November 11, 2001

HARRY POTTER’S POWERS

“To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15).

Harry Potter has amazing powers. As a boy wizard, Harry is better at flying on a broomstick than anyone else. This makes him a star at the game of Quidditch, which is kind of like soccer, except it’s played up in the air on flying broomsticks instead of on the ground, and involves four balls instead of one. But Harry isn’t just a sports hero. He also has the power to defeat the evil Lord Voldemort. Others are so scared of Voldemort that they won’t even speak his name and only refer to “You-Know-Who.” But Harry, even as a baby, has the power to survive Voldemort’s attacks and to stop him from taking over.

Harry Potter’s powers are so amazing that he does something even harder than stopping Voldemort: Harry starts kids to reading. They read, not because they have to, but because they want to. The Harry Potter books aren’t small; they run up to 700 pages long. Yet kids devour them. They can’t wait to find out what will happen next. Harry’s power to make non-readers into readers has made many parents into fans. They love anybody who can get their kids into books. Harry also makes booksellers happy, of course, selling more than 100 million books worldwide. Sales keep shooting up faster and higher than Harry’s Nimbus Two Thousand broomstick.

Now Harry is about to display another of his powers: the power to sell movie tickets. The first Harry Potter movie opens in theaters next weekend. It doesn’t take a wizard or a fortune teller to predict that Harry will do very well. There’s little doubt that millions of people will flock to theatres and watch Harry Potter in action. The movie will bring in big money.

Harry Potter’s powers will also be at work in stores this holiday season. Sears, K-Mart, Toys R Us, and others are counting on Harry to make money for them through spinoff items. Hermione puzzles, Quidditch card games, sculptures of Hagrid and his pet dragon, Norbert, and countless other items are being marketed. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the villain Voldemort seeks a special stone which can change metal to gold. But even if he got the stone and made a gazillion gold Galleons, Voldemort couldn’t match the money Harry is making.

Worried About Harry

Harry’s powers make many people happy, but there are those who worry about Harry. Some worry about the movie not being as good as the book. Others worry that too much Harry hype will make them sick. Still, others have a more serious worry: they worry that Harry Potter’s powers are downright dangerous. They fear that Harry will draw kids into the deadly world of witchcraft. After all, Harry is a boy wizard in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. What if Harry’s young fans want to become witches or wizards themselves? What if Harry Potter is the first step on a journey into the kind of occult power that the Bible warns against?

According to an item circulated on the internet, many children became Satan worshipers after reading Harry Potter books. A girl named Ashley was quoted as saying, “I used to believe in what they taught us at Sunday School. But the Harry Potter books showed me that magic is real, and that the Bible is nothing but boring lies.” Other kids were quoted saying awful things about Jesus and saying Harry Potter made them want to call on demons. It was claimed that over fourteen million children joined the Church of Satan because of Harry Potter. Author J.K. Rowling was quoted saying, “I think it’s absolute rubbish to protest children’s books on the grounds that they are luring children to Satan. People should be praising them for that!”

Some people read this and were horrified by the evils of Harry Potter. They emailed the warning to others, who emailed it to others, who emailed it to others. But the story wasn’t true. It originated in The Onion, an internet publication specializing in sarcastic humor. There is no mass movement of children toward Satanism. None of the quotes was real. Harry Potter’s creator, J.K. Rowling, is not a witch or a Satan worshiper. She simply set out to create a fun, make-believe world. She says bluntly that she doesn’t believe in the kind of magic that’s in her books. “I absolutely did not start writing these books to encourage any child into witchcraft,” Ms. Rowling says. “The idea is absurd. It’s a fantasy world, and children understand that completely.”

The fantasy witchcraft of Harry Potter is very different from the religious witchcraft of real pagans and Wiccans. One Wiccan says, “I have read one of the Harry Potter books and found it good fun, but it has almost nothing to do with what witches actually do. ” Another witch says of the Harry Potter books, “They don’t have anything to do with Wicca. It’s this generation’s version of ‘The Wizard of Oz.'” Someone from the Witches’ League for Public Awareness adds, “It is difficult for the religion to be taken seriously when books like this portray it as magic.”

