Rebuked about Harry Potter

Andy Naselli —  December 4, 2009 — 34 Comments

HP_booksEarlier this week I mentioned how much Jenni and I enjoyed listening to J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

Several good-intentioned people rebuked me on the premise that Harry Potter is dark literature that Christians should avoid. I privately asked each person three questions:

  1. Have you read Kevin Bauder’s series on fantasy literature (I link to it in my post)?
  2. Do you have a problem with C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings?
  3. Have you read any of the Harry Potter books?

Their answers were consistent:

  1. No.
  2. I’m not sure because I haven’t read them. (Some added a comment like this: But I’ve seen The Lord of the Rings movies, and I think Christians should avoid those, too.)
  3. No.

I don’t mind disagreement on this issue. The underlying desire to glorify God by avoiding worldliness is commendable. But I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask that people be more informed about this issue before admonishing others about it.

34 responses to Rebuked about Harry Potter

  1. When I saw the post earlier this week my first thought was that you would receive a lot of negative comments. The three questions you posed are helpful and demonstrate that we can’t just say Harry Potter = bad and Lord of the Rings = good.

  2. Very interesting. Thanks.

    (My wife and I are going through them right now, for what it’s worth. Enjoying them so far.)

  3. I have to admit I was a little taken back by your comments about Harry Potter as well. I think I can speak for many when I say you are a VERY well respected Christian for the knowledge God has blessed you with. Most of us are not even on the same block as you when it comes to knowledge of Scripture. And for that reason you along with Mike Bullmore and others are held to a higher standard.

    I don’t know why you are asking if any of these rebukers ever read Kevin Bauder’s book. I don’t have to read another person’s book when all I need to do is watch the movies about Harry Potter.

    There are Christians that have written on why Harry Potter should not be watched by Christians. Have you considered what they are saying? And do you think that by them not reading Kevin’s book would be unreasonable?

    Love you brother!

  4. Comparing Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter shows great ignorance of fantastic literature. They are worlds apart in a number of different categories including literary quality and what they are trying to accomplish.

    I’m pretty sure Bauder makes that very point, by the way. To use his series as a defense also demonstrates quite a bit of ignorance as to what his point was.

  5. Thanks, Rick.

    1. Kevin Bauder didn’t write a book about this. He merely wrote a series of short essays.

    2. I ask the question about Bauder’s essays because I linked to them in my initial post.

    3. I strongly disagree that you can judge the Harry Potter books by the Harry Potter movies. That’s comparing apples and trolls.

    Grateful for you,

  6. Some quotes from Bauder’s essay that you evidently missed (and explicitly contradicted in your first post):

    “To the pure, all things are pure, but the possibility of real world witchcraft should be enough to give Christian readers pause.”

    “What is more disturbing is the stories’ lack of a moral base.”

    “She is skillful in what she does, but she does not turn her skills to good use. In this respect she is poles away from Bunyan, Tolkien, or Lewis.”

    “These stories are not good fare for young children whose moral base is still being formed. Even the earlier books are mildly subversive, and as the series progresses the attitudes become uglier and the actions become more violent.”

    “In short, I do not recommend the reading of Harry Potter by or for children. I also do not recommend that parents permit younger teens to read any of these books unless the parents have read them first and are willing to discuss their contents.”

    “Harry Potter is not spiritually healthy fare for the immature, but it is more like junk food than it is like poison.”

    Having said all that, I do agree that you can’t judge the books by the movies. The movies enter an additional level of banalness.

    I’m not necessarily arguing that you shouldn’t read the books. All things are lawful, after all, aren’t they?

    But please don’t justify it by comparing to Tolkien or Lewis. Yikes!

  7. Tim,

    You seem to be illustrating my point about rebuking people prematurely.

    1. Of course I recognize differences between those works. I explicitly say so in the initial post.

    2. Perhaps you misunderstand why I asked the three questions above. The reason is that they are questions that help me understand where a person is coming from. Perhaps you are reading into why I asked them and what my underlying assumptions are.

    3. I also disagree with Bauder re some of his assessment. E.g., in my initial post I disagree with calling the books “junk food.” But I linked to Bauder’s essays because I respect his informed opinion on the matter.

