Guest Blogger: Randall Allen Dunn
I never wanted to read Harry Potter. I was raised in the church, believed in God at age 7, and was baptized at age 11. I attended youth groups in high school, graduated from a Christian college, and then served my church in various capacities as a teacher, helper, Drama Director, and all-around grunt for whatever needed to be done. Though I planned to be a novelist, I felt no need to read J.K. Rowling’s new books, having heard it was about children learning to practice witchcraft, something the Bible clearly prohibits.
However, my sister-in-law, a Christian who worked at a school library, urged me to at least read the first one before deciding. She didn’t feel the biblical command applied to these stories, since they involved a fairy tale version of magic, and only those characters born with the ability could actually perform it. She also suggested I become familiar with it, as a writer, since it was changing the standard for children’s writing.
So I read it. And I came to the same conclusion: these stories were nothing to be feared. In fact, I was surprised by the strong moral center of each story, teaching life lessons that I would want my own kids to learn.
Not everyone in the church saw it that way. Many people rejected the thought of reading or watching Harry Potter automatically, like I first did, because they felt that doing so would be sinful. Which meant they had judged it to be wrong, as I had, without knowing what it actually contained.
A former pastor told me we don’t need to fear information. People had criticized his study of certain books, thinking it would negatively impact his spiritual beliefs. I believe this can certainly happen, but only if you don’t know what you believe in the first place. If you believe the earth is round, you will not become swayed by a book that teaches it is flat.
And if I, as a writer, research the daily life of an astronaut, I might gain enough information to write about a fictional astronaut. But I will not experience anything involving travel to outer space. For that, I would have to choose to do the things an astronaut does and board a rocket. Learning about ballet, auto mechanics, skydiving, espionage, or anything else I research, will not make me become what I study. That requires the choice to practice the activities I learned about.
Likewise, information about how witchcraft is practiced will not transform me into a witch, or make me support the practice of witchcraft. To become a witch, I would have to choose to pursue it. With or without the knowledge, what turns us toward evil is our choice to do so.
Ironically, this is one of the greatest moral lessons of the Harry Potter series. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry fears he is evil, since he shares many of the same characteristics and gifts that his evil enemy, Voldemort, possesses. But Harry’s mentor, Professor Dumbledore, points out that Harry chose to join a group of good and honorable people in Gryffindor House, rather than joining Slytherin House, home to several cruel and cunning students. Dumbledore explains that it is not our abilities that make us what we are, but our choices. A good Christian moral to learn, don’t you think?
The Value of Make Believe
The church can become so concerned about genuine evil that they forget what it’s like to be children. Parents might panic if their five-year old tells his friend, “I’m going to cut your head off!”, and they worry over where he got such violent ideas. Until he makes a buzzing sound and slices his friend with his unseen light saber. When the church sees magic in stories like those of Harry Potter, or in Peter Pan, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Pinocchio, they need to realize it’s pretend, the way kids pretend, and say, “Oh, they’re only playing!”
Because these fantasy stories can use imaginative story elements – such as fairies, unicorns, trolls, centaurs, and so on – to draw readers into an exciting world of adventure. And while they are there, they can learn how to make noble choices by following the example of the story’s heroes.
Unfortunately, while the church seems to recognize the power of stories to influence people’s thinking, they often focus on the less influential details of a story, rather than its actual message.
For example, The Little Mermaid contains a grotesque witch, with whom the teenage Ariel strikes a deal to become a human. The presence of a witch in this story doesn’t concern me, as she is clearly the villain and Ariel’s choice to deal with her is clearly shown as dangerous and wrong. Some parents might refuse to let their kids watch this film because of the witch, and thus, the witchcraft.
I would be far more concerned about the story’s message, which suggests that kids should ignore their parents and do what they feel is right. Including, running away from home and bargaining with a witch, to pursue “true love” with a boy she hasn’t actually met. Meanwhile, my pastor saw it completely different, feeling convicted to do a better job of listening to his own kids.
