Harry Potter’s success seems magical to many Christians today. Now that the last movie plays out across the nation’s screens, it appears that many in the Christian community who once questioned the series have made their peace with it. In a recent Christianity Today, HP guru John Granger writes as if the series has already become a literary classic. Who dares oppose such a groundswell of favorable opinion?
At the risk of being branded with the scarlet “M,” I do. For over a decade now I’ve watched the HP circus roll by: the books, the movies, the spellcasting primers, the Quidditch World Cup, the Florida theme park flowing with Butterbeer. And still, I can’t help but think that HP contains toxic levels of Lord Voldemort’s soul, and that Christians who have had their scruples continue to be well advised to avoid coming under its spell.
1. Frogs in the neopagan cauldron. The elephant in the room is, of course, the witchcraft. Many Christians downplay the pervasive wiccan spiritism in HP, arguing that the series is no more than an edgier Grimm’s fairy tale and that its sorcery is a benign metaphor for flights of fancy. But is it? Should it not concern Christians that HP conjures up a spiritually confusing paganized world where magic is an essential tool of power? Could our growing comfort with pagan spirituality in our imaginative lives lead us to mute God’s clear abomination of witchcraft? (Lev. 20:6, Deut. 18:10-11). Today’s western world is rapidly sliding into the superstitious syncretism of ancient Rome. The occult has moved from America’s basement to its living room, and many Christians haven’t blinked. We’ve become spiritually desensitized: not long ago, ouija boards and tarot decks skulked like shameful trolls in our back alleys; now they’re sold along with legos in Amazon’s toy department. Can there be any doubt that Hogwarts hysteria, the greatest British export since the Beatles, has helped make our cultural shift to neopaganism pleasing to the masses? We play with the spirit world at our peril. It’s not just frogs jumping into cauldrons that find out too late that it’s easy to get in but very hard to get out.
2. Spiritual terror for children. All HP readers admit that the series grows spiritually bleaker and more “mature” as it goes on. It seems that a shrewd mechanism is at work to draw children by the hand into a world of deepening spiritual darkness. Adults may have the worldview in place to distance themselves critically from this spiritual terror, but what of the children whose eager minds, like wet cement, congeal around the dark forms when they read the books (or, more seriously, take in the lurid images of the movies?). Innocence of mind is a precious, short-lived treasure in the springtime of life, but this childlike innocence is increasingly rare in a culture bent on feeding its young mayhem for entertainment. Jesus reserves his harshest rebuke for those who cause little ones to stumble (Matt. 18:6), and there’s no question that HP beckons the children with whispered secrets that open a series of doors into a house of horrors. Is this a desirable “maturity”? It’s not just the children who are at risk. We’re all growing old in evil too fast.
3. The Lewis & Tolkien red herring. Many Christians like to compare HP to those best-loved fantasies among Christian readers: Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. But trying to “baptize” Rowling’s fantasy by making her an honorary member of the Inklings is misguided. We should note at least four crucial differences:
- Narnia and Middle Earth are manifestly based on their authors’ Judeo-Christian worldviews. Christian readers have no trouble identifying a governing myth at work behind these imaginative worlds that is not pagan, but profoundly Christian. A clearly demarcated order of right and wrong, good and evil, undergirds the conflict. Rowling’s fantasy world exhibits a moral ambivalence consistent with pagan presuppositions.
- A major theme in both Lewis and Tolkien (L&T) is their unequivocal condemnation of magic as a tool for manipulation. The ring of power in Tolkien must be destroyed, not used. In Lewis, the “sorcerer’s apprentice” Uncle Andrew is a blithering fool for running with Jadis. But this kind of self-empowering magic is essential to Rowling’s world, where all use magic as a means to advance their own ends.
- Middle Earth, if it resembles our earth, is set in an entirely different age, and the Kingdom of Narnia is a completely separate world. There’s no confusion in L&T about the discontinuity between their fantasy worlds and our own. In HP, the line that divides fantasy from reality blurs; the story suggests that the world of wands and broomsticks is the real world. It’s the enemies of magic who are mistaken about reality. In L&T, the reader looks into another world, from a distance. The immediacy of Rowling’s story whispers to the huddled masses of disempowered middle-schoolers yearning to be free: You’re wiser than the Muggles. This world of magical powers is reality, and it’s yours.
- Readers of L&T identify emotionally with unmagical protagonists: children and Hobbits. In HP, readers identify with junior sorcerer misfits with a devilish streak of disrespecting adult authority. Harry and his friends are clearly neither the Pevensies nor Frodo & Sam. They’re witches in training, growing up very quickly in their mastery of the occult. It’s essential that Christians grasp fiction’s power to create deep emotional bonds between readers and protagonists. The bonds in L&T are forged with Muggles like us. In HP, readers project themselves (and very powerfully, by all accounts) into the avatar of a warlock coming of age.
4. Gnostic gospel. But what about the powerful theme of sacrifice and resurrection in the last book? Isn’t this enough to prove that HP ends with a redemptive eucatastrophe that points readers to the truth of the gospel? I don’t deny that these apparently redemptive literary themes can be evidence, as Lewis came to believe, for Christian truth written on the heart of man. But we should also note that “the angel of light” is a crafty master at counterfeiting and clouding the gospel, and the lie of liberalism is enough to show how the redemptive work of Christ can be twisted into something symbolic, metaphorical, and emptied of its content in a humanistic account. Rowling herself plainly states that the dissolution and rebirth imagery she weaves throughout the work and climaxes at the end has its mythic source in the pagan alchemical quest of turning lead into gold (the sorcerer’s stone) rather than in Christianity. This transformation is something man has the power to accomplish by means of magic, without God. As such, it has nothing to do with the unique efficacy of Christ’s propitiation on our behalf. Its effect could well be to point people away from Christ to a deeply pagan anti-gospel, an account of redemption rooted in the esoteric lore of Christianity’s first great enemy, Gnosticism. Could it be that a long initiation in the lore of Gnosticism hardens the heart to the gospel of Jesus Christ?
