Why Christians Should Read Harry Potter

Mark Beuving —  January 7, 2013 — 5 Comments

Harry PotterI know I’m over a decade late with this. But I recently read the first book in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series (I plan to read them all), and I can’t help but write about it.

Harry Potter has not been well received in the Christian community as a whole. Some reject it outright as a work of the devil. Some have decided to keep a safe distance and look suspiciously at any Christians who have read the books (or watched the movies). Others enjoyed the books but feel a bit guilty about it. Still others dive in head first.

The controversy centers on one facet of the Harry Potter series: it contains magic (wizardry, withcraft, spells, potions, flying broomsticks, etc.). For many Christians, this immediately disqualifies the series. But should it?

Assess the books just a bit and you’ll discover that Harry Potter isn’t about magic. It features magic heavily, sure, but the series is about good and evil, courage and hope, friendship and goodness. These tales of good versus evil are set within a world of magic, but the Christian community needs to get beyond the faulty assumption that Harry Potter teaches kids that they ought to be witches and wizards.

We simply cannot judge a work based on its subject matter alone. The Bible contains witchcraft, after all. If that’s our sole criteria, then the Bible is out. We have to be more mature in our thinking and ask what the work says about witchcraft, or to phrase it differently, what the work uses witchcraft to say.

Kucherlinskoe lake, Altai mountains (#3)The Bible speaks against witchcraft because it involves turning from the true God to darker powers that try to subvert God’s rule. The characters in Harry Potter—both good and bad—use magic, but it is assumed throughout that magic is to be used for good. When a wizard goes bad and uses magic for evil, this is clearly condemned. So magic is being used in the Harry Potter books to show us something about the struggle between good and evil. I’m not saying that there are good and bad types of magic, I’m just saying that J. K. Rowling uses a magic-laden world as a literary expression of a reality we all face—good versus evil.

There are also some compelling aspects of Rowling’s use of magic. She presents us with a world laden with magic. But most of humanity refuses to believe that anything supernatural is going on (magic-folk refer to these naturalists as “muggles”). Isn’t this a lot like the Christian worldview? The supernatural surrounds us, but we are intentionally blind to it. Paul calls us to engage these supernatural realities (see Eph. 6). Again, it would seem that Harry Potter is more closely aligned with the biblical worldview than many Christians are willing to admit.

And then there are some powerful analogies within the storyline. The first book begins with a powerful wizard turned bad—Lord Voldemort—who tries to kill the baby Harry Potter, only to find that he can’t kill the child and that his powers have been stripped in the process. Is this sounding familiar? The Dark Lord is only able to work evil in the world when people “open up their minds and hearts” to do his will. Ring a bell?

Here’s my point: if we can get past the presence of magic in a book like Harry Potter and ask what the book is saying about magic and about life, then we will find much that we can affirm. I hope that my daughters grow to embody the lessons Harry Potter teaches, regardless of whether they read the books or not.

I know this is a significant issue, and I don’t want to downplay the concerns of godly parents. I don’t plan to let my girls read Harry Potter until they’re old enough to have a meaningful discussion about the things I’ve addressed above. If, as a parent, you are convinced that being exposed to the fictional witchcraft in Harry Potter will push your children toward the misuse of the supernatural that nonfictional witchcraft embodies, then you’ll need to have a good discussion with your kids and direct their imagination toward something more edifying. (Though this will be more difficult than you might think—The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, The 100 Cupboards series, and many other edifying books written by Christians feature magic.)

My goal is to push you to think more deeply about things like Harry Potter. These books have captured the imagination of more than one generation already. As Christians, we should be able to think about these stories—rather than dismissing them out of hand—and help others do the same.

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Mark Beuving

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Mark has worked in youth, college, and worship ministry since 1999, and now serves at Eternity Bible College as the Associate Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies. He is passionate about building up the body of Christ, training future leaders for the Church, and writing. Though he is interested in many areas of theology and philosophy, Mark is most fascinated with practical theology and exploring the many ways in which the Bible can speak to and transform our world. He is the author of "Resonate: Enjoying God's Gift of Music" and the co-author with Francis Chan of "Multiply: Disciples Making Disciples." Mark lives in Simi Valley with his wife and two daughters.
  • notatallnormal

    I always try to see both sides of every issue, and, as much as a Potterhead (diehard HP fan) as I am, those people who say it’s evil, ungodly, et cetera, do have valid points. (I admit that, not agree with what they say.) One thing that wasn’t mentioned here that is a common objection to the Harry Potter series is that some people have a problem with how the three main characters are constantly breaking the rules and sometimes lying. What I have to say to that probably isn’t very convincing, but it’s that, I hate to break it to you, but that’s what kids do. Have I lied and/or disobeyed authority? Hell yes. It wasn’t the right thing to do, but it’s not in any way unusual. In addition, nobody wants to read about characters who always, always follow the rules, which is both boring and unrealistic. I do notice that at least one previous commenter had a problem with the title of this post–”Why Christians Should Read Harry Potter”–and understand what he’s trying to get at. Personally, I don’t think Harry Potter is in any way evil on the whole, and would strongly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it.

