By Jonathan Whitehead
June 25, 2003
Since the initial publishing of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone in 1997, over 25 million books in the Harry Potter series have been sold in the U.S. in hardcover alone, with the fourth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, boasting sales of over 8 million. With the fervor for the upcoming release of the fifth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, at an incredible high, there is no doubt that author J.K. Rowling has created a phenomenon in Harry Potter. But one thing she probably did not count on was the hatred the books have drawn in certain religious circles.
Just a sampling: Don Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) has described the "Harry Potter" series as "books that promote witchcraft and wizardry." Linda Beam, Focus on the Family's contributing culture analyst, says, "[W]hat the author does may be more harmful than she realizes, since children who become fascinated by her charms and spells could eventually stumble into the very real world of witchcraft and the occult. These stories are not fueled by witchcraft, but by secularism." An organization called Family Friendly Libraries has asserted that "J.K. Rowling is fast becoming a virtual Pied Piper for the modern version of neopagan religion. Harry's adventures employ heavy use of Wicca symbolism, language and themes."
Actual followers of Wicca might have a bone to pick with these groups, though. In an article from the British newspaper Citizen Online-Newfound Area Bureau, "local Wiccans have come out against the claim the books promote their religion. They point out that the books are fiction, and do not represent their beliefs in any way." Wiccans roundly denied connections between Harry Potter and actual witches and warlocks, but reported buying the books for their children.
Two of the most repeated comparisons made by anti-Harry Potter organizations liken the Harry Potter series to C.S. Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings' trilogy. In particular, because of Lewis' and Tolkien's outspoken personal beliefs, the organizations push Lewis' and Tolkien's books as safe alternatives to the evil Harry Potter. In Citizen magazine's February 2000 issue, John Andrew Murray explores the analogy, rationalizing that Lewis' characters recognize a higher power than themselves, and that since Harry Potter has not recognized (at least not yet) anything higher than magicians Professor Dumbledore or Lord Voldemort, the books should be shunned. "By disassociating magic and supernatural evil, it becomes possible to portray occult practices as 'good' and 'healthy,' contrary to the scriptural declaration that such practices are 'detestable to the Lord.'" Murray continues: "Despite superficial similarities, Rowling's and Lewis' worlds are as far apart as east is from west. Rowling's work invites children to a world where witchcraft is 'neutral' and where authority is determined solely by one's cleverness. Lewis invites readers to a world where God's authority is not only recognized, but celebrated—a world that resounds with His goodness and care."
These killjoys thankfully represent only a portion of the Christian population's response to Harry Potter. Chuck Colson, conservative Christian activist, decided to take a more real world approach. "Some Christians may try to keep their kids from reading these books, but with 8 million copies of the Harry Potter books floating around American homes, it's almost inevitable that your own children or grandchildren will be exposed to them. If they do read these books, help them to see the deeper messages." Colson also recommends leading Harry Potter fans to Lewis and Tolkien, furthering their reading interest rather than dissuading them.
Following Colson's lead, Christianity Today called Harry Potter a "'Book of Virtues' with a pre-adolescent funny bone. Amid the laugh-out-loud scenes are wonderful examples of compassion, loyalty, courage, friendship and even self-sacrifice."
Into this maelstrom steps Connie Neal, author of What's a Christian to do with Harry Potter? and The Gospel According to Harry Potter, a writer devoted to educating youth and parents about how Harry Potter can be taught in conjunction with the Bible. On the eave of the release of Order of the Phoenix, oldSpeak spoke with Neal about the Harry Potter phenomenon and Christianity's response.
oldSpeak: With all the negative attitudes towards Harry Potter, have you experienced any backlash in response to your approach of embracing and learning from the series?
Connie Neal: Within the Christian media community, I have experienced the equivalent of McCarthyism. Fear and slander based on half-truths broadcast very early on in the Harry Potter debate have stunted what I wanted to teach with my books. The media latched onto a few quotes and reports based on hearsay that said Harry Potter was evil, and J.K. Rowling was an occultist. On one show I was attacked because the host and other guests believed a made-up story from the satirical on-line web site The Onion that accused Harry Potter of corrupting children. These reports in turn have affected Christian booksellers, buyers and the public. I've received some very scary e-mails from people. Since I have been labeled a Harry Potter supporter, threats of protest and of attacking organization's donor base and costing millions of dollars if I came on have kept many shows from having me. So yes, my views have definitely brought me under fire.
Was it the popularity of Harry Potter that fanned the flames of disdain in these certain Christian circles?