  8. I’ve long found the point about witchcraft interesting. Invariably it seems made by the most ignorant. Else they’d know that, as Rowling depicts it, witchcraft is not a viable option. In her world, you’re born one, or you’re not one. Nobody can become one. You could say it’s predestined.

    What’s more, as she depicts it, the world of witchcraft is ugly and violent.

    (What would be REALLY funny is if folks who criticize it as bad literature at the same time personally enjoy the Left Behind series.)

  9. Kevin’s final article on Harry Potter is dated in 2005, two years before the seventh book was released. I would be interested in seeing if any of his words would change now that the series is done and the complete picture can now be seen. I’m not saying that it negates the problems with the rest of the books, but Harry becomes more and more of a (albeit weak) metaphor, especially in the seventh book. He’s right that it does not excuse the bad, and I for the most part agree with his article.

    1. yes (just now)
    2. no
    3. yes, all of them

  10. Andy,

    Several years ago my wife and I decided to read them aloud to each other. The decision wasn’t a popular one with some, but it opened many conversations with especially those younger than us who had been enjoying them. That was the reason we decided to read them in the first place.

    I found too often people declared the books “the spawn of satan” or some such name to jing up antagonism against the series when in fact they were unfamiliar with the books themselves. Instead of encouraging discernment this attitude only closed the window of communication that many godly Christians might have taken advantage of to guide those less mature than themselves. Discernment is better caught than taught, and the Harry Potter series offers a great (and enjoyable) opportunity for this. This is also the reason why my wife and I recently read the Twilight series (though with far less enjoyment!).

    I am not saying that we as Christians must be reading, watching, and listening to everything that everyone might be. But while ignorance is bliss, it can never be instructive.

    Thanks for the comments!
    Kendall Harris

  11. Andy,

    I appreciate your interaction here, but I would have found it more helpful if you explained your disagreement with Dr. Bauder’s assessment and subsequent promotion of the Potter novels. Maybe I missed it, but it seemed Bauder provided a list of concerns, where you simply gave your opinion. That is fine, but I’d be interested in more specifics.

    And for the record,
    1. Yes, I’ve read Bauder.
    2. No, I don’t have a problem (generally) with the Lewis and Tolkien works cited (I do have concerns with the movies).
    3. No I haven’t read Harry Potter.
    (I also didn’t email you with any concerns regarding your post.)

    Since I haven’t read the Potter novels, and Bauder’s comments give me pause, I am curious in what you see in the books as worth promoting.

  12. One thing that the Harry Potter does offer is an extended illustration of sacrificial love. It was Harry’s mother’s life-sacrificing love that protected him from the death curse. And in the final book it is Harry’s life-sacrificing love that protects others from the attacks of the evil Voldemort and provides the way for him to come back to life from the dead to conquer the dark lord. Just an observation…

  13. Hey, Ken,

    I appreciate your spirit and good questions.

    I probably should’ve known better than to give a short recommendation, even though I included a qualification: “The series is not without objectionable elements.” (I tried to keep it short because I don’t have time to write a full-fledged review. In fact, I don’t have time to be monitoring the comments on this blog post!)

    I enjoyed the books for many reasons. Here are a couple of them:
    1. Rowling is a superb writer. I’m always trying to improve my writing, so I tried to learn from her.
    2. The story is creative, intriguing, and entertaining. I enjoyed it to the glory of God.

    Again, it “is not without objectionable elements.” Kevin mentions many of them.

  14. OK, now we do have a disagreement. (c;

    She is not a “superb writer.” She may well be a superb plotter, but certainly not a superb writer — by which I mean “wordsmith.”

    Most of these should have been caught by editors. Rowling is constantly reusing words right next to each other. Like, to make up a couple of illustrations, “The sudden movement startled Harry. In a startled tone, he said….”; “…did not upset Professor Trelawny’s dreamy expression. ‘What?”, she said, in a dreamy tone.”

    And she’s just constantly reusing the same words. How many times do we hear of Hagrid’s “massive” hands? Answer: many!

    I will say, though, that I admire her improvement through the series. An equally successful author might have coasted. Her books improve from volume to volume, indicating that she did work to improve her writing.

    Though she does keep repeating words, right to the end.

