Alright, maybe I’m stretching it when I call myself a “youth” (I’m 23 now), but I grew up with Harry Potter. Harry was my age when the books came out, and I’ve followed them throughout.
The popularity of the Harry Potter books is undeniable. Few in my generation don’t at least know about the series. The movies are consistently blockbusters, and surprisingly well made.
Christian parents rightly wonder whether these books–which are filled with sorcery, witchcraft, curses, hexes, and the like–are suitable for their children. Let me preface the rest of my discussion with my conclusion: the Harry Potter books are enjoyable literature which will build vocabulary, expand minds, and get children excited about reading.
The series follows Harry Potter through 7 years of his life, starting when he is 11. It is set in modern day England. There are two worlds in the series: the world of “muggles”–those who can’t use magic–and the world of wizards. The wizards go to great lengths to keep their world a secret from any “muggles” who are unrelated to wizards (or in important positions like the Prime Minister). Thus, when the series starts, Harry Potter knows nothing of his wizarding past, having been raised by his aunt and uncle, who hate everything having to do with wizards.
Despite his lack of knowledge about the world of wizards, Harry Potter is himself hugely famous to wizards. He is known as the “Boy Who Lived” because when he was but a baby, an evil wizard known as Lord Voldemort (frequently referred to as “You-Know-Who” or “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named”) attempted to kill him and failed. Harry’s parents were killed in the scuffle, but when Voldemort tried to kill Harry, the killing curse rebounded and killed Voldemort instead. Thus, Harry is seen by many as the defeater of the greatest evil wizard of all time. Everyone knows his name; there is a monument to him at his old home; he has a lightning-bolt shaped scar which clearly identifies him, and he knows nothing about this.
Then his life changes when, at age 11, he is invited to attend Hogwarts, a school for wizards. Thereafter, the books follow Harry’s growth as a wizard with his friends, as well as the rumors of and eventual rise to power of Voldemort. It culminates in the final book, The Deathly Hallows, when Harry races against time with his friends to destroy Voldemort. (For a more in-depth synopsis, check out the page here. Check out the links for each book’s plot synopsis on the same page.)
The question which has been asked repeatedly within the Christian community is “Are these books appropriate for my children?”
I started reading Harry Potter when I was 11 years old. As each book came out, I devoured it immediately (except for a brief hiatus before book 5). The books do have very scary, and even disturbing, moments. Voldemort is an evil wizard, and he is portrayed as such. He orchestrates murders and he and his cohorts murder with an attitude of nonchalance. The books also have many scenes of “kids being kids”. Harry and his best friend, Ron, often cheat off their mutual friend Hermione in order to complete their homework. Ron’s older brothers are pranksters of the highest level, whose very lives are dedicated to perfecting their antics. Rivalry between youths is also portrayed, as Hogwarts features four “Houses” which compete for top honors at the end of each year. The books also pull no punches in the realm of “magic”; the children are engaged in hexes, curses, charms, astrology, and the like.
Suggestions for Parents
So what should a Christian parent do with this series? It is impossible to issue a blanket statement that will apply to all parents. Instead, I want to offer several suggestions and comments.
First, there are few books which will keep children and youths reading as well as the Harry Potter Series. It has helped to increase literacy in a generation from which appreciation for books seems to be disappearing. (See the interesting article here for some insight on this phenomenon.)
Second, the Harry Potter books distinguish between good and evil to an extent that much other literature does not. There is no doubt that Voldemort is evil and that Harry and friends are the “good guys.” However, this leads me to the third point: the series acknowledges that no human is perfect. Everyone, from Harry’s father to Dumbledore (headmaster of Hogwarts) has things in their past they regret. I don’t think this is a fault of the series (though some people do–arguing that this diminishes the distinction between good and evil); rather, it brings to light something we–as Christian in particular–acknowledge is true: all people are sinners in need of salvation (this is not a theme developed in the books).
Fourth, despite the use of magic of all kinds, there remains a clear distinction between acceptable practice and unacceptable practice. Some have feared that Harry Potter would increase the interest in witchcraft and wizardry in youths. I personally think this is ludicrous. But that leads me to the fifth point.
Fifth, you as parents are responsible for teaching your children the difference between reality and fiction. My parents did a fantastic job on this. Reading Harry Potter never made me want to explore witchcraft, alchemy, or astrology. I knew such things were to be avoided. That is, I could distinguish between reality and unreality. I think that too often, Christian parents in particular underestimate the power of youths to make this distinction. Yet few parents would object to their children reading Star Wars. Perhaps it is the use of “witch” and “wizard” which makes parents leery. But, in my opinion as a Christian who grew up reading Harry Potter, there is no need to fear… unless children have not been taught to realize a difference between fact and fiction.
Sixth, parents need to be informed. When their children are interested in something like Harry Potter, it is too often that parents read only the negative sources. What better way to judge whether something is appropriate for your children than by reading the book yourself?
Kenneth Samples (cited below) argues that there are three major questions for parents to ask about Harry Potter (and other books). First: “How can Christian parents test their decisions in terms of Scripture, conscience, and reason?” Christian parents should always turn to these sources to figure out whether something is appropriate for their children.
Second: “Is it appropriate to use dark and occult images in fantasy literature to convey a narrative in fantasy literature?” Samples notes that C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien both use these images to convey their message. Are these appropriate usages? (I think yes, but the key here is that there is no quick and easy answer for everyone.)
Third: “Does the book use these images at literary devices to propel the broader story, or, rather to promote occult involvement?” Samples argues this is a critical question. If the Harry Potter books simply use the occult images as a literary device, then it seems like there is no problem. The Harry Potter books do seem to be in the former category rather than the latter.
Fourth, “What is the overarching worldview reflected in the books and how does it compare or contrast with the Christian worldview?” This can spur discussion on books and series that aren’t even intended to convey the Christian worldview.
I said earlier that there is no fast and easy way to say “yea” or “nay” for all parents to a series like Harry Potter. I hope that my comments will help concerned parents figure out where to stand on the series. I want to make my own view absolutely clear, here at the close. I think the Harry Potter books are fantastic. They feature memorable characters and exciting plots. Not only that, but they get kids interested in reading. They build vocabulary (I remember personally grabbing a dictionary once in a while when I was younger and reading Harry Potter). The books distinguish between good and evil while maintaining the reality no one is perfect. They will spur discussion. Ultimately, I recommend Harry Potter to parents, but with the qualifier that parents have taught their children about fact and fiction and that they are willing to engage their children in discussion, which may (probably does) require reading the books themselves.
Samples, Kenneth. “To Read or Not to Read: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Response.” Straight Thinking Podcast. 10/20/2009.
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