Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Harry Potter and Christianity

I just ran across the following response that I wrote, over a year ago, to a question from a MuggleNet reader, who wrote:
If I remember correctly you are a minister or was? Correct me if I am wrong please. I am asking this because I am writing a research essay for school on The influence of Harry Potter in the church and whether or not the church should endorse it. By endorse I mean, openly condoning the books, or endorsing by not speaking against them.

I would not mind getting your opinion of how you see the church influenced by Harry Potter, why or why not Harry Potter is not a threat to the church, why specifically you do not see it as a threat to a Christians faith, what other books series do you think would be more influential to a childs interest in the occult or denial of God, and why do you believe that J.K.'s books are innocent in nature and therefor not potentially harmful to readers.

Those are just questions off the top of my head, but I really would like to understand what you think and believe about the books. If you want to answer these questions then I would VERY much appreciate it.
I am, in fact, an ordained minister, though I haven't been "in the parish" for a few years. I work for a Christian magazine now. I share my enjoyment of Harry Potter with several other pastors, including my father, who borrows each new book from one of his parishioners when they are done reading it.

I'm not sure I would use terms like "the church should endorse Harry Potter" because I don't think Harry Potter is really relevant to the church. However, I don't think the series is spiritually harmful, and the church should not condemn it or give anyone a guilt-trip for reading it. I believe that secular entertainment is a healthy and necessary part of earthly life, even a God-given right, for Christians to use responsibly in their freedom in Christ.

Of course it is appropriate for Christians to be concerned and careful about taking part in entertainments that are demoralizing or that insinuate unchristian beliefs into one's mind. Part of this responsibility can be carried out by recognizing and discussing these aspects of the entertainment with family members, ministers, or other Christians. Even if a book, or film, etc., is morally or spiritually rotten, it can be morally & spiritually instructive to examine it and judge it from personal experience. This also helps Christians learn to apply critical thinking in a faithful way. Hastily and ignorantly condemning things and forbidding oneself or others from experiencing them does not do these things.

I do not, however, think the Harry Potter books are a morally or spiritually negative influence. The long history of bedtime stories, mother-goose tales, and fairy tales, all the way down to the popular writings of such authors as C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, shows that stories featuring magic are part of the normal development of children. Stories about worlds that can only exist in the imagination are essential to forming an inner life, belief in the unseen, and a sense of moral responsibility to principles such as honor, courage, compassion, and faithfulness that can nerve someone to do the right thing even when it is to their disadvantage. To paraphrase a better writer who put it better than I can, such stories teach children to imagine certain virtues, and to be able to imagine them is the first step toward having them oneself. A person raised on nothing but cold fact will never become anything but a cold pragmatist.

The magic of the Harry Potter world is a magic of the fairy-tale type. It is whimsical, built on a a platform of childlike logic and revitalized cliches. It is the magic of a child's world of fun and pretend and make-believe, but with a very serious "for all ages" story dropped into it. And the story is basically like all the epics of old: a little-regarded hero quests through a strange, other world, passes through danger and suffering, and comes back to the real world fit to be king, but no longer really belonging there. Odysseus, Frodo Baggins, and Eustace Scrubb did the same basic thing that Harry does every year. And while bravely facing great evils, he remains good (though in a real, down-to-earth, imperfect way we can identify with). While struggling inwardly and outwardly, he gives children an example of how to struggle bravely with the problems they will surely face.

I'm the son of a pastor on one side and the son of a (former) witch on the other, so I have what may be a unique insight into what kinds of books do and don't lead people to the occult. It's possible that Harry Potter simply wasn't on the map at the time my mother was a practicing witch. But judging by the books in her witch's library, of which I made a complete list on 2 different occasions (when she wasn't looking), Harry Potter just wasn't the sort of thing that would turn her crank. The very solid, grounded, morally clear worldview (evil is evil and good is good) in Harry Potter is a world away from the wishy-washy, relativistic, new-age mumbo-jumbo a serious pagan goes for. The rather "unmagical" (in the occult sense) depiction of magic in Harry Potter would fall flat among people who are inspired by ley lines and concentrations of energy and earth goddess stuff. There is nothing spiritual, mystical, animistic, or mentalistic about Harry Potter's magic. It has nothing in it to appeal to people who summon spirits, channel forces of nature, use sex in their workings, or do any number of self-serving things that, in my experience, characterize pagan/wiccan behavior.

Harry Potter magic uses potions, magical objects, and "magic words," but not in a ritualistic way; he sometimes has revealing dreams but he doesn't try to manipulate them; he never invokes any power other than the "magic" that is part of himself, not as a human being but as a fictional type of person designated as a wizard. If we see any hint of sacrifices, offerings, or good-luck totems, it is depicted either as superstitious foolishness or as the very evil that Harry and all good "wizards" are against.

Harry's world is secular and even rather materialistic; religion is not depicted in either a positive or negative light - it just isn't there. This why, ultimately, I think the Harry Potter books are irrelevant to the church. I wouldn't use them for a Bible school program. But I would gladly share them with other families in my church who want something to share with their kids, at home.

There are books and films I would consider to have a creepy agenda, teaching ideas and morals that lead in a pagan direction. Some of them I have refused to review, even when offered free copies of the books by their publisher, because I am not interested in promoting that stuff. Those that I have reviewed, or that are listed on the Book Trolley's reader-recommended pages, come with appropriate warnings. It isn't hard to tell the difference between such books and the Harry Potter books, if you read both kinds. It is clear which books are innocent and which are, indeed, traps for those who approach them unawares. There is perhaps a "continuum" of books, sloping gradually from "totally harmless" to "really nasty." I would put Harry way out at the "totally harmless" end, with the "Young Wizards" series a bit farther up the slope, the "Camp Ravenwyng" series quite a ways farther up, the "Abhorsen" trilogy still farther uphill, "His Dark Materials" better than halfway to the other end with the "Sword of Truth" and "Alvin Maker" series in the same general neighborhood, and some of the seriously pagan fiction I have deliberately ignored in my column even farther out toward "nasty." One author I refuse to have anything to do with, by the way, is Clive Barker.

I would add that there are some "Christian" and "non-fiction" books that I think are more dangerous to Christians than even the more extreme books I have named above. Books like "The Lost Gospel of Judas," "The Jesus Family Tomb" and "The Da Vinci Code" mix a sprinkling of fact (totally out of both context & proportion) with buckets of fiction and could potentially fool thousands into rejecting the Christian faith. Books like the "Left Behind" series even more insidiously use exciting fictional stories to implant the teachings of a weird little sect into the minds of many Christians who are simply hooked by the fact that it's presented as "biblical." They don't even realize that they are being proselytized by a group whose claim to be teaching biblical truth is a complete and transparent sham.

Honestly, I worry more about the "Christian" books members of my church are reading than about books like Harry Potter that are offering nothing but entertainment. In fact, I would rather have a young member of my church read "His Dark Materials" (which I loathe) and come back with a long list of troubling questions, than have him read "Left Behind" and, lured by the sense of it being "Christian," get silently tricked into believing a bunch of bizarre and untrue things. When I recommend books to people (fiction), I don't recommend them because of their religious content, but because of their entertainment value. Harry Potter has that in spades, and in my opinion, if you show me a Christian who has a faith crisis triggered by Harry Potter, I will show you someone who has never even read the series but just wants something to blame.

Is that way more answer than you bargained for? Hope it helps.

1 comment:

Marie N. said...

Here! Here! The first time I heard a pastor rail against Harry Potter in the sermon I spent the rest of the sermon outlining an essay on the history of wizard imagery in British literature in my head.