"Harry Potter books and films have been attacked in the past by evangelicals for allegedly glamorizing the occult," say the papers. But Christians "are now eschewing condemnation for praise, embracing Ms. Rowling's tales as powerful religious fables for our time."
It's a narrative as fictional as the Potter books themselves. In late 1999, I noted that, contrary to media reports, no major Christian leader had spoken against the Harry Potter series, and several had actually supported the books. Some readers were upset with my summary, but the most prominent critic they could come up with at that time was Texas pastor John Hagee. Four books and five films later, it's time for an update to that piece.
One of the most prominent evangelical supporters of the series in 1999 was Charles Colson. "The magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic," he said in his BreakPoint broadcast. "That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animalsbut they don't make contact with a supernatural world. The plots reinforce the theme that evil is real, and must be courageously opposed. [Harry and his friends] develop courage, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for one anothereven at the risk of their lives. Not bad lessons in a self-centered world."
Now, eight years later, Colson tells his listeners, "Personally, I don't recommend the Potter books. I'd rather Christian kids not read them. Dare [Christian kids] to have Daniel as their role model, not Harry Potter."
But four days after Colson's BreakPoint commentary, Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley had his own BreakPoint commentary recommending the books. "They are a good read," he said. "People have found something in the Harry Potter stories that is far more profound and inspiring than just a desire to be a part of the literary in-crowd. A good fantasy author can remind us of the necessity of sacrifice and the redemption that can come from even the most brutal and senseless acts. They can help restore our faith in goodnessand, yes, sometimes even in God. Great stories are even more closely related to the gospel than we realize. No wonder that great stories are so enticing."
Posts on Prison Fellowship's The Point blog, written largely by Prison Fellowship staffers, effusively praise the series, including the final book.
Meanwhile, Focus on the Family wants to make it clear that The Washington Post was wrong when it reported, "Christian parenting guru James Dobson has praised the Potter books." The Focus on the Family website issued a response, which it promoted on its daily radio program, that explains:
This is the exact opposite of Dr. Dobson's opinion in fact, he said a few years ago on his daily radio broadcast that "we have spoken out strongly against all of the Harry Potter products." His rationale for that statement: Magical characters witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists, and so on fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology in the larger culture, it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds.
That may be true of Dobson himself, but earlier Focus on the Family treatments of the Hogwarts series specifically denied his charge. "The spiritual fault of Harry Potter is not so much that Rowling is playing to dark supernatural powers, but that she doesn't acknowledge any supernatural powers at all," Lindy Beam (now Lindy Keffer) wrote for Focus on the Family's entertainment guide, Plugged In. "These stories are not fueled by witchcraft, but by secularism."
Keffer's comments no longer appear on the Focus on the Family site, but Keffer repeated a version of her argument this month in her review of the film version of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:
Even with all the magic in the air, the worldview of Phoenix can't be called consistently occult. Like the world we live in today, it's a hodgepodge of ideas that are accepted simultaneously, even if they don't really fit together. Students repeatedly wish each other "Merry Christmas" before their school holiday begins. At one point, Snape tells Harry to pray, with no reference to whom he should pray to. And much of the magic in the film is arguably "mechanical," lending support to a naturalistic philosophy.
World magazine, meanwhile, continues the ambivalent position it has taken toward the books ever since its parent company stopped selling them through its book club in 1999.
"Although the witchcraft taught here is arguably not the same as that of devil worshippers or even Wiccans, parents were right to worry that the Potter novels and movies might make real witchcraft seem attractive to their children," Gene Edward Veith wrote about the Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire film in 2005. He continues:
True, in the Potter universe, there is a conflict between good witches and bad witches, so that a moral structure prevails. But in the first three books and movies, the conflict between good and evil is mostly symbolic. Goblet of Fire is more mature. It does not dramatize the Muggle/Witch dichotomy, and the realm of magic is depicted not as fun but as a grim and dangerous place. In this movie, the conflict between good and evil is genuine.
Veith still recommends that parents keep their kids from the books and films, but he does not condemn them. A 2005 review of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince similarly avoids direct criticism while telling readers that concerns that the book implicitly approves of sorcery "should be taken seriously." Likewise, the magazine's review of the Order of the Phoenix film this month refers to "objections of many thoughtful Christian parents" without actually endorsing those concerns. Meanwhile, on World's blog, features editor Lynn Vincent noted that her children stood in line at Barnes & Noble Friday night to get a copy of the final volume.
As an editor at a magazine that has repeatedly praised the Harry Potter books and films (our reviewer didn't care for the latest movie, but it had nothing to do with concerns about occult imagery or violence), I can attest that there are a number of Christians out there who adamantly feel that the books endorse evilor are evil themselves. They have tried hard to get Christianity Today to change its view on J. K. Rowling's works, but without success (we haven't actually taken an official stance on the books since our January 2000 issue). Whether similar efforts have convinced Colson, Dobson, and some others to take a slightly stronger stance against Harry Potter is unknown. There may have been other reasons. (The books have indeed become increasingly dark and violent, for example.) Regardless, their heart doesn't seem in it. I still don't think there's a groundswell of opposition to the Potter books. But what opposition does exist, it seems clear, is originating in the pews rather than the pulpits.
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is available from Amazon.com and other retailers.
Our coverage of Deathly Hallows includes:
The Gospel According to J.K. Rowling | The magic world of Harry Potter begins yielding to a 'deeper magic.' (July 23, 2007)
What Would Jonathan Edwards Say About Harry Potter? | How the preacher responded to pop culture's version of transcendence. (July 24, 2007)
For more articles on previous Harry Potter books and movies, see our full coverage area.
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