But neither of us felt the film should be avoided because it has a witch in it, any more than we should avoid other fairy tales, or skip over passages of the Bible that contain a witch or a demon-possessed person. In fiction, the presence of an evil character or evil activity does not make the story itself or its message evil. In fact, such stories use the portrayal of evil to present a call to righteousness.
I myself have written a story about a sixteen-year old Red Riding Hood who fights a cult that uses black magic to transform into werewolves. A literary agent working within the Christian market suggested I might land a publisher for The Red Rider if I eliminated the story’s black magic. Yet without that aspect, what would allow the villains to turn themselves into monstrous werewolves? And how can we see the dangers of black magic if the evil villains never practice it? Eliminating the portrayals of evil from a story won’t help its readers overcome evil.
As for those who criticize Harry Potter, I have reached a simple conclusion: I have no problem with any Christian refusing to read the series because it contains depictions of witchcraft. In fact, I will applaud their conviction, so long as they are consistent by also rejecting all other fictional witchcraft. Such as:
- The Chronicles of Narnia – this not only features a witch villain, but Aslan refers to magic as the thing that governs their universe. In fact, he says the reason the witch failed to overcome him was that she did not understand the “deeper magic”.
- Lord of the Rings – not only are the Hobbits sent on their quest by a sorcerer, Gandalf, but they are carrying a magic ring that is clearly under heavy demonic influence, which often threatens to possess the wearer.
- The Wizard of Oz – the title says it all. Although he isn’t a real wizard, it’s unacceptable that he pretends to be one. And how warped will we become if we tolerate Dorothy accepting advice from someone called The Good Witch?
- Beauty and the Beast – great story about the transforming power of love, but it’s all based on a witch (called an “enchantress”) cursing a prince to become a monster and turning all his innocent servants into furniture!
- Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Tinker Bell, and almost every Disney cartoon you can name.
- Miracle on 34th Street – Santa Claus isn’t real, so there is nothing good to be learned about faith from this movie about a jolly old magical elf.
- A Christmas Carol – Did anyone notice that Scrooge’s redemption was initiated by ghosts, who use their supernatural powers to transport him through time and space? Although it seems like a great story about repentance and a changed life, any story that involves magic and ghostly messages needs to be thrown out.
- Any episodes of Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie, since they make magic more palatable to people’s souls.
However, if they recognize the value of make believe, along with wise discernment that must be exercised with these other great stories, I would encourage them to give Harry Potter the same fair treatment and examine it for themselves.
The vast majority of Harry Potter fans have not chosen to become witches. Any more than Star Trek fans in the 1960’s grew up to become Vulcans. However, Harry Potter stories may have taught readers and viewers to stand up for their friends, to resist temptation to join evil forces, and to avoid judging people as good or evil based on their early impressions of them.
Children who watched Wonder Woman or Tarzan didn’t usually decide to start wearing less clothes. But they may have internalized the values of fighting for justice and helping people find peaceful solutions. Kids like me who watched Spider-Man or The Six Million Dollar Man didn’t later try to climb walls or run in slow motion. (Okay, we all did, but no one got hurt!) But we learned we can do something to help people when they’re in trouble.
Seeing heroes in fantasy stories made us want to imagine we had superpowers or magical abilities, not figure out how to actually acquire them. Instead, it inspired us to become real life heroes. To do what we could to help those around us, with the abilities we have.
Harry Potter is the same. While fans might wave imaginary wands and speak gibberish “spells”, this part is merely pretend, imagining the ability to do what only the fictional characters from the Harry Potter series can do.
Yet when they accept those who are different, when they stand up for their friends (or stand up to them), or they refuse to jump to conclusions about a person that others presume is guilty – they might be exemplifying the values they’ve learned from this fictional world. Values they can take firm hold of. Which is why I see nothing to fear from Harry Potter.
It’s the morals – not the magic – that stay with us after we close the book or leave the theatre and live our lives.
Want updates on new releases and events from ThrillerWriter Randall Allen Dunn? Subscribe to the Packing Action Newsletter Datafile at http://www.RandallAllenDunn.com.