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The Trouble With Harry

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The Trouble With Harry

Some Christians think Harry Potter is a hero. Others think the young wizard’s best-selling adventures are simply evil. What’s a concerned parent to think?

By John Andrew Murray

Having sold more than 8 million copies, the three Harry Potter books released so far have created a stir in public schools across America. Some Christian parents have complained that J.K. Rowling’s tales of young witches and wizards are terrifying to young children and inappropriate for classroom use. They’ve been rewarded for their concern with ridicule in newspapers and editorial cartoons.

Complicating the matter is the fact that several Christian leaders and conservative magazines have praised the series’ ability to captivate even the most reluctant young readers.

And the controversy has just begun.

Warner Bros. purchased movie rights to the books two years ago, along with the potential for building a billion-dollar franchise. Steven Spielberg has been mentioned as director of the film, and Warner will reportedly spend $45 million for special effects alone.

What’s more, The Wall Street Journal says the company is counting on big profits from sequels, TV broadcast rights, cartoon spin-offs, home-video sales, theme-park rides and interactive games.

Rowling, a single mother in Britain, has said she will write a total of seven books, the last to be released in 2003. She’s already written the final chapter of the last book. (She’s also made it clear that the books will grow along with the adolescent Harry — he’ll discover the opposite sex, for example — and darker themes, including the death of a friend, are not off-limits.)

If you think it’s bad now, in a year or two, there may be no avoiding the Harry Potter craze.

That’s why it’s important now to understand just what sort of worldview the books present.

Lower Than a Dog

I can admit now that when I graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1990 with a degree in English and history, I had little awareness of the media’s effects on children. I would have jumped at the chance to read Harry Potter to my sixth-grade English class. Instead, I used an old television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, each Monday to teach my students about plot development within a story.

One week I stopped the video before the show’s end and asked the students to write their own endings. They were so excited, they wanted to read their work aloud in class. I allowed them to do so, but the slasher-film endings I heard horrified and sickened me. After about the third student, I decided to read the rest silently. There were only a few that I thought were appropriate to share with the class.

When I later expressed my concern to the students, they defended their compositions, insisting that media violence had no effect. After all, they said, they understood that the killings they saw on TV and movies were "fake." But when I asked them how they would feel if they saw a TV program in which a dog was machine-gunned, they expressed their disgust in unison.

That presented me with a chance to make a simple point: The reason they found the shooting death of a dog so horrible is because they hadn’t been desensitized to it, as they were to the murder of a human.

So how does this relate to teaching Harry Potter?

With the growing popularity of youth-oriented TV shows on witchcraft — Sabrina, the Teenage Witch; Charmed; Buffy the Vampire Slayer — a generation of children is becoming desensitized to the occult. But with Hollywood’s help, Harry Potter will likely surpass all these influences, potentially reaping some grave spiritual consequences.

Who Is Harry Potter?

As noted above, Harry has inspired a variety of differing reactions, even among evangelicals. One Christian father of two daughters, ages 10 and 12, says that his youngest girl is "in love" with the Potter books.

"They are her all-time favorites," he said. "She and her friends have read them multiple times."

The father said that his daughter had grown weary of Nancy Drew mysteries — "these are all the same," she told him — and that books from Christian publishers are too "formulaic" and "will not stand the test of time as literature." He doesn’t want his children to turn to television for stimulation, so he’s actually pleased by the Harry Potter craze.

"Even if that literature may not necessarily espouse Christian values, if it excites them in ways that compete successfully with TV, it is making a wonderful contribution to their developing worldview," he says.

What makes Harry Potter’s world so attractive — even to Christians?

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first of Rowling’s three books, introduces Harry as an orphaned baby. Readers quickly learn that Harry has survived an attack by the series’ evil wizard: Lord Voldemort. Although successfully destroying Harry’s parents (a wizard and witch), Voldemort mysteriously fails in his attempts to kill Harry, leaving a lightning-bolt scar on the infant Harry’s forehead. Furthermore, in the process, Voldemort loses most of his power, thus making Harry an instant legend in the world of witchcraft.

Rescued by the "good wizard forces," Harry is deposited on the London suburb doorstep of his Muggle Aunt and Uncle. (Muggles are everyday people who are oblivious to the workings of the witches’ and wizards’ world.) Forced to sleep in a basement cupboard, Harry is tormented by his unloving relatives for the next 10 years — a Cinderella-like persecution that readily earns the reader’s sympathy.

