August 9, 2011

Harry Potter and the Lingering Controversy

One of the things that I have often thought to write on is this controversy surrounding the Harry Potter books. I don't really know anyone that really shares my perspective on it so I think it is good to pen it somewhere. For the sake of full disclosure, I'll state the gist of my opinion first which is that the Harry Potter books do not represent real witchcraft on any level, but are quite worldly. While I do not agree with those who put a special ban on these books, I do believe that they should be read with caution and criticism from a Christian perspective.

Witches, Wizards, Warlocks, and Other W-words

The first thing to point out is that real witchcraft is a conglomeration of medieval superstition, pagan ritual, and anything that witches think sound cool. While there is certainly nothing universal about what witches and warlocks believe, in general the basic worldview behind witchcraft is that there are sentient intangible invisible forces which govern the ebb and flow of the natural order of things. Witchcraft religions are mostly a series of rituals to communicate with, barter with, make peace with, or sometimes outright control these forces.

Here is where I take issue with the vast majority of the criticism I hear about Harry Potter. Most complain that it teaches witchcraft: it doesn't. Yet many of these same people of no problem with other works of fantasy. WhileNarnia and Lord of the Rings are indeed legitimate exceptions, since they have no good witches in them and "magic" is understood in relation to an ultimate monotheistic deity, most of them have no problem with The Wizard of Oz or generic fairy tales (like Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty). Now some do have an issue with all these works, and those people I respect. My principle complaint is hypocrisy here. If you are going to complain about the book in particular, you need to have complaints that are unique to that book.

Some Complaints That Are Unique to This Book

I personally rather enjoy the genre of fantasy, as does much of my family. Mostly I find the idea of alternate fictional realities to be fun, whether we are dealing with fantasy, science fiction, or comic books. Placing the human being in a completely different kind of context often makes fascinating studies in human nature. (And it's fun watching people turn into newts, and Jedis slicing through stuff with light-sabers)

So when the first Harry Potter book came out, my family was one of the first families to grab onto it. Most of my family, including me, had read the book before it started showing up in the general media. In fact, I had read the book twice before I started to hear Christian leaders telling people that they shouldn't. At the time, I laughed at it because their criticisms weren't based on anything that was true with the book.

As I got older, and especially as Harry got older, I started to notice some things that did bother me, as a Christian, in the books.

First, there is the general theme of rebellion throughout the books. I think that some people are too strict with rules, and when I first read the book, I read that attitude into them. However, I started to notice a general pattern that Harry not only often broke the rules, he seemed to have little regard for them at all. Indeed, they were often in his way of achieving his objectives.

Harry's role models didn't really help much either. In general, when breaking the rules resulted in something poor or wrong, he was generally punished by someone other than his role models. And when his role models did get involved, it was usually after he accomplished something quite good, and was thus only rewarded. This seemed to be justified by the idea of teaching Harry independence and bravery. However, it is also true that he rarely taught how to work within the system to accomplish his goals.

Second, there is certainly a general worldliness to the books. You can tell, especially in the latter books, that while this isn't true witchcraft, it most certainly isn't Christian. I don't think that we should only read things that are Christian, but considering that this is supposed to be children's literature, parents should be aware of what is in the books that their children are reading.

And this brings me to my third a last criticism (at least for this post). The books aren't really children's literature: it is teen literature. J. K. Rowlings supposedly set up the books so that it was targeting the age group that Harry was within that book. So in the first book he is 11, but in the last book he is 17.

That isn't really practical in real life. When a child finishes one book, they are going to want to read the next. And you can't say that we can just make them wait a year, because that is now turning it into a ritual, and I don't really feel comfortable doing something like that with these books. So I would never recommend the 1st book to someone who I don't think is ready to read the 7th.


So where does this leave me? Well, I think this is a matter of what an individual can handle. There are some that probably shouldn't read the books because they can't handle the themes that I mentioned. However, I think for most mature adults and even most teenagers, the books are fine, as long as they are read critically.

If you have a personal conviction against reading any fantasy or anything with magic, then don't read it. If you have a child who is too young to be able to read a book and be critical of that books message, then don't have them read it. If you are bothered by a story where the protagonist in constantly encouraged to break the rules, then don't read it. If you have a conviction not to read anything with worldly or secular themes, then don't read it. Otherwise: enjoy.

1 comment:

Kevin Jackson said...

Thought provoking post. I've read the first three books and have seen the movies. The "rule breaking" you mentioned bothered me the most of any issue.

We decided to permit our oldest daughter (14) to see the movies and read the books. She went through them all in the last six months.

I think HP has some gnostic overtones - not a developed theology, but some shared characteristics. And some Christian parallels too, particularly in Deathly Hallows.

My folks think that HP is of the devil (seriously) while my in-laws think he is the best thing since sliced bread (seriously). They don't see each other often, and the topic has never come up when we were all together. Fortunately. :)