Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Christian Response to Harry Potter

Engaging popular culture without embracing it.

Note: Click here to see my updated post on this topic on my other blog.

First, let me make it very clear. I am not suggesting that Harry Potter is for everyone. I am not denying that there is a very real danger for some people to read Harry Potter books and other books of the fantasy genre. Parents should be on the front line, standing between their children and the junk the world is throwing at them. This should be true not only for books, but more so for TV, movies and video games.

I am not going to deny that magic and witchcraft are real. There is a very real movement in American and throughout the world. A movement that claims to have roots that are very old – as old as the earth itself, but only recently has been recognized as a religious movement. I am talking about Wicca. Now, there are many good resources on Wicca from a Christian perspective, and I will not go into great detail here. If you feel that this might be an issue for you or your family, I would advise you to stay away from all forms of fantasy that use magic and occultic images as story elements, including the fiction works of Christian writers such as C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein, secular works such as the “Dragon riders of Pyrn” series, or the movies of George Lucas and Stephen Speilberg.

For those who are still with me, I hope you will hear me out. As Christians, we are to stay away from all appearances of evil. However, I don’t think that means we should be ignorant of what goes on in the world around us. Jesus himself engaged the culture around him while never getting sucked into it. He gave us an example in the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. For Jews, being seen with a Samaritan was out of the question – talking with one even worse. Jesus not only approached a Samaritan and talked to one, but a WOMAN besides. As a result of that encounter, many people heard about Jesus and I imagine many found salvation.

There is no question that Harry potter is HUGE. The books have spawned movies, clothes, toys, games, you name it. Now as the book series comes to a close, “Pottermania” is bigger than ever. How should the Christian community respond? First, let me tell you the wrong way.

Some churches have held Harry Potter book burnings. Now, I feel that everything a Christian does should bring people to the Cross. A general rule should be, if Hitler tried it, maybe go another way. (My apologies to comedian Brad Stein for stealing that line!) Where did these churches get the books they burned? They bought them. Did this keep the books from the hands of others? No, they just made more and sold those. What good came of these burning parties? What kind of statement did that make? Well, for those outside the church, all it really did was make us look like ignorant fools. I believe that any reaction to anything in the popular culture that does not bring people to Christ is the wrong reaction.

I also don’t think it’s appropriate to go too far the opposite extreme. Should we become “fanatics” and learn everything there is to know about the books and movies? No. Christ should be the center of our lives and everything we do should bring us and other closer to Him. Any “mania”, whether it be Harry Potter or Star Wars or even Chronicles of Narnia, that diverts your attention away from Christ is not a good thing.

So, what should we do? How do we respond to Potter-mania? Like Jesus approaching the woman at the well, approach, engage, and talk about it.

Read the books. It’s important to know what they are about. Yes, they talk about ghosts, and wizards and witches and magic. The books are not ABOUT magic. There is no where in any of the books that gives you a how-to on performing any real-life magic. The magic in the books is story book magic, fairy tale magic, just like the magic in the writings of C.S. Lewis, JRR Tolkein and the Wizard of Oz. A better parallel might be comparing the magic in Potter to the Force in the Star Wars movies. Some people can “do it” others can’t. While not set in outer space or Middle Earth, Harry Potter lives in a fictional world where some people are “magic folk” while others are “muggles” (non-magic folk). Unlike real magic (Wicca), where anyone can supposedly learn to do it, given the right tools and training, the magic in the Potter books is an in-born ability that only some of the characters have.

So what are the books about? The story is written from the perspective of someone following Harry Potter around and eavesdropping on his thoughts. Imagine Harry having a video camera on his shoulder and we are watching what the camera sees. Harry is an orphan that is living with his Aunt, Uncle, and extremely spoiled cousin Dudley. When we meet Harry, his room is the crawlspace under the stairs. He is lonely and basically neglected. He is unwanted and unloved. On his eleventh birthday he finds out that he does not belong in the cruel love-less world he is living in. He receives an invitation to attend “Hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry”, a school where “magic-folk” learn to use and refine their natural abilities. (Note: only “magic folk” are invited to Hogwarts, it is not a place where “muggles” –people who can’t do magic – can learn to do so.)

The “vehicle” of the story is what happens to Harry while he’s going to school. The story itself is your typical good versus evil line. Vader vs. Skywalker, Aragorn vs. Sauron, Aslan vs. the White Witch, it’s all the same. The bad guy is clearly defined and you want to root for the good guy. In the Potter books the bad guy is an evil wizard named Voldemort. Every book covers a year's worth of school culminating in a showdown between Harry and Voldemort (or one of his henchmen). Again, the focus is not on magic.

What happens along the way is a story about building friendships, alliances, and finding your place in the world. Very little is said of the mechanism of magic and much is said about Harry Potter’s relationships with those around him. The books are about who your true family and friends are and not about mixing potions and casting spells.

I refer you to a much deeper literary commentary on the Potter books than I am able to present here. Go to your library or Christian bookstore and ask for “Looking for God in Harry Potter” by John Granger. While this book has been as much bashed as the Potter books themselves, the author gives a very deep analysis of the books as literature without endorsing them. (Though he does admit enjoying reading them.) You can also check out his Blog at: http://hogwartsprofessor.com/?page_id=2 (this link sends you to the “about” page so you can learn about Mr. Granger’s point of view before deciding if you want to read more about what he has to say.

In closing, let me just say once more that I do not endorse the Harry Potter books or movies for every family, every child, or every situation. However, as Christians, we can’t ignore it and shouldn't bash it without at least understanding a little of it. As with everything we should “test the spirits”, know what you’re up against and don’t let an opportunity to share the gospel slip by.