Anita Jennings is the principal of an outer suburban Catholic primary school. Together with all the teachers at the school, she has been surprised and delighted at the effect of the Harry Potter phenomenon on the students’ reading habits. Several teachers have developed units of work at a couple of class levels to capitalise on student interest in, and engagement with, the novels. Anita has read three of the Potter books herself. She thoroughly enjoyed Harry’s adventures and admired the way in which J.K. Rowling had constructed the detailed make-believe world of Hogwarts. She also felt the books distinguished clearly between good and evil. So she was quite surprised to receive a letter from the parents of a child in Grade 5 complaining about the books on the grounds that they encouraged an interest in witchcraft and satanism, which is forbidden by the Bible, specifically by verses in Deuteronomy. The parents in question have asked that the Harry Potter books be withdrawn from the school library and not used in any way in the curriculum. Although Anita was aware of a renewed interest, especially among young women, in Wicca and the occult, her only knowledge of witches had been gleaned from fairytales involving pointy-hatted folk on broomsticks and her awareness that persons accused of witchcraft had been scapegoated at various moments in European history. Alarmed by the parents’ claims, Anita undertook a search on the Internet to find out more about the issues raised by the Harry Potter books and what might be a reasonable and Christian response to them.
Finding The Facts
In case you have not read the Harry Potter books, an article entitled ‘Harry Potter, a Christian Hero?’ introduces the books, giving a brief outline of the plots and an indication of their widespread popularity. It also looks at the values expressed in the stories to see to what extent these values could be described as Christian. Several other articles on the site convey details about the books and their widespread impact, as well as assessments of their worth.
A strong critique of the Harry Potter books is made by Canadian Michael O’Brien, who argues that the Harry Potter books make witchcraft and the occult seem innocuous and even friendly, and that Harry overcomes evil not by moral means, but through his knowledge of, and access to, magic. O’Brien’s argument is a long and detailed one, which takes seriously the traditional rejection of witchcraft, and which also attempts to describe how the Potter books differ from other fantasy classics such as the Tolkien books and the Chronicles of Narnia.
To consider the various Christian perspectives it would be useful to look at ‘The Harry Potter Controversy’which provides over twenty authors views on either the pros or the cons of reading or watching the Potter series.
Another article in defence of Harry by Mike Hertenstein, ‘Harry Potter v. the Muggles: Myth, Magic and “Joy”’, also considers the point of view of O’Brien and others, especially the opinion that the Harry Potter books differ in kind from the works of Christian fantasy writers like Tolkien and Lewis. He comes to the conclusion that ‘if we throw out Rowling’s work for using mythological references or magic we must throw out Lewis and Tolkien as well’.
A critique from a very different perspective comes from Jenny Bristow in her article ‘Harry Potter and the Meaning of Life’. She moves away from the witchcraft issue and objects to the books on the grounds of their non-engagement with reality. In her view the books ‘catapult the reader into a safe moral universe of Good v Evil, uncomplicated by the moral dilemmas of the real world. And it is this that, ultimately, renders them quite banal’. In other words the Potter books fail to acknowledge the real evils that afflict human beings, children or adults and suggest a black-and-white view of morality.
However, whether Harry’s world is really so black and white is questioned by Professor Alan Jacobs in ‘Harry Potter’s Magic’, where he notes that many characters, Harry included, struggle to discover and do what is good. For him, a particular strength of J.K. Rowlings books is her ‘refusal to allow a simple division of parties into the good and the evil’. Jacobs also explores the parallel that existed through much of western history between science and magic, chemistry and alchemy. His article concludes with a question: ‘The technocrats of this world hold in their hands powers almost infinitely greater than those of Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort: how worried are we about them, and their influence over our children? Not worried enough, I would say’.
- Choose two of the articles introduced in this section to examine in detail. What is the basic premise of each article? What arguments do the writers use to support this basic premise? What special insights do they bring? What conclusions do they draw?
As well as expressing their personal misgivings about the Harry Potter books, the concerned parents at Anita’s school have asked that the books be withdrawn from the library and not used in the school curriculum. This raises the broader issue of censorship and the degree to which people, especially young people, ought to be protected from reading materials and other media which may upset them or influence them in a harmful way. This, in turn, raises the question of who should make decisions about what is harmful or unsuitable: parents, library and school authorities, religions, governments?
