simplistic discernment model (like Bad guys wear black hats or Good Christians don’t smoke) may be the culprit behind much of the early Potter paranoia. Wizardry is evil, was one such dictum. Since the Bible condemns sorcery, necromancy, and the like, many assumed that any employment of said practices — even in fictional characterizations — was wrong. Good guys don’t wield wands. The problem was, as the Harry Potter series wore on, magic took the back seat to bigger issues. And even the critics had to take notice.

In How Christians Warmed to Harry Potter Wall Street Journal columnist Sarah Pulliam Bailey observed this slow sea-change:

Christians today are certainly not universally enchanted by the series. Over time, however, more readers have begun to express praise for its honest depiction of fear, loneliness and sacrifice as Harry faces the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. Many Christians have cheered the portrayals of loyalty, courage and love, as the main character repeatedly risks his life.

“These books are not written for people who have a mechanical faith,” says John Granger, author of ‘Looking for God in Harry Potter.’ “For Christians who are consumed with moral elements and symbolism, Potter mania was ironic beyond words.”

This irony that “sacrificial love conquers power, including magical power,” threw a monkey wrench into the “mechanical faith” of many opponents of the novel. As the series developed, Christians could not avoid the reality that in the story magic was secondary to other powerful, very biblical, “moral elements and symbolism.” How could a story that glorified some of Christianity’s cardinal virtues be so evil? Even the most “mechanized” Christian recognized the legs of their arguments were undermined.

This warming trend is encouraging. Of course, there may be many reasons why the criticism of Harry Potter has waned. But I can’t help but feel that the series has been a bit of a lesson to us culture warriors. We can’t approach art through a “mechanized faith.” Rather than having a knee-jerk reaction to symbols, words, images, or practices, perhaps we should look deeper, to larger thematic elements that shape a story. After all, sacrificial love is far more important than whether someone wields a wand.

It is this unfolding of Harry Potter’s enduring “message” which has silenced many of its critics. And made me a believer.

Email this to someoneShare on FacebookShare on Google+Tweet about this on TwitterShare on LinkedInShare on TumblrShare on Reddit
{ 48 comments… add one }
  • Noel July 18, 2011, 7:15 AM

    Potter aside, wouldn’t you be inclined to agree that “confronting fears, finding inner strength, and doing what is right in the face of adversity” are pretty typical in fiction, regardless of author/character moral persuasion? “Portrayals of loyalty, courage and [sacrificial] love” are also quite bland moral elements that most world religions support in some degree. This is not to downplay their value or influence, but I’ve met so many good people who cultivate these virtues, outside of Christ–even Christians. Unless He is the source of inner strength, of courage to confront fear and do what is right in the face of evil, unless the Holy Spirit gives internal bearings of loyalty, courage and sacrificial love, it’s all wood, hay and stubble. (can you believe the oxford comma has been axed?)

    • Mike Duran July 18, 2011, 7:59 AM

      Great point, Noel. A couple responses.

      1.) Even though loyalty, courage, and sacrificial love are “quite bland moral elements that most world religions support in some degree,” it is hard to sustain an argument that a story is qualitative evil when those elements are present, much less the overarching theme of the series.

      2.) The professed Christianity of the author. The WSJ article notes Rowling stating “the religious parallels have always been obvious” in the series and have “acknowledged the influence of Tolkien and Lewis on her work.” Then there’s “the two Bible verses found on tombstones in the final book [which] epitomized the whole series.”

      Again, my point here is not to canonize Harry Potter, but to show that the initial “Christian response” was largely unfounded and, hopefully, will change for good.

      Thanks for commenting, Noel!

    • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 8:09 AM

      Why I am not dropping the Oxford comma. 🙂

      I agree about the hay, wood, and stubble bit. I don’t like the “look inside yourself” message of so many children’s books, either. There’s some truth to it, but it’s been so perverted that it does more harm than good, I think. But I liked Harry because he was the Christ figure in a story world where there was no God or Jesus Christ.

  • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 8:06 AM

    Problem A) is that exercising discernment is a sort of “spiritual cleverness” that can’t be boiled down into “do – don’t do.” In fact, discernment is the antithesis of rule-following. I can’t help but chuckle at those who believe they can follow simple steps towards exercising spiritual discernment.

    Testing the spirits is not multiple choice.

    Problem B) is that the Harry Potter books aren’t well written.

    So – I offend some of the brethren when I tell them they are failing to discern if they dismiss Harry Potter because of its witchcraft, or because it doesn’t have a proper plot device to somehow divorce it from reality (“it’s anti-Christian because there is no wardrobe!”)

    Then I turn around and offend Harry Potter fans by telling them that their most beloved favoritist books in the world have been done better by earlier authors (Jane Yolen, Susan Cooper, etc.)

    LaShawn Barber has written extensive defenses of Harry Potter from a Christian (hard-thumping, no less) perspective for a decade or so. She definitely went against the grain early and often. The books are special in that they are long, and let fantasists dwell in a land stuffed with so many details that it is impossible not to find at least one trope that the reader finds either comfortable or intriguing.

