03 November 2010

Harry Potter!!

I really vacillated on the Harry Potter issue for a long time. I was kept away from it as a little child (a good decision I think, which I will elaborate on...), and then when I was maybe 11 or 12 I read Richard Abanes' "Harry Potter, Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings" (no seriously. That's the name of the book.) and after finishing that, I was convinced pretty firmly that Harry Potter was of the devil.
I hadn't really examined the other side of the argument; and it seemed like Christians were pretty evenly divided on the issue: either it was to be shunned, or it was to be accepted unthinkingly with open arms. And it's true, a lot of people don't put very much thought into their critiques of HP, other than equating "wizard" with "bad" and slapping down the smug gauntlet of unchallengeable success. Which I understand. I've been there. But even that open statement ought to be supported by evidence, even if it is evidence for why HP is bad and should be avoided by Christians (which does exist).
A few things changed my mind on the whole HP issue. I was getting a little annoyed with the modern Christian culture in general (my, I'm being awfully open with you! I probably shouldn't have taken those blue pills!) and its tendency to reject excellent things because it doesn't have the strength to read or view them discerningly. It's willing to accept christian-ized carbon copies of secular works (in the meantime, destroying all literary or artistic merit). Of course, I'm generalizing here, but page through almost any Christian bookstore catalog and you'll see what I mean-- even 'Christian-ized' equivalents of trashy romance novels appear in droves.
So I read Harry Potter for myself after finding the first two books at a thrift store for a quarter. And while reading I thought, "Hmmmm. I definitely see problems with this, but not the ones that everyone is always talking about." I was curious to read something on the other side of the argument, so I got John Granger's "Looking for God in Harry Potter". Let me give a Granger disclaimer here: I don't think he is always right. I think he over-analyzes certain things and sometimes draws out Christian themes that are not there. However, he nails the heart of the issue in this book (that's not a very good expression, is it? nails the heart), pointing out that the "witchcraft" in HP is more similar to the magic found in Lewis' and Tolkien's epics. There is still a problem here, in the choice of wording itself-- "witches" and "witchcraft" have specific occultic connotations, and many of the illusions that Rowling playfully makes have real world occultic counterparts (many of the classes that Harry takes at Hogwarts, for instance, have real world equivalents).
So, armed with my new research, I did what anyone should with research: wrote a research paper. For my English class (that's right, I got to read Harry Potter for school. It was awesome). And doing that lead me to further research...for example, this archived PDF of Credenda Agenda (Doug Wilson & Co's magazine) devoted to fantasy literature and Harry in particular: http://www.credenda.org/images/stories/pdf/14-2.pdf (If you get a chance, read it. Seriously. Trust me.)
There are very legitimate concerns in Harry Potter. As I mentioned earlier, the witchcraft does at times resemble occult activity. The children in HP (the protagonists, the "good guys") misbehave on a regular basis, and are seldom punished for this behavior-- in fact, they are more often than not rewarded and praised!
It is important to note that at no time does the magic in HP call upon a higher supernatural power, which is really what makes the occult occultic. HP is an alternate universe, and in that universe, magic can happen. It is a part of the natural order, and by using it properly, the wizards are actually being stewards of the creation they are surrounded by. In Finding God in Harry Potter, John Granger goes so far as to say that, “Incantational magic in literature—a harmonizing with God’s Word—is the story-time version of what a life in prayer makes possible” (6). Granger also points out that while it is possible that a child could misconstrue elements of the Potter series and turn to the occult, that in itself is not enough to warrant their shunning. He explains that if we abandoned anything that could be misconstrued, we would be forced to abandon the Bible, as it is twistings of the Bible that have led to evil cults like Jonestown.

The truth is, Harry Potter contains many Christ figures (which is no surprise, all good stories do) and the basic Biblical principle of good vs. evil. Harry himself displays sacrificial love on many occasions; for example, in the fourth book of the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,Harry risks drowning and losing a competition to save a little girl whom he does not even know (Rowling, 501-502). This is an example of agape, Christ-like love-- he is not only willing to risk death for his friends, but for someone he does not even know. As Douglas Jones said in the HP edition of Credenda Agenda,

“…the Potter stories are decidedly Christ figure stories—an elect son, threatened at birth, who sacrifices His life for his friends and triumphs over evil in an underworld, even coming back from death for a feast” (par. 8)

And of course, the final book shows this Biblical redemption story most clearly, but I won't go into that since the first movie comes out in a little over a month!

Certainly Harry Potter has value for Christians, but whether or not a Christian reads (or allows their children to read) the series is a matter of private judgment that should be carefully considered. Christians have been given tremendous freedom through Christ. This freedom extends to all areas of life, including reading habits. Transcendent works of fantasy allow people to look at a “disguised world” (O’Brien 29) and see deeply Christian stories represented in a manner both creative and beautiful, as in Harry Potter. C.S. Lewis spoke of it as creeping past watchful dragons, allowing people to examine and understand concepts that they would normally avoid. Also, a book which depicts sinful behavior does not necessarily commend that sin, nor is it necessarily sinful for the Christian to read such a work, but often Christians use the presence of such plot elements as excuses for dismissing books without considering their value (Veith 72).

Although Christians have been given this freedom, God has also given them boundaries in what they should and should not enjoy. Paul says, “ ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things are helpful. ‘All things are lawful,’ but not all things build up” (English Standard Version, 1 Cor. 10:23). In this passage, Paul goes on to discuss whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols. He explains that while eating the meat is not a sin, if it might cause a brother to stumble or be bothered in conscience, Christians should not eat it. In the area of fantasy literature, then, Christians must exercise discretion (as in every area). If a book or series like Harry Pottercauses another Christian to stumble or be bothered in conscience, that book should be avoided or at least not flaunted by the Christians surrounding this weaker brother.

At the same time, Christians should not judge each other’s choices in matters like these of private discernment, for “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:4). If a Christian has a serious conscience problem with the Harry Potter series, whether it feeds in him a yearning for the occult and dark supernatural powers or causes authority problems, then he, as a matter of conscience, should avoid the series. But these weaker brothers should not judge a Christian who has studied and considered the issue carefully and has decided in favor of Harry Potter. It is a matter of discernment, and that is why it is advisable that parents not expose very young children insecure in their worldview to Potter until they are older (this would be advisable in any case if only because of some violence and dark themes in the books and the objectionable behavior of the children). As Woelke Leithart says in his essay, ‘Some Books’, a critique of Richard Abanes’ Harry Potter and the Bible, “I also agree that young children shouldn’t read the Harry Potter books unless they’re old and mature enough to handle it. But I failed to find one reason why a mature Christian shouldn’t read them, and enjoy them” (par. 9). Ultimately, a Christian’s choices must be focused in glorifying God. This is the ultimate standard for a Christian’s reading habits and life, and is best summed up by Paul: “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31). And in matters of private judgment, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (Romans 14: 22).

So, in a nutshell, that's why I'm going to be dressing up like a dork on November 18th and heading to the theater at midnight, and rooting for the Boy Who Lived to defeat evil. It's gonna be epppic.