  15. Andy, I’d really give some more careful attention to what exactly constitutes good literature. Your idea of a “good writer” seems to be someone who can craft a plot that keeps your attention. That’s evident by the fact that you didn’t like “Peace Like a River.”

    To praise Potter and denigrate Peace Like a River is really revealing. I’d recommend that you stop recommending literature and stick to theology. Stick to what you know, man.

  16. Thanks, Andy. I didn’t mean to drag you into a “book war” or seek to have your literary discernment called into question. I really was curious and appreciate your take on the series.

    I don’t even mind a little ‘junk food’ now and then. Maybe I’ll just dig out my “Calvin and Hobbes” collection. It at least sounds elevated when I’m quoting “Calvin.”

  17. I think it is probably going too far to question Andy’s literary acumen. He did allow for less than “exquisite” material in his first post, and there are at least some trained in literature who have also commended the usefulness of the series for Christian readers. Alan Jacobs at Wheaton, for example.

  18. Plus, you’re going to be Research Professor for Defense Against the Dark Arts, so… As long as we know which team you’re on…

  19. Jennifer Naselli December 4, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Since I’m at least equally guilty of listening to and loving the entire Harry Potter series, I thought I should at least add my perspective. :)

    We started listening to the audio books with a little bit of trepidation since we’d heard so much negative review of the HP series. However, we soon realized that, in Rowling’s world, magic in itself is not evil. It’s how the people choose to use the magic that makes them good or evil.

    And (spoiler warning) at the end of the series, it really is a good-versus-evil fight with a strongly redemptive theme running through it. Harry could even be interpreted as a “savior” figure. Ultimately, evil fails because people sacrifice their lives for those that they love.

    We agree that there are negative elements (esp. the characters’ propensity to lie repeatedly), but the overall tone of the book is excellent and even uplifting.

    Jenni Naselli

  20. Many of these discussions are handled well by classicist John Granger (whom I first heard lecture at a Biola University Torrey Honors Program event). See

    His case for HP standing in the tradition of Lewis and Tolkien and for the purposefully written Christian themes seen in HP is very eye opening and worth reviewing.

    Indeed the appeal of the HP books comes as they display the Story we were all written for.

  21. Hi Andy,

    I have to confess my ignorance by answering, “No,” to your 3 questions.

    Do you have a problem with C. S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia or J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings?

    The reason I’ve never wanted to read Lewis is because of his doctrinal errors:

    I’m surprised how many evangelicals recommend him without qualification. If I do read him in the future, it will only be to learn from his literary skills.

  22. Jenni’s right.

    Well…. duh! She’s the wife!

  23. 1.Yes

    I wondered if this would spark the controversy when I first saw it. I started reading the Harry Potter books when they first came out. I have enjoyed following the series, and have never once considered witchcraft as an option or a suitable lifestyle.

    Perhaps more concerning to me is the fact that my parents read the Chronicles of Narnia to me at such a young age. How do we get past the issue of Susan not returning to Narnia? If we assume that people whole-heartedly swallow theology and worldview from that which they read, then I should believe a person can lose their salvation (which I don’t).

    Furthermore, while total depravity does exist, it does not mean that these authors are totally depraved in every sense and in every aspect. There are good elements there. Imago Dei.

    And as far as the discussion regarding “good literature,” I find people’s opinions varied and often confusing. I took English Literature in a Public School setting and found that “good literature” required deep nuances which could only be drawn to the top through symbolic interpretation of numbers, colors, shapes, and cultural framework. When I arrived at ___ ____ University, it appeared that good literature was often defined by a specific set of guidelines having already been associated with a repertoire of Classical literature.

    In short, will Christians in 100 years be having this discussion? (Should the Lord tarry.) I think not.

  24. Hey, Andy. It’s been a long time.

    Thanks for linking to the Bauder essays. I’ve been discussing the HP books with my mother-in-law for several years, and the second and third Bauder essays clearly state the essence of my argument. They also will probably carry some added weight due to the fact that they are coming from someone theologically closer to my mother-in-law than I am.