    I just don’t find the stories particularly coherent or unique. There is an H.P. in fantasy who warrants far more attention than the well-marketed engine of the Boy Who Lined Pockets. But Lovecraft didn’t craft Butterbeer, and I very much doubt that a Cthulhu-inspired theme park would be legal.

    But that King quote is golden.

    Maybe I ought to practice better discernment and just keep my trap shut. I hear the not-so distant thunder of incoming tomatoes.

    • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 8:13 AM

      What I just overlooked, that absolutely should not be overlooked, is the evangelical opportunity that has chiefly been missed with Harry Potter fans.

      The only tracts and witnesses that I ever saw in regards to the phenomenon were chiefly competitive and critical, as in: “Here, let me show how your favorite book is sinful, horrible and why you shouldn’t read it.”

      It was very frustrating for me in the 90s and early aughts to try to talk about the spiritual implications of H.P. with fans when their spiritual soil (instead of their spiritual soul – what a difference a single vowel makes!) had already been salted by well-meaning witch-hunters.

      The opportunity was for discerning readers like Barber to hunt the text for opportunities to talk with fans about the deeper meanings and motivations of H.P. and company. You can’t talk to the unbeliever about his “unknown god” if you waste all your time damning it.

      • Katherine Coble July 18, 2011, 8:36 AM

        I didn’t write tracts, and I kept my witness in the street. But I was there from June of 2000, emphasising the very Christian elements and nature. You would NOT believe the emails of “you were RIGHT” that flooded me, the number of phone calls I got when 1Cor. 15:26 made an appearance in the last book.

        The last book that ends with an acknowledgement of the words of the Prayer of Julian Of Norwich.

        God has given me a few talents. I can’t catch a ball or even run a block. But I can read and discern and glean details. And I’m pleased that God was able to use me in countless discussions to present a better face for Christianity than the dictatorial dismissiveness of the Book Banners. And to show people that Death is conquered in Christ.

        As to your points about the books being not “well-written” and done better by others. Yes and no. The themes and ideas in the books are as old as time. Others have crafted more artful pieces dealing with those themes and ideas. But not a single one of those stories (and I’ve read most of them) is as APPROACHABLE as this series is. And I think that approachability is its key.

        • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 9:15 AM

          We’ll have to disagree on approachability. Dark is Rising, the LTWAW, and even Wizard’s Hall are all equally as “approachable” as Harry Potter. And those books don’t have the future problem of certain books being “too old” for readers of the initial one.

          HP benefits from a very unique market approach: the books age with a certain demographic of readers. When the books were coming out, a seven year old kid could start with Philosopher’s Stone and would be old enough to read the next books in the series as they came out. That’s a great formula

          I wouldn’t change the books one bit, in that they do exactly what they are supposed to do: create a rabid fan base, provide extensive diversion and make bozillions of dollars. I just find the series jarring and lacking in both style and substance through long stretches. A good approach demands a brilliant follow-through – but art wasn’t ever really Rowling’s chief concern, was it?

          There’s better art out there. Far better.

          But in terms of the opportunity for cultural engagement? You can’t beat Harry with a Bludger.

          Ignore him at the risk of relevance.

    • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 8:19 AM

      Consider yourself tomatoed.

      🙂

      The details of the world were what made it so real and so endearing. I really would love some butterbeer.

      What is wrong with being the boy who lined pockets? Is art only good if it no one likes it enough to pay for it?

      • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 8:44 AM

        Nothing is wrong with lining pockets. It would have been lovely if the books had been well-written as a bonus.

        Trust me, I get the appeal, and I understand why kids and adults go nuts over them. Book 7 was pretty obviously inspired by Matthew 6, and, since Rowling wrote much of that first, and slowly worked her way towards it in the other six books, I don’t think that a person can now retroactively make the argument that Harry Potter isn’t a clear attempt at Christian allegory.

        It was a stroke of genius to make the books huge, immersive things. It was the Harry Potter experience, after all, that made them so commercially successful. That, plus a brilliant campaign on the part of Scholastic. But huge and immersive doesn’t equal well-written, anymore than the “director’s cut” of Stephen King’s The Stand is superior in literary quality to the original published edition. It is just more. Rowling had a choice to make: go for more, or go for better.

        She made the wise choice, and went for more.

        But that doesn’t make their literary quality, in any way, shape or form in the same league as Susan Cooper.

        So, just as a jillion dollars does not disqualify art (the Narnia books have done just that, as have the Lord of the Rings, and Game of Thrones has become a juggernaut from its humble beginnings) nor does it qualify it.

        Had the Left Behind series not saddled itself to a disastrous film production deal, it likely would have created a similar (though less kid-driven) global entertainment phenomenon. There’s a difference between good entertainment and good art.

        H.P. is really, really, really good entertainment.

        And there’s no shame in that.