Harry Potter’s powers are part of a make-believe world, just as the magic wand of Cinderella’s fairy godmother, the good spells and bad spells in Sleeping Beauty, and other fairy tales are part of a pretend world. Imaginary magic doesn’t necessarily promote the serious magic of New Age Wiccans.

Legitimate Concerns

Still, even though some people overreacted against Harry Potter, that doesn’t mean everybody who raises concerns about Harry Potter is foolish or paranoid. It’s better to take seriously the impact of books and entertainment than to be careless about what goes into children’s minds. It’s better to be careful about occult dangers than to think actual occult behavior is harmless.

Many people consult psychics, read horoscopes, trust in crystals, try to communicate with the dead, or contact occult powers and spirit messengers. They think such things are harmless, even helpful. But God sternly forbids them in the Bible. These things can destroy souls, enslaving them to demonic powers. Now, whether the Harry Potter stories actually lure people into real occult practices is another question, but let’s at least be clear that there is a kind of sorcery and occult spirituality that is real, deadly, and attractive to many.

Also, let’s be clear that children’s fiction can leave strong and lasting impressions, for better or worse. This is true of books for even younger children than those who read Harry Potter. For example, the Berenstain Bear books are popular with little kids. The pictures are cute, the stories are fun, and sometimes there’s even a good lesson. But a bad message that comes through in book after book is this: Dad is a doofus, a dummy, a dunce. Papa Bear usually bumbles into trouble. Mama Bear helps him smarten up. Even the cubs are wiser than Papa.

Now, some real-life fathers may be about as dumb as Papa Bear, but is that how kids ought to see the role of a husband and father? Papa as pompous dunce and Mama as matriarch doesn’t exactly show the Bible’s teaching of a husband as leader of his wife and family. Papa making more mistakes than his kids doesn’t do much to help kids respect and obey parents. Does this mean all Berenstain Bear books are banned from our house? No, the books have good points as well. I still read them with our kids and chuckle along with them. But I also point out what’s wrong with always seeing Dad as doofus and Mama as matriarch. Now they see it plainly. Whenever we get to a part of the story where Papa fails yet again, my kids roll their eyes at how the authors make Papa such a dummy and Mama such a know-it-all. They are learning to read not just for entertainment but with discernment.

Some people are so happy to see their kids picking up a book that they don’t much care what book it is or what it contains. Anything that gets the kids to read is fine. But that’s wrong. Some books shouldn’t be read at all. Other books may be worth reading, but they should be read with discernment, not swallowed whole. There is no such thing as mere entertainment. Every book, every movie, every TV show, every computer game leaves its imprint. In each case, we must ask: Do the good elements outweigh the bad? Can errors be identified and rejected, or are the spiritual risks too great? And even if some people can enjoy a story’s benefits without being harmed, are there other people and situations where it would be best avoided? We must ask such questions about all art and entertainment, Harry Potter included.

Author J.K. Rowling said it’s absurd to think Harry Potter might attract kids to sorcery. “It’s a fantasy world,” she said, “and children understand that completely.” Perhaps most children do, but in a different interview, Rowling said, “I get letters from children addressed to Professor Dumbledore [headmaster at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry], and it’s not a joke, begging to be let into Hogwarts, and some of them are really sad. Because they want it to be true so badly they’ve convinced themselves it’s true.”

You don’t have to be paranoid to think Harry Potter would be unhealthy for those who have a hard time distinguishing fact from fantasy. You don’t have to be a fanatic to think Harry is too scary for children under ten. You don’t have to be crazy to think that anyone who has any attraction to real sorcery and occult powers would be better off avoiding anything that might awaken unhealthy curiosity or stir up old and terrible fears. Even if it’s fun and harmless for some people, others may be better off without it. So think hard about what’s best for yourself and your family.

What Harry Stirs Up

Why is Harry Potter so popular? Well, who can resist a story where messages aren’t sent by email or the post office but are carried by owls? The stories are sometimes funny, sometimes scary, always full of rip-roaring action. But there’s more. Harry Potter stirs up something in people. He awakens the imagination and makes kids long for something more than a humdrum, everyday life. What if there’s more to the world than what meets the eye? What if there’s more to me than meets the eye?

