Parents Push for Wizard-free Reading
Bestsellers now under fire in some classrooms
Johanna Landreneau was shocked when her sons third-grade class started reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone last fall. Nine-year-old Jean-Paul attends the private St. Lukes Episcopal Day School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. "I felt they shared the same values I did," Landreneau says.
She is among Christian parents nationwide arguing that classrooms are no place for Harry Potter, whose supernatural adventures make him one of the hottest characters ever in childrens literatureeven among other Christians.
Harry, an 11-year-old wizard raised by abusive relatives, enrolls in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns magic, and confronts his parents killer.
The first three Harry Potter books sold seven million copies before the Christmas rush, topping the New York Times bestseller lists. Four more are due by 2003, but evangelicals are not in agreement on how to respond.
Cult-watcher Bob Waldrep, Alabama director of Watchman Fellowship, says the books mysticism does not reflect actual occult practice, noting that J. R. R. Tolkien, the King Arthur tales, and even C.S. Lewis attracted children with fantasy. "I dont think its a strong enough case to say a book should be pulled because it has witches and wizards and violence in it," Waldrep says. "Based on that criteria, how many books would be in the schools?"
Focus on the Family cites problems such as foul language and youthful disrespect. Waldrep agrees and would limit books to older readers. Focus urges parental involvement.
St. Lukes Principal Amy Whitley says a parent recommended the books, with remarkable results. "Children are reading these books who are not typically eager readers," Whitley says. "[Harry is] not the best-looking kid around. He seems very normal, except for these powers which he finds out he has. He rises above, and I think kids like that."
Anne Gowdy, assistant professor of English at Tennessee Wesleyan College, says those traits characterize effective childrens literature. Harry Potter is among 25 adolescent books studied by Gowdys teachers-in-training. Children innocently connect with Harrys schooling, broom-riding sports, and blossoming friendships. "Its a parallel universe," Gowdy says.
During reading time at St. Lukes, however, Jean-Paul goes to the library. "In the Bible it says not to do witchcraft," he explains.
His parentslawyers who regularly read to their three childrenhope Jean-Paul learns a bigger lesson. "When challenges come up in the world like drugs or premarital sex, hopefully he will be able to stand for whats right," his mother says.
Challenges to Harry Potter readings in the classroom, already reported in at least eight states, may grow as author Joanne K. Rowling ages Harry one year per book. "She has said the books are going to get darker," Waldrep says, "so itll be very interesting to watch."
Why We Like Harry Potter
The series is a 'Book of Virtues' with a preadolescent funny bone.
A Christianity Today editorial
Its Christmas present shopping time. Time for your 10-year-old to make his listand for you to check it twice. But are the Harry Potter books at the top of his listthe first books topping his list for as long as you can remembernaughty or nice? These multimillion-selling stars of bestseller lists cause some anxiety for Christians since the main characters are wizards and witches.
In fact, you may have read newspaper accounts and heard radio reports of how Christians are fighting school boards over having the books in libraries. As a concerned parent, what should you do?
We think you should read the Harry Potter books to your kids.
First, we should all be suspicious of the medias hype of Christian parents objecting to the books. Reporters love the dialectic of first presenting the Christian stick-in-the-mud who objects to or is outraged by something, followed by the "reasonable" person who demonstrates how to be both moral and fun-loving. What remains unreported is that many Christians--such as Charles Colson and Wheaton College literature professor Alan Jacobs--enjoy and defend the Potter series.
Second, Christians should never apologize for rigorously scrutinizing what influences our children. A major scandal of our day is how seldom this happens. Modern witchcraft is indeed an ensnaring, seductive false religion that we must protect our children from . But the literary witchcraft of the Harry Potter series has almost no resemblance to the I-am-God mumbo jumbo of Wiccan circles. Author J.K. Rowling has created a world with real good and evil, and Harry is definitely on the side of light fighting the "dark powers."
Third, and this is why we recommend the books, Rowlings series is a Book of Virtues with a preadolescent funny bone. Amid the laugh-out-loud scenes are wonderful examples of compassion, loyalty, courage, friendship, and even self-sacrifice. No wonder young readers want to be like these believable characters. That is a Christmas present we can be grateful for.