    Looking over the conversation, I reminded of one of the things that always confused me about fundamentalism and conservative Christianity in general: the blurred to non-existent distinction between artistic and cultural works that presents a different worldview* than Christianity and artistic and cultural works that are anti-moral or pornographic.** In my personal experience, both of these categories get lumped together into “immoral.” While I understand that works of art can produce ethical systems that are explicitly opposed to the Christian worldview (Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy***), I think there needs to be a distinction drawn between art that doesn’t completely align with one’s own Christian worldview and “art” that serves no worldview or is inherently immoral. It seems to me that a system could be constructed that would allow for a diverse selection of literature without being universally permissible, instead focusing on critical thinking and assessment of the worldview presented in literature. I would think that this structure would only strengthen the readers faith, balance, and understanding of the intersection between faith and culture. I also rarely experienced this in my experience with conservative Christianity.

    Perhaps in this sense, we could find some methods to differentiate between qualitatively “good” literature and morally “good” literature.

    As for the HP books specifically, I disagreed with Bauder’s last essay. He states that the “worst flaw with Rowling’s work, however, is that it simply has nothing important to say.” However, in a previous paragraph, he says that Rowling chooses “themes that resonate with contemporary adolescents.” He lists examples such as loneliness, alienation, the “comfort and structure of a world with authority” balanced against suspicion and distrust of authorities, and a struggle to create a moral code in the face of questionable authority figures. I would claim that these themes that he mentions are “serious reflection upon the larger issues of the real world.” Beyond those specific themes, I think the HP books, especially the last book, also contain serious points about the value of morality/”a moral code”; the good, bad, and irrelevant aspects of popularity; friendship; trust; decision-making; selfless love; sacrifice; and redemption.

    In addition, I would claim that fantasy is uniquely suited to provide a space to think critically and dialogue about the implications of our worldviews. Fantasy is perhaps the most practically useful genre of literature when it comes to morality.

    Thanks again for the link to the Bauder essays.

    *”Worldview” is generally an ambiguous, vacant term, but for ease of use, I’m using it to refer to the combined ethical and theological systems, theological systems also implying some metaphysical assumptions.

    **I have a hard time classing anything as “art” that is merely vacant space or titillation. For this reason, I believe most of television, a significant portion of movies, and much of non-fiction literature (self-help, etc.) is more analogous with pornography than with actual art. Fiction literature is a bit more complex and difficult to categorize in this way, I think, but if you wanted to put Dan Brown and John Grisham here, I’d have a hard time arguing with you.

    ***Although I think you could argue that exposing and “killing” a manipulative, greedy, dishonest, withdrawn, apathetic, and impotent deity is an apt metaphor for, say, the Reformation. Maybe?

  25. Chip Van Emmerik December 7, 2009 at 11:09 am

    I am fascinated by the argument that there are redeeming elements in the Potter series, so it must be ok. Since we are all made in the image of God, should I conclude viewing porn has redeeming elements involved? (Please don’t tell me this is an illogical argument – I know it is) The evidence of discernment is correct prnouncement of good and bad, not the supposed ability to absorb some bad without being tainted. Setting aside the witchcraft altogether, the portrayal of wickedness as routine and acceptable is enough to discredit the series from a biblical stand point. The overwhelming pragmatism of the series disconserting. There are so many reasons to avoid the series, why anyone would struggle to validate the books is beyond me.

    And to answer the questions:
    1. Yes
    2. Yes – more with the latter
    3. Yes – though only the first

  26. If we were to ignore Harry’s rebellion of authority, we still run up against a salvation issue in Harry Potter. When Harry runs into trouble, how is he saved? Through his own use of magical powers. Humanism?

    When the characters of Lewis’ Chronicles get into trouble, the Lion Aslan is their savior. In LOR it’s clear that there is a ‘hand of providence’ working in the background turning all things to good.

    For a theologian, this point cannot be missed.

  27. Michael,

    Spoiler warning

    It sounds as if you haven’t read the books. Harry is rarely if ever saved by his own cunning or magic. Instead he is routinely saved by the sacrificial death of his mother. Eventually everyone else is saved through his own sacrificial death and a mixup with a wand that has nothing to do with his skill.

    Being saved through the blood of a sacrificial death reminds me of something…

  28. Hi Andy,
    I read your initial post on this, and figured you would get flak. In a certain sense, I was uneasy also. Not a ‘rebuking’ uneasiness, just an “I don’t know why this feels funny.” Maybe because we generally expect a certain level of seriousness (?) or something similar (gravitas?) when we browse here. I think that is what contributes the most to my unease…I think. It does seem far afield from your normal discussions. No rebuke, but…well I don’t know. Well, there you have it–can you tell I received an A+ in Perspicuity 101 while at DBTS!

