Tuesday, July 26, 2011
How Christians Warmed to Harry Potter
By SARAH PULLIAM BAILEY
After praising the "Harry Potter" books in 2001, author Connie Neal said that she opened her inbox to see death threats scattered among the reactions from fellow Christians. The one time the California-based writer found her book, "What's a Christian Got to Do with Harry Potter?," at a Christian bookstore, it was on the occult/New Age shelf.
In its early years, "Harry Potter" was a litmus test of orthodoxy for some conservative Christians, who expressed concern over its portrayal of witchcraft. A Christian lawyer sued a public library for encouraging young readers to check out the series. Texas Pastor John Hagee called the books a "precursor to witchcraft." In 2005 a Canadian website published a letter opposing the books written by Pope Benedict XVI when he was Cardinal Ratzinger. (In 2009, the Vatican's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano published a favorable review, seeming to reverse course on the series.)
Christians today are certainly not universally enchanted by the series. Over time, however, more readers have begun to express praise for its honest depiction of fear, loneliness and sacrifice as Harry faces the evil wizard Lord Voldemort. Many Christians have cheered the portrayals of loyalty, courage and love, as the main character repeatedly risks his life.
"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland that has Presbyterian roots, initially avoided talking explicitly about her faith. "To me, the religious parallels have always been obvious," Ms. Rowling said in 2007. "But I never wanted to talk too openly about it, because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going."
Ms. Rowling is hardly the first author to face misunderstanding from a religious audience. Before C.S. Lewis became well known as a Christian, he noted that most British reviewers missed the underlying theology in his science fiction "Space" trilogy. Christian writer Madeleine L'Engle was criticized by some for the magic elements in "A Wrinkle in Time." On the other hand, J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" appeared to escape similar scrutiny despite his characters' use of magic.
The author put a little damper on some enthusiasm when she said that she always thought of one of her main characters, Albus Dumbledore, as gay (after which Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network called for a ban on the books.) And she did distance herself somewhat from C.S. Lewis when she told Time magazine in 2007 that "I did not set out to convert anyone to Christianity."
Many cite biblical passages, such as Deuteronomy 18:10-11, that warn against witchcraft and sorcery. "But the literary witchcraft of the Harry Potter series has almost no resemblance to the I-am-God mumbo jumbo of Wiccan circles," Christianity Today said in a 2000 editorial.
Mr. Waliszewski suggests that Christian families whose children express interest in the books use them as a teachable moment. "When you see self-sacrifice, heroism, the strong power of friendship, applaud it," he said. "I am more concerned about non-Christians reading the books because I do think it puts witchcraft in a light that is more favorable and positive than it deserves biblically."
Ms. Neal, for her part, is not worried about anyone reading the books. Rather than being a means for corrupting the youth with witchcraft and the like, she says, "The Harry Potter phenomenon was the greatest evangelistic opportunity that the church has missed."
Ms. Bailey is online editor for Christianity Today