How a Born-Again Christian Became a Harry Potter FanaticEssays - Issue 28
How a Born-Again Christian Became a Harry Potter Fanatic
By Stephanie Cobb
I am a born-again Christian, and I love Harry Potter.
In case the title still left you wondering if this is a Harry-bashing exercise, I assure you it is not. This essay explores my personal journey with Harry and how I resolved the non-Christian issues in Harry Potter.
Christian means different things to different people, but born-again is a specific, unique term from the Bible. In John 3:3 Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God,” 1 that is, heaven. Jesus goes on to describe this as being “born of water and the Spirit,” 2 referring to the release of amniotic fluid in physical birth as well as a spiritual rebirth, or starting over, performed by the Holy Spirit.3 I also believe the Protestant Bible is the source of truth as God’s Word.
Whether or not you agree with these views is beside the point. Since my religious beliefs so heavily impacted my (positive) experience with Harry Potter, I want to be clear about them. There are many people who have identified themselves as Christians and spoken out against Harry Potter. Some have done so in a reasoned, respectful manner; many have not.
I’m speaking for Harry Potter, but I cannot emphasize enough that this is my opinion. I no more speak for all born-again Christians than I speak for all people born in April. I hope you’ll give me the opportunity to share my experience in the Harry Potter universe, and that this essay stimulates thought and discussion among Harry Potter fans, regardless of religion.
What to Do about Harry Potter
My first clear memory of a personal experience with Harry Potter came in 2000. A coworker was ensconced at the nurses’ station with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. She informed us we needed to take care of her patients for her, because the next book was coming out soon and she wanted to finish this one first.
Needless to say, it was not a good first impression.
I’d heard of Harry Potter before, of course. I love to read but I hate controversy, and there was no more controversial subject among Christians at that time than “what to do about Harry Potter.” Witchcraft is equivalent to Satanism in the Christian community, and many Christians felt it was not only inappropriate, but spiritually dangerous and morally wrong to have anything to do with Harry Potter. The fear was (and is) that by reading these books, children would begin practicing witchcraft. The fact that they were extremely popular only added to the concern. Much as we counsel teenagers to avoid blindly following their peers (the ever-popular “would you jump off a bridge, too?” argument), some Christians were counseling parents and teachers to avoid following the mainstream media Harry Potter craze. Christian bookstores had entire shelves dedicated to the subject, child and youth ministers were warning it would send a generation to hell, and the occult (spells, witches, fortune-telling, etc.) is so forbidden in Christianity that the idea a children’s book might not be worth all this hubbub was almost heresy.
I wished to form my own opinion, especially since outside the Christian community everyone was wildly enthusiastic. I was reluctant to take the advice of strangers but knew no one among my friends and family who had read it, Christian or not. I highly doubted it was the next Great Satan (after all, children were reading!), but found it difficult to find a Christian writer with a balanced approach.
One day I was browsing the “Harry Potter is Evil” shelf at the Christian bookstore, examining a book to decide if I wanted to consider the author’s opinion. I was very frustrated (and embarrassed) to discover he hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter books. This was an objection of many Harry Potter fans to the criticism of the Christian community,4 with good reason. I understand refusing to read Harry Potter to avoid exposing oneself to any ungodly influence it might contain; this is responsible Christian behavior in line with the Bible.5 However, I find it irresponsible to speak or write publicly without being well-informed on your chosen subject. How do you critique a book you haven’t read? Perhaps some of you had this experience in school, but I did not.
Lack of credible resources aside, I admit I had the snobbishness of many adults toward Harry. Why were grown-ups so interested in children’s books? If it was so popular, how could it be any good? Then Warner Brothers started making the movies, and everyone knows the movie is never as good as the book. I remember seeing the preview for Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and being fascinated by a scene in the Great Hall, which I now know to be the Welcoming Feast.6 The layout, the candles, the costumes, it all looked so cool! But there are many tempting things in this world, and I was well-experienced at resisting them. Unable to satisfy my intellectual curiosity in a way that felt spiritually safe, I set the issue aside.