    • Mike Duran July 18, 2011, 8:29 AM

      Dan, Stephen King spoke very fondly of Rowling’s craft. For instance, this quote: “The real difference is that Jo Rowling is a terrific writer and Stephenie Meyer can’t write worth a darn. She’s not very good.”

      • Katherine Coble July 18, 2011, 8:37 AM

        I’m trying to be good and not rail against Stephanie Meyer. Even though it has become one of my favourite hobbies. Team Tyler’s Van!

      • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 8:53 AM

        Stephen King and I disagree on many, many things, but Rowling’s craft isn’t one of them. Rowling’s not a bad writer. She’s merely an unedited one.

        The seven books should have been a trilogy. Her saving grace was that she intended to end the books (this is another one of the things that made them a marketer’s dream – a true finale ratcheted up the anticipation a thousandfold).

        But like not enough butter stretched across too much bread, the Harry Potter books sacrifice literary quality for immersion (and, let’s face it, money).

        Is she better than Meyer? Well, yeah. But the Lakers are better than the Clippers this year. That doesn’t make them champions.

        Line up Rowling against the best contemporary and classical fantasy writers, and she clearly stands head and shoulders above them in terms of marketing, fandom and income.

        Dan Brown is a better writer than Stephanie Meyer, for goodness sakes. That doesn’t make him Umberto Eco!

        • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 10:46 AM

          I agree with most of this. I’m not sure quality was sacrificed for immersion. I’m not sure I even understand what you mean by that.

          • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 11:23 AM

            The books should be shorter.

            Way shorter.

            She could simply drop the insane amount of frivolous adverbs. That alone would shear a hundred pages off the series with no change to the text.

            There is, invariably, a stretch of about 25-100 pages in each book that reads interminiably, illuminates very little, and progresses nothing. They are endurance tests – every reader is invested and must pass through them to be rewarded with the Club of Fandom.

            Order of the Pheonix, I’m looking at you!

            Rowling benefits from the easy reading scale demanded of children/youth books. The more mature readers knock through the bits of writerly boredom fairly quickly and settle into the good parts. The kids don’t know any better, so they plow on through.

            I have not yet met a Harry Potter fan who quotes passages from the texts as representative of its art, but they happily quote ideas from the text liberally. Harry Potter is no more infused with great art than McDonald’s hamburgers are infused with great nutrition.

            That doesn’t mean Rowling isn’t a perfectly solid writer. She is adequate to the task, and, to the point Mike (and Stephen) make, she’s far more capable than Meyer.

            Her task doesn’t happen to be to make great literature.

  • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 8:15 AM

    I have loved the Harry Potter books from the start. My original argument for the series was that 1) Moses used power from God, while Pharaoh’s magicians used power from Satan. Magic can be good or bad, depending on its source. And 2) In every instance where magic is denounced in scripture it is tied to human sacrifice. It is about manipulating the gods/nature for personal gain. It is certainly not tied to playing quidditch on broomsticks and eating earwax flavored jelly beans.

    In Harry’s world I had a problem with his wand sharing a source with Voldemort’s. I think that reflects a Zoroasterian view of good and evil. Or maybe a yin and a yang view—I don’t know that much about Eastern religion. I just know that Jesus and Satan aren’t equals or brothers. But I also don’t think it’s necessary to toss a book over something that minor that the author never developed into anything important (unless I’m forgetting—I only read the books once so I may have missed stuff she was doing). I think it’s important to notice these things and talk about them with your kids, though.

    In the end I thought Harry was a great Christ figure and I couldn’t be happier that Rowling wrote books that addressed life after death and sacrificial love.

    • Katherine Coble July 18, 2011, 8:42 AM

      Sally, in the end when it is revealed that one of the pieces of Voldemort’s soul had detached itself and latched onto Harry it becomes clear that Harry’s wand chose Harry in large part because of his having that bit of Voldemort in him.

      So it wasn’t at all about the duality of good and evil. QUITE THE OPPOSITE.

      • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 10:22 AM

        There you go. I didn’t read the last books very carefully, I admit. I don’t remember Voldemort’s soul attaching to Harry at all. I was pretty tired of the books by the time we got into book five—in fact I read half of book five and set it down and didn’t pick it back up again until the week before six came out. I read five, six, and seven without much interest. I loved the first three books, thought four was interesting but too long, and had a hard time caring about Harry and Voldemort after that for reasons that aren’t really worth sharing.

  • Zach July 18, 2011, 8:15 AM

    I think the idea of “warming” is overly optimistic. I’m more inclined to believe they lost interest – it’s hard to be passionately against a children’s book series for over a decade. Remember similar Christian alarmist stances towards Disney? Also shuffled under the carpet.

    We’re a sensationalism culture without much of an understanding of the word “perseverance.” It’s a lot more believable to me that we just found something distracting (read: newer, more shiny) to be morally outraged at.

