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

In Praise of Harry Potter

Happy HarryA common theme of my life seems to be feeling a little bit embarrassed by evangelical Christians’ public representation of Christ when it comes to literature and the arts. Harry Potter is by no means an exception. I am a Literature and Philosophy graduate, so I often find myself cringing when I hear preaching which misrepresents these disciplines. (The worst I have heard recently from a platform is that ‘existentialism is basically another word for political correctness.’ Make of that what you will. I think the speaker was probably a little bit confused.) So something I like to try and do on this blog is to try to articulate a slightly more informed perspective, which might gently challenge others to think about things in a fresh way, and maybe even change their minds, if that is possible.

Before I start, let me recommend this lecture from Jerram Barrs, possibly one of my favourite lectures ever. It will say far more good things about Harry Potter than I am capable of doing here.

This first post will be a positive affirmation of Harry Potter, which I will release at the same time as my second post in defence of Harry Potter. You can read them in either order, but I’m making this the first because I regret having to write the second, and it’s not the substance of what I want to say. If you are a Christian struggling with the fact that I have something positive to say about Harry Potter, you might want to read the second post first, and I hope this will challenge you to think more deeply about some of your criticism of JK Rowling and the Harry Potter series.

In Praise of Harry Potter

I have only just finished reading the series of Harry Potter books. I started a few years ago and then had a long pause after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, which I felt was over-long, largely irrelevant to the main story, badly in need of an editor, and a disappointment after the cliff-hanger ending of The Goblet of Fire. I recently visited Harry Potter world in Watford, which I very much enjoyed, and which caused me to think about the series again. After that I read the last two books, and I have subsequently re-watched all the films (some of them more than once).

Although I think that there are some flaws in both the books and the films, on the whole I think they are some of the most powerful works of fiction I have ever come across, certainly on a par with Lord of the Rings in literary terms or with Star Wars in cinematic terms. I have been thinking about what it is that makes these books so profound, and so captivating, and I have a couple of thoughts to share here.

Three Things

In his lecture, Jerram Barrs makes the point that all great works of literature have three themes in common. ‘All’ may be an overstatement, but Barrs says that these themes are: firstly, the celebration of a good creation, secondly, the sad reality of suffering and evil, and, thirdly, the possibility of redemption. Barrs, being a Christian believer, naturally believes that these are all aspects of reality in the broadest sense of the word, and so thinks that Potter is ‘tapping in,’ so to speak, to something that is really there. In other words, the reason that so many people are captivated by these stories is because they are true. Not in the literal sense that Hogwarts is a real place or that Dumbledore is a real person, but they speak of a deeper reality that lies behind these stories. What is this reality?

The Christian story is that creation is a fundamentally good thing, which was originally so good as to be beyond our comprehension in wonder and excitement, and still retains much of that goodness, even though it has been so badly corrupted by sin. The fact that Harry Potter celebrates the wonder and joy of what it is to live with a sense of abundance and freedom, seen through the eyes of a boy who realises that he is not ordinary but special, speaks to our desire to experience that for which we were originally made. Hogwarts feels like home to Harry. The new creation will feel like home to us, and it speaks to us of our homesickness.

I wonder if you feel this too? When I read or watch Harry Potter, I feel a profound sense of longing and almost sadness. It’s a strange feeling. I’ve spoken to many people about the books, and they have said to me that they love the main story with Voldemort and so on, but mostly they just want to go to Hogwarts and live there and join in the experience of that world. This longing is a wonderful thing, but it is also a sad thing, because we know that this is not the reality in which we live. Our reality is mundane and tired, and full of problems. It may be the same thing to which C.S. Lewis assigned the technical term ‘joy’ in his memoir ‘Surprised by Joy.’ This is a sense of profound longing, which in itself is a wonderful experience. The moment you notice it, it’s gone, and you’d do anything to have it back again. Some people feel this pain acutely. Other people try and initiate themselves into the world of Harry Potter by somewhat strange means. When we were at Harry Potter World, there was a teenager there who was dressed in wizard robes. Why? He wants to live in that world. And I say, this is not an escapist fantasy, but a deep part of the human spirit, longing for home.

Harry Potter is a story about the goodness of creation and a celebration of life. It is about the reality of sin, suffering and evil, as represented by the quasi-demonic incarnation of Lord Voldermort, and the death and destruction he wreaks upon the world. And it is about the possibility of redemption, and the end of suffering and death, as we see powerfully in the final books, encompassing strongly Christian themes of resurrection and sacrificial love to death.

