Sunday, July 22, 2007

Mad About Harry

Quips, quotes, thoughts & reactions about Harry Potter from a couple of evangelical followers of Christ... followed by some commentary from me:

I stand by my recommendation to be familiar with Rowling's works. This is a momentous occasion in popular culture. There have been few phenomena in modern history that have rivaled these books and the cottage industry of films, video games, and merchandise that have followed.

But beyond reading them for cultural literacy, are they also a cultural battle front?

I think not (for a full "Whitepaper" on Harry Potter, for use by parents, teachers & pastors, use the following

First, to think the books are evil and wrong and harmful - in and of themselves - is misguided. As Christian author Charles Colson, along with other Christian writers and thinkers such as Richard Mouw, Connie Neal, Alan Jacobs and Francis Bridger have noted, the magic used in the books is mechanical, not blatantly occultic. No more than the magical powers of Superman. It's attempting to be fantasy, not reality. There is no contact with a supernatural, demonic world in the classical form of the occult.

In truth, they are simply morality tales, and the magic is used as a metaphor for power. The overarching theme is the fight between good and evil, and that evil is real, and must be resisted. The characters develop courage, loyalty, and the willingness toward self-sacrifice. In and of themselves, the Harry Potter books are best lumped with the fantasy works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, where wizards and witches and magical potions also abound, but in a fantasy framework where the author uses them to present good as good, and evil as evil. In fact, Rowlings's appreciation for Lewis runs so deep that his writing was the primary reason for seven Potter books - she wanted to match the seven in the Narnia series. Rowling herself is a professing Christian and member of the Church of Scotland, and while she doesn't pretend the Harry Potter series are overtly Christian books, a Christian worldview is behind every page.

This does not mean that parents shouldn't talk their children through the books - they should. As with any fantasy book - or film - you should make sure that your child is old enough to know the difference between fantasy and reality. Further, the Harry Potter books are not "kiddie" books. The later books in the series become increasingly mature (in the first book, he is eleven; by the seventh, he is seventeen). Parents should also make sure they help their children contrast the mechanical, fantasy magic in the books - and the fantasy magic in all fairy tales and children's literature, from Snow White to Cinderella - with the real life witchcraft the Bible condemns, which encourages involvement with supernatural evil.

Yet the larger conversation can be more positive, for the Harry Potter books and films give every parent and child something to think about as Christians, such as the reality of good and evil, the critical importance of choices, and the nature of sacrificial love.

So I, for one, say pick up and read.

I know I am going to.
That's from James Emery White, author of some wonderful books (my favorite is Embracing the Mysterious God: Loving the God We Don't Understand), pastor of Mecklenberg Community Church, and professor & former president at Gordon Cornwell Theological Seminary. (It comes from his Serious Times newsletter/website.)
Granger has focused on her [Rowling's] language and symbolism, in large part because of his similar studies in "Great Books" and ancient languages.

"I started reading the Potter books as an Orthodox Christian father who had to explain to his oldest daughter why we don't read such trash," he said. "But once I started turning the pages the University of Chicago side of me kicked in."

Take that climactic scene in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," he said. The Latin "expecto," as used in the Apostles' Creed, is best translated "to look out for" or "to long for expectantly." And "patronus" means guardian, but can also mean "deliverer" or "savior." So Potter cries "I look for a savior" and a stag appears, one that looks mysteriously like a unicorn.

In the Middle Ages, noted Granger, stags were Christ symbols, in part because of the regeneration of their antlers as "living trees." A cross was often pictured in the prongs. Lewis uses a white stag in this manner in "The Chronicles of Narnia." Unicorns were also popular Christ symbols, portraying purity and strength.

Rowling repeatedly links Potter with creatures - a phoenix, griffins, centaurs, hippogriffs, red lions - used by centuries of Christian artists. Her use of alchemy symbolism taps into medieval images of spiritual purification, illumination and perfection.

And Harry's snowy white owl? It is interesting to know that Saint Hedwig is the patron saint of orphaned children. And the final product of that spiritual, alchemical discipline? The goal was to create a symbol of salvation and eternal life, something called "The Philosopher's Stone."
And that last quote is from the folks at, as they quote John Granger. Look, I'm not sure I see everything that Granger sees (and I have a B.A. in English Literature and did some particularly deep study of the works of C.S. Lewis) - but stuff like this helps me to see that there's more going on in these books than a simple yarn.

Here's my recommendation for dealing with these books & kids: read them WITH your children and talk about the Christian truth evidenced in these stories. They are, whether you like it or not, a huge part of the cultural conversation (over 2 million copies of the final book were pre-sold online... and the first printing in the U.S. alone is 12 million copies). Rather than bury our heads in the sand, why don't we see how we can pull an Acts 17 moment with these well-written works of fiction?

This post is adapted from an article published in 7/19/07 edition of the Grapevine, the newsletter of NewLife Community Church.

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