In Defence of Harry Potter

Sad HarryI’m not really sure of the details behind some evangelical Christians’ disappointment with Harry Potter beyond anecdotal evidence. Some of this is amusing: a friend of ours went to a primary school where the children were allowed to read Harry Potter, but when the children found an instance of the word ‘magic,’ they had to cross it out and write the word ‘special’ in its place.[1] This is doubly-confusing to me because, as I understand it, ‘magic’ is a noun whereas ‘special’ is an adjective, so not only is a very odd synonym, but it is also a rather lousy grammatical choice. (To digress slightly, the same school apparently called our friend’s father in to confront him about the decision he had taken to watch Star Trek with his children, which was apparently ungodly.)

Some of the criticism is just boring and I don’t think it’s worth my time. I’ve got a book called ‘Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace behind the Magick,’ which is 300 pages long, and, honestly, I’ve got better things to read.

I believe that it is important to consider a variety of viewpoints, especially those that differ from one’s own, and that this is often the difference between fundamentalism and reflective and genuine faith, but this is an argument that doesn’t clamour for my attention as much as others. So I’m not going to read this book (not yet, anyway) because I don’t want to.

This is all to admit my hypocrisy, and open the door for commenters to challenge my ideas and viewpoints with different points of view. I’m definitely open to hearing them, but, as yet, I’m still to hear anything against these books or films that I find remotely respectable. Some of it I would actually go so far as to call ‘sinful,’ as I’ll go on to say.

Further to this, I’m not making any sort of comment about when or if parents should let kids read or watch Harry Potter. That’s for individual parents to decide based on a variety of factors which encompass different concerns to those I’m raising. Parents might, for example, just not enjoy the books, and want to read something else to their kids. No problem.

So I want to take the other side seriously. But at the moment I don’t because I find it shrill and annoying, and I’m waiting for someone to show me a different perspective. So, here are some of the thoughts I have about this controversy in defence of Harry Potter. If you would like to read the first post and companion piece ‘In Praise of Harry Potter’ first, please do.

Needless to say: spoilers ahead.

Have you read the books or watched the films?

I think this needs to be said to begin with. I wonder how many Christians who say things about Harry Potter have actually read the books or seen the films. This isn’t like watching a porn film or a snuff movie. These books and films are widely embraced cultural works which demand attention. It is extremely disreputable, in my opinion, to criticise a book or film you haven’t read or seen with such stridency. It also makes you look foolish and ignorant. Again, I often hear Christians talking about Friedrich Nietzsche, who I studied when I was at university, and some of the things they say are just plain factually incorrect. It is obvious to me that they have never read Nietzsche, or even picked up one of his books! This kind of thing simply lacks integrity.

There are plenty of viewpoints I disagree with, but I try and actually engage with the strongest forms of those arguments because I want to be informed personally, and I want to have the integrity to be able to talk about those things. It simply lacks credibility to stand at a distance and throw stones in ignorance.

‘J.K. Rowling is a witch’

It’s not hard to find a Christian on the internet coming out with something like this. For example, from a website called God Hates Goths:

J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, is a witch and in league with Lucifer himself. She is a lunatic and freak straight out of the pits of Hell, and should be in prison for crimes against the innocent and child abuse! For every child that reads one of her filthy books, is just another abuse victim! She may as well be loading a gun, and placing it in the child’s hand, and asking them to put it in their mouth and pull the trigger. For that is just as evil as allowing children to read this satanic trash. It would not surprise me if she had actually sold her soul to the Devil, in return for fame and fortune.

I personally find these kind of comments deeply upsetting and troubling. Not because they are being said but because they are being said by people who take the name of Christ and dishonour it with appalling slander. Let’s call this what it is: sin.

Have a read of what Rowling has actually said about Christian faith in The Telegraph.

…the author, who was brought up an Anglican and is now a member of the Church of Scotland, said she still wrestled with the concept of an afterlife.

“The truth is that, like Graham Greene, my faith is sometimes that my faith will return. It’s something I struggle with a lot.

“On any given moment if you asked me if I believe in life after death, I think if you polled me regularly through the week, I think I would come down on the side of yes – that I do believe in life after death.

“But it’s something I wrestle with a lot. It preoccupies me a lot, and I think that’s very obvious within the books.”

In this interview, Rowling specifically denies believing in or participating in witchcraft.

Q: Do you believe in witchcraft and have you ever done any witchcraft ?
A: No.

It seems to me that to continue to insist that Rowling is a witch, when she has publicly denied it and it has been revealed that she is a member of the church with a perhaps fledgling Christian faith, is malicious gossip and is itself ungodly and forbidden by the entirety of the Christian Scripture in many places. Love believes all things, says Paul, hopes all things. He means that Christian love is quick to trust that what other people say is true. Christian loves hopes that the best is true of people. Love does not slander people publicly and accuse them of witchcraft and satanic conspiracy. The church has tried that before and it doesn’t come off well on the pages of history.

So I would want to bring a challenge first to those people who question the integrity of JK Rowling: Is it a loving or godly thing to do to call this woman a witch when she has publicly denied it? Does her success justify your slander? Is it a good witness to the rest of the world to see Christians slagging people off using the most appalling language and imagery (much worse, I might add, than anything you would find in the books or films themselves)? Isn’t the Christian gospel meant to be about mercy and love, with a huge dose of ‘judge not lest you be judged’? With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Bad reading of the books

There are obviously lots of Christians who have the read the books and seen the films and are still against them. But I would like to raise another issue which I’ve come across in a couple of places. This is basically what I call a bad reading, which is a reading done in bad faith, if I can put it like that. This reading goes something like: one of the main characters does something bad therefore the entire Harry Potter series is anti-Christian and ungodly.

