Last November I interviewed "Movie Mom" Nell Minow for our sister publication Christian Parenting Today. To her radio and Internet fans, Nell is an impassioned advocate for parents being vigilant in protecting their kids from inappropriate and harmful movies (moviemom.com). The magazine received many appreciative letters, but a handful sounded like this one, which I received today: "I went to her Web site and found this: listed among her 'All-Time Best Movies' was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone! This is just a joke, right? If not, why do you call yourselves CHRISTians. You give us, who really want to follow Christ, a bad name. Refer to the following verses in the Holy Bible: Deut. 18:10-14; 2 Kings 17:17-18; 2 Chr 33:6; Gal 5:19-21. This is not the first time I found your magazine to be not only in bad taste, but down right stinks of Hell!"
Never mind that the Harry Potter movie was never mentioned in the article, and let us not dwell on the confusion of treating magic as a literary device (to which none of those Bible verses apply) with magic as an occult practice (to which the verses can apply)—the letter is a good example of how J.K. Rowling's fantasy books have touched a raw nerve among some evangelicals. And the vitriol is not limited to the fringe element: take the venerable Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide and head of the Christian Film & Television Commission, a diplomatic mission to make connections between Hollywood and the Christian community. Normally cautious in his criticisms of the film industry and careful about making overgeneralizations that he may have to take back when meeting with studio heads, Baehr has openly campaigned against the Harry Potter movie, calling it "soft porn" in how it seduces our young into a life in the occult.
Cult watcher Richard Abanes has capitalized on the Potter hysteria and fanned the flames of fear in his book Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick (Horizon). But when debating the film on Dennis Praeger's radio show, Abanes could not come up with a single anecdotal case of someone taking up the occult based on reading or viewing Harry Potter.
This primitive shunning of Harry Potter is made all the more strange when contrasted with the Christian response to The Lord of the Rings, the fantasy trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and the blockbuster movie by director Peter Jackson. Superficially, there are many similarities between the projects. Both are fantasies by British authors who not only populate their stories with magical creatures but with magic as well. In fact, in both series magic is seen as a neutral instrument that can be used for either good or evil. And both authors allow their heroes to make full use of magic in their cause. So why are not both condemned equally?
If one indulged in this paranoid game of spotting evil, then I think a case could be made that Tolkien stinks more of hell than Rowling—as my pen pal would say. First, Middle Earth is surprisingly secular. We do not see any churches or temples, only monuments to past kings and historical figures. In fact, no wizard, elf, dwarf, human, or hobbit prays or mentions a deity (at least I don't remember such a reference in the five times I have read the series, but I am sure someone will tell me if I am wrong). At least Harry Potter celebrates Christmas. Suffice it to say that religious piety is not modeled in Tolkien.
Second, if you want to condemn a work for what it has inspired, then turn up the heat for Tolkien. While neither Tolkien or Rowling has ever encouraged people to mistake their magical worlds for the real one (in fact, both have made quite the opposite point), many fans have voluntarily entered Middle Earth. It would be hard not to link the occult-friendly role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to the influence and popularity of Lord of the Rings, which has provided the imaginative landscape for much modern fantasy. One Web site even sells Lord of the Rings Tarot Cards. Have some people used Tolkien as an entry point to the occult? The answer must be yes.
And yet, where is the brouhaha over Lord of the Rings? I have not heard it. All I have heard are desperate, wrong-headed attempts at explaining why Tolkien's (and Lewis's Narnia series') use of magic is fine while Rowling's is bad. Even Harry's critics feel compelled to defend Tolkien.
In fact, Tyndale House, the publisher of the Left Behind series and the New Living Translation of the Bible, has gone so far as to publish Finding God in The Lord of the Rings. Written by a vice president at Focus on the Family (another organization that few would claim suffered from liberal leanings), Kurt Bruner and writer Jim Ware attempt to show the "strong Christian faith that inspired and informed [Tolkien's] imagination." No scent of hell in that.
Bruner and Ware point out, "Many hard-line believers have been hesitant to embrace a creative work that includes mythic figures, magic rings, and supernatural themes. This is unfortunate because the transcendent truths of Christianity bubble up throughout this story, baptizing our imaginations with realities better experienced than studied."