  • Sam Choi

    Mark, I really love how you can see the redemptive themes in almost anything. I also love how balanced and reasonable your cases are. I totally agree that most Christians over analyze and I don’t buy the main arguments against it.

    But, my issue is not that of harry potter, but your continual promotion of worldly materials. You do such a wonderful job showing us the good and recognizing the fingerprint of redemption that is within everything. But do we really need to spend hours and hours of our life watching or reading these stories to get a small nugget of good? I mean really, did watching or reading the Harry Potter books stir your soul for Christ? The fact that you can notice some redemptive themes, did that really make a difference. Or is it merely an excuse to just read and watch what you want.

    If you want to see redemptive themes then you can just read the Bible. Or you can get a Christian novel by authors like Francine Rivers and be entertained and spiritually sharpened inspired at the same time. For me this is not a matter of right or wrong but good better or best.

    I am not advocating a monastic lifestyle and to be ignorant of popular culture. I really think it is amazing to be able to show a non-believer or a new believer these themes in the books and movies they enjoy. I also would personally encourage believers to read spark notes and get the gist so they can engage people, but for you to title this post, “why Christian SHOULD read Harry Potter.” is hard for me to swallow.

    If we want to join the Psalmist in ch. 19 v. 14 and say, “may the words of my mouth and meditations of my heart be pleasing to you..”, can we really spend hours indulging in the books or movies and justify it because we can see something redemptive? For you to see those themes in Harry Potter, you have to sift through hundreds of pages about a world that doesn’t exist and has no significant bearing on eternity. Is this the best use of a Christian’s time?

    When you actually watch a movie, listen to a song, or read a book, you are meditating on that subject for extending periods of time. If we want to meditate on what pleases Jesus always, I believe we must watch what we take in, lest we meditate on fruitless things.

    Is it possible our souls are just dull and hard. Is it possible we have weak desires and would rather be entertained (which I currently can find no hint of this in the Word) by media than enjoy the table the Lord has for us?

    For example, could you read the bible more? Could you serve more? Could you pray more? The answer to all 3 of those questions is, “yes!” Why don’t we? There are a variety of reasons, but probably the main one if we were to be honest is, “We don’t feel like it.”

    Have you ever met someone who genuinely got crazy amounts of joy through the Word, serving others, nature, etc than you? Why is the case? Maybe they are onto something. I for one, have weak desires and I typically would rather watch a movie when I’m tired, then meditate or commune with the Holy Spirit.

    I don’t think I have ever met someone who has changed the world or I read about in biographies that cared for these things. They simply were to captured by the Kingdom and eternity that those things were uninteresting. I have had short seasons of my life that I didn’t want to watch movies, not because of some rule, but it was boring compared to the Kingdom.

    So the battle is about desires. Maybe we need to grow in our desires for things that really matter?

    I understand you are reacting to a Christian culture that is reacting inappropriately
    against harry Potter, but I do not believe you should call Christians to read Harry Potter.

    Does this make sense? Love you alot Mark and I appreciate your work for the Lord and your constant work in helping us learn how to engage the world Christianly!

    P.S. I read the first 4 harry potter books in middle school.

    • MarkBeuving

      Hey Sam.

      It looks like we see the Christian calling in very different
      ways. I’ll try to explain why I disagree with most of what you said, but just
      know that I don’t feel the need to convince you to pursue the kingdom exactly
      as I do. I think it’s healthy our focuses and emphases differ; the trick is for
      us to learn to combine our work for the sake of the kingdom.

      First of all, I’ll answer your question, “Did watching or
      reading the Harry Potter books stir your soul for Christ? The fact that you can
      notice some redemptive themes, did that really make a difference. Or is it
      merely an excuse to just read and watch what you want.” My answer is yes!
      Reading Harry Potter absolutely stirred my soul for Christ.

      J. K. Rowling didn’t say a word about Jesus, but I teared up
      more than once as I read her descriptions of selfless love, of good triumphing
      over evil, of the hardened ignorance of the darkened heart, and of the joy that
      thrives even in the darkest of times. Flannery O’Connor, a Christian fiction
      writer, gave this advice to writers: “Your beliefs will be the light by which
      you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute
      for seeing.”

      Even if Jesus is not named in Harry Potter, I see him
      reflected in the world of Harry Potter, and I see powerful embodiments of grace
      and love throughout. Jesus colors the way I see the world. So when I read “hundreds
      of pages about a world that doesn’t exist and has no significant bearing on
      eternity,” my Christian view of the world helps me see the significance of self
      sacrifice and love in its eternal significance, whether J. K. Rowling wanted me
      to see these things in such depth through her work or not, whether I can hop on
      a magical train to Hogwarts or not.

      I’ll admit that titling the post “Why Christians SHOULD Read
      Harry Potter” was partially meant to grab attention. I don’t in actuality think
      that every Christian needs to read these books. But I would heartily recommend
      them to any Christian, unless I knew something about that person that would
      make me think that reading these books would be unhealthy. Given your passion
      for productivity, I probably wouldn’t recommend that you read them, Sam.

