By James F. Sennett
Brace yourselves—he’s coming back. This summer will see the release of the sixth book in one of the most popular series of children’s books in history. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince will present the latest adventures of the most famous and most controversial figure in contemporary literature, conjured from the imagination of British novelist J. K. Rowling.
Nowhere has Harry Potter and his band of adolescent wizards and witches been more controversial than in the church. Christian sentiment concerning the gang from Hogwarts School of Wizardry and Witchcraft has ranged from the most vehement of condemnation to the most vociferous of praise.
It’s easy to see why Christians would oppose the books—their world is a world of magic, of witches, of divination and potions and all the trappings of what many people consider occult and Satanic. But why the endorsements? What could Christians possibly find to like about these books? The praise, after all, is not insignificant. It comes from such respected sources as Christianity Today magazine,1 Christian literary scholar Alan Jacobs,2 and well-known culture and media critic Charles Colson.3
As one who has added his voice to these,4 I want to tell you why I, like a growing number of Christians, thank God for Harry Potter.
WHAT ABOUT THE MAGIC?
Before we can praise these books, we must bury the most prominent complaint against them. Accusations that the Harry Potter books are occult overlook one glaringly obvious fact. In the 2,500-plus pages of the first five novels in the series, there is not one mention of Satan or demons or anything the slightest bit occult. In fact, the books are utterly secular in their orientation.
There are few spiritual themes at all—divine or demonic. The children learn magic the same way school children in our world learn science—and to the same end. Like the alchemy of the Medieval church and the technology of the modern era, the magic of Harry Potter is simply an exploration in how to make the world work to provide us with what we need in life.
So Alan Jacobs argues that the real problem faced in the Harry Potter books “is a familiar one to us all: it is the problem of technology.”5 The central issue is not the presence of the magical powers but how those who possess the powers will use them. In other words, the moral issue confronting the children in these books is that facing all of us—will we use the powers and the resources at our disposal for good or for evil?
Besides, magic has long been utilized as a tool in plot and character development in some of the greatest literature in the world, including such classics as the works of Shakespeare, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, and even the works of beloved Christian authors C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle. Yet there is a strange double standard at work in the church today that considers such works delightful and beneficial but condemns the works of J. K. Rowling unequivocally.
THE TRUE MAGIC OF HARRY POTTER
There are many reasons I love these books and commend them to children and adults alike. I have space here to deal only with four of the most important.
• First, these books are simply delightful reading. Rowling is a wonderful writer, and her books are an exercise in pure reading joy. And that is a privilege not to be taken for granted. Studies continue to show an alarming decline in the reading habits of adults and children alike.
Mark Twain said, “Those who do not read have no advantage over those who can’t.” Voluntary illiteracy is, indeed, the most hideous kind. But nothing encourages reading like the availability of wonderful reads. And the Harry Potter series has greatly enriched the available store of good reading available to the public in this generation.
• This leads to my second reason for loving these books. They have children reading again. In an age of video games, television, and other forms of visually oriented entertainment that dulls the imagination and shortens the attention span, children are immersing themselves in the written adventures of Harry and his friends Hermione and Ron. It is safe to say that, in reading the five books so far published, many children (especially boys) have more than doubled the number of pages they have read voluntarily in their entire lives.
• My third reason for loving these books is perhaps the most important. They convey a clear, unambiguous, and biblical moral message. In the Harry Potter novels there is a clear distinction between right and wrong, and this is again a benefit not to be taken for granted.
We live in a time of unparalleled moral ambiguity and uncertainty. And the confusion and indecision over significant moral issues that has plagued us for the last 40 years has made its way into the children’s literature we produce. We lack stories with clear moral guidelines and unequivocal messages about the rewards of good behavior and the pitfalls of bad. Instead, this generation has flooded the children’s book market with tales of doubt and insecurity concerning the choices facing us. Such works reflect the general malaise that is the heritage of our generation.
Into this literary disaster Rowling has thrust a series of books that take back the moral center. Right and wrong are clear-cut and uncompromising. True, Harry and his friends do not always do the right thing (who does?), but when they transgress it is always clear in the story that they are not doing the right thing, because it is always clear what the right thing is. Furthermore, there is a definitive battle of good versus evil in these books, and it is clear that the reader should be on the side of good.
In its endorsement of the books, Christianity Today noted, “Rowling’s series is a ‘Book of Virtues’ with a preadolescent funny bone. Amid the laugh-out-loud scenes are wonderful examples of compassion, loyalty, courage, friendship, and even self-sacrifice.”6
In reading these wonderful stories our children are being soaked in a long-overdue, far-too-rare bath of morality and decency. The heroes of these stories are good kids, and I for one am excited to have them serve as behavioral role models for our children.
• Fourth, the Harry Potter books celebrate the innocence of childhood. The issues these children deal with as they grow through the books are always age appropriate. The problems they face involve bullies, cheating, assignment deadlines, and budding adolescence. They are not dealing with drugs, gang violence, or sexual perversion. Children are children in these books, and that is presented as a perfectly acceptable thing to be. Harry, Hermione, and Ron have made G-rated cool among America’s children.
This last reason does lead to a caveat of sorts, however. As the children grow through the novels, the problems they face grow with them. From books four forward, the children are adolescents, and the problems they face are adolescent problems. Also, the books get darker as the battle of good and evil they portray takes on more adult themes. Death and other serious consequences enter the picture.
So parents of younger children will want to be aware: just because it’s Harry Potter doesn’t mean it’s appropriate for all children. Parents will want to read the books for themselves (not an unpleasant task at all!) and decide when their children are old enough to understand and appreciate them.
But even as the age-specific venue of the books changes, their clear message of morality and their exceptional literary quality do not. The books are exciting, educational, wholesome, and just plain fun. And none of these virtues can be taken for granted in today’s world or today’s church.
That’s why I thank God for Harry Potter.
1 “Why We Like Harry Potter,” Christianity Today, 10 January 2000, 37. Available online at www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/001/29.37.html
2 Alan Jacobs, “Harry Potter’s Magic,” First Things, January 2000, 35-38. Available online at print.firstthings.com/ftissues/ft0001/reviews/jacobs.html
3 Charles Colson, “Witches and Wizards: The Harry Potter Phenomenon,” Breakpoint Commentary #91102 (11/02/1999). Available online after free registration at www.breakpoint.org.
4 James F. Sennett, “From Narnia to Hogwarts: A Christian Perspective on Fantasy Literature,” Stone-Campbell Journal 7 (2004): 29-56. Many of the points I make in the present essay are developed more fully in this article.
5 Jacobs, “Harry Potter’s Magic,” 37.
6 “Why We Like Harry Potter,” 37.
James F. Sennett is professor of philosophy and interdisciplinary studies at Lincoln (Illinois) Christian College and Seminary.