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« Daughter Dearest | Main | Speaking of Harry »

July 26, 2007

RE: ’Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows’

Obviously, my earlier post on the last Harry Potter book has generated a lot of controversy: Are these books Christians should be reading or not? I've been listening to this debate for years now, and have been asked the question many times by people who know I'm both an English teacher and a Bible teacher. My answer has always been "yes" -- but with certain reservations, of course.

First, as an English teacher (someone who loves "fiction") and as a Christian (someone who loves "Truth"), I know that there is only one perfect book in existence: the Bible. All other products of the creative impulses God gave to men and women fall short of perfection: sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. We're each going to have issues that will determine what we deem worth reading -- or limits to how much hard mental work we're willing to do to glean gems of Truth from these less-than-perfect products of man's imagination. Frankly, I have had to wade through a lot of novels that weren't worth the time or trouble, no matter how many times my teachers said, "This is a literary classic everyone should know."   

Second, years of steering students through works of literature have taught me that some students (for a variety of reasons) never seem able to get beyond a superficial understanding of a given work, while others are able to see subtle details and, thus, arrive at a more accurate and deeper understanding of the writer's themes and purpose. I believe that much of the controversy over reading Harry Potter stems from this distinction. From the beginning of the series, some Christians have dismissed them out of hand because the characters are witches and wizards. The Bible forbids witchcraft, thus the books are evil. Period. My answer to that is simple: if you believe it's a sin for you to read the Harry Potter books, then it is. Or, to adapt Paul's argument in 1 Corinthians 10 about eating meat offered to idols, "Your conscience won't allow you to read Harry; mine does." 

Why? Because anyone who has read the series from beginning to end can tell you that the witchcraft depicted in these fantasy novels has nothing to do with the type of occult activities forbidden by the Bible. Even real-world Wiccans scoff at the idea that Rowling is writing realistically about what they do. By the very nature of the genre, the setting and many of the events depicted within are short on verisimilitude: brooms don't fly, hippogriffs and dementors don't exist, doors don't unlock when we wave a stick at them, spiders don't talk, people aren't naturally divided into two camps--Muggles or magicals, etc. Kids above the age of five get this, even if many adults don't seem to.

But while the setting is unrealistic, the underlying meaning of the story is something every Christian should appreciate: our willingness to sacrifice ourselves to save and protect others, the value of love and friendship over power and control, the ongoing battle between good and evil (both within and without) that we must all come to terms with, and the realization that death is not the end of life.

Do the Harry Potter books lead readers directly to faith in Jesus Christ? Of course not. Nor does Hamlet, but I haven't heard too many Christians attack Shakespeare because what he wrote wasn't blatantly Christian. Instead, we are offered a storyline -- as Josh Moody over at Christianity Today terms it -- that is "pop culture's version of transcendence." And that is something we can work with around the water cooler to get people thinking about the most important issues in life.

If you can't figure out the Christian virtues, themes, and symbols in Harry Potter for yourself, then read some of the many articles and books that have been written on the subject. You might start with Bob Smietana's article "The Gospel According to J.K. Rowling" which discusses how C.S. Lewis scoffed at the notion that he had a Christian allegory in mind before he ever started The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In the mysterious nature of human creativity, the Christian nature of the story "pushed itself in on its own accord." In a similar way, Smietana sees this process at work in Rowlings: "She began writing about wizards and quidditch and Bertie Botts Every Flavor Beans, and somewhere along the way, Christ began to whisper into the story." 

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Good response to the controversy, Diane. I was convinced by a friend who loved the books and had read Potter apologist John Granger's arguments for deep Christian content and symbolism in the books. That got me past my reflexive attitudes ("Hey, it's about witches!") and I began to grasp how Rowling was emulating Lewis' approach of fantasy that slips past the sleeping dragons of the overfamiliarty with biblical concepts. This dulls our appreciation of grace, sacrifice and courage. The books recast these and other qualities using tremendous imagination so that we see anew what it means to lay down one's life willingly for a friend. I guess you're right--certain mindsets simply cannot see past a literal take on such fantastical content to the literary devices they are--and I think some of it is due to the undernourished imagination of evangelical culture.


Excellent points, Diane.


Of course, as soon as I hit 'post' I think of something else to say.

A lot of people have said that it's a bad idea to have kids Harry because they'll think that witchcraft is ok and won't be able to defend themselves spiritually against witchcraft in the real world. I think people who say that think children are stupid. Children can differeniate (sp?) between reality and fiction and will not come to that conclusion, especially if their parents warn them of the real evil in real witchcraft.


I put this recommendation in the Potter thread below but it's worth repeating: Connie Neal's "What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter?" Mrs. Neal provides a good discussion of the pertinent issues, including a biblical template for handling controversies between Christians. Bottom line--we don't have to agree but we do have to love and respect one another in Christ.


One of my favorite resources that Diane has recommended before--and which first sparked my interest in going ahead and getting them for my daughter (my only beef had been that I thought they might be literarily overrated, until this article)--was the piece from Touchstone linked in this post:
Fascinating and intriguing.

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