After seeing the preview for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, a friend suggested we catch up on the Harry Potter films so we could see it in July. She had seen the first couple of movies, but I hadn’t seen any. I agreed (I was still curious, and much of the controversy had died) and decided I would read the books before watching the movies.
That was it; that’s how I started reading Harry Potter.
I couldn’t get Sorcerer’s Stone from the library in time, and while I intended to read it and Chamber of Secrets the second week, I didn’t. I’ve no idea what happened. Somehow, after watching Sorcerer’s Stone, I promptly forgot I hadn’t read the book, and continued through the entire series without doing so. I know you’re cringing; it’s a fact I lament to this day.
I read Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets guardedly. I had no interest in sorcery or witchcraft, and definitely didn’t want to continue with the books (or movies) if they supported any of the evil practices condemned by the Bible. I wasn’t even sure I would be interested in the story, as I don’t like fantasy as a genre.
My first memory of Chamber of Secrets is being puzzled by the Dursleys’ reaction to Harry asking for the “magic word.” 7 In hindsight, this was a clue that I’d forgotten to read the first book; at the time I merely thought such drama curious. I was interested in the story. I liked Harry, Ron, and Hermione (remember, I skipped her obnoxious behavior at the beginning of Sorcerer’s Stone). I found J.K. Rowling’s writing funny and interesting. I liked that she used big words even in a children’s book.
By Prisoner of Azkaban, I’d relaxed. I thought the magic in the books much like fairy-tale magic, make-believe, and didn’t associate it with the sorcery condemned in the Bible. But I had a dilemma: I was going home, and what would my parents and my best friend Donna, all born-again Christians, think if they saw me reading Harry Potter?
I’m a very honest person, and the fact remained I was reading Harry Potter; I didn’t want to lie about it. I believe anything you have to hide is wrong, and if I was ashamed for others to know I was reading Harry Potter, then I had no business reading it. I decided I wasn’t ashamed; I would pack Prisoner of Azkaban and read it like any other book.
Not surprisingly, all three questioned me. I spoke with my parents separately, and their questions were eerily identical, something like: “How do you, as a Christian, justify reading Harry Potter?” Donna’s was much easier: “What do you think of Harry Potter?” I gave them all the same answer, that I didn’t think it was different than fairy tales (none of them object to those), which have witches, magic, wands, spells, evil creatures, etc. I tried to explain more with my parents but they didn’t seem interested. I did keep the book hidden from Donna’s seven-year-old son. I could tell she was uncertain, and I didn’t want to create a conflict between mother and child.
Although I was enjoying the books, it was not until after Goblet of Fire that I got hooked. Although longer, I went through Goblet of Fire much faster since I was desperate to find out if Harry survived the Triwizard Tournament. Of course, I was pretty sure he did, as it would be quite a feat to write three additional Harry Potter books without the title character, but to me the joy of reading is being immersed in the story, and I was definitely immersed in Harry Potter.
I was also under the illusion that these were children’s books; or more accurately, under the illusion that nothing bad happens in children’s books. Anyone who has read even a smattering of children’s literature should know that’s false, but I remained in blissful denial.
So I was shocked – absolutely horrified – at Cedric’s death. I reread those paragraphs several times: He can’t be dead. I must have missed something. This is a children’s book! You can’t murder in a children’s book! And finally: She put a MURDER in a children’s book! No wonder everyone is saying they’re inappropriate!!
My main memory of the graveyard scene is Harry’s headache: that sudden onset of unbearable, blinding, worst-in-his-life pain that any critical care nurse associates with imminent death. I also feel about snakes the way Ron does about spiders (maybe more so), and couldn’t forget about Nagini even between Rowling’s descriptions of her. It still makes me shudder.
I was genuinely upset that children had been subjected to such psychological trauma in the name of entertainment and, even more disturbingly, I couldn’t understand why Rowling chose to write such a thing. I was completely torn about continuing with the series and it took a few days for me to digest it. Even though I was desperate to know what happened, I was leery of subjecting myself to that darkness. The Bible teaches that what we put in our minds affects our emotions and behavior,8 and I was living proof: I began having nightmares. But there was something about Harry that drew me even more than it repelled me. In addition to his character, I think I was hoping for resolution, searching for the triumph of good over evil that hundreds of thousands of pages of experience told me was coming.