Opinion Roundup: Positive About Potter
Despite what you've heard, Christian leaders like the children's books.
Christians hate the Harry Potter books. Its undeniable. Just look at the media reports about how Christian parents around the country are trying to get the book banned from libraries and schools. "Its a good thing when children enjoy books, isnt it? Most of us think so," wrote childrens book author Judy Blume in a New York Times opinion piece. "[But] in Minnesota, Michigan, New York, California, and South Carolina, parents who feel the books promote interest in the occult have called for their removal from classrooms and school libraries. I knew this was coming. The only surprise is that it took so long.
If children are excited about a book, it must be suspect."
Likewise, Los Angeles Times writer Steve Chawkins wrote of the controversy, "I enjoy these periodic battles about book-banning.
Hostility is often high. If you disagree with those who are so eager to protect your children, you are not merely wrong; you are twisted, negligent, evil, a dupe of dark forces, and, as in my case, a bad parent."
But heres the problem with painting with such a broad brush: Its just not true. In fact, as far as I can tell, while no major Christian leader has come out to condemn J.K. Rowlings series, many have given it the thumbs-up. If our readers know of any major Christian leader who has actually told Christians not to read the books, Id be happy to know about it; but in my research, even those Christians known for criticizing all that is popular culture have been pretty positive about Potter.
One of the most quoted supporters of the Potter books is Christianity Today columnist Charles Colson, who, in his November 2 Breakpoint radio broadcast, noted that Harry and his friends "develop courage, loyalty, and a willingness to sacrifice for one anothereven at the risk of their lives. Not bad lessons in a self-centered world." Colson dismisses the magic and sorcery in the books as "purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animalsbut they dont make contact with a supernatural world.
[Its not] the kind of real-life witchcraft the Bible condemns." (If you dont have the RealAudio player, you can get the transcript of Colsons broadcast at www.breakpoint.org)
Focus on the Familys review is one of the most recentand most criticalof the Christian reviews, but the strongest that Focuss critic, Lindy Beam, can muster is "Apart from the benefit of wise adult guidance in reading these books, it is best to leave Harry Potter on the shelf." Still the review is mixed, rather than negative: "Harry Potter contains valuable lessons about love, courage, and the ultimate victory of good over evil," Beam writes. "The spiritual fault of Harry Potter is not so much that Rowling is playing to dark supernatural powers, but that she doesnt acknowledge any supernatural powers at all. These stories are not fueled by witchcraft, but by secularism." (One wonders if such an argument also faults Winnie the Pooh and The Wizard of Oz.)
The Focus on the Family Web sites "Parent to Parent" area offers mixednot to say moderatereviews. Two parents claim "I cannot say I sensed anything evil about the book. It was pure fantasy," and "I [do not believe Potters books] lead us to believe that the people who take themselves seriously as witches are ok or safe." Two others are outraged. "The book becomes very satanic," writes one. "This series is simply Satans way of infecting the minds of our children," writes another.
World Magazine has offered not one, but two reviews of Harry Potterone very positive, one less soand later made Potter-related news. In its May 29 issue, World critic Roy Maynard praised Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone as "a delightwith a surprising bit of depth." He dismissed the most controversial subjects in less than a paragraph: "Rowling
keeps it safe, inoffensive, and non-occult. This is the realm of Gandalf and the Wizard of Id, not witchcraft. There is a fairy-tale order to it all in which, as Chesterton and Tolkien pointed out, magic must have rules, and good does notcannotmix with bad."
Five months later, World was less positive in a three-page cover story about the Harry Potter phenomenon. Still, the magazine notes that Rowlings witchcraft bears little resemblance to modern wicca. "A reader drawn in would find that the real world of witchcraft is not Harry Potter's world. Neither attractive nor harmless, it is powerful and evil." Still, writers Anne McCain and Susan Olasky warn that the books contain "dark elements," and that "unlike biblical stories, in Potters world bad things seem to happen for no reason." Like Colsonand just about every other reviewer of the booksWorld encourages its readers to choose C.S. Lewiss Narnia series and J.R.R. Tolkiens Lord of the Rings as "better worlds for a childs imagination," but says theres plenty of fodder for discussion and enjoyment in these fantasy books as well.
