Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
by J. K. Rowling
Scholastic, 734 pages, $25.95
I was one of two "religious" representatives on a panel about "Morality at the Movies." The diverse group included movie-industry people, journalists, and lawyers, but somehow I got branded as the radical. Here is what I proposed: parents should support one another as they try to guide their kids on which movies are appropriate to see. "My kids know much better than I do which movies are best for them," one parent responded. "What right do parents have to say what is right for teenagers?" said one college student. "What's the big deal?" another adult chimed in. "As long as it doesn't support hate and violence, it's just entertainment."The discussion soon became heated and enjoyable, but I came away surprised at the cultural resistance to adults' acting like parents. Even in this post-Columbine era, daring to say which entertainment choices ennoble and which degrade children gets one quickly branded a "fundamentalist."So I have read the Christians Object to Harry Potter headlines with a jaundiced eye. These Christian protesters are newsworthy only because in our culture there is so little debate about what is good for our kids. Christians often serve as the cultural superego. In a morally chaotic world, it has become our task to voice objections to moral deviance, and it is the mainstream culture's job to tell us why we are "uptight," "ridiculous," and/or "bigoted." Along comes a popular children series about witchcraft and journalists scurry to their Rolodexes, looking under "F" for "frothy fundamentalists" to get a good quote. Thus when a relatively small number of Christian parents ask that their kids' schools not read Harry Potter, we read about it in all the major newspapers.
At 12:01 a.m. on July 7, Pottermania struck again with the release of book four in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. With a record-breaking first printing of 3.5 million in the United States, the book caused long lines of eager fans. (Expect next summer to be worse; we will get both the fifth book and the first movie.) Among those line-dwellers were many evangelicals. In fact, I would guess that the vast majority of evangelicals in this country who have encountered Harry Potter are as smitten with him as the culture at large. Many of my Christian friends bragged to me about their late-night family outing to purchase the book (I waited for the free review copy) and were eager to compare notes on whether the latest volume matched the quality of the first three. Much has been written about evangelicals' engagement with the culture and our drive to shore up crumbling family values via a Judeo-Christian ethic. And it is this impulse that warms the hearts of so many evangelicals when we read Rowling. The Harry Potter series is not only laugh-out-loud fun, but Harry is good. For those out of the loop, Harry is the orphaned son of two loving parents (albeit a witch and a wizard) who were murdered by one of the best embodiments of evil in fiction that has come along in some time, Lord Voldemort (watch out Nicolae Carpathia!)—or as most of the characters in the books call him, "He-who-must-not-be-named."The one-year-old Harry is mysteriously spared from being killed because of "the sacrificial love" of his mother, and Voldemort comes perilously close to dying when his spell against Harry backfires. The lightning-bolt scar on his forehead and the eternal enmity of Voldemort are all that Harry takes away from the struggle.Raised by his Muggle (nonmagical) uncle and aunt, the Dursleys, who hate all things magical, Harry suffers through a Dickensian childhood of sleeping in the cupboard under the stairs and never receiving a birthday present, all the while watching his same-aged cousin Dudley being spoiled with food and presents galore. All this changes when Harry turns 11 and discovers he is a wizard, famous in the magical world for defeating Voldemort, and attends boarding school at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. (The Dursleys tell their friends that Harry is at St. Brutus's Secure Center for Incurably Criminal Boys). Each volume covers a year in Harry's life at Hogwarts, where with his best friends Ron and Hermione he struggles against a plot to do him in amid his school and extracurricular activities.Now for year four. The consensus is that Goblet of Fire is not only twice as long as any of the others but also better. The orphaned English wizard is now 14 and ready for more responsibility. It comes when he is illegally entered in the Triwizard Tournament (he is technically too young to participate). Harry knows that someone entered him in order to do him harm, but everyone thinks he rigged the ballot for his own glory. Thus our hero suffers ostracism from his friends, even Ron, while figuring out how to survive the tournament. And how does Harry cope? Yes, he gets discouraged and angry, but overall he displays courage, loyalty, compassion, joy, humility, even love. During the tournament, Harry must choose between winning and ensuring that others remain free from danger; he chooses the latter while hardly batting an eye. And all the while he sounds like a typical 14-year-old. That is Rowling's triumph: creating a "cool" good kid.