    • Mike Duran July 18, 2011, 8:44 AM

      Zach, I agree that tenure probably caused much of the criticism to wane (which was one of the points mentioned in the WSJ article). However, I think the clarity the series brought to its theme also had something to do with it. In fact, as the saga went on, more books supporting those themes popped up: Jesus Potter Harry Christ, Looking for God in Harry Potter, and The Gospel According to Harry Potter, just to name a few. All that to say, the longevity of the series probably contributed to some of the progressive disinterest, but not all of it.

      • Katherine Coble July 18, 2011, 1:55 PM

        Urgh. Ironically, Looking For Good In Harry Potter is written by John Granger. Who, although a dear man with very good points at times is a bit of a Gnostic heretic. So I always hesitate to use him as a reference in defence of the Christian aspects of the books.

  • Katherine Coble July 18, 2011, 8:26 AM

    OHHHH, you are in my bailiwick now!

    I’ve spent the last ELEVEN years being a predominant Christian voice in the Harry Potter commentary world. Just today I wrote about my experiences with the community again.

    I don’t know, now that i think about it, how I can contain my thoughts to a comment box, thoughts that I’ve put out there for years.

    These books are, in the main, CHRISTIAN. They deal far better than any “Christian fiction” I’ve ever read with issues of death and loss. Honour and integrity.

    But I have to say something and say it very clearly.

    I do not dismiss those Christians who have concerns about the series

    I know several people for whom the discussion of witchcraft and the pagan elements of things like Alchemy are stumbling blocks. Those are real things in our real Christian world and there are Christians who have tangled with those forces. I have other stumbling blocks and over the years I have learned that there are some innocuous things I _just have to avoid_. Things that don’t trouble other people in the least but lead me back into my Old Man nature. And I know there are a lot of Christians for whom Potter (and, indeed, any thing that mentions those themes) can be an issue.

    I think most things in the world are like that. My husband can have a six pack of craft beers in the fridge for an occasional bottle, and that six pack can stay there for five weeks before it’s all drunk up. Another relative of mine can’t look at a can of beer without reverting to the darkest days of his alcoholism. That relative doesn’t go about telling everyone they have to stop drinking. In fact we see how well Prohibition turned out, right?

    So I’m fine with Christian objections so long as they don’t turn into fiats about the entirety of the faith.

    I am now forcing myself to stop this comment, lest it go on in praise of these books for another 50,000 words.

    • Jill July 18, 2011, 1:54 PM

      I’m thankful you added this comment because this whole discussion was beginning to make me feel like a jerk for disliking HP. But I’m not a book burner, nor do I have a problem with other Christians reading/loving HP. I actually thought I was in the minority. Most Christians I know have no problems whatsoever with the books. One of the most conservative, reform Christians I know is a big fan. Go figure.

      I wanted to respond directly to your comment, Katherine, but the rest of this comment is general, not aimed at you. We need to stop pretending that the symbols Rowling uses have no meaning. Divorcing the symbols from their pagan roots is dishonest (broomsticks and pointy hats, for example). I’d like to add this caveat in bold terms, but I won’t be that obnoxious: Pagan symbols are not necessarily evil. They are used as archetypes that our society understands. Lewis did it. In fact, Lewis uses some very disturbing imagery–far more disturbing than Rowling. L’Engle’s books, generally considered Christian, read like fictional escapes into gnosticism.

      I know I had a point in all this. Think. Think. Oh, yes, I remember–I live in an area populated by Navajos. All over the place, in tourist shops and art galleries, locals sell Navajo dream-catchers. They mean nothing to me, don’t give me shudders, and don’t haunt me at night. But don’t even consider bringing one around a Navajo Christian. Navajo Christians understand the symbolism–those doors of spirituality have been open wide for them, and they want nothing to do with them any longer. I could argue that the dream-catchers have a Christian parallel of some sort, but I respect my Navajo Christian brethren too much to make that case to them. Why would I want to cause them to stumble by asking them to be more open-minded? Why?

      Talking to the dead and practicing witchcraft in any form have negative connotations for me, most likely because I practiced these arts with my friends when I was young. The symbols mean danger to me, and I’m sorry that I can’t get past the symbolism to the Christian narrative. I can’t do it, and I longer try.

      • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 2:57 PM

        I have friends who can’t have Christmas trees, because of the pagan roots. I don’t ever try to talk them into having Christmas trees. I simply don’t care if people have Christmas trees or if they like Harry Potter.

        • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 3:05 PM

          There’s an easy solution to that problem. Your friends should go to a tree farm and cut their own tree. The pagan roots will be left behind on someone else’s property!

          • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 3:34 PM

            🙂 So logical. If only we were all so clear-minded.

  • Erica July 18, 2011, 8:45 AM

    2 Things:
    First, I really enjoyed the Twilight series(sorry guys) simply because I’m a sucker(pun) for vamp- love -action flicks, thats all I look for anyway.

    Second, although I am NOT a Harry Potter fan, my husband and I(yes, we are believers) have tried sitting through the HP movies and most of them were actually good. Did we see anything evil with Harry Potter himself? Nope. Was there the grand battle of evil versus good? Yep. So this for me equals one thing- it was simply fiction about a boy wizard who with the help of his friends, battle evil forces.