Before you begin exploring these issues you might like to look at a brief history of critical thought which shows how thinkers throughout history have been interested in freedom of thought. At the same time advocates of freedom of thought usually exclude children from their arguments. Most agree that children ought to be protected from violence, sexually explicit material or ideas and images that are unduly harrowing
‘The Freedom to Read Statement’ of the American Library Association spells out clearly the case against censorship of reading materials, claiming that no individuals or groups have the right to decide what others should or should not read. There are many other links on this site which present anti-censorship points of view. The American Library Association, to emphasise its opposition to censorship, organises a ‘Banned Book Week’ during which attention is drawn to books banned from particular schools or institutions in the previous year.
However, some people are incensed by the agenda they perceive to be behind the ALA. Among them is Steve McKinzie who, in an article entitled Banned Books Week: A Case of Misrepresentation defends the rights of parents and concerned citizens to make known their objections to particular books and magazines without being labelled ‘book-banners’ or ‘censors’. Many people think that school curricula, public libraries, museums, etc., although they deny bias, actually exercise a form of censorship in the process of selection of books and items they study, stock, promote or display, since selection necessarily implies exclusion of some items.
Another article entitled ‘Of Liberals and Tyrants’ by Shashi Deshpande goes into some detail about the way in which liberalism can itself become a means of suppressing the exchange of opinions because any dissent from a prevailing point of view causes accusations of complicity with repressive attitudes. The by-line for her article reads, ‘Freedom of speech is a powerful weapon in a free society. Yet, liberalism is creating its own tyranny whereby positions are sharply divided into opposing extremes, with no space for complexities, debate or discussion’.
- List three or four of the strongest arguments for and against the censoring of books. Where do you stand on the issue?
- Parents and teachers are encouraged to insist that children eat healthy foods and avoid ‘junk’ to keep their bodies well. Shouldn’t they also be able to insist that children read healthy books and avoid ‘junk’ to keep their psyches well?
- ‘Books won’t stay banned. They won’t burn. Ideas won’t go to jail. In the long run of history the censor and inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education’ (A. Whitney Griswold, former President, Yale University, 1952).
Discuss this opinion.
Exploring Sacred Texts
The main objection the concerned parents at Anita’s school have to the Harry Potter books is that they relate to witchcraft, sorcery and magic, all of which are specifically forbidden in the Bible. They quote Deuteronomy 18:9–12 to support their argument.
The book of Deuteronomy (c.621 BCE) was written to call the people of Israel back to whole-hearted faith in God. It takes the form of a sermon purportedly given by Moses (who lived around 1100 BCE) to the people of Israel as they were about to enter Canaan, exhorting them to resist the temptations they would face in the new land. The religious rituals of Canaanite society included human sacrifice as well as witchcraft and sorcery; these rituals were some of the ways the Canaanites attempted to communicate with and placate their deities and maintain social cohesion. The people of Israel were to shun these practices because they substituted pagan customs for the worship of God. Christians too, shun witchcraft, occultism, sorcery and so on, both because they are futile and because they substitute faith in magic for faith in God.
Clearly, a decision people have to make about the Harry Potter books is the degree to which the books might influence children to embrace a lifestyle which is, at best, ultimately unsatisfying, and at worst, destructive and death-dealing.
But are the occult practices, witchcraft and sorcery forbidden by Deuteronomy really what Harry is up to? Or do the Harry Potter books describe a purely fantasy world whose actual values are very similar to Judaeo-Christian ones?
A writer who takes seriously the injunctions in Deuteronomy, and elsewhere in the Bible, against witchcraft and the occult but who also has a grasp of the moral world of Harry Potter is Connie Neal. Anxious parents and teachers might be helped by reading part of her book, What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? It includes a section on how parents and teachers can use the Potter books to reflect with children on what is ultimately true and moral and life-giving.
An article by Greg Clarke in the internet journal The Theologian entitled ‘Fantasy Literature and Christian Readers’ also attempts to take seriously Christian responses to the books in relation to the Bible, and he outlines and comments upon three such responses.