So, for example, a man on the Jerram Barrs podcast says that Harry lies in the books and so he feels this reflects badly on the whole series. He also raises the issue of Harry and Ron being mean to Malfoy. Now, I understand where this guy is coming from as far as his children are concerned, but this is a bad reading of the books (or any kind of literature). I opened my ‘Menace behind the Magick Book’ quite at random and found this quote.

In yet another scene, Professor Snape-the disliked potions teacher-is seen limping due to some sort of injury to his leg. Harry wonders what is wrong with Snape, and Ron bitterly replies: “Dunno, but I hope it’s really hurting him.” Again, the Bible reads very differently: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth” (Proverbs 24:17). P.42

Apart from the self-righteous and haughty tone of this quote (Why is it these things are always quoting the KJV?[2]), it is just not a good point to make. It is a nit-picking and silly way to read literature, and you could do exactly the same thing with the Bible. Abraham lies to Pharaoh about Sarah, therefore lying is great. Peter chops off someone’s ear, therefore chopping ears off is good. Paul persecuted Christians, therefore everyone should persecute Christians. Why is this so silly? Because it is not taking context into question. Of course Luke in Acts isn’t saying that persecuting Christians is good, as is made clear from the rest of the book!

JK Rowling portrays people as they really are: a mixed bag. This is one of the reasons, I think, that the characterisation in these books is so interesting. Harry struggles with feelings that are common to young men: anger, rage, resentment towards authority, bitterness towards adults who he feels are letting him down. His struggle with these issues does not mean that Rowling is saying these things are really brilliant and that everything Harry does we should do as well.

The plotline with Snape is actually one of the most moving and moral parts of the whole series. Harry and Ron come to see what was really behind Snape’s bitterness and cruelty and so come to a place of a forgiveness and respect for him. Harry even names his first son after Snape. After learning the truth of Snape’s tragic life, and ultimately his own self-sacrifice, I’m sure Harry feels a huge amount of regret and shame for his attitude towards Snape, being as he was incredibly ignorant of what was actually going on.

So, far from being an endorsement of rejoicing when thine enemy has fallen, this is a highly-moral and complex character study, which speaks to real-life in a profound and moving way.

Magic is evil

I suppose the final point to make is that many Christians feel that the idea of magic, witches, wizards and so on is just plain evil. To be fair, I don’t really understand this argument too well, as I haven’t heard it articulated in any particularly strong way. But here are a couple of my thoughts:

Firstly, I have heard that child psychologists say that it is a perfectly normal part of childhood development for children to play imaginary games. (I know I did it when I was a child.) A child imagines that his bear can talk to him, for example, or that he has an invisible friend no-one else can see or that she can fly, and so on. In fact, I’ve even heard that it is considered abnormal for children not to have these childhood experiences. These things might be easily called ‘magic.’ And fantasy worlds created in children’s literature, I think, can quite easily be seen as a legitimate extension of these childhood fantasies.[3] To continue to insist that witches and wizards are evil is to miss the point and reduces the whole thing to a semantic argument. Would it be okay if they were called something else?

Secondly, I would like to call for consistency here. Why is it that the majority of Christians have no serious problem with Lewis’ Narnia books or Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and yet so many disregard Harry Potter? It just seems inconsistent to me.

Thirdly, is it really that much of a big deal? Say JK Rowling actually is a Christian, as she claims to be, and that these books are actually wonderful, profound, life-affirming, joyful books which illuminate Christian values and tell the story of the gospel in a very special and unique way, does the fact they contain words like ‘magic,’ ‘witch’ and ‘wizard’ mean that they are of no value and, even worse, that they are satanic? Can we not redeem these works even if we do not like the words? Can we not think the best of JK Rowling in the name of Christian charity and love?

Finally

Please go on to read my shorter companion post ‘In Praise of Harry Potter’ in which I extol the main Christian virtues of Harry Potter, but I would like to finish with a final thought which has had a profound impact on me. A certain Christian writer (who will remain unnamed) said something like the following in a recent book: Christians are very good at saying ‘no’ to things. I wonder if the right thing to do is to say ‘yes’ a thousand times a day.

You can make of that what you will, but I would like to be that kind of person: a person who is quick to see and affirm what is good, and slow to criticise, name-call and accuse. The Harry Potter series above all calls for this kind of treatment.

Thanks for reading. I’m happy to receive comments, criticisms and different points of view. Please be respectful.

[1] I’ve subsequently found out this isn’t entirely accurate: it wasn’t Harry Potter that the children were reading, but simply any book with the word ‘magic’ in it. I’ve left it up because it is largely the same point, and funny.

[2] I’m reminded of a hilarious booklet my brethren friend gave to me once (in jest). It was against Lord of the Rings and Narnia (I think), also quoting the KJV liberally. One of arguments it used to prove the ungodliness of Lord of the Rings was that it was a very long book! I don’t have it anymore, but I remember it said something like, ‘The biblical writer Paul was able to write his finest letter, Romans, in a mere 10,000 words, whereas The Lord of the Rings is a whopping 2,000 pages long. Hardly an economy of style!’ I remember that last sentence clearly.

[3] I actually think that certain fantasy worlds have a much more deep and profound meaning than mere childhood fantasy, as I talk about more in my other post ‘In Praise of Harry Potter.’

Related Post

In Praise of Harry Potter

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6 thoughts on “In Defence of Harry Potter

  1. Pingback: In Praise of Harry Potter | From Essex to Wessex

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