What are Christians actually complaining about when they critique Rowling? Far from frothing at the mouth, many Christian leaders have given reasoned counsel on the matter.Lindy Beam, a youth-culture analyst for Plugged In, a Focus on the Family newsletter that reviews popular culture, has surveyed the Potter phenomenon and provides helpful guidance for parents. She begins by stating what should be the obvious goal for parents today but is not: "To grow kids who are wise, thoughtful, culturally literate, pure, God-fearing, and who can make a positive impact on their world."Next she raises three issues Christian parents should grapple with before they allow Harry Potter into their child's imagination: First, the series may desensitize us to witchcraft. Second, the books don't "acknowledge any supernatural powers or moral authority at all." And third, there is "lots of gore and fright." But then she lists the books' positive values and cautions against overreaction. "Children who read about Harry will probably discover little to nothing about the true world of the occult," she writes. "We know God hates the practice of witchcraft (Deut. 18:10). But we have committed a fault of logic in saying that reading about witches and wizards necessarily translates into these occult practices. I would propose instead that reading Harry Potter produces curiosity and that it is what we do with that curiosity that makes all the difference."John Andrew Murray, Beam's colleague at Teachers in Focus, has harsher words for Harry: "By disassociating magic and supernatural evil, it becomes possible to portray occult practices as 'good' and 'healthy,' contrary to the scriptural declaration that such practices are 'detestable to the Lord.' This, in turn, opens the door for kids to become fascinated with the supernatural while tragically failing to seek or recognize the one true source of supernatural good—namely God.""What comes across," Murray concludes, "is a kind of dualism, the idea that there are two equal, uncreated, antagonistic forces, one good and one evil, and that choosing between the two is purely a matter of personal opinion. Rowling's readers are ultimately left in a morally confused world."I disagree with Murray. I think good and evil are clear and absolute in the books, just not fully explained—yet. It may be your "personal opinion" that it is right to serve Lord Voldemort, but every reader knows which side you have chosen. And I would shout a little more loudly the wonderful virtues that are modeled in the books, which is why Charles Colson and Fuller Seminary president Richard Mouw have reviewed the books positively.Still, none of the critics sounds like a simplistic book-burner to me. We may disagree on details, but we share the same concern in taking seriously our charge to raise morally and religiously informed children. Overall I think the Christian community can feel proud of how it has mobilized itself regarding Harry.To be sure, the ending is scary, which often happens when one tries to portray true evil, and so several reviewers suggest the books be limited to children ten and older, which sounds right to me. Yet as the book closes, Harry's future looks promising and intriguing: Harry has grown up and become a true player in the moral battle of his time, in a world where many witches and wizards do not want to admit there is a war. For Christian readers, this and other themes in this non-Christian book will seem appropriate for the world they find themselves engaged with.
Michael G. Maudlin is online executive editor of Christianity Today.
More on Harry Potter and Christianity is available from the Center for Studies on New Religions ( CESNUR ) and the Apologetics Index .Last Sunday, the church of All Saints in Guildford, Surrey, England, had a special "Harry Potter" family service , complete with changes in the Church of England liturgy. "Some clergy from the Church of England's evangelical wing have protested, saying importing occult symbols into Christian liturgy is a terrible idea that can confuse children," reported the New York Post's Rod Dreher . "They're right—and I say that as someone who adores the Harry Potter books—but the real error here has nothing to do with the misuse of our beloved Harry. The real offense here is the profane notion that sacred liturgy can or should be made a slave of entertainment-driven faddishness." Meanwhile, evangelicals are protesting the use of Gloucester Cathedral in the upcoming Harry Potter movie. The cathedral will be used as the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.This unofficial fan site boasts children's illustrations , pictures of the Harry Potter movie cast , and printable paper dolls of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. The official Harry Potter site doesn't offer as much peripheral information, but if it's information on the books you want, the official site at Scholastic is a fine place to begin.Read the transcript of a J.K.Rowling chat online , or read a three-part Rowling interview about writing, parenting, and fame. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone , Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban , and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire are all available from Amazon.com and other book retailers.Previous Christianity Today articles about Harry Potter include:Opinion Roundup: Positive About Potter | Despite what you've heard, Christian leaders like the children's books. (Dec. 13, 1999) Parents Push for Wizard-free Reading | Bestsellers now under fire in some classroom. (Dec. 13, 1999) Why We Like Harry Potter | The series is a 'Book of Virtues' with a preadolescent funny bone. (Dec. 13, 1999)
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