I actually believe it was a few things that created the negative buzz around Harry. First, of course the enormous popularity definitely lit a fire around the series. Second, the wording of the books by J.K. Rowling made the books an easy target. Rowling was upfront about her fantasy setting with Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as the stories' backdrop. I first heard about the books from a fellow mother of voraciously reading children, and she told me about this great series where an orphan went to a boarding school to learn all about being a wizard and using magic. Any concerned parent would raise an eyebrow at this. The whole setup of a story about wizardry raises antennas, but when you really look at the books, what is the difference between them and the Chronicles of Narnia? For me, it is the age we live in where kids can go from a Harry Potter fan website in three clicks to a web site where actual witchcraft is discussed. This was simply not the case when C.S. Lewis released his books. Parents are so busy and there are so many more options for their children to get into trouble with; parents think they are too busy to police their kid's activities. They are scared.
Right off the bat with the Harry Potter phenomenon, the most aggressive opponents have come out of a personal involvement in the occult. They can't read Harry Potter as we can and enjoy it; their situation is much like an alcoholic going into a restaurant and waiting at the bar for a table—they can't do it. These attackers with an occult background have helped create this fear and hatred of Harry Potter, but they haven't realized that not everyone is going to respond as they have and so have ruined the experience of reading Harry Potter for others without their background. These people have a particular weakness, and instead of their background being investigated in Christian media, their views were blindly accepted. With the Christian retailers returning my books and big Christian radio networks stonewalling me, they are killing free speech in the Christian community. This is a much bigger issue than Harry Potter or witchcraft in these books. If this free speech that we have worked so vigorously for is something we take away ourselves, then we have already lost. Both sides of the story need to be told and responsible journalism needs to occur, in the secular media as well because all they like to show are the zealots and their book burning, and that does not represent all Christians.
A significant argument in favor of Harry Potter has been the love of reading these books have generated in adults and children. In your book The Gospel According to Harry Potter, you offer refutations to those staunchly opposed to Harry Potter. But what would you say to a person, or perhaps a Christian parent, who enjoys—and encourages their children to enjoy—the books simply for reading pleasure?
While I enjoyed reading the books myself, I see the popularity of Harry Potter as a good chance to use the books as a teaching tool. Unfortunately, too many in the Christian community have decided to turn a blind eye. Around Halloween I had a number of bookmarks printed up for Christian kids who like Harry Potter and gave a bunch to my local Christian bookstore. When I went in to see how many the store was passing out they replied that as soon as they saw Harry Potter on the bookmarks they got rid of them. I then walked over to the Borders bookstore across the road and saw them passing out a plethora of the bookmarks to kids happy to have them. Either way the Gospel was getting out there.
I have stopped arguing so much with people who hate Harry Potter and have turned my attention to helping churches and youth ministers who want to use Harry Potter. I want to educate people on both sides of the coin and get them to agree to not judge one another, and with my background as a youth minister, to especially get kids to stop badmouthing each other. When I work with these groups I make sure they have read my book What's a Christian To Do With Harry Potter?, and then we study the Harry Potter books in light of my book and the Bible. I also send out booklets on how to use Harry Potter to spread the Gospel in the secular community.
Have you found that the Harry Potter detractors you run into have read the books, or more often do they rely on hearsay? And if they have read the books, did they ever give the books a chance?
Sure, there are some who come up to me and tell me how horrible the Harry Potter books are, but their response to my question of "Did you read the book?" is that they saw a quote about how bad they are and they don't need to read them. There are 64 real references to witchcraft in the first four Harry Potter books, but you have to see them in context to know they are not teaching witchcraft or sorcery. Many of the detractors who have actually read the books already have made up their mind that Harry Potter is evil before they read. They have taken a magnifying glass and picked at the books, using literary reductionism to find what they want to find. You can pick up Dicken's A Christmas Carol and do the same thing that these people have done with Harry Potter; it is ridiculous.
I want people to see the bigger picture, and look at the whole book. We all love John 3:16 and its message, but I keep reading to John 3:17, where we are told to not condemn the world, but save it like Christ did. We are here to be good citizens and I have seen that since Christians have been so negative against Harry Potter on the whole, the secular community has come to me as a Christian who likes Harry Potter and that has given me a great witness.
You draw some really interesting comparisons in The Gospel According to Harry Potter—for example, between Professor Quirrell in Sorceror's Stone and false prophets in the Bible. Do you think a child would be able to discern between the fantasy of Potter and the prophecy of the Bible and see that connection?
I considered writing a book on the virtues of Harry Potter, but the principles are so evident in these books that I think writing something like that would be an insult, even to children. The great moral lessons are right there for everyone to pick up, and obviously I have seen a lot of scripture reflected in J.K. Rowling's writing. My own kids have picked up on a lot from the novels, such as not gossiping because it hurts feelings and a whole lot more of how not to act from the Dudley character, Harry's cousin. It amazes me that the Christian community cannot pick up on this, it is right there in front of them.
DISCLAIMER: THE VIEWS AND OPINIONS EXPRESSED IN OLDSPEAK ARE NOT NECESSARILY THOSE OF THE RUTHERFORD INSTITUTE.