Spring 2002, Vol. 5, No. 1

Table of Contents
Spring 2002

Quick Links:
Other articles
in this issue

The Media vs. the Church

The Scandal of Secrecy

The Cardinal and the Globe

The Mormons Score a 9.6

The Indispensable Source

Returning to Normalcy


Harry and the Evangelicals
by Richard Peace

In a society where fundamentalists refuse to let their children trick-or-treat on Halloween, it should have been expected that there would be objections to Harry Potter. And in fact, J.K. Rowling’s unprecendentedly successful children’s fantasy brewed up a tempest in the teapot of North American evangelicalism.

"By disassociating magic and supernatural evil, it becomes possible to portray occult practices as good and healthy," wrote Atlanta educator John Andrew Murray in Citizen, a magazine of the Focus on the Family organization, in 1999. "It is the duty of Christian parents to oppose Harry Potter," said Murray, since the Bible condemns witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:9-12) and tells Christians to "avoid every kind of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22).

In the October 26, 2000 issue of Christianity Today, Jacqui Komschlies likewise warned of "the perils of Harry Potter," declaring, "Regardless of how magic is portrayed in the series, we need to remember that witchcraft in real life can and does lead to death—the forever and ever kind." As far as some Christian parents were concerned, Christian Parenting Today reported in its September/October 2000 issue, Harry was, despite that innocent smile, "pure evil."

It did not take long for the secular media to take note.

"Don’t Give Us Little Wizards, The Anti-Potter Parents Cry" ran the headline on Jodi Wilgoren’s November 1, 1999 story in the New York Times. Over the next two years, dozens of reports in the Anglo-American press catalogued religious objections to the books—the gist of which was that, as the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Joan Bodger put it, "anti-Potter parents seem to fear that Rowling’s books are how-to manuals on wizardry."

Nor was anti-Potterism just talk. In 2000, the Potter series made No. 1 on the American Library Association’s "Ten Most Challenged Books" list. (A challenge is a written complaint by parents, library users or others who ask that a book be removed from a public or school library.)

According to a November 9, 2001 AP dispatch, a library in Kansas canceled a reading of the books due to complaints about their magical content, while in Jacksonville, Fla., children were required to present parental permission slips to read Potter books at the school libraries. Altogether, Joe Williams of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported December 19, libraries in at least 19 states had banned the books.

One strategy of anti-Potter activists was to claim that because the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized Wicca—the faith of latter-day witches—as a religion, reading aloud from a Harry Potter book in public school would violate the separation of church and state. Indeed, according to Reuters, the threat of legal action led to cancellation of a field trip during which 100 students from Agassiz Middle School in Fargo, North Dakota were to see the movie "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone."

Was there any evidence that the Potter books were fueling interest in witchcraft and the occult? Sharon Tubbs of the St. Petersburg Times noted on November 1, 2001 that the London-based Pagan Federation had reported being "swamped" with inquiries about druids and witches, and attributed the increased interest to TV shows like "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and the Harry Potter books.

Such claims were pooh-poohed by commentators like John Monk, an editorial writer for The State in Columbia, S.C. "You might as well say "Gone With the Wind" teaches young readers to be slave owners or Treasure Island entices children to be pirates, or "Peter Pan" urges children to run away from home," Monk wrote on October 22, 1999.

"Far from undermining a child’s faith, Rowling’s novels paint a canvas big enough to engage a child’s imagination without imposing alien dogma in the name of entertainment," editorialized the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette December 4, 1999. J.K. Rowling herself was widely quoted as saying that of all the thousands of fans she had met, "not even one time has a child come up to me and said, ‘Ms. Rowling, I’m so glad I’ve read these books because now I want to be a witch.’"

And Harry had his evangelical defenders as well.

"The magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic," author and activist Charles Colson insisted in a November 1999 broadcast of his radio show Breakpoint. "That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals—but they don’t make contact with the supernatural world…[It’s not] the kind of real-life witchcraft the Bible condemns." Colson went on to commend Harry and his friends for their "courage, loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice for one another—even at the risk of their lives."

