Should We Be 'Wild About Harry?'

Stephen McGarvey | Executive Editor | Friday, November 16, 2001

Should We Be 'Wild About Harry?'

harry potter movieWith millions of books sold, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has popularity beyond your average cultural phenomenon. The Los Angeles Times reports something along the lines of 116 million copies of Harry Potter books sold, making it one of the most popular children's book series in history. Now the new movie, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," based on the first book about the young wizard, is guaranteed to have children clamoring to the theaters for a glimpse of their magical hero.

Rowling's series tells the story of Harry Potter, an 11-year-old who discovers he has magical powers and goes off to study at the elite Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The reader follows Harry's adventures (four books so far, with three more to come) as he learns how to use his powers.

While most parents are excited to see their children putting down the Nintendo and picking up a book, many Christian parents are concerned about the effects of filling young minds with so much fantasy. These concerns have sparked a huge debate between the series' fans and those with concerns over the book's seeming occult content. And in this debate, the gloves have come off.

One recent article referred to those who dislike the books as "holy rollers" and "paranoid kooks who see heresy in every page." It went on to speak critically of "20/20" reporter John Stossel for bringing to the nation's attention a new video produced by Jeremiah Films titled "Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged - Making Evil Look Innocent."

Christians, too, are not without fault when it comes to public discourse on the topic. Many passed on a ridiculous e-mail hoax accusing Rowling of being a Satanist. Others are quick to be divisive in their churches over the books. One woman interviewed in a Border's bookstore told a reporter, "In our church I had a friend of many years who told me that, because I read Harry Potter to my kids, she says I'm not a good Christian and now she won't speak to me."

Two books have appeared this year to help Christians sort out this mess: "Harry Potter and the Bible" by Richard Abanes and "What's a Christian To Do With Harry Potter?" by Connie Neal.

In his well-researched book, Abanes takes the position that Harry Potter is not the harmless fun for children many would have us believe. His primary concern is that American society (including Christianity) is becoming desensitized to the dangers of occultism. "Occultism is everywhere now, books, movies, TV, the Internet," Abanes says.

"Harry Potter and the Bible" proves to be an excellent resource for parents who are looking to see how much of the occult the books contain. An award-winning journalist and a former researcher for the Christian Research Institute, Abanes provides a thorough and well-reasoned look at the Harry Potter series. In the first half of his book, Abanes goes practically page-by-page through the Harry Potter series giving the reader not only his insights on what aspects of the books he sees as linked to the occult, but also a good overview of the plot and characters. The second half deals with issues and controversies that have arisen among Christian circles about Harry Potter.

Abanes told in a recent interview that he wrote "Harry Potter and the Bible" to warn Christians that the Harry Potter books "unlike many other fantasy genre books contain real-world practices," practices packaged in such a way to be appealing to children.

"Rowling admits she has been studying witchcraft to make the books more 'accurate,'" says Abanes. She also says roughly one-third of the sorcery appearing in the books is material that was once believed in Britain. "What she fails to mention," continues Abanes, "is that the vast amount of the occult she borrows from historical sources still plays a role in modern witchcraft."

Although Rowling maintains that her books are imaginary, according to Abanes her very real descriptions of astrology, numerology, divination, mediumship, channeling, and crystal gazing, fit nicely alongside contemporary occultism. "I'm not saying she's a witch or a Wiccan," clarifies Abanes, "but her books seem to embrace certain aspects of the occult."

Abanes feels that Harry Potter's magic could easily present spiritual danger to children. Yet how is the magic (or "occult") of the Harry Potter series different from the magic found in other beloved children's fairy tales and works of literature? Many, like the "Chronicles of Narnia" or "The Lord of the Rings," are embraced by Christians. According to Abanes, they differ quite a bit.

Many Harry Potter enthusiasts compare the books to J.R.R. Tolkien's work, yet Abanes notes some important differences, primarily in the way Tolkien treated magic. "Tolkien hated the word 'magic' but he had to use it because he couldn't find another." In "Lord of the Rings," he says, Tolkien's 'magic' is more an extension of natural ability, like singing or dancing, rather than mysticism or witchcraft.