Harry’s parents die when he’s a baby, and he grows up with relatives who treat him badly. When he’s told that he’s really a wizard with great powers, he can’t believe it. “A wizard? Him? How could he possibly be? He’d spend his life being clouted by [his cousin] Dudley, and bullied by Aunt Petunia and Uncle Vernon.” But it’s true. He’s been treated like dirt, he feels like a loser and a nobody, and yet he learns there’s a whole different realm in which he is somebody special with amazing powers, with courage to stand against evil and defeat it.

At moments like this in the story, Harry Potter’s powers can do something wonderful or something terrible to readers. Harry stirs up a longing for us to be more than we seem, a longing for reality to be more than we see. In other words, Harry can touch our spirit and prompt a spiritual longing. Such a longing can be satisfied in the wondrous spiritual world of God’s family and eternal life in Jesus Christ. But if the longing isn’t satisfied there, it may draw some into the deadly world of the occult.

Some kids may turn to the occult to get what they’re looking for. Others may grow out of their longing for wonder and mystery, and become boring Muggles who long for nothing but a successful career. I’m not sure which is worse. C.S. Lewis wrote, “I like bats much better than bureaucrats.” Occult sorcery is bad, but it’s no more deadly than becoming a cog in a secular system without a soul.

The way to protect kids from the occult is not to stifle all sense of wonder, mystery, or unexpected miracles. That may make them unimaginative, unspiritual, unhappy rationalists. It might even make their spirits so empty and hungry that they fall for the first spiritual or magical thing that comes along, even if it comes from the demonic realm.

I want my kids to revel in good fiction with joy and excitement, rather than settling into a dull, drab world dominated by rationalistic math, science, and business. Math, science, and business are fine, but there’s more to life than what humans can measure, control, or make money one. Imagination needs to soar on the wings of wonder. Harry Potter stirs wonder and a longing to be heroic in some kids, and that’s good.

Better than Harry Potter at stirring wonder are such books as Watership Down, by Richard Adams; The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis; and The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien’s masterpiece was voted Book of the Century for the 1900s. It’s much richer, deeper, and more challenging than Harry Potter. The first part of the Tolkien trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, is scheduled to come out as a movie just before Christmas and may challenge Harry Potter for box office supremacy. I don’t know which movie will be more successful, but I do know that The Lord of the Rings books are works of genius that shines with the author’s Christian vision of life.

It’s often better to nourish and expand imagination than cramp and smother it. Harry Potter isn’t the best imaginative fiction ever produced, but it strikes a chord with readers and stirs up things in them that matter very much. It awakens an appetite which fiction alone can’t satisfy.

That’s when we need a book that’s even more of a bestseller than Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter has sold over 100 million copies, but the Bible has sold in the billions. The Bible isn’t just fiction. It’s fact. And biblical fact is more amazing and wonderful than any fiction. The Bible shows a world where miracles happen, where everything that exists has been created by the supernatural touch of God, where humans are created in God’s image, where we must battle Satan, a villain worse than Voldemort or Sauron, where good triumphs over evil through Jesus Christ, and where each follower of Christ becomes a soldier in the Lord’s army and will reign with him and enjoy eternal pleasures.

Hunger for the Holy

God implants in each of us a hunger for the holy; a hunger for something huge, mysterious, magnificent, strong, and good; a hunger that can be satisfied only by the eternal God himself. As the Bible puts it, God “set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). We have a longing to connect with the supernatural realm and to enjoy eternal life; and only God himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, can satisfy that longing. Fantasy stories can stir that longing; various real-life tastes of beauty, joy, or love can stir that longing; but only Christ can satisfy that longing fully and forever.

As we have eternity in our hearts, we also have right and wrong written in our hearts. God writes his law on our hearts by giving us a conscience. Our conscience nudges us to approve what’s good and to disapprove what’s bad (Romans 2:15). We often do what’s bad anyway, but we still know that good is good and bad is bad, and something in us wants right to triumph over wrong. No matter how much modern intellectuals try to persuade us that there’s really no objective difference between right and wrong, that there’s only survival of the strongest, we know better. As professors and pundits try to smother conscience, fairy tales and fantasies help stir up the moral truth in us. As the stories unfold, we see a sharp difference between right and wrong, and we find ourselves wanting the good guys to win and the bad guys to lose. That’s because we have a built-in hunger for the holy.

