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Reading Harry Potter with Christian eyes

A topical sermon preached by Rod Benson, 6 Jan 2002

Deuteronomy 18:9-13; Isaiah 5:20-21; Colossians 2:8-15; Philippians 4:6-8

Sometimes we forget that the world in which we live is the canvas on which good and evil splash their stories. It might take the rise of Adolf Hitler, or the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, or a personal tragedy – but sooner or later we perceive the world as a moral space, with good and evil daily splashing their paint over it.

Sometimes we also forget that the world in which we live is the tapestry on which the miraculous and the magical daily weave their complex patterns.

The miraculous pervaded the biblical world, and so did the magical. Here we are at a disadvantage, because in many ways the twentieth century was one long modernist tribute to the triumph of eighteenth-century Enlightenment rationalism.

With contemporary postmodernism we are beginning to experience a different worldview – in some ways better, and in other ways worse, than that of modernism. But the biblical world was profoundly influenced by spiritual and magical reality. By magical I mean practices involving the manipulation of supernatural forces to attain one’s own ends. The Macquarie Dictionary defines magic as “the art of producing effects claimed to be beyond the natural human power and arrived at by means of supernatural agencies or through command of occult forces in nature.”

In this biblical world where the magical and miraculous could occur at any moment, people were sensitive to moral principles. They understood the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, light and darkness, the works of God and the works of the devil.

The biblical world knew nothing of “white” magic or a “pure, old religion” (i.e. Wicca) that was corrupted by Judeo-Christian faith. Wicca was an invention of the twentieth century. As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, Moses warned:

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God (Deuteronomy 18:9-13).

Later, and more broadly, Isaiah condemned those who sought to twist the truth and corrupt the good:

Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight (Isaiah 5:20-21).

In the Gospels, Jesus frequently and consistently battled evil people and evil spirits, reversing their damaging and destructive influence. He was viewed by contemporaries as a miracle-working exorcist, for that is what he was. But Jesus was no magician. He waved no wand; he cast no spells; he performed no secret rituals to grab power from the powers. He obeyed God’s will and worked for God’s glory – not for his own ends, and not to gain advantage over others.

Reading the Gospels, we discover that Jesus repeats the miracles of Moses and Elijah. His clothing heals. He controls the weather. He multiplies food. He has power over the sea. He faces the devil in the desert and remains untouched by the devil’s temptations and seduction. He faces the devil on the cross, in the ultimate contest, and triumphs.

Confronted with evil in his daily life, Jesus simply prays, or touches, or speaks, or looks, and evil is vanquished. The Lord’s Prayer, clearly an invocation, reflects Jesus’ perennial concern to do God’s good will and to teach others to submit their whole lives to that will (Mt 6:9-15; cf Jn 4:34; 5:30).

The followers of Jesus walk the same path in condemning and confronting evil. For example, the apostles condemn magicians (Ac 8:9; 13:6, 10; 19:14, 19). Like Jesus, they heal, exorcise and disarm the powers of darkness.

The whole Bible is consistent in its opposition to magic, and in its abhorrence of occult practices, and in its condemnation of unholy augurs, charmers, clairvoyants, diviners, dream interpreters, enchanters, exorcists, false prophets, fortune tellers, magicians, mediums, necromancers, seers, soothsayers, sorcerers, witches and wizards.

To practice any of the magic arts is to court malevolent spiritual powers that will seek to seduce, entrap, control and eventually destroy you. There is no middle ground. There is no “white” magic. It is all a diabolical perversion of the good and holy spiritual power of God, regardless of how innocent and harmless it seems on the surface. It is like a drug: it may begin as innocent and harmless fun, but soon you need more, and you take greater risks, and you go deeper, until you are too entangled and compromised to get out.

God really does know best! Scripture is unambiguous about its abhorrence of the practice of magic because its Author knows how dangerous and destructive spiritual evil is. Jesus died on the cross to conquer evil, and he won. Good has already decisively triumphed over evil, and evil will ultimately be absolutely extinguished. At the end of history, “sorcerers” and “those who practice magic arts” are forever excluded from the Holy City, from the presence of God, and from the tree of life (Rev 21:8; 22:14-15). God’s Word seems clear and unambiguous.

Then along comes the diminutive and endearing Harry Potter. The four books (intended to be a series of seven or more), and the first movie (released last month) have slashed publishing and box office records. Merchandising is everywhere. Not only has author J.K. Rowling introduced terms like “muggles” and “Quidditch” to the English language; she has also given us “Pottermania.”

