Christians hate the Harry Potter books. It's undeniable. Just look at the media reports about how Christian parents around the country are trying to get the book banned from libraries and schools. "It's a good thing when children enjoy books, isn't it? Most of us think so," wrote children's book author Judy Blume in a New York Times opinion piece. "[But] in Minnesota, Michigan, New York, California, and South Carolina, parents who feel the books promote interest in the occult have called for their removal from classrooms and school libraries. I knew this was coming. The only surprise is that it took so long. ... If children are excited about a book, it must be suspect."
Likewise, Los Angeles Times writer Steve Chawkins wrote of the controversy, "I enjoy these periodic battles about book-banning. ... Hostility is often high. If you disagree with those who are so eager to protect your children, you are not merely wrong; you are twisted, negligent, evil, a dupe of dark forces, and, as in my case, a bad parent."
But here's the problem with painting with such a broad brush: It's just not true. In fact, as far as I can tell, while no major Christian leader has come out to condemn J.K. Rowling's series, many have given it the thumbs-up. If our readers know of any major Christian leader who has actually told Christians not to read the books, I'd be happy to know about it; but in my research, even those Christians known for criticizing all that is popular culture have been pretty positive about Potter.
One of the most quoted supporters of the Potter books is Christianity Today columnist Charles Colson, who, in his November 2 Breakpoint radio broadcast, noted that Harry and his friends "develop courage, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for one another—even at the risk of their lives. Not bad lessons in a self-centered world." Colson dismisses the magic and sorcery in the books as "purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals—but they don't make contact with a supernatural world. ... [It's not] the kind of real-life witchcraft the Bible condemns." (If you don't have the RealAudio player, you can get the transcript of Colson's broadcast at www.breakpoint.org)
Focus on the Family's review is one of the most recent—and most critical—of the Christian reviews, but the strongest that Focus's critic, Lindy Beam, can muster is "Apart from the benefit of wise adult guidance in reading these books, it is best to leave Harry Potter on the shelf." Still the review is mixed, rather than negative: "Harry Potter contains valuable lessons about love, courage, and the ultimate victory of good over evil," Beam writes. "The spiritual fault of Harry Potter is not so much that Rowling is playing to dark supernatural powers, but that she doesn't acknowledge any supernatural powers at all. These stories are not fueled by witchcraft, but by secularism." (One wonders if such an argument also faults Winnie the Pooh and The Wizard of Oz.)
The Focus on the Family Web site's "Parent to Parent" area offers mixed—not to say moderate—reviews. Two parents claim "I cannot say I sensed anything 'evil' about the book. It was pure fantasy," and "I [do not believe Potter's books] lead us to believe that the people who take themselves seriously as witches are 'ok' or safe." Two others are outraged. "The book becomes very satanic," writes one. "This series is simply Satan's way of infecting the minds of our children," writes another.
World Magazine has offered not one, but two reviews of Harry Potter—one very positive, one less so—and later made Potter-related news. In its May 29 issue, World critic Roy Maynard praised Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as "a delight—with a surprising bit of depth." He dismissed the most controversial subjects in less than a paragraph: "Rowling ... keeps it safe, inoffensive, and non-occult. This is the realm of Gandalf and the Wizard of Id, not witchcraft. There is a fairy-tale order to it all in which, as Chesterton and Tolkien pointed out, magic must have rules, and good does not—cannot—mix with bad."
Five months later, World was less positive in a three-page cover story about the Harry Potter phenomenon. Still, the magazine notes that Rowling's witchcraft bears little resemblance to modern wicca. "A reader drawn in would find that the real world of witchcraft is not Harry Potter's world. Neither attractive nor harmless, it is powerful and evil." Still, writers Anne McCain and Susan Olasky warn that the books contain "dark elements," and that "unlike biblical stories, in Potter's world bad things seem to happen for no reason." Like Colson—and just about every other reviewer of the books—World encourages its readers to choose C.S. Lewis's Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings as "better worlds for a child's imagination," but says there's plenty of fodder for discussion and enjoyment in these fantasy books as well.
