“Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” released in bookstores twenty years ago this week, and I didn’t see a hint of backlash from the evangelical community regarding the anniversary celebration. Why is that weird? Well, because if we time travel back to 2001, the year the first film adaptation premiered, we’d see a lot of rage from the Christian right.
The reasons major evangelical leaders gave for such outrage centered around the representation of witchcraft and magic in the series. Harry casts spells, learns about magic in his classes, and fights dark wizards. Pastors and Christian leaders most notably Dr. James Dobson of Focus on the Family, condemned the series as being a doorway into the occult. Christians parents who took this to heart gravely forbid any of Rowling’s works from their homes, fearing for their children’s souls.
Meanwhile, as Harry Potter was on the rise, movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia attracted many Christians to the theaters. There’s a bit of, dare I say, a double standard here. The storyline of Lord of the Rings centers on the destruction of a magical ring that allows the wearer to become invisible and communicate with an ancient evil force that seeks the destruction of the world. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a witch sends an entire kingdom into an ice age and a talking Lion defeats her with deep magic of his own.
So why is the magic present in LOTR or Narnia totally acceptable, but the kind taught at Hogwarts isn’t? Who can say for sure? Perhaps it’s because Lewis and Tolkien created their stories from a Christian worldview, and Rowling did not (though she was highly inspired by Lewis’ Narnia series and included plenty of Christian themes in her books).
I grew up in a household that banned Harry Potter. The reasoning was similar to that put forth by Focus on the Family. As a middle schooler, I echoed my parents’ beliefs by stoutly denying that Harry Potter had anything good to offer, without having read a page of the books or seen a single clip of the movies.
After watching the entire series and reading all the books, I can say without a doubt, that no, Harry Potter does not promote the occult. It is purely fantasy, no more real than the “one ring to rule them all” or the White Witch. Furthermore, Harry Potter promotes Christian values such as courage, self-sacrifice, loyalty, the danger of selfish ambition, the power of love, the problems of racism, and the triumph of good over evil. Magic in the Wizarding World is a tool, like gravity or electricity. It can be used for good or evil, but it is not witchcraft as it exists in our world.
I have a friend who dabbled in Wicca and the occult. She is now a strong Christian and a very godly friend, and she laughs at the idea that Harry Potter is based on actual, real-world witchcraft. It most definitely is not, despite many claims as to the opposite.
A glaring example of this is an incident involving a specific article from The Onion, a satirical website that posts fake news stories. The article in question was “Harry Potter Books Spark Rise in Satanism Among Children.” It spoke about spikes in the Satanic church membership as well as “interviews” with fake children claiming they wished to torture others through the dark arts. Though sprinkled with absurdities and hyperbole, many Christians took it seriously and forwarded the satire piece to everyone they could. “See!” they cried, “Harry Potter is directly linked to Satan.” I’m not sure if they knew what big fools they made themselves out to be. Many evangelicals, myself included, jumped on a bandwagon and road that sucker for all it was worth. Thankfully, I don’t often see this sort of hysteria from the church today.
What can be learned from this?
Perhaps we can learn how to engage secular culture and major trends in a more gracious light. How do you think Rowling perceived the groundless accusations of her being a satanic monster from Christians? That probably didn’t convince her of the love of Christ.
Perhaps we can take from this the value of critical thinking and realize how foolish we can look when we fail to use it. Maybe it’s the importance of forming your own opinion, and not following a mob.
What I see in this decade, as opposed to the previous one, is a church that engages culture more than it condemns it. This is taken too far by many. Some Christians use “engaging with culture” for rationalizing certain sins. (FYI, clubbing and getting turnt is not engaging the culture. It’s dabbling in sin.)
There is a line to walk when embracing culture. There are plenty of films, television shows, music, and books that are morally reprehensible and should be avoided rather than engaged. (i.e. Fifty Shades of Grey. I hear that series sucks anyway.) However, there is a lot to be gained from engaging culture from a place of common sense and critical thinking.
Maybe Harry Potter wasn’t right for some families. There are plenty of parents who researched, read the books, and made the decision that “the boy who lived” shouldn’t be welcomed into their household. Those well-thought-out decisions should be respected. But when Christians form an opinion based solely on rumor and ignorance, we get another Onion fiasco. When informed Christians who think critically engage culture, we get conversations with nonbelievers and a church being salt in light in dark places. That’s something we should always strive for. Light in dark places is actually a common theme in the Potter books. Who knew? #Lumos