In its September/October 2000 report on anti-Potter concerns, Christian Parenting Today contended that while the Potter books "aren’t Christ-centered and don’t promote Christianity, they still offer powerful lessons in compassion, courage, self-sacrifice and doing the right thing despite the risks." This January, my Fuller Theological Seminary colleague Robert Johnson told Southern California Christian Times, "The whole theme of Harry Potter is that evil cannot stand up to love. The message that comes through from Harry Potter is not, ‘become a sorcerer,’ but ‘believe in miracles.’"

Other religious traditions showed little sign of being disturbed by Harry. Indeed, some positively embraced him.

In "Church Puts Faith in Harry Potter," a September 2, 2001 story in the London Sunday Times, Phil Miller reported on classes at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church in Syracuse, New York that used the books to teach lessons of faith. For the classes, in which more than 1,000 children took part, teachers dressed up as characters from the books and decorated part of the church to look like Hogwarts, the school of wizardry that Harry and his friends attend.

Lessons compared the lightning scar on Harry’s head to the crucifixion marks on Jesus and the infant Harry’s rescue from the evil Voldemort by his mother’s love to the Christian defeat of death by love. "I thought it was the most creative teaching programme that I have seen," said Father John Wagner. "Some people are concerned with such images and imagination, but even in Revelation there are images of dragons, of monsters with many heads."

The fundamentalists’ only allies in anti-Potterism were, interestingly enough, the Wiccans. "[M]any are unhappy that others believe the books have anything to do with the realities of their religion," Jan Glidewell reported in the St. Petersburg Times on November 16, 2001. "They said, correctly, that Harry’s flying brooms and transformational spells have about as much to do with Wicca as flying carpets have to do with Sufism, Easter bunnies with Christianity, or living in Miami Beach with Judaism."

The "I’m not wild about Harry" story seemed to have run its course when it suddenly got a new twist with the release last December of the spectacular film version of the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. For it became evident that the same folks who had denounced Harry Potter as the source of evil occultism looked with favor on Tolkien’s no less fantastical world.

As Bruce Nolan noted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune January 19, both Campus Crusade for Christ and Focus on the Family gave The Lord of the Rings positive reviews and even put up pages on their web sites designed to help people understand it. What, in a word, made Gandalf the wizard of Middle Earth a force for good and Dumbledore the wizard of Hogwarts an agent of evil?

This was not a question that escaped Tolkien’s fundamentalist enthusiasts. As Jim Ware admitted in the December issue of Focus on the Family: "[M]ore than a few filmgoers are wondering what it’s all about. Especially serious-minded Christians. Elves, dwarves, wizards, goblins, magic rings—haven’t we been through this kind of thing before? Isn’t ‘The Lord of the Rings’ just another romp through the occultic world of Harry Potter?"

In a December 27 article Boston Globe religion writer Michael Paulson drew the parallels this way. "The two sets of novels-turned-movies have much in common: a small orphan takes on a dark evil, aided by magic and luck and some element of the cosmic." One might add that both books were written by authors from the U.K.; both authors use initials (J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien); both stories are told in multi-volume sets (which have sold millions of copies); both are stories read by both children and adults; both create fantasy worlds; both posit dark powers that seek to wreak havoc in the world, aided by wizards gone bad and opposed by wizards who are good.

So what was the difference?

A lot had to do with the authors themselves. As Paulson put it, "Tolkien was a devout convert to Catholicism whose religion informed his writing, while Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland, has not emphasized her religion as a central part of her biography. Tolkien was also a friend and close associate of C.S. Lewis, the well-known Christian writer." Indeed, Lewis has assumed the role of patron saint in the evangelical world for the staunch defense of historic Christianity that he expressed in a series of books and articles on Christian apologetics, in a popular series of children’s books (the Chronicles of Narnia), and even in a science fiction trilogy.