    Third, as someone who is about to put her own work out there, I struggle with defining my work as solely Christian because elements of morality are there but it isn’t going to be preachy. I’ll have to pray on that.

    Thanks!

    • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 9:27 AM

      This brings up a very good point:

      We often like things because, well, we like them. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.

      Sometimes, a lot of unnecessary diversions arise when people (like me)blend philisophical arguments with arguments of taste. As in, “What you like such-and-such? That’s not even art!”

      Yeah, because that’s why people pack the stadium…for the corporate logo design on the uniforms…

  • M.E. Anders July 18, 2011, 9:02 AM

    I do remember my former uber-fundamentalist pastor railing against the Harry Potter series. My father banned them from our household because he believed that demons inhabited the books.

    My hubby introduced me to Rowling’s series, and I was horrified at first. A few chapters into the series, I changed my tune. We just finished reading aloud the entire series…

    Harry Potter has also made me a believer, Mike.

  • Tony July 18, 2011, 9:30 AM

    Feels like stretching. Rowling herself insists that it’s pure entertainment, that she never intended any message at all, not even the oh-so-common insisted upon “coming of age tale.”

    Of course, all viewers bring something different to the big screen and books. We bring our own baggage and interpret things our own way. You look at the clouds and see a cat, I see a lion, that sorta thing. It’s why I’ve never been upset — or critical — of the folks who condemn the story. Different stuff works for different people.

    I love the movie. I think it says a lot about friendship and the dissillusionment that comes with growing up — not quite what King got from it, but I ain’t King.

    I think that’s the fun about art. And the problem with a lot of Christian fiction. Art, at least to a point, needs to be malleable. There needs to be a little room for interpretation of meaning. For good or ill.

    As for me? I love the movies, but I find the books a little dry. There, I said it, let the stoning begin. 😉

  • Naomi Rawlings July 18, 2011, 10:15 AM

    Interesting post. I attended a Bible college and in 2003 we read the first Harry Potter book as one of four YA selections for my adolescent literature class. After hearing all the Harry-Potter-is-evil hype, I was surprised by how much magic was NOT in the book. I know my Prof took some slack from a couple pastors over his requiring us to read the book for class, but I’m glad he stuck to it and allowed us to study and analyze it. I found the way some people took offense to an academic pursuit rather sad.

    • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 11:34 AM

      What would have been ridiculous is for him to NOT put HP on the reading list, esp. in ’03. That would have been akin to leaving Microsoft out of a computer class on operating systems…

      Worse, actually. Harry Potter is excluded from most (if not all) annual best-seller lists (for analysis purposes, not for ranking) because it skews the entire publishing industry. Not even Microsoft owns such a mutated market share.

  • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 12:09 PM

    Before it gets completely lost, it is important to remember that Rowling’s first book was a debut, and she launched a hepatology from that! This explains, for example, why major plot points, such as horcruxes and the Deathly Hallows come late and seemingly out of nowhere in the narrative, why the ghosts rather abruptly become of diminished importance to the story arc (only to come sailing back in at the end), and so on. In the hands of a better (or at least, more experienced) novelist, these major elements would have been built in to the outline ahead of time, and the pacing would have been much more natural.

    There’s an unintended “raving fan’s” bonus to this structure: it encourages readers to re-read the books, out of order, to go back and “find” clues (such as the tenuous relationship of the invisibility cloak to the DH) in the earlier texts. Because of the loose style and disconnected details, those clues can be “discovered” by anyone with a will, an imagination and a gift for rhetoric, even though nobody’s discovered clues matches anyone elses!

    But on any measure of novel-writing, it is more a symptom of simply imprecise, even sloppy work – forgivable in a writer’s very first hepatology!

    Forgivable as it may be, these writer’s errors don’t make the series more praiseworthy. There are too many adverbs, some serious structural holes and not even a single metapoetical bone in Harry Potter’s body – the subtext is as plain as a lightning-shaped scar.

    • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 1:27 PM

      You have hit almost all of the reasons that I lost interest half-way through the series. Books too long (I love long books, but not if they wander around with no purpose) and contrived reasons for Voldemort’s unreasonable ability to stay alive no matter how often he was defeated. Horcruxes? Where did that thread come from? And, no, the prose was not anything to get excited about.

      The adverbs didn’t bother me, though. I didn’t believe my friend Becky Miller when she said that Rowling had used many ridiculous dialogue tags. I hadn’t even noticed them as I read the books.

      The one reason I had for losing interest that you missed was that I found the characters in about book five (I think), to be bratty, moody, and generally unlikable. I know real teens are moody sometimes, but I find it disagreeable and I don’t like spending time with children who act like that.

      And, yet, I don’t mean to take anything away from Rowling. She did a great thing with Hogwarts. I wanted to live there. I wanted to walk to the village and visit the twins in their gag shop. I thought it was a brilliant world and if I could create a world half as real, I’d be quite satisfied with myself.