Children, including those of Christian parents, are reading the books, watching the movie, collecting the cards, wearing the clothes, throwing the parties, playing the games, writing to author J.K. Rowling begging entry to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

What should we say and do in response? Is there an unassailable Christian position on Harry Potter? Well, no. The opinions within the church are diverse, the arguments heated, and the rhetoric both engaging and excoriating. Some venerable evangelicals, such as Chuck Colson, argue that Potter is benign, teaching children “courage, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for one another.”[1]

A Christian Century editorial said, “we strongly doubt that [the Harry Potter books foster] an attachment to evil powers. Harry’s world, in any case, is a moral one.”[2]

The Evangelical Alliance (UK) urged Christians “to view the Harry Potter phenomenon as a significant opportunity to engage with society and present the enduring Christian world view as a positive alternative to the central theme which underpins the books and film.”[3]

Christianity Today suggests that conflict among evangelicals over Harry Potter

is a gift, an opportunity for vigorous discussion on what we believe about good and evil, storytelling, and our faith. Christian parents should not be dullards, allowing their children to frolic in whatever cultural sludge becomes popular in a given year. Nor should parents feel frightened or besieged each time a book or film challenges their faith . We should argue honorably, neither caricaturing each other’s interpretations nor ignoring Rowling’s treatment of the occult. And if advocates on either side grow frustrated that the Potter debate continues, they should try something truly daring: Writing better stories.[4]

University of Durham academic Margaret Masson, writing in the Anglican Anvil journal, said,

nowhere do these books blaspheme God and promote Satanism. By implication, they do precisely the opposite . children’s literature is full of such magic: the magic of fairies and talking cats and girls through looking glasses who get larger and smaller, of dragons and talking lions and whole worlds hidden behind ordinary wardrobes.[5]

Journalists have also pointed out inconsistency among evangelicals:

Harry Potter has magic. Lord of the Rings has magic. Harry Potter has wizards, dark evil, and an unlikely hero who overcomes obstacles with friendship and courage. So does Lord of the Rings. Yet reactions from conservative Christian critics have not been so similar. Yesterday, The Boston Globe picked up on the dichotomy: “The world of Christian conservatives that shuddered at the wizardry and witchcraft of J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular fantasy works about boy wizard Harry Potter is now rejoicing at the revival of interest in the sorcery-packed The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.”[6]

On the other hand, there is at least as large a body of Christian writing condemning the Potter phenomenon – just as compelling in its quotes, arguments and rhetoric. Two examples will suffice here: “Harry Potter lures kids to witchcraft,” and “Twelve reasons not to see Harry Potter movies,” both available on the Internet.[7]

There are also many sermons being preached on the Potter phenomenon – many of them tinged with irrational fear rather than grace, and brimming with culpable ignorance rather than wisdom. Such sermons are increasingly becoming available on the Internet; almost all denounce everything about Harry Potter. Beware the pastor who says he has never read the books (in order, of course, to safeguard his moral purity and spiritual separation from the world) but knows they are evil!

For example, Charles Clary begins his sermon with the words, “Today we are here to pay our disrespect to Harry Potter of Hogwarts School of Witches and Wizards. We will not open the casket because he, like Lazarus, “stinketh.” Little Harry will be buried at sea because Jesus said that the bottom of the sea is where anyone who offends a child belongs. There are no children down there to offend.”[8]

Or hear Pastor Craig Nelson, preaching on Exodus 22:18:

I do not, I cannot compromise on the issue of Harry Potter. And I am genuinely stunned at the extent to which most Christians do . By reading or watching Harry Potter you give satan the power he craves, and if you are a believer, you give him the mockery of believers he delights in . My deepest prayer is that all who read this will abandon Harry Potter altogether, in any form of recognition, blatant or “sanitized”, and boycott this compromise completely . Harry Potter is the whitewashed Baal we have placed on God’s Altar.[9]

So – should Christians let their kids read the Harry Potter books and watch the Harry Potter movies? Having read the first three books, and viewed the first Potter movie, my counsel is, “It depends.” As I indicated, while the Bible champions the miraculous as demonstrating the good power of God and his loyal servants, it is uncompromising in its opposition to all forms of magic. But does this opposition to the practice of magic extend to reading literature and watching films that refer to magic?

Be careful how you answer this question, because if you answer in the affirmative – as I am sure many Christians would like to do – then it is time to ban Snow White, Cinderella (in fact, most classic fairy tales), Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, all of Enid Blyton’s children’s fantasy fiction, virtually all Disney movies from Pinocchio to Shrek, C.S. Lewis’ excellent Chronicles of Narnia and his (equally excellent) science fiction trilogy, J.R.R. Tolkien’s unsurpassed literary masterpieces The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Frank Piretti’s This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness, Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind series (which I do not recommend on theological grounds), and – last but not least – biblical books like Exodus, 1 Samuel, the Gospels, Acts and Revelation.