5. Cultural irrelevance. Some Christian readers will concede these points, but still argue that it’s important to read HP to connect with our culture. After all, didn’t Paul quote the pagan poets? Aren’t all things lawful for Christians? And shouldn’t we become all things to all men in order to save some? Yes, but not all things are profitable. Perhaps the most strategic cultural relevance today is for Christians to stay salty in their witness by politely declining the increasingly pagan round of entertainments. Christians in decadent Rome were relevant precisely because their consciences couldn’t be bought by the emperor’s “bread and circuses.” They didn’t need to be well informed about gladiator butchery, lurid séances, or trysts at the public baths to win their neighbors to the love of Jesus. Bunyan’s pilgrims leave their fragrant gospel aroma in Vanity Fair because they pass by its gaudy spectacles, saying simply: “We buy the truth.”
6. The queen of the world. The fall-back argument, kept in store as the one ring to rule them all, is this: “Why get so worked up? It’s only imaginative fiction!” Blaise Pascal called imagination “the queen of the world” because he thought it more powerful in swaying our choices than our reason. We live in a society bent on inventing more and more powerful, ingenious techniques of escaping into the self-directed “freedom” of alternative realities. But this “freedom” proves to be as fake as the virtual worlds. Too late Christians wake up to the stranglehold that video gaming and pornography addictions come to have over them, precisely because they captivate the imagination. What we dream about defines the kind of person we become (Prov. 23:7). The spellbinding force of HP—the way its readers get sucked wide-eyed into a lurid twilight world of soul-leaching dementors and become dead to ordinary reality until they’ve turned the last page of the final book—should concern Christians. The Romantic poet Coleridge marveled at the “shaping power of the imagination.” He thought our creative imagination was the part about us most like God. We underestimate the powerful sway of imagination to our peril. “What dreams may come?” is by no means an insignificant question, especially if the dreams turn out to be demonic nightmares we can’t erase. Aye, there’s the rub. Today we can scrub a computer hard drive in a fraction of a second, but it’s not so easy to cleanse the image-bank of the mind.
7. I have become comfortably numb. One of the priceless treasures in children is their capacity for wonder. But many young people today are so surfeited on the “TOTALLY AWESOME” that they have lost their sense of awe. Call it the “X Games effect.” Chesterton writes that we should find the ordinary more fantastic than the extraordinary: “The mere man on two legs, as such, should be felt as something more heartbreaking than any music and more startling than any caricature.” A child of three is excited to hear that Tommy opened a door; a child of seven needs to hear that Tommy opened a door and saw a dragon (Orthodoxy, ch. 4). It’s the law of diminishing returns. I suspect that HP and a coven of future Hogwartian chroniclers, though they may appear to stimulate this childlike capacity for wonder, will actually help to deaden it. The pyrotechnic wizardry and broomstick thrill rides must inevitably come down to mugglish earth, and the bubble of awe, inflated too sensationally and too often, soon bursts into jaded boredom. This glazed look of hyperstimulated apathy is the bane of many church youth groups. There are only so many times you can cry “Dragon!” But again, it’s not just our youth who suffer from amazement-deprivation, and of course it’s not just HP that bears the blame: the spellbinding “magic” of 4G smartphones and iPads works too. Christians must understand that divine worship depends on a functioning sense of awe in the worshiper. Our most tragic loss today may be the capacity to be enthralled with God alone and to find the “ordinary reality” of His creation wildly romantic. How sad if Christian readers of HP come to find that they once felt this thrilling wonder, before the dementors sucked the pleasant memory out of them.
I agree with Milton that after the fall, good and evil are so bound up that we often can’t know the good unless we contrast it with evil. I encourage my students to read Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which famously opens with witches chanting over a cauldron. I think Christians should live in the world, not stick their heads in the sand and hope for the best. But Milton and Shakespeare, cultural heirs of the Reformation, built their writing on a sense of good and evil as defined by God’s Word in the world God created. Macbeth follows the tragic arc of Saul, and his fooling with witchcraft marks the deterioration of his soul. These are imaginative worlds I recognize, because they cohere with the world as God made it. With HP, this Judeo-Christian base has been swept away and replaced with the kind of anarchic, soul-menacing spirituality the church has seen before, in times of great trouble. We’ve been warned to expect its widespread reappearance in the last days.
Milton was against the Puritan attempt to ban harmful books; so am I. Book-banning just inflames a crazy desire to read the forbidden books. What we need instead across the church is a revival of spiritual maturity to test the spirits (I John 4:1); abhor what is evil, cling to what is good (Rom. 12:9); and recognize that not all things are profitable (I Cor. 10:23). Augustine in Confessions warns against giving our minds to excessive curiosity, the “lust of the eyes.” C. S. Lewis writes that one of the two dangerous errors about devils is “to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” Though we ought not to be ignorant of the devil’s schemes, an inordinate fascination with his dark world is spiritually poisonous to our walk with Christ. So Paul urges the church in pagan Rome to be “wise in what is good, and innocent in what is evil” (Rom. 16:19). It will take uncommon discernment for Christians living in neopagan America, which like Macbeth has “supped full with horrors,” to put into practice what he means. And in a day when the church has largely made its peace with the gathering storm of occult spirituality, it will also take great courage.