  • Jesse Koepke July 18, 2011, 12:16 PM

    The waning of Christian criticism to Harry Potter probably went something like this: Christians had a basic assumption when the books came out that witchcraft and magic is bad. The Bible says so, done deal. (Sure, there’s magic in Lord of the Rings and Narnia, but I would argue that the nature of the magic—how its used and by whom—is different than Harry Potter.) Then Potter came along and was all about witches and wizards and potions and spells. It seemed like a black-and-white case, and so pastors and parents alike denounced the books.

    But the kids of those pastors and parents heard about the books from their friends at school and eventually read them, and Rowling’s storyline and ability to craft a fascinating world and characters won the kids over, and in time the parents. Other parents still held the line with, “The Bible says no witchcraft or magic!” (That was and still is my parents’ conviction.) But as more and more people were hooked by the story and began to find echoes of Biblical themes, the staunch hold against magic waned. The question became, as you put it, Mike, “How could a story that glorified some of Christianity’s cardinal virtues be so evil?”

    And so the issue of what the Bible says has been left behind in favor of a fascinating story. We struggle with trying to answer the dilemma of, “The Bible says the subject matter is bad, but the setting and characters and story are so good! And the themes are even Biblical! It can’t be bad to read. Right?” Now we find different definitions of what ‘magic’ and ‘witchcraft’ are so we can scoot past those uncomfortable references in the Bible and enjoy the story guilt-free.

    I’m still wrestling with the issue, and since I haven’t settled the issue in my own heart I can’t say a blanket statement that everyone should or shouldn’t read the books. But it seems that in being so intrigued by the story and the echoes of the Bible we’ve sidestepped the issue of what God said. Maybe there’s a good answer for it, I don’t know. But as Christians we’re called to discern the content, not how well it’s presented.

    • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 1:48 PM

      Well, I never sidestepped the Bible. Witchcraft that is forbidden in the Bible is not the kind of witchcraft where kids fly around on brooms.

      If you can’t read the books, that’s fine, but don’t accuse those of us who have read them of sidestepping the Bible, please.

      It’s unfair for you to say our children liked them so we gave in and chose sin over holding fast to our convictions. Some of us never had your convictions. We were raised reading all kinds of fiction and looking at it with discernment and growing from all of it.

      I know some who originally thought the books were evil and who later changed their minds. They didn’t change their minds because they chose a fascinating story over the Bible. They read the books and saw that they weren’t evil and nothing in the Bible forbids the stuff in the books.

      I remember years ago getting an email in which Rowling was said to be in a coven and she was quoting as saying something like, “I can’t wait for Satan to come back,” or something equally stupid. And supposedly thousands of children had joined covens. What a pity that so many evangelicals are so lacking in discernment that they couldn’t even recognize the lies in the email. How could they judge so blindly? They didn’t even realize that they were slandering the woman and the Bible says slander is a terrible sin.

      I was amazed and I thought then and still think if they would read a little more it would do them good and help them out of their ignorance.

      That said, I’d be interested in your argument that magic in Narnia and Middle Earth differs from the magic at Hogwarts. I think it does differ some, but I don’t see that one is biblical and one isn’t.

      • Jesse Koepke July 18, 2011, 3:20 PM

        Sally, I apologize for sounding like I was accusing you of sidestepping the Bible. I shouldn’t have made such a generalized statement like that, and I definitely don’t want to accuse you of choosing sin over convictions.

        In answer to your comment, “Witchcraft that is forbidden in the Bible is not the kind of witchcraft where kids fly around on brooms”, it becomes obvious that we need to define what witchcraft is and why is it bad? I’ve had to wrestle through this question, because I love fantasy and want to write novels in that genre. But what about magic? Is it okay to put magic in my stories, and if not, why?

        One reason I believe magic is wrong is it removes my dependency on God. If I’m in trouble, I don’t need Jesus; I just whip out my wand, say a few spells, and solve the problem. That was the same problem in Eden. Adam and Eve tried to get knowledge their own way. Why trust God’s definition of good and evil when I can know it myself? In the same way, why ask Jesus to help me when I have my own power with which to solve my problems? It’s not that God is forbidding us to do anything that makes us self-reliant (I still need to learn to swim, for example), but we were never meant to operate independently of him.

        And that is the main difference I see between Tolkien/Lewis magic and Harry Potter magic. For Tolkien and Lewis, magic had a very distinct source: the creator of their respective worlds; and it used by distinct people. None of the hobbits or men use magic in Middle-Earth. One might suspect the elves of using it, but when Sam talks about “elf-magic”, Galadriel replies, “For this is what your folk would call magic, I believe; though I do not understand clearly what they mean; and they seem to use the same word of the deceits of the Enemy. But this, if you will, is the magic of Galadriel.” The elves know how to do things that humans and hobbits don’t and that makes it seem “magical”.