Abanes also asserts that C.S. Lewis' "Narnia" and J.R.R. Tolkien's "Middle Earth" are mythopoetic places, meaning the stories take place in a fictional world or dimension far removed from ours. When creating a new world the author can then create new reality with new rules that have no correlation with our reality. This makes a clear distinction (especially for children) between fantasy and reality. While many say this is true of Harry Potter, Abanes says that this is a misunderstanding. "Harry's world is actually our own world," he contends. "Hogwarts exists in the Scottish countryside and interacts with our world, it's just invisible to 'non-magical' people."

Books like "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" use the standard symbolism of good versus evil, which Abanes says, Harry Potter flips around. "Harry Potter and the Bible" says the Harry Potter story is written in a relativistic "ends justifies the means" mindset. "We see [Harry Potter and his friends] doing the same spells that the evil [wizards] are doing. They are actually trained at the same school as the evil wizards. In order to overcome evil they must learn more of the same sorts of spells and powers."

The relativism is evident not just in the use of magic. "Sometimes they must lie, steal and cheat to overcome evil." Abanes believes such examples in the book send a message to kids that "you can be a great person and yet do all these bad things." His book quotes several children who say they love Harry and his friends primarily because they are so "mischievous."

Obviously not all Christians agree with Abanes' opinion on Harry Potter. Many high-profile evangelicals have spoken publicly about how the Potter books can teach valuable lessons. From another perspective Connie Neal's book "What's a Christian to Do With Harry Potter?" also seeks to help Christians deal with the issues surrounding the Harry Potter controversy. Neal's book does not contain much of an analysis of the books themselves. Rather, it is more of a plea for believers to treat each other properly.

"I do not defend Harry Potter," Neal, a mother of three, tells "I just want to show there is not a 'Christian' position on Harry Potter. I want to help people understand this is a disputable matter." Neal recalls an instance when the subject of Harry Potter came up in a friend's Sunday school class. One little girl in class stood up and proclaimed that her mom says Harry Potter is evil and real Christians don't read it. Of course, there was another upset girl in the class whose mother had read her the Harry Potter stories. "You've got people on both sides, and their kids are caught in the middle."

"Whether or not we see the books as witchcraft," she continues, "Christians must be willing to let each other come to their own conclusions." And while most Christians would agree with Neal, most would also want to be warned if something their children might read is dangerous.

Neal defends J.K. Rowling's portrayal of a blurry "good vs. evil" struggle saying that Rowling writes about evil in a real-world way. In an interview last year with Entertainment Weekly, Rowling herself said that she writes "shades" of evil into characters rather than making the bad guys always bad and good guys always good, because that's what we see in life. "You have Voldemort [the book's main villain], a raging psychopath devoid of the normal human response to other people's suffering … then you have Wormtail who out of cowardice will stand in the shadow of the strongest person," say Rowling. Neal believes that parental guidance with the books will help children see who is really good and really bad if there is any confusion.

With Harry Potter becoming so enormously popular, Neal feels that parents are not going to be able to avoid it. Thus, rather than shield their children from the books and tell them Harry Potter is evil, parents should use the books as a teaching tool.

"Teach your kids the difference between fantasy and reality, teach them the difference between good and evil, and you won't have a problem with Harry Potter," says Neal. "My children know the power of God. They do not confuse it with any 'lesser' power. They have a heart's desire to resist evil in the world. I've been able to use Harry Potter to help them do that."

Neal contends that the Potter books are merely fantasy and parents should not get too worked up over them. Quoting C.S. Lewis, she says that fantasy in literature should be considered nothing more or nothing less than what it is within the story.

Abanes, too, says fantasy in literature is "an awesome tool to break people out of mundane thinking. Yet," he continues, "anything we use for good can also be perverted and twisted. We have to be careful about whatever fantasy we are reading and see if it is consistent with what we as Christians would say is biblical."

"Parents cannot afford to let someone else do our thinking on this," says Neal. "They cannot make this decision based on the opinion of others." Neal is uncomfortable with people who have come out of a background in the occult speaking out of their own experience since she believes their experiences will color their opinions. Because of their experiences, Neal says, Harry Potter "equals the occult" to them.

Yet how is the average Christian who is not familiar with the occult to make his own judgment without consulting many sources? Like anything else, responsible parents must investigate something like Harry Potter before turning it over to their kids. If you are looking for a book to help you analyze the content of the Harry Potter books and movie, Richard Abanes' book is a good choice. If you have already made up your mind and you want some advice on how to handle people who disagree in a Christian manner, then Neal's book is probably a better choice.