Bruner and Ware are right about Tolkien, but their observations apply equally to Rowling's Harry Potter books. Neither series makes much sense apart from a Christian ethic—whether or not this was the author's intent, especially in Rowling's case. Both works convey a palpable sense of Providence; both lift up agape love as the highest virtue; both flesh out what it means to have noble character; both see evil as coming from the heart and not "out there."
So why does Frodo get a pass while Harry is demonized? Perhaps it is because Tolkien is a safe, dead, white male who taught at Oxford and helped C.S. Lewis become a Christian. He is one of us. Whereas Rowling is a divorced mother who only mentioned she was some kind of Christian when Christians starting attacking her. Perhaps it is because Christian parents get very anxious about things that so stir our ideals but do not come from our pews, like the Harry Potter craze and the Star Wars phenomenon before it. I do not know.
But here is where Bruner and Ware make their stand: "The Lord of the Rings is a tale of redemption in which the main characters overcome cowardly self-preservation to model heroic self-sacrifice [which is true of each of the Potter books]. Their bravery mirrors the greatest heroic rescue of all time, when Christ 'humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!'"
I smell the same spiritual scent in both works, and it is not sulfur.
Michael G. Maudlin is the executive editor of Books & Culture.
Focus on the Family's Plugged In Web site has an archive of articles on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings to provide advice for "Christians grappling with pop culture's mystical mania."
"Movie Mom" Nell Minow said of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone: "A terrific book is now a terrific movie. Every family should enjoy them both."
Christianity Today's Weblog previously covered the Lord of the Rings vs. Harry Potter debate in "Frodo Good, Harry Bad."
Previous Christianity Today articles on Harry Potter include:
Somewhat Wild About Harry | It's well nigh impossible to hate the warm-hearted Harry Potter. (Dec. 28, 2001)
Let Harry Potter Conjure Up 'Gospel Magic', Says Christian Magician | Andrew Thompson and others agree that some Christians have a false understanding of what Harry Potter is about. (Dec. 18, 2001)
Potter's Field | Harry doesn't always make money magically appear. (Nov. 15, 2001)
The Perils of Harry Potter | Literary device or not, witchcraft is real—and dangerous. (Oct. 23, 2000)
Virtue on a Broomstick | The Harry Potter books, and the controversy surrounding them, bode well for the culture. (Sept. 7, 2000)
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)
Previous Christianity Today articles on the Lord of the Rings include:
Fantasylands | How to tell an orc from an ewok. (Dec. 16, 2001)
Lord of the Megaplex | The onscreen Fellowship of the Ring launches a new wave of Tolkienmania. (Nov. 12, 2001)
Christianity Today's weekly Film Forum looks at what mainstream and Christian critics are saying about new movie releases. Film Forum articles on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings include:
The Fellowship of the Raves | Critics grope for superlatives for The Fellowship of the Ring. (Dec. 21, 2001)
Gandalf and the Gamblers | As everyone talks about The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, critics also get around to reviewing Ocean's Eleven, In the Bedroom, and The Business of Strangers. (Dec. 13, 2001)
First Looks at a Feature Fantasy | Early reviews for Fellowship of the Ring are in. (Dec. 6, 2001)
Wary About Harry | Is the big-screen Harry Potter as delightful as the one in the book? And should you be worried about his witchcraft? Critics and viewers respond. (Nov. 21, 2001)
The current issue of Books and Culture has an article which asks whether the creator of the Lord of the Rings should be acknowledged as the foremost author of the twentieth century?
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Dictionary of the Future | Trendspotter Faith Popcorn on the words that will define our tomorrow. (Feb. 11, 2002)
Does Creationism Equal Holocaust Denial? | Yes, says Michael Shermer in Scientific American. (Feb. 4, 2002)
Theodore Rex | Is "popular history" getting a bad rap? (Jan. 28, 2002)
Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. | A progress report. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Coming Attractions | Books to watch for this year. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Books of the Year, Part 2 | After the top ten, here's the best of the rest. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Books of the Year | Part 1: The Top Ten (Dec. 17, 2001)
"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)
'We Now Know' | The boast of imperial science. (Dec. 3, 2001)
"24 Cow Clones, All Normal"… | Oh yes, and a few cloned human embryos that died. (Nov. 26, 2001)
"Discovering" Islam: The Intellectual Challenge | There's good reason to believe that there will be staying power to the West's belated "discovery" of Islam. (Nov. 19, 2001)
Disturbing the Peace | Is art always subversive when it's doing its job? (Nov. 12, 2001)