Let me be the first to tell you that the new Harry Potter book is out. What, you say I'm not the first to tell you that? Aw man, I hate it when I get scooped!
On Saturday night a group from our church was loading cars and trucks for a mission trip that they were leaving for on Sunday morning. They were wrapping things up at about 9:30pm when I heard a couple of girls talking about the book and they both promised to read the book that night so they could talk about it on the mission trip. I reminded them that they needed their sleep for the mission trip, but they were just too excited and had to read the book now.
On Sunday, MyWayNews was reporting that the book was selling at 250,000 copies per hour. I forget where I read it, I think on Drudge, that J. K. Rowling had already netted something like $36 million from the first day or two of sales.
Wow, this is quite the phenomenon. So of course it's time to resurrect the old debates about whether Christians should be reading Harry Potter.
I don't really have anything new to say on this issue. I've said about all I can think of here and here. As I've mentioned before, I haven't read the books and don't know if I ever will, although I might. My interest is less in the books themselves than in the reactions of Christians to the book. Christian reaction to the books is a great case study in Christian cultural engagement.
IMHO, evangelicals have gotten so wrapped up in moralism that we have lost the ability to read and understand a story. This came back to me recently when I heard Steve Garber talk about the movie Bruce Almighty (which I briefly mentioned here). Steve mentioned, correctly that this is a story about the negative consequences of trying to play God. It is rich with symbolism. A character who starts off as a very selfish person who rails against the providence of God and thinks he can do a better job at being God than God is given the chance to be God. And he screws everything up - badly. Throughout the movie he is living with Grace and Grace is always reaching out to him and he is always abusing the overtures of grace. The moralistic mindset doesn't allow us to see those deeper (and wonderful) meanings because it can't get past the fact that a man is playing God and is shacking up. We think the point of the story is that man can play God and it's ok to shack up, but that's not it all. The point of the story is that man can live with Grace, he will fail miserably if he tries to play God and that he can joyfully submit to God.
In all of the stuff I read about Harry Potter I see the same thing happening. There are a large number of Christians who only want to talk about the witchcraft and spend lots of time accusing Rowling of trying to seduce their children into the occult. For example, Anne Morse lets her kids read Harry Potter and here she describes the reaction she gets from some fellow Christians:
Ever since, nice, church-going Christians have consigned me to the lowest, hottest regions of Hell. I am a witch, I am evil, and I must be destroyed—or at least have my children removed from my toxic presence, lest Harry lead them to Hell. My husband—unruffled at hearing that his wife is on Lucifer’s payroll—only observed that technically, I am a handmatron of Satan.
Then there are others who have noticed that the book is full of profound Christian symbolism and still others for whom the Harry Potter books have become bridges for sharing the gospel.
So, I came across an article today by Jerram Barrs on Christian Counterculture. He takes Harry's critics to task. I encouage you to read the whole article, but I also want to excerpt some of the more choice quotes. Barrs gives several reasons why he likes the books - they are fun, Rowling has created a delightful world of imagination, they are well written, the characters are good, they send a strong message about moral order, and they accurately portray the difference between good and evil. But the main reason he likes the books is . . .
As a Christian, I am fascinated by the fact that the stories show how a better life comes primarily through self-sacrifice. This is brought out unmistakably in the fourth book, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. In this book Harry is prepared to sacrifice himself on behalf of his friends whom he loves and to whom he has a deep loyalty. And at the heart of all four of the books is a reference back to Harry Potter's mother, who died when he was a baby in order to save his life from a great force of evil. Rowling says the mother's death on Harry's behalf is an example of the most powerful act imaginable. The author sees that act of love and self-sacrifice (analogous to the work of Jesus), as the one means which can bring protection and transformation to human life and the defeat of evil.
Self-sacrifice in these books is the primary means by which evil is defeated. Now that of course is the very heart of what Christianity says about the nature of the world.
Then, responding to critics he says:
It is a tragedy in that there are many people who have failed to read the books with an open mind. The Word of God challenges us to be prepared to celebrate anything that is good and true, wherever it is found. Sadly, I think there are many people who are unable to see the good qualities that there are, either in the Harry Potter books, or in much else in popular Culture.
. . . there is a deep misunderstanding and inappropriate suspicion of fantasy present in the negative accusations. One can sometimes write far more truth in presenting a fantasy world than in describing the real world.
Third, there is a misunderstanding in the response to the magic in the books. As many aware the same criticisms have been made of C.S. Lewis's and J. R. Tolkein's books, even though both of these authors were commited Christians. It is said that because magic is a part of the Narnia books, they may have the effect of interesting children in the reality of the Occult. The same charge is brought against Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. However none of these books are encouraging Occult practice. The magic is simply a part of the imaginative worlds that Lewis, Tolkien, and Rowling have created. In such an imaginary worlds people can become invisible; animals talk; mythical creatures like unicorns and centaurs exist; and rings and spells work wonders. Watch a little child playing, and you will observe many such magical things. But this does not equal an interest in the occult.
Speaking of accusations against Rowling that she is promoting the occult, Barrs says:
The first time that J.K. Rowling was asked publicly about whether she was teaching the Occult, she was astonished by the question. Her response was, "I think you need to see a doctor." She was bewildered that anyone would accuse her of teaching the occult. And as the criticisms have grown, she has been personally and deeply hurt. As a Christian, I have to say I am profoundly ashamed of those who have responded with this kind of malicious gossip. We must recognize that whenever she talks about evil magic she presents it as evil, as thoroughly destructive of human persons. It consumes them as individuals. It destroys and completely ruins their relationships with other people. It reduces relationships to power and ugliness. Rowling has stated that she does not believe in the occult, and she certainly does not promote it.
As to how this relates to the Christian witness in the wider culture, Barrs says:
Additionally, when these sorts of criticisms are made about books without a proper basis it causes an appalled and dismissive reaction to Christians in general and the Christian faith itself. That is a tragedy.
So, having said all of this, I'll go back to my earlier statement that I've got no real interest (or disinterest) in promoting the books themselves. I just think we need to be wiser in how we interact with them, and Barrs makes some very good points along those lines.