Observations on Life, Faith, Media & Technology

Harry Potter and the Double Standard

In the past few weeks the cultural phenomenon of J.K. Rowlings’ Harry Potter series has crested into the “perfect storm” of cultural awareness.  On July 11, the fifth installment of the movie series – “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” – was released and set worldwide box office records as the third-largest July opening weekend ever with 77.1 million in receipts.  On July 21, the seventh and final book of the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” hit bookstores worldwide and the ensuing book sales has shattered all records.  The release date for the final volume was the largest single sales day for most if not all of the major book chains.  The publishing world has never seen anything like it. 

Harrypotter Not bad for a manuscript that was turned down by twelve publishers before the small UK publishing house Bloomsbury agreed to publish it after the senior editor’s daughter read the first chapter and demanded to see the rest of the book.  The first printing was a whopping 1,000 volumes, and 500 of those were shipped to school libraries.  (Those first edition copies are now worth up to $20,000 each!)

An entire generation of kids has grown up with Harry Potter. Kids who were preteens when “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was published are now in college. 

My fundamentalist friends will probably disown me, but my kids read the Harry Potter books.  So did I, and we loved them.  We’ve seen all five movies within a week of their release, own three of them on DVD, and we have now seen “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” twice.

The Christian community has for the most part shunned the Potter series since its introduction because of the “occult” themes contained in the story.  After all, Harry is a wizard in training and according to the books, there is an entire world of magic and sorcery that “muggles” like you and I are completely unaware of.

The rejection of the Potter series has ranged from simply dismissive to all out condemnation.  The all-out condemnation crowd trots out the obligatory verses from Leviticus pointing out that all who practice such evil are to be killed by order of God himself, because sorcery is rebellion against God.  One Internet site even states on the authority of the Bible that “Potter” author JK Rowling is in for cruel punishment from God:

I tell you, “It were better for [her] that a millstone were hanged about [her] neck, and [she] cast into the sea, than that [she] should offend one of these little ones.” Luke 17:2 To be sure Joanne Kathleen Rowling has offended many little ones by exposing them and enticing them into the occult realm. 

(By the way, Rowling has no middle name, and the non de plume “JK” was adopted because her publisher didn’t think little boys would read something written by a woman, so where Pastor Brown came up with “Kathleen” I have no clue.)

Several Christian leaders – most notably Chuck Colson – have in the past said somewhat kind things about the positive aspects of the series, only to change their tune (and sadly distance themselves from their original comments) after getting a heaping helping of condemnation from the fire, brimstone and millstone-around-your-neck folks.  In a Breakpoint commentary in May of 2000, Colson commended the characters of Harry and his two close friends Ron and Hermione for their “courage, loyalty and willingness to sacrifice.” He went on to say:

It may relieve you to know that the magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals — but they don’t make contact with a supernatural world.

By the time the seventh book was ready to release this month (and Colson’s comments had been reproduced and condemned on hundreds of ultra-fundamentalist websites), he sought to clarify his earlier comments, saying:

Now personally, I don’t recommend the Potter books. I’d rather Christian kids not read them. But with some 325 million of them in print, your kids will probably see them and hear others talk about them and they’re probably going to read them anyway. So use this occasion to teach them to be discerning—like Daniel. Dare them to have Daniel as their role model, not Harry Potter. And if your kids do enjoy Harry’s magical world, give them copies of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Focus on the Family, who had also given a lukewarm, very conditional semi-endorsement of the books early on (and quoted Colson’s May 2000 comments in the process) issued a statement saying in no uncertain terms that FOFT Founder James Dobson “officially denounces” Harry Potter.

My reaction to all of this (besides a burning desire to scream “GET A LIFE!” at the top of my lungs) is to say that this is yet another instance we need to examine and discern where you draw the line.  What amount of fantasy is acceptable in stories your children (or for that matter you) read, listen to, or see portrayed on the big screen?  Chuck Colson seeks to point kids to Narnia and Lord of the Rings, but what, I ask you, is the difference between Harry Potter’s head wizard Dumbledore and Tolkien’s Gandalf?  And isn’t the title of the first book of the Chronicles of Narnia entitled “The Lion, The WITCH and the Wardrobe?”

Let’s say for the sake of argument that you draw the line at witches, wizards and any sort of magic or sorcery.  OK, fair enough.  What then is the difference between magic and talking animals or for that matter, talking vegetables?  The point is that virtually every story that we would expose our children to is going to have some sort of fantasy. That element of fantasy might be a magic wand that can be used to cast a spell, a superhero who possesses superpowers, or animals, plants, trees, or objects that have human characteristics such as speech, intelligence, reason and emotion.

Try to think of a classic children’s tale without any element of fantasy. You’ll be hard pressed to do so.  Winnie the Pooh?  A stuffed Bear of Very Little Brain not only talks but teaches life lessons about friendship and loyalty.  The Little Engine That Could?  A locomotive is able to employ positive thinking techniques to overcome an insurmountable obstacle by chanting his mantra, “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can…”  The Little Prince?  A diminutive member of some nondescript Royal Family is able to move about the universe with ease, stand on planets and observe a snake eat an elephant (that one scared the patooey out of me as a young child!)  And don’t get me started on Fairy Tales!  Pigs that are adept at building houses out of various building materials and wolves that are able to blow houses down, imitate your grandmother (“What big teeth you have, grandmother…) and eat you whole! 

To me, the only intellectually defensible position is to refuse to watch, read or listen to any book, movie or story that has any form of fantasy in it whatsoever.  I have actually known a couple of people who took this position.  They didn’t allow their children to view anything – including Veggie Tales – that had any element of fantasy in it at all.  Let me hasten to say while that position is intellectually defensible, from a practical standpoint, it is nothing short of just plain stupid.  My daughter babysat for these folks from time to time and when she did, they left (I am not making this up) black and white science videos from Moody Bible Institute that were made in the 1950s for the kids to watch while they were out. 

Here’s the crux of the matter: I grew up reading (or having read to me) all of the aforementioned unscriptural fantasy literature, as most of you did. Despite my parent’s carelessness at allowing me to be exposed to these heresies, somehow I grew up aware that in the real world vegetables don’t talk, I didn’t have a Fairy Godmother and cows could not, in fact, jump over the moon.  I was able to discern truth from fantasy – and fantasy from the miraculous – and embrace Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior, fully believing and trusting in His death and bodily resurrection.  I never got Him confused with Peter Pan, Superman, Santa Claus or the Great Pumpkin. 

My son grew up reading Harry Potter and seeing all of the movies, yet he, too, is able to discern truth from fiction. Plus, Harry Potter did for my son what The House at Pooh Corner did for me when I was a child: instill a deep love for books and for a great story.  And at the end of the day, that is what the Harry Potter series is – a really great story about love, friendship, family, loyalty and the ultimate triumph of good over evil.

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