Harry Potter is a big hit. Written by J. K. Rowling, the first four books are a publishing phenomenon. The fourth book (in a projected series of seven) was published last summer amidst wild enthusiasm, with children camping outside bookstores in sleeping bags in order to be first in line.
Harry Potter is an ordinary little boy. Perhaps that is why so many identify with him. Being orphaned, he goes to live with his aunt and uncle, Petunia and Vernon Dursley, and their greedy, obese, selfish, spoiled brat of a son, Dudley. Life with this family is miserable. Harry is not loved. He is bullied, neglected, and made to live in the cupboard under the stairs. Then, at the age of eleven, everything changes. It turns out that he is a wizard, and has been granted a place at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
He is, really, an extraordinary little boy. His parents did not die in a car crash, as he was told, but were killed by the most evil wizard for centuries, Lord Voldemort (he who must not be named). He had attempted to kill baby Harry, but something had happened. Harry was not killed. The curse rebounded onto Voldemort and crippled his power. Harry was left with a little lightning scar on his forehead and, though he didn't know it, was revered all over the wizard world. The Dursleys knew that he was from a wizard family, but despised and hated it, and so never told him.
So off he goes to school, leaving from platform nine and three-quarters, on a magical train, and life really begins for Harry. At one level, it is very normal. He has classes to attend, homework to do, and exams at the end of the term. He has teachers who are brilliant and friendly, others who are brilliant and scary, others who are pathetic and friendly, and others who are pathetic and nothing else. At one level, Harry Potter stories are about surviving in school, making friends, coping with the obnoxious in a peer group, anddare I say it?getting one up on certain teachers.
At the level of children's stories, these books are a brilliant read. They are compelling, with convincing characters. They are gripping, with exciting story lines. They are funny, sad, and frightening. My only criticism in this regard is that I think the latest book is far too big and consequently far too slow. However, as a Christian I am deeply disturbed by these books.
First of all, the books blur the distinction between imagination and reality. The difference between Harry Potter and Narnia, for example, is that we all know Narnia is an imaginary worldbut Harry Potter lives in the real world. He lives in our world with a world of witchcraft at his fingertips. At times, this is portrayed as deep, dark, and spine-chillingly sinister. At other times, it is portrayed as simply fun. That is dangerous because it moves witchcraft onto the border of acceptability, as though there were aspects of it that are really fun. It is precisely at this point that Christians must be cautious.
The postmodern world in which we live has a fascination with "spirituality." In this sense, Harry Potter is nothing but postmodern fiction. However, the fascination for spirituality is not a good thing. As an example, take the following books advertised for sale on the back page of a local newspaper: Auras and How to Read Them (gain the ability to see and interpret "auras"), Soul Rescuers (a guide to exploring and communicating with the spirit world), The Other Side and Back (a journey into the dimension we go to when we die).
Many adults are already naïvely trying to find spiritual power, but not with the Holy Spirit. It is only a small step from Harry Potter to dabbling in the occult. We must not treat the awful reality of evil spirits and the filth that comes up from the Pit as though it were fun. It is all dangerousat every level. We must realistically teach our children to "put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand" (Eph. 6:11-13).
Second, these books are not written out of a Christian worldview. Visitors to the imaginary world of Narnia are in a story with a Christian worldview. Aslanwho is not a tame Lionis feared because he is majestic and almighty. There is nothing comparable in Harry Potter. Dumbledore is probably the strongest of wizards, but he does not draw us with a sense of transcendence.
In addition, we are not really sure that in the end Harry will win. He usually scrapes through with a little help from his friends, but, as with all modern and postmodern literature, we are not sure that there will be a triumph of good over evil in the end.
Perhaps the unchristian basis of these books is best seen in a quotation. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, we are introduced to ghostlike creatures called Dementors. The Dementors are the prison guardsthey suck every good feeling and happy memory out of you. Their ultimate punishment, however, is described in the following conversation between Prof. Lupin and Harry:
"You see, the Dementor only lowers its hood to use its last and worst weapon."
"They call it the Dementor's Kiss," said Lupin, with a slightly twisted smile. "It's what the Dementors do to those they wish to destroy utterly. I suppose there must be some kind of mouth under there, because they clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim andand suck out his soul."
Harry accidentally spat out a bit of Butterbeer.
"What ... they kill ...?"
"Oh no," said Lupin. "Much worse than that. You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you'll have no sense of self any more, no memory, no ... anything. There's no chance at all of recovery. You'll just ... exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever ... lost."
It seems to me that this is far from healthy fiction for our children to be reading. The eternal destiny of our body and soul is what the gospel is all about. This horrific description of a soulless state is far outside the borders of a biblical view of man. A little fiction like this, in the formative years of life, can lead to years of confusion. This should be enough warning to us that we must look more seriously at who we are and where we are going.
J. K. Rowling is rolling all the way to the bank, and she doesn't care about the souls of our children. It is extremely dangerous to let our children wander unsupervised around the borderless land of fiction. Since we should be "bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ" by "casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God" (2 Cor. 10:5 nkjv), we ought to teach our children discernment. If older children read these books, Christian parents should read them too and help to sharpen their biblical discernment.
A third caution is with regard to the spirit of self-deliverance. I get the impression that Rowling is telling us to look for the hero inside ourselves. The same principle, with a snappy tune, is used to sell sports cars. It may take some help from his friends, but Harry is a hero. Perhaps this is why he is so popular. Quietly, unintentionally, naturally, he is heroic. There is something in us all that is drawn towards the heroic. We want to be the heroes.
Yet this fact runs counter to biblical truth. We are not the heroes. We are the villains. We are the rebels. We are fallen. We are unable to redeem ourselves. Harry Potter is the stuff of sinners' dreams. Much like the crew of the Starship Enterprisethere are few problems that will hold them backwhatever obstacle they meet in the universe can be understood and overcome. This is not the frame of mind our children should have. We should be teaching them to look away to a SaviorOne who saves from sin and evil, who restores our soul, and who will one day present us as perfect before the presence of his glory. Stories must be kept in their place. They are stories. Truth is truth.
The author is a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church of Ireland and is the editor of Evangelical Presbyterian, from which this article (slightly edited) is reprinted with permission. Reprinted from New Horizons, March 2001.