That was the pivotal point in my Harry Potter experience, because despite my shock and horror and righteous indignation … I had to know what happened next. I knew I was wimping out; I’d gotten sucked in to the story, and I simply didn’t have the self-control not to finish it. I had to know what happened to Harry, and especially with Lord Voldemort, so I checked out Order of the Phoenix. I assured myself (though feebly) I wouldn’t read the whole thing, just enough to know Harry was safe and Fudge pulled his head out of the sand. Obviously, I read the whole thing, as Fudge is more worthy of the title “Cleopatra, Queen of Denial” than most women to whom it has been applied.
Opponents will say that inability to resist is all the more reason to avoid Harry Potter, and while I acknowledge there is a “hook” in the series, it’s certainly not the first time I’ve ever felt that way about a book (nor, I hope, will it be the last). In my opinion, that’s the mark of a good story: it draws you in, you care about the characters, you want to find out what happens to them. Many, many times in my life I have buried my nose in a book and not surfaced for hours. If that’s the definition of a dangerous book, well, I have bigger problems than Harry Potter.
I also investigated the library’s nonfiction books about Harry. I was curious about the Potter phenomenon and wanted insight into Rowling’s motivation and what other adults found intriguing about the series. I came across Melissa Anelli’s Harry, a History and learned Philosopher’s Stone was submitted for a target audience of nine- to twelve-year-olds.9
Well, that changed things. It should’ve been obvious from the vocabulary of the books that these were written well past Dick and Jane stage, but in hearing children I’d pictured cute, innocent six-year-olds like the ones I used to teach in Sunday School. Learning Rowling’s age recommendation immediately made me feel much better about her writing. Not that nine- to twelve-year-olds aren’t young, but they’re developmentally mature enough to separate fiction from reality (by this age, most children no longer believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny). They have the verbal skills to discuss what they’re reading and how they feel about it. In other words, they’re not quite so vulnerable and easily manipulated.
Once they knew what I was reading, other fans shared with me how Harry deals with more complex issues every year (i.e., every book) as he meets the demands of growing up. As I considered this new perspective, I realized it’s perfectly logical and realistic, even if it is rare in children’s literature. Even when it’s obvious that school years and seasons are passing, most child characters remain the age they are when we first meet them; it’s the reader who outgrows the character, not the other way around. Realizing that Harry faces more mature issues as he ages, as all children do, was a significant factor in my acceptance of the books.
So, next was Order of the Phoenix, and therefore Umbridge. The technical term is sadist, but there aren’t words to describe the awfulness of that witch. Her behavior is nothing short of child abuse, and much more blatant than that of the Dursleys. I was initially appalled at such vivid descriptions written for children, until I remembered this is not news to them. Bad things happen to children just like everyone else; Rowling was simply being realistic.
This willingness to address the unavoidable evils of life is important. In nursing, one of the ways we teach children about bad or scary things like cancer and surgery is with stories and role play. We read them Madeline, about the little French girl who had her appendix out, or we take a teddy bear and tape an IV to his arm so they can see what it’s like. Play is work for children; it’s how they process things and discover the world around them. Reading stories like Harry Potter that address real-life bad things (and bad people) is a non-threatening way for them to learn how to handle these events, and allows children to whom these things have happened to have a character with whom to identify.
Now I was starting to see the themes in Rowling’s work: the danger of lies, the corruption of power, the strength of friendship, the importance of personal responsibility (post-curfew visits to Hagrid’s notwithstanding). I began to appreciate the genius of the plot, the uniqueness of traveling a road already completely laid out (possibly my favorite thing about the series!), and was fast becoming a fan.
Until Sirius died. And the prophecy; I reeled. He’s only fifteen. He’s only fifteen! (I hope any fifteen-year-old readers will forgive me. I would’ve been most indignant about this attitude when I was fifteen, but adolescence looks much younger from the other side of thirty. Molly and I would get along well.)