    As far as the books, I have read all of them, and somewhat enjoyed them–but agreeing with some who seriously question JKR’s originality, prose construction, and quality of imagination. I heard one wag say JKR was a ghost writer for Goosebumps… :D

    As far as HP’s “innate/involuntary powers”–it is interesting that much of them he derived through his infant encounter with “he who must not be named”–is Tom Riddle Lily Potter’s “co-redeemer?” ;)

  29. I’m a it late chiming in here, but I want to note that there are so many seemingly-chance occurrences that are absolutely necessary to happen for the particular way Voldemort gets defeated that it almost cries out for some kind of divine-like explanation. I’m not sure if Rowling was consciously thinking of this, but it seems to me to be a legitimate inference from the fictional work, whether intended or not.

  30. All theological considerations aside, I don’t think there’s a discipline more prone to chronological snobbery than literature. I have this suspicion that when Tolkien and Lewis were writing their books, all the self-proclaimed literary experts drained their inkwells writing scathing reviews of the texts and of anyone who dared compare them to [insert whatever fantasy/mythological texts the literary establishment of the day had deemed to be "classics"]. And one day, when the gatekeepers of the fantasy literature canon have taken Rowling into their fold, new fantasy writers will get lambasted for drawing comparisons to Rowling.

  31. Hey, Andy. It’s funny but I’ve got you to thank, partly and in a roundabout way, for the fact that my husband and I also enjoyed the Potter books together. Since I grew up in perhaps stricter circles than you did, everybody I knew looked at Tolkien and Lewis (not to mention George MacDonald and all fairy tales) in the same way people rebuking you look at Rowling. Books with magic and wizards in them were uniformly condemned – the more attractive they were, the worse. O.T. law was strictly applied to imaginary worlds even though, as someone mentioned, magic powers are there imagined to be natural like our powers of speech and locomotion, rather than, as in our own experience, the result of concourse with wicked spirits.

    A recommendation from you and your family gave me “permission” to check out Narnia. This, of course, was before I had conceived of my own ability to give myself permission for anything.

    After Lewis: MacDonald and Tolkein – on my own decision. By the time I got to Rowling I re-read the first paragraph of Sorcerer’s Stone with breathless pleasure – “She’s our sort!” I said to myself. (I think you will understand that by “our sort” I didn’t mean “fantasy writer.” Christopher Alexander writing on architecture inspires the same gasp of recognition. I think this experience of “recognition” has epistemological importance – but time and place constrain me.)

    By then I had discovered Jonathan Edward’s ideas about human will, which I, though now an Eastern Orthodox Christian, still wish thoughtful people would make more use of. What have the two got to do with one another? you might ask if you’ve really got this far in the comment. No, no – in my own spiderwebbish I way I have endeavored to communicate that having discovered that will – intention – wish – approval are all really the same faculty and that without this faculty intact there is no human nature and nothing with which to relate to God in a human manner – that is, in the manner intended by God’s constitution of man as an appraiser of good – I sallied forth on a long journey to re-appropriate my own will and in the process I decided I would jolly well read whatever I pleased.

    I have read good books and bad. I do not find that bad books have the same power that good books have. Truth has a tang to it. I conclude that even if I read nothing but the holy scriptures I still must appraise the virtue of everything I see, otherwise there’s no good in my reading. I also conclude that this preference for good is, compared to an external system of judgement, my only real protection against taking whatever evil can be taken from bad books or books of mixed virtue or even books largely excellent.

    The only thing to fear from books by people outside one’s own corral (as distinguished, per Dale Mundt, from books the point of which is obscenity) is that one might change one’s mind about something. Of course that is a real fear in persons of immature or stunted judgment.

    Well, I don’t have a tirade in me this morning. I merely wish to congratulate you on your excellent taste and discrimination regarding the Potter books, your capacity to make fine judgments while reading, your correlative refusal to deprive yourself and family of whole books and genres, and the joy you’ve taken in living up to your Christian name regarding this matter.

    Bon apetit.

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