That was the October 30 issue of World. The following issue, November 6, included an announcement that God's World Book Club, a division of the organization that owns World, was withdrawing the Harry Potter books from its catalog. "We reviewed and recommended the Harry Potter books as wholesome, good-versus-evil fantasy in the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis," the full-page announcement said. "However, the fact that the books are not Christ-centered and further evidence that they are not written from a perspective compatible with Christianity have led us to retract the books. ... We sincerely apologize for offense given and thank our customers for contributing to the discussion that led to this decision."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, in J.K. Rowling's native country, Christianity magazine has nothing but praise for the book. Mark Greene, Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, writes that he balked at buying Harry Potter for his god-daughter when he heard it was set in a school for witches and wizards. He bought Narnia instead. Now, interestingly, he regrets his decision: "I wish I'd been the one to introduce her to Harry—fine lad you know, courageous, resourceful, humble, fun, good mind. Comes from good stock, you know. She could do worse, far worse. And, as far as literary companions go, frankly, not much better." (Neither the article nor the magazine appears online, as far as I can tell.)
It shouldn't surprise our readers that The Christian Century has no quarrels with Harry Potter, either. Still, its December 1 lead editorial, "Wizards and Muggles," makes some excellent—and surprising—points about Christians and fantasy. "Rowling is not the first fantasy writer to be attacked by conservative Christians. Even the explicitly Christian writer Madeleine L'Engle has taken heat for the 'magic' elements in A Wrinkle in Time. Such critics are right in thinking that fantasy writing is powerful and needs to be taken seriously. But we strongly doubt that it fosters an attachment to evil powers. Harry's world, in any case, is a moral one." The unsigned editorial also notes that "one of the salutary effects of fantasy writing is to remove us from the everyday world and prompt us to look at the ordinary in fresh ways. ... G.K. Chesterton claimed that his own journey to Christian faith began with his childhood absorption in fairy tales. From fairly [fairy?] tales he learned that the world is precious but puzzling, coherent but mysterious, full of unseen connections and decisive truths." Though the Century doesn't mention it, C.S. Lewis made a similar claim.
Perhaps the most insightful discussion of the Potter books comes from Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs in the bimonthly Mars Hill Audio Journal. In the September/October volume, Jacobs defends the books as promoting "a kind of spiritual warfare. ... A struggle between good and evil. ... There is in books like this the possibility for serious moral reflection ... [and] the question of what to do with magic powers is explored in an appropriate and morally serious way." Furthermore, Jacobs notes that contemporary Christian unease with magic is somewhat recent:
In sixteenth-century Europe you would find Christians who were deeply involved in astrology largely because they were Calvinists. And it was understood at the time that there was a close connection between a predestinarian theology and astrology because astrology confirms or supports a predestinarian theology by suggesting that the outcome and direction of our lives is fixed before our births ... Other Christians at the same time who dismissed astrology as being a bunch of hogwash but who were very much engaged with magic. ... Magic was not thought to be any more at odds with Christianity than experiemental science. The big question then is to what use do you put magic? Now we see magic as an intrinsically dangerous thing. Our focus now is on experimental science and technology, and we tend to have the same kinds of debates about technology now that Christians had about magic several centuries ago.
Jacobs and Mars Hill host Ken Meyers then discuss how Star Trek technology, as imagined as Potter's magic, is treated differently by Christians, even though the two have similar ends: "If we imagine somebody stepping on to a little circle and then suddenly dissolving, and then reappearing instantly somewhere else, and we call this a transporter, and we're told that it is a device that is created by technology, then we go 'oh, that's cool.' But if we imagine someone waving a wand and then disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, we're much less comfortable.
"I'll give the final word to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, in a quote from a CNN interview: "I have met thousands of children now, and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, 'Ms. Rowling, I'm so glad I've read these books because now I want to be a witch.' They see it for what it is. It is a fantasy world and they understand that completely. I don't believe in magic, either."
Ted Olsen is Online and Opinion Editor of Christianity Today.
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