- Why are witchcraft and occult practices prohibited in Deuteronomy?
- Is there any connection between the witchcraft rejected in the Bible and that practised by Harry Potter?
- What implications does your response to this question have for your assessment of the Potter books?
- What is your response to Connie Neal’s integration of scripture and the Harry Potter stories?
Understanding the Catholic Tradition
While the Catholic Church on the whole has taken the Harry Potter books for what they claim to be – fantasy adventure books for children – there is concern in the Church about the spread of New Age spirituality, which includes significant elements of wicca and magic. A sign of this concern is a document from the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture and Pontifical Council For Interreligious Dialogue: Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life, a Christian reflection on the ‘New Age’. This is a lengthy document which explores the origins of New Age Spirituality and explains Christian misgivings and reservations about it while also seeing the movement as a symptom of humanity’s quest for spiritual meaning. It is divided into sections which may be browsed. Try reading Sections 2 and 2.1 for an overview of New Age thought, and Section 4 for a comparison between aspects of New Age and Christianity. The Appendix contains a helpful glossary of various attitudes and practices which can be characterised as New Age.
A summary of the main points of the document can also be found in a report entitled ‘Vatican grapples with New Age beliefs’ on the Tablet site. The article ‘Altars to Unknown Gods’ by Aberdeen theologian John Drane, gives an account of the author’s chance encounters with a group of New-Agers, and his analysis of what they think, believe and desire and the challenges they extend to those who preach and teach the gospel of Jesus.
- What analysis does the document offer to explain why people of our time are drawn to New Age beliefs and practices?
- Having read Section 4 of the document, summarise the Church’s misgivings about the New Age movement.
- What is John Drane’s response to the questions posed by New Age beliefs and practices?
Respecting Other World Views
As the Harry Potter series comprises children’s books written in a Western context, other religious traditions, understandably have fewer opinions on their significance than do the various strands of Christianity. However, an interesting assessment of Harry from a Jewish point of view is entitled ‘Harry Potter and the War between Good and Evil’ by Rabbi Noson Weisz. He notes some significant differences about the struggle between good and evil carried on at Hogwarts and the same struggle in Jewish understanding. Themes of choice, conscience and redemption emerge in his discussion of the book. His critique centres on the fact that in the Potter books the contest between good and evil is removed from the human world of Muggles (the Dursleys are banal and revolting rather than evil). Second, he notes that at Hogwarts people seem to be assigned their moral status according to the House they are sorted into, so the lack of free will means that ultimately the struggle between good and evil in Harry Potter is ‘a power struggle with no moral implications’. Third, he notes that there is no effort at redeeming evil or transforming it – Lord Voldemort and Professor Dumbledore are destined to eternal enmity. He notes that ‘in a Jewish fairy tale, the hero would battle for the soul of Lord Voldemort and attempt to reclaim it for the good. No human being with the power of free will is unredeemable’.
You might also have a look at ‘Liberals and Tyrants’ by Shashi Deshpande also mentioned in the Broadening Perspectives section for an opinion, not so much on Harry Potter, but on the censorship issue itself. Finally Wikipedia contains a very comprehensive round up of religious views on Harry Potter, not exclusively from the Christian point of view.
- What does Rabbi Weisz assert about the meaning of the battle between good and evil in Judaism?
- What makes any action or choice a moral one?
- How does the rabbi describe the origins of evil and its subsequent power?
- How would you describe the Jewish notion of repentance expressed in this article.
Examining Personal Experience
The first four books of the Harry Potter series sold an estimated 192 million copies worldwide. The books have been printed in 55 languages in more than 200 countries. So it is very likely that either you, or someone you know well, has read at least one of the titles. What is your own assessment of the books now that you have sifted through the opinions of so many others? Are there aspects of the books which may attract children to a dark lifestyle? Should they be discouraged in a Catholic school?
Alternatively, is it possible for parents and teachers not only to welcome the books as imaginative and enjoyable, and as an incentive to reading, but to use them as a resource for moral education?
- Find out the facts.
- Broaden your perspectives.
- Explore the sacred texts.
- Understand the tradition.
- Respect other world views.
- Review your personal experience.
Articulate a response.