        Gandalf and Sauroman are ones to whom we can point who do magic, but remember that they aren’t humans. They are spirits, the Maiar, and their power is a spiritual power. Though not exact copies, one could compare them to angels. Their power comes from Illuvatar, and like angels and demons is used for good or evil.

        In Narnia, the children never use magic. Magic is always something that happens to them, usually caused by Aslan. The instances we see of people using magic besides Aslan are always evil things, like the White Witch, the hag and werewolf in Prince Caspian, and the witch in The Silver Chair.

        On the other hand, in Harry Potter we see a power that simply exists and is morally ambivalent. Characters are encouraged to become more powerful—yes, so that they can help others, but the end result is still them using the power and being self-sufficient.

        Now, what makes Potter magic different than the Force in Star Wars, over which no ever argues, is a harder question…. But that’s for another day. So those are the differences I see, and why I think Potter’s magic does indeed fall under the Biblical definition of magic.

        • Sally Apokedak July 18, 2011, 4:53 PM

          No need to apologize. I wasn’t offended. I know there are people who waffle for the wrong reasons. I just didn’t want you plugging all Harry-lovers into that box.

          I agree with your take on magic, except I don’t agree that Harry’s magic comes from nowhere. It comes from the creator of his world who is never named in the books. There’s no one else it can come from.

          It is clear in Harry’s book that there are wizards using magic for evil and there are wizards using magic in service of good. Rowling chose not to name the Good, and in her world there is no Satan and no Son of God (though Voldemort is a Satan figure and Harry is a Christ figure), but that doesn’t mean there is no good Creator who is the source of all power.

          I think you are wrong, too, to suggest that Harry only had to cast a spell and he had no need for prayer. It was clear in the second book that he had to ask for help (provided by the sorting hat). He also needed help in all the books from his friends (who could represent the church). But I think we can look at his spells in his world the way we look at prayer in our world. Only believers have the power of the magic in his world and only believers have the power of prayer in our world. We believers have at hand the power that raised Christ from the dead. In our fight against sin, we have much power available to us.

          The Bible doesn’t say that waving wands and having them light up or open locks is evil behavior. That could easily be like prayer in our world. Witchcraft is evil, but witchcraft in the Bible is not about waving a wand and saying spells.

          You are right to say that we must define witchcraft. I think we must let the Bible define it. I would say the Bible defines it as people trying to gain power over God by using the lesser (derivative) powers of lesser gods. If I’m right then Harry Potter has nothing of witchcraft in it. There are no lesser gods in his world. If the books sin at all, it is that they are too humanistic, not that they are about witchcraft, I think. They are humanistic because, as Noel says, the strength to be good is not attributed to God.

          How do you think the Bible defines witchcraft?

          • Katherine Coble July 18, 2011, 5:51 PM

            Jesse, I’m not sure if you’ve read the series. I’ll leave the actual reading of it up to you of course.

            But the “magic” in the series is more or less a Macguffin. It’s a fantastic vehicle that allows Rowling to explore the themes of loss, death, friendship, love at a slight remove. It is wholly unlike the magic forbidden in the Bible in several ways.

            –Bible Magic and True Witchcraft (and I say this knowing several practicing “real witches”) draws its power from what practicioners of Craft call Nature and what Christians call Satan. This is an oversimplification of the forces as seen by Wicca, but that’s it in a nutshell. Wicca and other forms of Pagan magic are attempts to direct the forces of the natural world toward a specific outcome.

            In Harry Potter the Magic is a device not unlike the living ship Moya in Farscape. It’s just a vehicle that exists in that particular writer’s universe as a means to move the story along. Magic in Harry Potter is a sort of physical attribute like, say, being able to roll your tongue. Not everyone has it. Those who don’t have Magic (muggles) cannot get it because _it isn’t a practice, but an attribute to be honed._

            Now, Rowling DOES use elements found in Paganism. She makes reference to real alchemists who lived in history. Although I keep seeing Christian Anti-Potter folks refer to these Alchemists which is sort of like calling Roman Catholics Satanists. Just wholly inappropriate and disregarding actualities and nuance.

            She also makes reference to Wandlore, which is a pagan concept still in use by Pagan and Wicca practitioners, even though her wands are clearly Macguffins. Yes, Willow is a wandwood for use in water magic in real paganism. But in Harry Potter a willow wand is just a stick of willow unless it has a piece of dragon heartstring or phoenix feather or veela hair or another sort of wholly mythical ingredient.

            There is, in the main, less practical paganism in Harry Potter than there is on a U.S. dollar bill. Far less than in Lewis and far, far less than L’Engle.

            • Jesse Koepke July 18, 2011, 9:03 PM

              Sally, you’re right that Rowling doesn’t give a source for the magical power, but I don’t know if it’s safe to assume that it’s a good Creator just be absence of acknowledgement. It’d be just as easy to assume it’s a malevolent source. And also assuming that the Potter worldview is one that includes a creator is based on a Christian starting point that there has to be one.