In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, there’s a showdown between Harry and an evil professor who works for Voldemort. The professor says that long ago he had ridiculous ideas about the difference between good and evil. But, he says, “Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” That, in a nutshell, is the will-to-power philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. Many postmodern intellectuals, educators, and entertainers follow Nietzsche’s notion. They teach, “There is no good and evil, there is only power and those too weak to seek it.” J.K. Rowling puts those words in the mouth of the archvillain. That sends readers a strong signal that it’s horrible to deny the objective difference between good and evil. Rowling doesn’t really believe in flying broomsticks, but she clearly believes there’s a difference between good and evil, and she wants us to believe it, too.

Helpful or Harmful?

Harry Potter, along with other fantasy stories, can be helpful if taken in the right way. Harry can be helpful as a fun, exciting way to spend a few hours and as a way to encourage reading. Harry can also be helpful in arousing a desire for what it mysterious, heroic, and holy. But Harry, and other popular fantasies, can be harmful if taken in the wrong way. J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien created fantasy worlds to tell a tale, with no intent to draw people into the occult. In fact, Lewis and Tolkien were devout Christians who opposed phony spirituality. But fantasy books, even by Christian writers, can still be misunderstood and misused. Any mention of magic, even magic in a fantasy tale, prompt some people to seek psychic and spiritual powers apart from Jesus Christ.

Even if a fantasy story contains wonderful things, some people respond wrongly. It depends on the person, not just the story. Also, even if a story contains elements that aren’t so good, some people discard what’s bad and benefit from the good parts. “To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure” (Titus 1:15).

Believers test everything in light of the Bible. They test Harry Potter in light of the Bible, and they test preachers in light of the Bible (Acts 17:11). Some preachers say that to get whatever you want, you just have to “name it and claim it” in Jesus’ name. They are using Jesus’ name as a magic spell. That’s worse than anything in Harry Potter. Some religious writers treat the Bible as a puzzle of hidden number codes or try to predict exact events in today’s world based on mysterious biblical visions. That’s fortune telling in a Christian disguise. We must use biblical truth to sort out what’s good and bad in religious books and sermons before we get too critical of make-believe stories for children.

The Bible is the ultimate test for all things, whether preachers or Potter. Scripture helps us sort out what’s good and bad in both. In the Harry Potter stories, truth and love battle against evil. That’s good. But sometimes the morality in the stories is muddled. Rule-breaking and disobedience often turn out for the best. That’s bad. It’s not unique to Harry Potter, of course. It’s the storyline of every Curious George book for small children. In story after story, the cute monkey, George, does something he’s not supposed to, but he always avoids disaster or punishment and turns out to be a hero. Careless readers may feel encouraged to think the end justifies the means and that disobedience is cute and harmless. But those who know the Bible can sort out such folly, while still benefiting from lively portrayals of bravery and friendship.

We need wisdom to decide which books to read and which movies to see, and we also need wisdom to evaluate the things we do decide to read or to watch. We also need to look at overall trends and their possible effects. More and more movies and TV shows are featuring teen witches, vampires, and sorcerers. Computer games are filled with magic and demons. The entertainment industry is flooding the youth culture with supernatural stories. Most of the stories are garbage with little positive value. The sheer amount of such stuff, together with the fact that so many people know so little about the Bible, creates a climate where many kids are quicker to believe in UFOs, reincarnation, or communicating with the dead than in the real miracles of the Bible. If you’re more interested in Buffy the Vampire Slayer than in Jesus Christ, you’re going to end up confused and spiritually lost. You must know Jesus Christ as your Savior and have the Holy Bible as your guide.

Millions of moviegoers will see Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Millions will see The Lord of the Rings. This could produce a heightened interest in mysterious powers and realms beyond, for better or for worse. Satan will try to exploit any fresh sense of wonder and curiosity. Satan will try to lure people into evil supernatural realms. But God can use an awakened sense of wonder and curiosity for his own good purposes. He can use fiction to get people thinking and then draw people to the truth that is better than any fiction. Only God’s love and power in Jesus Christ can satisfy the soul’s deepest cravings. Only Jesus’ death can take away sin. Only Jesus’ resurrection can defeat death. Only faith in him can unite us with his life and power and enable us to live forever.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.