      But I would try to dissuade you from a purely utilitarian
      approach to the Christian life that only permits those activities that are
      “useful” (and usefulness becomes very narrowly defined). By that standard, the
      Old Testament is horribly inefficient with its lengthy stories, the Psalms are
      a complete waste because the theology we’re able to glean from them is
      represented in fewer words elsewhere in Scripture, the Song of Solomon is
      shocking because all it does is glorify romantic love (unless we choose an
      allegorical interpretation), etc.

      You said, “If you want to see redemptive themes then you can
      just read the Bible.” I agree that the Bible is different than every other book
      and that it must be foundational in everything, and that it must enjoy a
      position of primacy in our reading allotment. But your statement reduces the
      reading of books to a utilitarian activity, as if the only purpose of reading a
      book is pulling away hard and fast doctrine.

      But art is meant to help us experience the world, not just
      speak about it in orthodox terms. This, by the way, is where books like the
      Psalms and Song of Solomon come into play, along with the longer stories in the
      Old Testament. An indirect statement about life (and I would argue that all
      fiction is about life) often forces us to think about life more deeply than a
      direct statement might. And that’s a good thing. Art pushes us to see the world
      as we’ve never seen it before. It offers us a unique perspective on the things
      we see everyday and take for granted. The fact that it’s meaning is not clear
      or obvious at first glance is no strike against it. That’s the strength of art
      (and fiction).

      And this is why I’m horrified by your suggestion that
      Christians just read the Spark Notes for novels so they can engage people. For
      one thing, I would never want to presume to speak to the meaning and intentions
      of something I’ve never read. At best, this allows the believer to say, “I’ve
      heard that Harry Potter _______.” If that’s all you want to do, fine, but I
      think it would be incredibly detrimental to set Christians loose critiquing a
      culture they’ve only heard about.

      You’re right that I’ve done a lot of posts on “worldly
      materials.” Part of that flows from the nature of the blog. We called it
      “Theology for Real Life” in part because we wanted to teach Christians to look
      at the world through a Christian worldview. So our intention is to explore a
      lot of these topics. If I were preaching on a Sunday morning, I wouldn’t be
      nearly so culture-heavy in my choice of subject matter. But I think having a
      venue like this is important for addressing things that surround us but that we
      don’t quite know how to think through.

      You said, “When you actually watch a movie, listen to a
      song, or read a book, you are meditating on that subject for extending periods
      of time. If we want to meditate on what pleases Jesus always, I believe we must
      watch what we take in, lest we meditate on fruitless things.” I agree. Let’s be
      careful about what we take in. But we could either take in the horrific violence
      of a war movie like The Thin Red Line, letting the violence seep into our souls
      and make us more violent, or we could think deeply about the violence, ask
      ourselves how God would view this violence, and walk away stronger for having
      done so (and I’d argue that the movie Thin Red Line challenges us to do exactly
      that).

      Garbage in / garbage out is a good axiom, but I can’t see
      how thinking deeply about what God would say about humor or violence or even
      sex is truly putting “garbage in.”

      You ask a great question: “Could you read the bible more?
      Could you serve more? Could you pray more?” Of course! And let’s do! But let’s
      be honest. Our mission as Christians requires us to do more than those three
      things 24/7. Why choose just those three? Could you preach more? Could you
      write more? Could you meditate on God’s goodness more? Could you care for His
      earth more? Could you be a godly example in business more? Could you stir
      people’s imaginations toward that which is true and beautiful by telling
      compelling stories more?

      The answer to all of those questions is yes, but each of us
      will have to stand before God as we decide exactly how, to what extent, and in
      what proportion we do each of these things. And let’s not forget the biblical
      commands to rest, to enjoy life, to enjoy people, etc.

      Finally, you said, “I don’t think I have ever met someone
      who has changed the world or I read about in biographies that cared for these
      things. They simply were to captured by the Kingdom and eternity that those
      things were uninteresting.” I can’t disagree with you if you say that you’ve
      never read a biography like this. But I would say that you’re reading only a
      certain kind of biography, and that their biographers are probably focusing on
      only specific aspects of that person’s life that they found relevant.

      This is an important discussion to have, Sam, and as I said,
      my goal isn’t to try to get you to see things exactly as I see them. But I hope
      this helps you unerstand where’ I’m coming from a little bit more.

      And if it helps, I wrote up a post on why I think the phrase “Redeeming the time” actually implies that we should engage culture rather than getting busy in “spiritual” things (http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2012/11/redeeming-the-time/) and a post called “Nothing Matters but the Kingdom, Everything Matters Because of the Kingdom” (http://facultyblog.eternitybiblecollege.com/2012/08/nothing-but-the-kingdom-everything-because-of-the-kingdom/).

  • http://www.theruthlessmonk.com/ Leslie Keeney

    It’s always good to hear from Christians who recognize that the real themes of HP are love and the power of self-sacrifice. I like this so much I posted it to The Ruthless Monk Facebook page

  • Melina

    Mark, this is why you’re my favorite.