I loved Half-Blood Prince. The unfolding of the Horcruxes, the back story, the romance, the comedy … it was fabulous. I even loved the tragedy and angst in the ending. Then I was confronted with Deathly Hallows. Was Harry a Horcrux? Was he going to die?
I think I read books five, six, and seven in a single weekend, and yes, I had the most massive headache and considerable neck pain throughout. But nurses are well versed in pharmacology, so I used a mixture of pain relievers, muscle relaxants, finger foods, and caffeine to sustain me. What I was left with at the end of that weekend was a fabulous coming-of-age story with more morals than Aesop’s Fables.
These positive themes are, unfortunately, often overlooked; but then again, the critics who’ve never read the books don’t know they exist. The smartest character isn’t a man, or even a teacher. It’s Hermione (Dumbledore fans, don’t hate me). The climax of Prisoner of Azkaban is an inspiring statement about friendship: Ron stands on a broken leg and tells a man he believes to be a mass murderer that he’ll have to kill him first if he wants to hurt Harry;10 James, Sirius, and Peter work for years to perfect complicated magic so they can join Remus during his painful transformations;11 Sirius tells Peter he should have died rather than betray his friends.12 Amidst all the cheating during the Triwizard Tournament (by the adults!) are two significant examples of fair play: one when Harry tells Cedric about the dragons,13 and then when Cedric tells Harry to take the egg into the bath.14 In Order of the Phoenix, Hermione’s offer to be lookout for Harry when he uses Umbridge’s fire to try to contact Sirius is a powerful example of loyalty and courage;15 and if we start talking about examples of Harry’s courage, we’ll never finish this essay.
And what’s a discussion of positive themes without the mention of love? The familial love of the Weasleys, the friendship love amongst the Trio (and others), the romantic love between too many couples to name, and especially the self-sacrificing love of Lily, Sirius, and Harry; what we in the Christian community would call agape love – the perfect love God has for us. There is substance to Harry Potter, and that’s more than can be said for a lot of books, whether they’re written for children or adults.
Reconciling the Non-Christian Issues
I want to address two arguments against Harry Potter in the
Christian community: that it should be avoided because of its association with
witchcraft, and that it actively teaches the practice of witchcraft. I also
want to differentiate between magic and witchcraft. Magic is
make-believe, unicorns and fairy godmothers and time travel. Witchcraft is
real; there are evil forces in this world and people who follow them.16
Witchcraft, divination, and necromancy are clearly and specifically forbidden in the Bible.17 Divination may be an elective at Hogwarts, but it is not a respected one. Harry and Ron never take the subject seriously;18 Professor McGonagall is hard-pressed not to disparage Professor Trelawney in front of students;19 Hermione goes as far as walking out of the classroom;20 and despite his vast magical knowledge, even Dumbledore never studied it.21
The Bible instructs Christians to pursue righteousness and holiness.22 I don’t think casually reading about magic compares to practicing witchcraft, but I won’t pretend magic is included in the pursuit of righteousness. I think the key point here is belief and intention. Studying the magical arts (Charms, Divination, Astrology, etc.) with the purpose of performing them is the practice of witchcraft. Reading about magic with the understanding that it is make-believe and for the purpose of diversion is the practice of imagination. Of course, some people don’t “approve of imagination.” 23
I am baffled by the idea that Harry Potter actively teaches the practice of witchcraft. If this were true, I would expect much more detail about the spells, wand movements, and magical theory than Rowling gives us. Despite reading the series multiple times, I have no idea how to turn matches into needles24 or conjure a flask.25 Harry himself says there’s “a lot more to magic than waving your wand and saying a few funny words.” 26 Much as I wish it so (isn’t that what magic is, what we wish were true?), I know I cannot wave a wand and shout, “Evanesco!” the next time a patient pukes on me. Well, I could, but I’m under no illusion it would actually vanish the vomit.