Sacrificial Love

It makes me sad that many Christians have not taken the time or the care to see what I am about to say. The main theme of the Harry Potter books, from the first page to the last, is this: sacrificial love is the most powerful force in the whole universe. More powerful than evil, and more powerful than death. This is Lord Voldemort’s first mistake, and the mistake that leads to his demise. Harry’s mother gives her life to protect him, and it is this love that stops Lord Voldemort from destroying Harry. His mother’s love was more powerful than Lord Voldemort’s evil magic.

For me, the most moving part of the whole series comes at the very end when Harry learns that he must sacrifice his own life in order to save his friends. At the end of the final film, he goes to Ron and Hermione and tells them what he is going to do. Hermione flings her arms round Harry, and says, “Harry, we’ll go with you.” But Harry knows this is something he needs to do alone. He needs to take the Calvary Road alone and sacrifice his life for the sake of his friends. One of the final chapters of the Deathly Hallows is a play on words, entitled ‘King’s Cross,’ and it’s in this moment that we can see with fresh eyes the beauty of the sacrifice that our Lord Jesus made on his own King’s Cross.

I compare it to moments like Aslan being tied to the Stone Table in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, or to Frodo and Sam in The Return of the King, as their strength gradually ebbs away while they suffer their own long, drawn-out passion experience on the way to Mordor, knowing that they too will certainly suffer death to save others from evil.

Greater love has no man than this: that he lay down his life for his friends.

Please Think

I wonder if you are a Christian, and you have dismissed or not engaged with Harry Potter, which was the case with me for a long time. I hope that reading this has whet your appetite to find out more about it, and I encourage you to listen to Jerram Barrs, which is much more interesting than what I have said here.

I hope that you will come to celebrate the story of Harry Potter as I do, and come to see it as a very profound, powerful and wonderful story, which touches the deepest parts of the human spirit, and speaks to us of the most powerful force there is, that of the sacrificial love of Christ.

Related Post

In Defence of Harry Potter

From Womb to Tomb: Why Christ-followers Should Oppose Capital Punishment

Joseph Rudolph Wood was executed last week. It took him over two hours to die because of the incompetence of the mechanism used to kill him, in this case lethal injection.

I put this up on Facebook, and it sparked a bit of a debate about the issue of capital punishment from a Christian perspective. So this post is a response to some of the issues raised on that thread. It’s not an attempt at an academic or exhaustive essay. But I hope that some people find it helpful in thinking through some of the issues associated with capital punishment.

Over the past week, I’ve just finished reading a book called ‘What Would Jesus Deconstruct?’ by John D. Caputo. It is definitely the case that people reading this blog will find much of what he says disagreeable, but I found it helpful for this discussion.

 

Thoughts on Capital Punishment 

I’d first like to address some of the arguments I’ve heard from Christians for capital punishment. These range from the respectable – e.g. John Piper referencing the Noahic Covenant from Genesis – to the frankly quite absurd, occasionally bordering on insane, arguments given by Andrew Tallman at Christianity.com.

I think these arguments all fail because they are what I call ‘proof-texting arguments.’ That is, they pick individual verses out of various different contexts in the Bible and then use them to support a particular idea, in this case capital punishment. These kinds of discussions get nowhere for me because it is just as easy for someone to come along, and pick another verse from the Bible to contradict the first argument. For example, I think it’s very easy to quote Jesus himself as saying, ‘My Kingdom is not of this world. If it were my servants would have been fighting,’ or ‘Turn the other cheek,’ as arguments against capital punishment.

Also, it’s easy to argue tit-for-tat. ‘Paul approved of capital punishment’ is one aforementioned argument. Did he? Or did he just accept it as an inevitable part of his culture in the same way as he did with slavery? Paul didn’t say, ‘Free all the slaves,’ because it was inconceivable at his time that this would happen. Maybe the same logic applies with capital punishment. Paul, no doubt, would have approved the abolition of the slave trade. Maybe he would have approved of the repeal of the death penalty.

Another argument, vis-à-vis John Piper, is that the Noahic Covenant includes an institution of capital punishment. The same could be said of the Mosaic Law. It must be admitted that there are times in Scripture (in the Old Testament albeit) that Yahweh approved of, and sanctioned, capital punishment. But again (and to be fair to Piper, he would almost certainly concede this point) it is very unclear from a basic hermeneutic understanding of Scripture that you can willy-nilly apply the Noahic Covenant or the Mosaic Law to a 21st Century, Western democracy like the UK without going very badly wrong indeed.

