In a little more than three weeks, the seventh installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, will be released. Millions of readers, myself included, eagerly await this final year at Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to see how the boy wizard resolves the destiny chosen for him when he was only a baby, and whether that resolution will cost him his life.
Though the first book was published a decade ago, each new release rekindles the controversy that surrounds the books. Many people see the books as promoting the occult and non-Christian values and some have gone so far as to organize protests, petitioning for the books to be banned from schools and libraries. To many parents, Harry Potter is evil and should be avoided at all costs.
These people are, as Ron Weasley might say, mental.
Harry Potter is, first and foremost, a brilliant work of fiction (that means, to people who are not familiar with the term, that the stories are made up) and bear only an acquaintance with the world we know. The elements of muggle life that Rowling incorporates (e.g. Dudley tossing his PlayStation out the window) only serve to add a touch of verisimilitude to an otherwise fantastic tale. Rowling herself is not a witch, nor does she want anyone’s child to convert to witchcraft, wave sticks around, and speak nonsensical words in the hopes of levitating some object. Like any storyteller, she only wishes to entertain. The values she promotes in the books are admirable regardless of faith–hard work, courage, friendship, and love. There is evil in the books, but in the same context as other novels beyond count in the form of the antagonists such as Voldemort, Professor Snape, and the Malfoys. Harry’s battles against these forces are not a fight-fire-with-fire scenario, but a good-versus-evil struggle comparable to many tales found in Christian works. If children, or at the very least parents, cannot differentiate between true occultism and the portrayal of magic in the Harry Potter series, then the problems lies with the environment of the reader, not with the tales themselves.
Another objection some find to the Harry Potter series is the lack of Christian morals in the books. Even beyond the portrayal of magic in the books, the rule-breaking and mild swearing sometimes employed by Harry and his friends is seen as sending the wrong message to impressionable children and teens. Children whose parents hold this view will miss out on volumes of great literature that do not promote this idealistic view of the world–The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to name a few–and will find themselves living in a vacuum of their own faith. To further the point, the Bible contains many tales of Christian heroes–Moses, David, Solomon, and others–who often do not show what we would today consider Christian values. Are we to deny these children the Bible because of the examples set by these and other characters within? Perhaps that is best, considering how biblically illiterate most Christians are. In a 1997 survey, only 34% of Anglican priest could name all Ten Commandments without help. In a survey of American Christian teens, the Bible Literacy Project found that less than half of those polled could identify the event that led Jesus to change water into wine. Given a choice of four quotations, nearly two-thirds could not identify a passage from the Sermon on the Mount. If people are not reading the Bible, are not even familiar with what it says, how can they speak out against a book that, in their uninformed opinion, promotes anti-Christian values? Many of the people who speak against the Harry Potter books are less familiar with the actual content of Rowling’s stories than they are the Bible and have no factual knowledge on which to base their opinion, which is similar to protesting the Bible because it has stories of rape, murder, and incest. Uninformed opinions are much more dangerous than children’s books. Bear in mind that so-called “Christian values” brought about the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witchcraft trials, and ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. While I believe in the moral lessons demonstrated by Jesus in the Bible–forgiveness, compassion, and love for your fellow man–I truly wish the interpretation of Christian values could be left to more reasonable minds.
Violence is another complaint often given when discussing the Harry Potter novels. Throughout the series, Harry and his friends are forced to battle the forces of evil through various means that, in some cases, leads to injury and death. While I admit that the books, particularly the later books in the series, may not be appropriate for younger readers due in large part to the increasingly pitched battle between good and evil, I offer the Bible as another example of a book rife with violence of the sort that makes the passages of Harry Potter look like a quiet outing. The Old Testament, often overlooked by Christians except when defending creationism, is full of harrowing stories of mass murder, rape (including sodomy), theft, and horrific battle. Again, those who attack the Harry Potter stories glaze over this aspect of their religion, the founding and preservation of which was secured through spilled blood and savage warfare much more than universal love.
Others argue simply that the events described in the Harry Potter series are too fantastic; nothing in the novels could really happen in life. As one person told me, “I can’t believe any story where someone turns a stick into a snake.” When I reminded said person of Moses turning his staff into a snake in Egypt, I was met with a blank stare. “But that’s different,” the person argued. In truth, it’s no different. If a person can suspend their reason for elements of the Bible in order to establish his or her faith, why can that person not suspend their reason in order to be entertained by a creative story? Regardless of whether the events in the Bible happened just as they are portrayed (highly unlikely, considering they were often recorded centuries after the actual events took place), a person who cannot imagine the magic in Harry Potter probably cannot truly imagine Jesus walking on water or raising Lazarus from the dead. These people, with no imagination and no true belief, seek only to satisfy their social need to be Christians rather than actually committing themselves to what they are taught to believe.
Not so long ago, I challenged a co-worker of mine to read the first Harry Potter book. This person was one of the most devout Christians I knew at the time and I was prepared, when she finished the book, for the argument that I knew would ensue. To my surprise, she loved the book and has subsequently read the rest of them because she understands that Harry Potter, like Atticus Finch or Mickey Mouse, are fictional characters. They exist only in the mind of J. K. Rowling and in the minds of the readers, who must interpret the characters based not on what they believe, but on how they would react in the setting in which they are placed. Harry Potter is not presented as an infallible beacon of ethics and morals. Such a character would not only make for a poor story, but would also make for an impossible standard for the imperfect souls that read the novels. Harry’s struggles, not only with the forces of Voldemort, but also with his own temptations, desires, and sins make him more realistic to the average reader and, more importantly, more representative of Christians who continually face such obstacles themselves. Rowling never says in her novels that Potter is a Christian–to do so would be pretentious and would create more controversy by far than the omission of religion has done–nor does she say he is not. What she does is portray Harry as an orphan who struggles to find his place in the world, then learns that the fate of his people rests in his, in his opinion, ill-equipped hands before accepting his responsibility and charging toward his destiny head on even if it means his death. If that story sounds familiar to Christians, it should if they have read the tale of Moses in Exodus.
I am not comparing the Harry Potter series to the Bible here. I am not advocating someone start the Church of Harry Potter and hold services every Sunday and Wednesday. There are events in Rowling’s work that allude to events in the Bible, but that can be said for a great many books by authors from Twain to Faulkner, none of which have gained the infamy of Harry Potter. What I am advocating is that people form their opinions based on what they know rather than what they think they know. To do otherwise makes a person seem ridiculous and ill-prepared to defend their half-formed ideas. I welcome any debate on this or any other topic, but only if my opponent has a clue about what they are speaking about. William G. McAdoo said that “It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in an argument.” Therefore, if you wish to display your ignorance, steer clear of me. I only fight battles I can win.