Who’s Afraid of Harry Potter?

A Harry Potter prequel, Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, will be released soon, visiting the era when Dumbledore, a central character, was a young man. Given the cultural hype, it is worth returning to an issue that is a struggle for some Christians – Harry Potter and his world of spells and magic. Some readers may scratch their heads and wonder: Is there an issue with Harry Potter? Others may remember a time when they were discouraged from reading the books or viewing the films because they’re about witches and wizards. Some Christians are still completely opposed to the series.

    

Katherine Waterson and Eddie Redmayne star in Part II of the film series Fantastic Beasts, coming in November.

When I served as a youth pastor, one teen asked me to read several Harry Potter books because they were hearing concerned comments from friends about the “occult” content. The books had been banned in some schools. A high school English teacher was receiving a wide range of comments and perspectives about the series, some leading to conflict. Christian author Connie Neal responded to early Harry Potter critique by taking a cautious approach in What is a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? Later she took a more affirmative position in Finding God in Harry Potter. Other Christians like John Granger (no relation to Hermione Granger) jumped into the conversation with both feet, identifying many spiritual and Christian connections in How Harry Cast His Spell. Jerram Barrs shared his own insights with a thoughtful chapter in Echoes of Eden. Even children’s author Judy Blume chimed in with a positive Op-Ed in the New York Times. There is no shortage of opinion.

Doorway to discussion
I teach a course on Harry Potter and Christian Spirituality at the University of Alberta, so this issue is close to my heart. I often interact with students who were banned from the books and movies as teenagers, but now want to know how to relate all things to their faith. They want to move beyond the simple do’s and don’ts, while also remaining discerning and wise concerning “whatsoever is true.” They have seen that Harry Potter has allowed them to connect at a deeper level with friends who are curious about faith but have neither been to a church nor heard anything positive about faith. In the process of my own teaching about the spiritual themes in Harry Potter (good and evil, power in weakness, hope, resurrection, identity, choices, free will), some students become open to talking about faith issues when prior to the course they were reticent or even strongly opposed. I have had students who said that the course “helped them with evangelism.” Students who have rarely been to church share that they “want to check out a church.”

For some Potter critics, the issue comes down to magic. But theologian Jerram Barrs wisely and gently describes not the occult but the over-arching power of faith in J.K. Rowling’s series. First, Barrs mentions Rowling’s power as a writer, able to get to the heart of issues people face, including self-centeredness. “The emphasis on self-sacrifice as a central virtue of human life in the Harry Potter books is something that should be celebrated by Christians,” Barrs writes. “To find books that children love and that are emphasizing precisely the opposite [of self-centredness] should be a cause of great rejoicing” (132). Barrs also suggests that the novels and movies raise issues of faith that can help us in our journey: “The themes of truthfulness, loyalty, service, care for the weak and oppressed, and self-sacrificing love, present in the first book, became stronger and stronger as the series progresses” (144). A creative story can break down even the most hardened skeptic of faith.

Unexpected bulwark
Reading the series out loud to my own children became an important bridge for conversation. One comment from my daughter Melissa stands out. Her eyes lit up when she heard “the last enemy to be destroyed is death,” and I explained that this was a quote from the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 15: 26. We placed this text on her gravestone after we lost her in a car accident in 2012.

Commenting on Harry’s willingness to give up his own life, which parallels the gospel story, I resonate with Barrs’ response: “I found myself weeping with joy many, many times as I read and reread this wonderful reflection on the work of Christ” (144). J. K. Rowling’s seven Harry Potter books truly are some of the most beautiful books written in the last generation, as Barrs says.

When I tell others that I teach a course on Harry Potter and spirituality, I often see eyes light up with interest and curiosity. A professor once questioned if there was enough material in Harry Potter to fill an entire course. I asked my students what they thought. They agreed that “we have only scratched the surface of the truths we are learning.”

When I struggled with the loss of my daughter, the books and movies ministered to me in ways that are difficult to express. Rowling’s references to 1 Corinthians 15 – that “the last enemy to be destroyed is death” – have especially been a buttress and bulwark for me to hold on to in the throes of a grief that never truly goes away.

The Fantastic Beasts series travels back in time yet expands the Harry Potter story. I believe it can provide an ongoing avenue for spiritual conversation rather than a place to deposit our fears. We do not need to be afraid. Since Rowling is a professing Christian, I expect many more spiritual insights to be embedded in upcoming movies, and I hope that Christians will show grace by participating in dialogue rather than being a negative voice.

May we learn to view these films with “eyes that see.” 

  • Bryan helped establish Gracefinder Resourcing Network, where as a chaplain at the University of Alberta he links academic matters and faith and teaches courses on health and wellness, theology, film and ethics. He is married to Lisa and has three amazing daughters, Jessica and Bryanna with him here, and Melissa with God, who he waits to see again.

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