That was the October 30 issue of World. The following issue, November 6, included an announcement that Gods World Book Club, a division of the organization that owns World, was withdrawing the Harry Potter books from its catalog. "We reviewed and recommended the Harry Potter books as wholesome, good-versus-evil fantasy in the spirit of J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis," the full-page announcement said. "However, the fact that the books are not Christ-centered and further evidence that they are not written from a perspective compatible with Christianity have led us to retract the books.
We sincerely apologize for offense given and thank our customers for contributing to the discussion that led to this decision."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Atlantic, in J.K. Rowlings native country, Christianity magazine has nothing but praise for the book. Mark Greene, Director of the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity, writes that he balked at buying Harry Potter for his god-daughter when he heard it was set in a school for witches and wizards. He bought Narnia instead. Now, interestingly, he regrets his decision: "I wish Id been the one to introduce her to Harryfine lad you know, courageous, resourceful, humble, fun, good mind. Comes from good stock, you know. She could do worse, far worse. And, as far as literary companions go, frankly, not much better." (Neither the article nor the magazine appears online, as far as I can tell.)
It shouldnt surprise our readers that The Christian Century has no quarrels with Harry Potter, either. Still, its December 1 lead editorial, "Wizards and Muggles," makes some excellentand surprisingpoints about Christians and fantasy. "Rowling is not the first fantasy writer to be attacked by conservative Christians. Even the explicitly Christian writer Madeleine LEngle has taken heat for the magic elements in A Wrinkle in Time. Such critics are right in thinking that fantasy writing is powerful and needs to be taken seriously. But we strongly doubt that it fosters an attachment to evil powers. Harrys world, in any case, is a moral one." The unsigned editorial also notes that "one of the salutary effects of fantasy writing is to remove us from the everyday world and prompt us to look at the ordinary in fresh ways.
G.K. Chesterton claimed that his own journey to Christian faith began with his childhood absorption in fairy tales. From fairly [fairy?] tales he learned that the world is precious but puzzling, coherent but mysterious, full of unseen connections and decisive truths." Though the Century doesnt mention it, C.S. Lewis made a similar claim.
Perhaps the most insightful discussion of the Potter books comes from Wheaton College professor Alan Jacobs in the bimonthly Mars Hill Audio Journal. In the September/October volume, Jacobs defends the books as promoting "a kind of spiritual warfare.
A struggle between good and evil.
There is in books like this the possibility for serious moral reflection
[and] the question of what to do with magic powers is explored in an appropriate and morally serious way." Furthermore, Jacobs notes that contemporary Christian unease with magic is somewhat recent:
In sixteenth-century Europe you would find Christians who were deeply involved in astrology largely because they were Calvinists. And it was understood at the time that there was a close connection between a predestinarian theology and astrology because astrology confirms or supports a predestinarian theology by suggesting that the outcome and direction of our lives is fixed before our births.
Other Christians at the same time who dismissed astrology as being a bunch of hogwash but who were very much engaged with magic.
Magic was not thought to be any more at odds with Christianity than experiemental science. The big question then is to what use do you put magic? Now we see magic as an intrinsically dangerous thing. Our focus now is on experimental science and technology, and we tend to have the same kinds of debates about technology now that Christians had about magic several centuries ago.
Jacobs and Mars Hill host Ken Meyers then discuss how Star Trek technology, as imagined as Potters magic, is treated differently by Christians, even though the two have similar ends: "If we imagine somebody stepping on to a little circle and then suddenly dissolving, and then reappearing instantly somewhere else, and we call this a transporter, and were told that it is a device that is created by technology, then we go oh, thats cool. But if we imagine someone waving a wand and then disappearing and reappearing somewhere else, were much less comfortable."
Ill give the final word to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, in a quote from a CNN interview: "I have met thousands of children now, and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, Ms. Rowling, Im so glad Ive read these books because now I want to be a witch. They see it for what it is. It is a fantasy world and they understand that completely. I dont believe in magic, either."
Ted Olsen is Online and Opinion Editor of Christianity Today.