Nor do I believe there’s such a thing as a Resurrection Stone, or ghosts, or nose-biting teacups. I also don’t believe in poisonous spindles, enchanted sleep, fairy godmothers, big yellow talking birds, or flying reindeer (I’m still holding out on Prince Charming). But all of those things were part of stories that I enjoyed, stories read to me by my Christian parents, and stories that I knew, even as a preschooler, were make-believe.
If others disagree with me (and they will), I have no problem with that. I respect the right of parents to choose reading material for their children, and the right of every adult to choose their own entertainment according to their conscience. I’m simply asking for consistency; if one rejects Harry Potter based on its associations with magic, then reject all stories associated with magic: the traditional fairy tales, the King Arthur legends, Alice in Wonderland, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Night Before Christmas, the list is endless. Personally, I find this overkill, as I believe there’s much good to be gained from these stories.
This has confused many Harry Potter fans; why is Harry rejected when other magical stories are accepted by the Christian community? Narnia is easy to explain; it was written by a highly-respected Christian apologetic as an allegory for the express purpose of teaching children about the Christian life. (Yes, I recognize the irony that Lewis chose magic to play such a prominent role in his stories.) For the rest, I think it has to do with familiarity. We all, the mainstream Christian community included, grew up on the traditional fairy tales and magical literature. It is human nature to be suspicious of that which is new or different, and I think as years go by and the child Harry Potter fans grow up to have children of their own, Harry will become as much a part of childhood as Cinderella or Santa Claus.
I don’t consider magic to be a reason to avoid Harry Potter. There are other reasons I find much more compelling, especially for children (e.g. the mature themes, violence, and imagery from Goblet on). However, for me the values expressed in Harry Potter, the power of love, the importance of moral courage, the evils of racism, the dangers of ignorance and apathy, are the lingering message. I don’t regret reading Harry Potter; my only regret is that I didn’t discover this magnificent world earlier. We should all be thoughtful and deliberate about our entertainment choices and ensure they are consistent with our values, whatever they may be.
1. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
2. Ibid., John 3:5.
3. Ibid., John 3:6.
4. Anelli, Harry, a History, 199-201.
5. The Holy Bible, ESV, Eph. 5:8-11; Phil. 4:8; Col. 3:1-2.
6. Columbus, Sorcerer’s Stone.
7. Rowling, Chamber of Secrets, 7.
8. The Holy Bible, ESV, Matt. 6:22, 23:25-26; 1 Cor. 15:33.
9. Anelli, Harry, a History, 42.
10. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 249.
11. Ibid., 259.
12. Ibid., 275.
13. Ibid., Goblet of Fire, 298.
14. Ibid., 375.
15. Ibid., Order of the Phoenix, 650.
16. The Holy Bible, ESV, 1 Sam. 28:7; Mark 1:34; Acts 8:9; James 2:19.
17. Ibid., Exod. 22:18; Lev. 19:26, 31, 20:6, 27; Deut. 18:10-12; Gal. 5:19-21.
18. Rowling, Prisoner of Azkaban, 81; Rowling, Half-Blood Prince, 101.
19. Ibid., Prisoner of Azkaban, 84.
20. Ibid., 220.
21. Ibid., Half-Blood Prince, 400.
22. The Holy Bible, ESV, Matt. 5:6, 6:33; 2 Cor. 7:1; Eph. 5:1; Col. 3:1-2; 1 Thess. 4:7; 1 Tim. 6:11; 1 Pet. 1:15-16.
23. Rowling, Philosopher’s Stone, 10.
24. Ibid., 100.
25. Ibid., Deathly Hallows, 528.
26. Ibid., Philosopher’s Stone, 99.
Anelli, Melissa. Harry, a History: The True Story of a Boy Wizard, His Fans, and Life Inside the Harry Potter Phenomenon. New York: Simon & Schuster, Pocket Books, 2008.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. http://www.biblegateway.com
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
———. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. London: Bloomsbury, 2007.
———. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. London: Bloomsbury, 2000.
———. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.
———. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
———. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. London: Bloomsbury, 1997.
———. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. London: Bloomsbury, 1999.
“The Sorting Hat.” Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. DVD. Directed by Chris Columbus. Burbank, CA: Warner Home Video, 2001.