These covenants were not given to us. They were given to Noah and the Jews in the Wilderness respectively. That’s not to say they don’t have good things to say. But it is not as simple as just applying them straight out of the page to our law courts, as anyone who has ever tried to eat shellfish will tell you.

What Would Jesus Do?

What does it mean to be a Christian? It simply means to be a Christ-follower. All Christ-followers agree that, whatever the Bible is about, difficult and sometimes strange book that it is, it is about Jesus. This is what Jesus taught the disciples on the Emmaus Road. And so, somehow, whatever we glean from the Bible must resemble him in some way. Otherwise I think we have simply misunderstood what we have read.

John Caputo uses the well-known phrase ‘What Would Jesus Do?’ as a springboard for his arguments. And it’s helped me to look beyond the fairly cheesy marketing of that phrase, and to actually think about that question seriously. What would Jesus do? Would he administer the fatal dose to the criminal? Or would he preach forgiveness and mercy? Would he gleefully exult on Facebook over the bombing of Palestine, as I have seen many Christians do over the past two weeks? Or would he weep in the streets over the death of the innocent?

As John Caputo writes, ‘We can use this question to put ourselves on the spot, to try to sensitize ourselves to the spirit of his life and teachings in the New Testament and then to employ as much good political, philosophical, and theological judgement as we can command in the present situation.’ P.96

I can’t develop this at length, but we know that Jesus was a man of peace, who preached a gospel of love, mercy, forgiveness and self-sacrifice. This self-sacrifice, at its heart, is non-violent. When his disciples sought to use violence, Christ stopped them every time. Every argument that a Christian uses in favour of capital punishment (barring the ridiculous arguments I referenced earlier from Andrew Tallman) comes from somewhere outside the ministry of Christ. There is no sensible argument from his ministry because his ministry is fundamentally a ministry of peace. And, therefore, to be consistent Christ-followers, Christians must fundamentally support a message of peace, which translates in almost every case to non-violence.

Writing on abortion, Caputo says, ‘Jesus was sharply critical of hypocrisy…In my view, it is hypocritical for Christians to oppose abortion while endorsing capital punishment and preemptive wars…The most consistent and sensible position in this regard is the “seamless garment” argument against violence of any stripe made by Cardinal Bernadine: the right to life spans the entire spectrum, and it includes not only fetuses but felons, not only friends but enemies, “from womb to tomb.” Christian witness requires a radical opposition to violence in all its forms and seeing the interconnectedness of such opposition.’ P.113-114

Caputo’s argument is much more nuanced than I’ve put here. But he says, in a nutshell, that you can’t just apply any law to any given situation because justice (which, in post-structuralist terms is the “event” itself) requires different laws at different times, and is always beyond law, so to speak. And so, Caputo says that, even though Jesus was a man of peace, that does not necessarily mean that all war or all capital punishment is wrong. For example, I find it quite reasonable to assume that, if the Second World War had not been fought then Nazis would have conquered Europe and killed all the Jews and goodness knows who else. In that sense it was almost certainly the right decision to fight against them and so, in a sense, the Second World War was justified.

But what Jesus’ ministry does mean is that these wars and killings must be approached with him in mind. They are always the lesser of two evils. They are always tragic, and never in line with the spirit of his life.

To apply this to our day and age (and this is the paragraph that actually matters), I personally can think of no good reason why capital punishment should happen in this country or in the USA. Neither country needs to execute criminals in order to keep other people safe or because they lack of resources. These criminals can be kept in jail for their whole lives without any need to execute them. The only reason that remains to execute criminals here or in the US seems to me to be a desire for vengeance, which, again, is not a very Christ-like principle, seeing as he prayed for the Father to forgive the ones who were crucifying him.

A final point, which may or may not be a good argument and may or may not be relevant. Most people are viscerally disgusted or disturbed by the sight of an execution. You only have to watch a film like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s ‘A Short Film About Killing’ or Frank Darabont’s ‘The Green Mile’ to get some feeling of what it must be like to actually stand in a room with a man who is anticipating being fried in the electric chair, hung until he is dead, or even poisoned quietly. It just feels wrong. It feels pitiless and immeasurably cold-hearted. Every sinew of your being cries out for mercy. It is beyond the power of words to describe how awful it is even to watch a fictionalised account.

I might venture a guess that the reason it feels so wrong is because it is wrong. Christ would not approve of it, and neither should we.

Where would we be if God had poured out his righteous anger on us for our sins? Hasn’t Christ charged us to preach a gospel of love, forgiveness and repentance? And how will they repent if they have been executed?

Thanks for reading as always. Comments welcomed.