Harry Potter


"Evangelical Christians draw lessons from 'Harry Potter"

by Shelvia Dancy ("Religion News Service," July 7, 2001)

When Connie Neal settled onto a sofa in her family room with a copy of "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" on her lap, the Christian author and lecturer steeled herself for a plunge into a world of mysticism and magic she was certain would clash with her beliefs.

Three "Harry Potter" books later, Neal adores the bespectacled kid wizard -- and he is one of her greatest evangelization tools.

"I thought I was reading the book to explain to my kids why they shouldn't read it," said Neal, author of the new "What's a Christian to Do With Harry Potter?" (Waterbrook Press). "What really turned me around was that once I had made that distinction for my kids about the fantasy world vs. our real world, I realized these books were so rich, and really had lessons that directly connected to the Bible."

Take the story of how Harry becomes an orphan, for instance.

"In the first book, Harry's mother dies because she jumps in front of the curse of death that Lord Voldemort has thrown at Harry to kill him," Neal said. "Voldemort tries to kill Harry again, but the curse is broken, and he doesn't die. It's a beautiful picture of the protection from evil that we have because of what Christ did for us on the cross when he broke the curse of death."

Or Rowling's portrayal of Dudley, Harry's jealous cousin.

"He's a good example of someone who was covetous, so I'd talk to my kids about his selfishness and gluttony and then we'd discuss how the Bible says we're not supposed to be a covetous person," Neal said. "And when you look at Professor Gilderoy Lockhardt, you see that he was vain and selfish so that's another character you can use to learn what the Bible has to say about arrogance or selfishness or ambition."

Finding the lessons

Neal concedes that those lessons are easy enough to overlook -- and have been by critics who have slammed the Potter stories as too cozy with the occult -- anti-Christian, even. The forthcoming release this fall of the Harry Potter movie is likely to stir the cauldron of controversy once more.

"To a large extent we let other people think for us on this issue," said Neal, a youth leader at her church and former youth pastor. "We can't do this on this issue -- it's too personal. You have to know your own child, whether this will scare them, whether they are sophisticated enough to understand the distinction between fantasy and reality. You cannot let anyone make this decision for your family."

Which is why one day Neal gathered her husband and three children (aged 8, 10 and 12 at the time) in the family reading room of their Sacramento, Calif., home for what developed into a weekly -- and open-to-the-neighborhood -- Harry Potter and the Bible study class.

"As a Christian parent, I need to be able to put these books in the right context for my kids, so I sat down with them and said, 'Here's how we're gonna do it -- we're going to pray before we read so we're not opening ourselves up to any deception,'" Neal said. "If there was anything in a chapter that corresponded to the real occult world I opened the Bible and made sure my kids understood why it was forbidden in our world.

"It's because I do understand the dangers of the occult that I want my own kids to be able to discern this stuff for themselves," she added.

Neal thinks Harry Potter is less a Satan-in-wizard's-clothing and more the literary cousin of fairy-tale favorites like Cinderella.

"Harry Potter follows the line of the classic fairy-tale hero -- he starts out in a terrible condition with his parents being dead, then he's transported into a magical world where there's a villain who has to be overcome," Neal pointed out.

"At the end of every story good triumphs over evil," she added. "And the wands, the spells and the astrology are all classic elements of children's literature. It's a medieval view of the universe, just like C.S. Lewis uses in his Narnia books."

Occultism vs. fantasy

But the distinction between occultism and fantasy children's literature is lost on many Christian readers, Neal said.

"Many of the things used as literary devices in the Harry Potter stories correspond to practices in our real world that are forbidden in the Bible, and that's a challenge to Christian parents," Neal said. "But I think what most Christians don't get is that Rowling shows you the dangers of believing in things like divination and omens. You see the way that getting sucked into trusting those things brings danger."

The name of Harry's school -- Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry -- "is what does it" for many Christians, Neal said.

"People think witchcraft equals Wicca, and Wicca equals religion," she said.
"I think if Rowling had named Harry's school the Hogwart School of Magic and
Mystery you wouldn't have had this kind of hysteria in response.

"I approached it by teaching my kids to understand fantasy literature," she said. "We love 'The Wizard of Oz' but my kids know there is no Glenda the Good Witch and that the Bible makes it clear that witchcraft is idolatry."

Neal brushes aside the idea that Rowling's books dwell on topics too grim for young readers. "Using that criteria you wouldn't let your kids read the Bible!"

She dismisses the notion the aspiring sorcerer is a less-than-ideal role model for kids.

"You find me one person in the whole Bible apart from Jesus Christ himself who did not sin!" Neal said. "That's not how kids learn to be good anyway -- in real life, kids do make mistakes. And if [Rowling] didn't treat evil as truly dangerous, she'd be doing her readers a disservice."

Using the Potter tales as a springboard to the gospel might seem strange at first, Neal concedes, but, she points out, Jesus himself adopted similar tactics.

"Jesus and Paul used to find stories used by the general culture and tie them to spiritual truth so people could relate to it," she said. "We have a whole generation of kids who are biblically illiterate, so I share the gospel story with them through things they can relate to, like Harry Potter or the Power Rangers. It may seem strange, but it shouldn't."a