There is a better way: the way of wisdom. Read the Harry Potter books, and enjoy the movies, with your Christian eyes open, your renewed mind alert, and your critical skills engaged. “Can I love Jesus and like Harry Potter?” asked Darren Cronshaw in a recent sermon at Aberfeldie Baptist Church in Melbourne, Australia. He answers yes, and provides us with some excellent online resources for preaching and discussion. My perspective is very similar to that of Cronshaw.[10]

Here are seven things you can do as Christian parents (or grandparents) instead of having a big book-burning bonanza or totally withdrawing yourself and your family from twenty-first century society.

First, with God’s help, and the help of wise Christian leaders, learn to distinguish good from evil, then teach your children to do likewise. This is where many Christian parents may be having great difficulty. The bottom line is: you are responsible for your children until they reach adulthood (not adolescence!). Teach them well. Model biblically-based moral values. Be consistent and truthful. Talk about moral issues in a thoughtful way. Read Scripture with them in relevant ways. Pray for them, and with them. Seek God’s wisdom and guidance as you raise them.

Second, keep a watchful eye on your children’s friends; monitor what they read and watch (especially children’s TV cartoons), where they go, the games they play (whether board games, computer games or role-play games).

Third, introduce your children to quality imaginative literature. Ask intelligent pastors, librarians and teachers for advice. If you liked Harry Potter, and/or your children did, introduce them to C.S. Lewis’ Narnia Chronicles, Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time (for starters).

Fourth, read aloud to your children for as long as they will bear it (in years, not minutes), taking time to discuss issues as they arise, answering your children’s questions, and helping them express themselves. In doing so you will build and support a biblically-informed moral vision in your children.[11]

Fifth, identify redemptive analogies and spiritual metaphors in the literature and films you consume. They are everywhere, often in what seem the most unlikely places.[12] Leonard Sweet offers wise counsel for Christian parents as well as others when he says,

The falsity of bunkering is that it makes Jesus into a Savior from the world, not the Savior of the world. Gated churches [and families] are designed to keep people in and reality out. Separation and engagement go together. The best way to defuse the principalities and powers of postmodern culture is not to escape from it, but to learn its language, master its media, and engage it on a higher level.[13]

Sixth, draw age-appropriate boundaries in your family’s reading and viewing habits, and be consistent in imposing them. Don’t burn bad books, but don’t buy them either!

Seventh, write your own literature, or inspire gifted young people to write, direct and produce quality works, or sponsor and pray for Christians in the media, arts and literary communities. How and why do you think that good children’s fantasy literature such as that of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were written? These men were lovers of classic fiction and mythology, and felt that what they enjoyed was no longer being written – so they wrote it themselves! Perhaps you, or your child or grandchild, could be the next Lewis, or Tolkien, or Rowling.

Attacking the Harry Potter phenomenon, and burning the books, and instilling fear into people who have not read the books or watched the film only increases promotion and makes more people inquisitive.

You don’t need to fear Harry Potter. You know and serve Almighty God. You’ re on the winning team! Evil has been disarmed and defeated through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (Col 2:8-15). Look how Scripture and history end! In the meantime,

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things (Philippians 4:6-8).

 

Sermon 440 copyright © 2002 Rod Benson. Preached at Blakehurst Baptist Church, Sydney, Australia, on Sunday 6 January 2002. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, New International Version (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980).


[1] Charles Colson, Breakpoint radio broadcast, 2 November 1999.

[2] Christian Century, 1 December 1999.

[4] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2002/001/40.68.html (Christianity Today 46 (1), January 7, 2002).

[5] Margaret Masson, “The Harry Potter debate,” Anvil 18 (3), 2001, 194. See also the deeply insightful article by Andrew Goddard in the same issue, “Harry Potter and the quest for virtue,” pp. 181-192.

[6] http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/152/51.0.html (“Frodo good, Harry bad,” Christianity Today “weblog,” posted December 28, 2001).

[7] http://www.crossroad.to/text/articles/Harry&Witchcraft.htm and http://www.crossroad.to/articles2/HP-Movie.htm, both written by Berit Kjos. The latter article is especially helpful in dissuading readers and viewers from sampling Potter texts.

[8] Charles G. Clary, “The Harry Potter funeral,” http://www.sermoncentral.com/secentral/sermon.asp?SermonID=41486&contributo.

[9] Craig Nelson, “The Harry Potter compromise,” http://www.sermoncentral.com/secentral/sermon.asp?SermonID=41502&contributo.

[10] Darren Cronshaw, “Can I love Jesus and like Harry Potter?” http://jmm.org.au/articles/1173.htm

[11] See C. Neal, What’s a Christian to Do With Harry Potter? (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2001).

[12] See for example William A. Groover, “Harry Potter and the Living Stone, or Don’t be a Muggle,” http://www.sermoncentral.com/secentral/sermon.asp?SermonID=41786&Contributo.

[13] Leonard Sweet, SoulTsunami (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1999) 21.

Categories: sermons

Rod Benson

Theologian, researcher, teacher, writer, foodie, husband, dad. Works at Moore Theological College.

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