              But I don’t want to just refute point for point. In the end I haven’t settled a firm answer for myself, which is why I decided not to finish the books until I did, so that I could read them intentionally instead of ignoring my hesitations. In response to what I think is the Biblical definition of witchcraft, I think I was actually a bit hasty to write that. The Bible doesn’t exactly define it, but just says not to do it. 1 Samuel says disobedience is “the sin of divination”, but beyond that it doesn’t say, “Don’t practice witchcraft, and by that I mean spells, wands, flying broomsticks, and consulting spirits.” Because of that lack of absolute definition, it’s easy for Christians to label Harry Potter as witchcraft and move on without having read the books. And it’s because of that lack of definition that I had to philosophically decide why magic is wrong in God’s eyes. I’m probably not exactly right with my definition, and I may be too loose in my application of it, but it’s my starting point, at least.

              Katherine, in answer to your question of whether I’ve read the series, yes, I’ve read four of the books. I think Rowling is an amazing author and I thoroughly enjoyed them. And it was that fascination with them that made me decide to stop reading. There was the issue of magic (which you explained far better than my generalized thought, thank you for that), but ultimately I stopped reading because I was too fascination with the story. After reading the books I thought about Harry Potter and Hogwarts all the time, which distracted me from my relationship with the Lord. It was too fascinating, too well done—and then of course there was the question of magic, which I couldn’t decide upon. So I decided to stop reading until I figured it out.

              I think you’re right in saying the magic is more of a plot device than an actual entity. The problem Christians probably had with the series was the free use of the words witch, wizard, spells, wands, and all that. We’ve grown up hearing how bad these things are and how evil Halloween is, and so it’s a piece of cake to stamp the label “Demonic” on Harry Potter and move on without reading the books. If I looked past all of the magic references and just looked at the content of the story, perhaps I’d come to a different conclusion. But I wonder if that would be similar to listening to secular rock music and saying, “I’m not listening to words, just the melody.”

              In the end, I don’t have a definite answer for it, and so personally I’ve decided not to read the rest of the books until I do. But I think a big difference between why I can read Lord of the Rings without hesitation and my hesitations about Harry Potter is the source of the magic and the basic worldview and starting point of the author. In a way, I suppose trust Tolkien and Lewis (perhaps more than I should), and I don’t trust Rowling. That probably disqualifies my viewpoint, but there you have it.

              • Mike Duran July 19, 2011, 7:52 AM

                Jesse, Sally, and Katherine — I SO appreciate this discussion, and really feel it’s at the heart of the Potter divide. The debate about magic / wizardry in Christian fiction is a prime example of the philosophical divide that undermines the genre. My observation / response here turned into a post, which I think I’ll attempt to put up later today. Anyway, just wanted to thank the three of you for a civil and very intelligent exchange!

                • Jesse Koepke July 19, 2011, 8:11 AM

                  You’re welcome, Mike, and thanks for sparking the discussion. Looking forward to hearing what you think!

    • xdpaul July 18, 2011, 1:58 PM

      I disagree that we’ve sidestepped the issue of what God said. First of all, and most obvious, the Bible says nothing about Harry Potter.

      Secondly, to discern means:

      1 – see or notice something unclear: to see or notice something that is not very clear or obvious
      2 – understand something: to understand something that is not immediately obvious
      3 -distinguish: to be able to tell the difference between two or more things

      So, in order to discern Harry Potter, one must first see it and sort through the unobvious things. That there is magic in Harry Potter would classify as an obvious thing. To understand Harry Potter, and then to distinguish it requires the discerner to study it for himself.

      Because it is such a massive cultural phenomenon, anyone discrediting it out of hand really misses the boat. It really must be read first. It’s worldview may be all mucked up. Its writing may be shoddy. But until the Christian can intelligently and compassionately read and understand Harry Potter, he or she is missing a tremendous opportunity to engage the culture on its own terms, with plenty of opportunity to invite individuals to Jesus’ terms.

      It is wholly unimportant that the culture be attacked and properly quarantined from the pulpit: the culture doesn’t care. Like the knowledge of man, the culture is filth, and always has been. That doesn’t mean we, as citizens of a wholly different culture, should walk around, ignorant of its greatest appeals.

      The competition of Christ is weak and defeated. That doesn’t mean that it pays to underestimate it, or worse, fence it far outside the reach of the light touch of Christian intellect. After all, how better to ignore the angels than to close our wells off from where they may be walking?

      Isaiah 65: 8 – Thus says the Lord:
      As when there is juice in a cluster of grapes
      and someone says, Don’t destroy it, it is still good,
      so I will do for the sake of my servants
      by not destroying everything

  • Bob Avey July 18, 2011, 7:44 PM

    I can see both points of view. Our pastor said, a few years ago, that the Harry Potter books were basically good against evil, with good usually winning, and that he didn’t think the books were harmful. However, as you pointed out, the Bible does condemn witchcraft and sorcery. I guess, as Christians, we have to look at the overall message of such things instead of taking a hardline approach.

Leave a Comment