Upon his 11th birthday, which occurs early in the book, Harry’s life takes a dramatic turn. He learns the true origin of both the lightning-bolt scar and his parents’ cause of death, and is rescued from his Muggle relatives. He’s enrolled in Hogwarts — the premier boarding school for "Witchcraft and Wizardry."

With Hogwarts as the main setting, Harry displays loyalty to his new friends and school, and bravery when battling the evil Lord Voldemort.

"The good is always more attractive than the bad," said the father whose daughter cherishes the books. "Loyalty, honesty, charity are celebrated.  Harry has friends he respects."

The Materialist Magician

If so many people like Harry Potter, what could possibly be wrong?

To answer that question, it may help to look at another supernatural novel, C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters.

Framed as fictional correspondence between the high-ranking demon Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood, the book explores some of the ways that demonic forces seek to build walls between humans and God.

In the 1941 preface of his book, Lewis revealed two of the greatest mistakes in humanity’s beliefs about demons:

There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased with both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

An even greater error, and the one most valued by Lewis’ demonic characters, is the fusion of the two errors.  As Screwtape writes to Wormwood:

If once we can produce our perfect work — the Materialist Magician, the man, not using but veritably worshiping what he vaguely calls "Forces" while denying the existence of "spirits" — then the end of the war will be in sight.

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 less discerning individuals — including, but not limited to, children — to become confused about supernatural matters.

This process is already well underway in American culture. A December 1997 study published by George Gallup, taken from the Princeton Religion Research Center, revealed that 31 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, 20 percent believe in witches, 24 percent believe in astrology, 17 percent had consulted a fortuneteller and 24 percent believe in reincarnation.

Gallup found that born-again Christians — defined as those who believe God’s Word to be literally true and have tried to encourage someone to accept Jesus Christ as his or her Savior — held almost the same beliefs percentage-wise as non-Christians.

What About Narnia?

Christian fans of Harry Potter insist that the series is no different than C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, a series that many Christian parents accept.

It is true that both authors create fantasy parallel worlds involving young British children who encounter magical creatures.  Both develop admirable characters and evil villains.  But this is where the comparison ends.

The difference between the two hinges on the concept of authority.  From a Christian perspective, authority and supernatural power are linked.

Take a look at Mark 2, where Jesus heals a paralytic.  When Jesus first sees the paralytic, He says, "Son, your sins are forgiven."  This sets up the following scene:

Now some teachers of the law were sitting there, thinking to themselves, "Why does this fellow teach like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?" Immediately Jesus knew… at this was what they were thinking… and He said to them, "Why are you thinking such things? Which is easier: to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Get up, take your mat and walk’? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins…" He said to the paralytic, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." He got up, took his mat and walked out in full view of them all. (Mark 2:6-12a)

Christ’s power flows from His authority.  That’s the nature of all legitimate power — it is granted and guided by authority.

When we read Rowling’s series, we find that she effectively divorces power from authority.  There is no sovereign person or principle governing the use of the supernatural.

Magical power is gained through inheritance and learning.  It is not granted by a higher authority, because there is no Higher Authority — at least none higher than Harry’s mentor, Albus Dumbledore, and the evil Lord Voldemort.  The two are equal, antagonistic and unaccountable to a higher authority.

In C.S. Lewis’ Narnia, power and authority are welded together.  That authority is Jesus, in the character of the great lion Aslan — creator and sovereign ruler of Narnia, son of the Emperor Beyond the Sea.  Good power is power that is bestowed by Aslan and exercised in accordance with his will.  This good power is at work when the children Peter, Susan and Lucy use gifts bestowed on them by an agent of Aslan.

Evil power, on the other hand, is power that is seized or conjured — rather than bestowed — and exercised for selfish ends.  Those who resist the temptation to use such power are commended, as was Digory, in The Magician’s Nephew.  But those who wield it (such as Jadis, also in The Magician’s Nephew) and the White Witch (in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) are eventually vanquished by Aslan.

Despite superficial similarities, Rowling’s and Lewis’ worlds are as far apart as east is from west. Rowling’s work invites children to a world where witchcraft is "neutral" and where authority is determined solely by ones cleverness.  Lewis invites readers to a world where God’s authority is not only recognized, but celebrated — a world that resounds with His goodness and care.

It’s a difference no Christian should ignore.

John Andrew Murray is dean of students at Whitefield Academy in Atlanta, Ga.

This article appeared in the February 2000 issue of Citizen magazine. Copyright © 1999 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.

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