By contrast, the word on the fundamentalist street was that Rowling was herself a witch of sorts. Writing in Crossroads and Worthy News in August 2000, Berit Kjos claimed that Rowling had grown up "loving the occult." Her childhood friend Vikki Potter (!) told Kjos, "We used to dress up and play witches all the time. My brother would dress up as a wizard. Joanne [Rowling] was always reading to us…we would make secret potions for her. She would always send us off to get twigs for the potions."

As if that wasn’t enough to give fundamentalists the willies, Claudia Puig reported in USA Today November 16 that Rowling had conducted extensive research into the Western magical tradition. "The plot and specific magical environment are Rowling’s own invention, but nearly all of the creatures and their exploits—as well as spells, potions, and supernatural explanations of events—have roots in European folklore, with some references dating back thousands of years…Rowling’s richly detailed, meticulously researched tales draw upon hundreds of years of history."

Not that The Lord of the Rings was explicitly Christian. In contrast, say, to Narnia’s heroic lion Aslan, there was no stand-in for Jesus. In his Focus on the Family article Jim Ware relied on Tolkien’s oft-quoted remark from a letter to a friend: "The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious work …unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision."

Writing in the January/February 2002 issue of the conservative pan-Christian magazine Touchstone, senior editor David Mills mounted a case that The Lord of the Rings is in fact a Christian work—"in the sense that its Christianity might be deduced from the story by itself." One of Mills’ deductions had to do with the purported role of Providence: The existence of "higher powers" is crucial to the story but they "appear only through their effect on the characters and events."

In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Brian Carney staked out a secularized preference for Tolkien, dismissing the Potter books as a morally vapid version of the struggle between good and evil. "Harry, of course, is Good, and the wizard Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents, is Evil. Why is Voldemort evil? Well, he wants to ‘take over,’ we learn, and he kills people. Harry is good because he’s nice, and we can’t help sympathizing with him, since Voldemort killed his parents and all. This is very straightforward stuff, and there’s little to argue with in it. But there’s also little to argue for." He points out: "Morally speaking, Harry’s magical world is trite."

By contrast, Carney wrote, Tolkien "delves deeper" with a tale that explores what happens when good people are tempted to use the massive power of the ring "for good" only to find that they too are corrupted by the ring. Tolkien showed "the ethical challenges we all face as individuals and as nations."

On one side of the evangelical world is the fundamentalist right with its deep-seated fear of "secular culture." That culture is the enemy, the place of corruption, the realm where witchcraft actually exists (though mostly hidden away).

If this is the case, and most fundamentalists believe it is, then it becomes vital to oppose Harry Potter. He has the potential to arouse the curiosity of their children and thus lure them into exploration of this mysterious, magical realm that is evil. The Harry Potter books activate these fears, in part, because they use the conventional trappings of witchcraft: peaked hats, broomsticks, spells, crystal balls, etc.

On the other side of the evangelical world this is mostly a non-issue. Harry Potter is just a children’s story (and a good one too). J.K. Rowling’s solid opting for the "good" in the battle of good vs. evil shows that she is no recruiting agent for the Satanic realm. When she does make moral statements they are in line with Christian values (e.g., love as the strongest power, the power of sacrificing oneself for another). The trappings of witchcraft are mere props. So why not enjoy a good tale well told? Besides, Harry Potter gets kids to read.

In the end, the question is not whether a fictional story contains wizards, witches, and magic but how it is told and by whom. Conservative Christians are unhappy when they think the story moves children toward occult-based magic and the author lacks the credentials of orthodoxy. They are happy when the story is understood to spring from faith and lead (at least potentially) to faith. Tolkien and his wizard are given a pass, as it were, because of Tolkien’s personal Christian commitment and the imprimatur of C.S. Lewis.

Round two of Tolkien v. Potter will be fought this fall when the second film in each series will be released. Stay tuned.

Hit Counter