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Tuesday, January 11, 2005

Is Harry Potter a bad influence? Part I

Katie Couric: I'm not sure if we should bite this off, but I'm going to. Tammy in Kansas was wondering: "What would encourage you to write books for children that are supporting the devil, witchcraft and anything that has to do with Satan?" You've heard that before.
J.K. Rowling: Well nothing would encourage me to do that because I haven't done it so far, so why would I start doing it now?
Katie Couric: You have heard criticism along those lines ever since the beginning, and I think it also grew since more and more books came out.
J.K. Rowling: A very famous writer once said: "A book is like a mirror. If a fool looks in, you can't expect a genius to look out." People tend to find in books what they want to find, and I think my books are very moral. I know they have absolutely nothing to do with what this lady's writing about. So, can't give her much help there.from the transcript of a "Today Show" interview, October 20, 2000.

* * * * * *

With the release of the first "Harry Potter" movie, the debate among Christians over the books, and the movie, intensified. Should Christians read/watch these? Some say "No!--Scripture forbids dabbling in wizardry." Others say "Yes! This is great stuff! It entertains kids, and gets them to read." My own view, certainly not original with me, is that both these views are too simple. Here are a few ideas that may be helpful, with brief annotations.
1. Our mind should be the temple of the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 3:16) That being true, we should be careful what we put in it.
2. Philippians 4:8 exhorts us to think on what is good, beautiful, true, etc. Literature can present the good, beautiful and true.
3. Scripture does have exhortations to avoid witchcraft (Galatians 5:19-20, Revelation 21:8)
4. My time is not mine, but God's, and I should be careful how I use it. Reading for recreation, if not overdone, or reading for inspiration, can be good use of time.
5. Some things may tempt one person, because of that person's particular personality or background, that are not serious temptations for others.
6. There are some things that I personally have decided that I am not going to do (and some that I have decided that I will do) because I think I should avoid them (or do them.) There are, for instance, some sorts of TV that I won't watch, some kinds of books and magazines that I won't read. My choices are not binding on others, although if I were a parent of young children, I would have responsibility to guide them in making choices. One of the things that I have decided to do is to frequently read fantastic literature. I believe that I have been spiritually uplifted by such reading, including Watership Down, the Narnia books, and some of Tolkien. I believe that I have been entertained wholesomely by the Harry Potter books.
7. It is usually foolish to condemn things that we know little about. ("I haven't read the Harry Potter books, but . . .") This doesn't mean that there aren't some things that I can condemn without having personal knowledge of them (murder and child pornography, for example), but usually, if I am ignorant, I should keep my mouth shut.

I have read the first five Harry Potter books, some more than once. I saw the first movie, only once. I'm not an expert. The books, nor the movie, didn't tempt me into dabbling in witchcraft. They do present conflicts between good and evil, and Harry and his friends are clearly presented as good. The powers that they are learning at the Hogwarts School for Wizards are used to try to achieve clearly good ends. Two events in the first movie that particularly struck me as resonating with the Christian story were:
1) The statement, made by a person, Voldemort, who is clearly evil, in just about every way, throughout the books, that "there is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it1" No Christian, of course, would make a statement like that about good and evil, but the blurring of the two by the Lord of Evil and his servants goes back at least as far as the Garden of Eden, and the movie makes clear that this is an evil suggestion. Harry rejects the idea.
2) Harry's friend, Ron Weasley, sacrifices himself for others, for all he knew, to death, in a wizard's chess game.

There are a number of other ideas in the books that are compatible with Christianity. Here are some:
One of the conflicts, in all the books, is over how wizards should treat muggles--non-wizards. The good wizards treat them with special care. The evil ones, or those that are tending toward evil, do not. They even hate, and try to hurt, not just muggles, but wizards born to muggles.

Another conflict is over how wizards should treat other magical creatures, such as house-elves. Albus Dumbledore, the headmaster of Hogwarts, says "We wizards have mistreated and abused our fellows for too long, and are reaping our reward.2"

Throughout the books, one character, Severus Snape, the potions professor, is portrayed as having repented of his association, probably even worship, of Voldemort, before the books begin, although I don't believe that the word "repented" is used. In the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry learns that his now-dead father treated Snape very badly when they were both students at Hogwarts, which is why Snape has treated Harry badly throughout the books. ". . . at the sight of him Harry felt a great rush of hatred . . . Whatever Dumbledore said, he would never forgive Snape . . . never.3" My guess is that Rowling is setting up a scene in a later book where the two of them will forgive each other, and repent of their attitudes.

The fifth book presents many of the characters, in particular Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic, and most of those under him, as having deliberately ignored the existence of evil--they refuse to believe that Voldemort, clearly a very evil wizard, has come back to power.

Harry has some crises of conscience in the fifth book. For example, he debates with a voice in his own head about Ron having been made a prefect, when he hasn't been.4

Albus Dumbledore, the Headmaster of Hogwarts, the school for wizardry, confronts Voldemort, and tells him that "Indeed, your failure to understand that there are things much worse than death has always been your greatest weakness--" To the Christian, there are things more important than death, and dying for a righteous cause is not nearly as bad as living for a wrong one.

Dumbledore follows the theme of I Corinthians 13:13 when he tells Harry that the greatest power of all is the one in his heart, that Voldemort has none of. Clearly, although he does not name it, he is speaking of unselfish (agape) Love.6

None of these are peripheral matters. The books show a conflict between good and evil, both on a wide scale, and within the hearts and minds of the characters. It is clear which side Rowling is on, and it's not evil.

1- J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (New York: Scholastic, 1997, p. 291) I believe that the movie used the very same dialog at this point.

2- Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (New York, Scholastic, 2003, p. 834)

3- Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (New York, Scholastic, 2003, p. 851)

4- Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (New York, Scholastic, 2003, pp. 166-7)

5- Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (New York, Scholastic, 2003, p. 814)

6- Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. (New York, Scholastic, 2003, pp. 843-4)

Thanks for reading.

I re-analyzed the Harry Potter series, in a post in early 2015, here

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