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Harry Potter and The Media Discernment Issue

We interrupt the various frivolities of a day devoted to chocolates, candy hearts, red balloons, flowers, shallow dating, in-depth dating, wuv, twue wuv, and other things of this nature to bring you a column that has absolutely nothing to do […]
| Feb 14, 2007 | No comments |

We interrupt the various frivolities of a day devoted to chocolates, candy hearts, red balloons, flowers, shallow dating, in-depth dating, wuv, twue wuv, and other things of this nature to bring you a column that has absolutely nothing to do with any of that.

In last week’s column, the third in an incidental series, I contended that many Christians who believe Harry Potter is the spawn of the devil do so while 1) not knowing what the series truly contains, 2) believing many “conspiracies” in other areas, 3) failing to realize the truths of Christian freedom, and 4) failing to address the worse ills of terrible theology packing the shelves of Christian bookstores.

However, that partially failed to address the truth that sincere, non-conspiracy-minded, non-legalistic Christ-followers will continue to have reservations about books like Harry. My mother and sister are among them, after all. I was, too, mostly because I saw little point in reading a non-“Christian” book.

But, I had also realized that some people would like to read and enjoy it. Now, on the “other side,” I want to assure readers that in no way do I consider either “side” more spiritual.

Yet fantasy and science fiction altogether have long proved controversial in Christendom. Why is that?

And do some Christians yet have good reasons for opposing Potter?

‘Pagan’ origins

While of course I didn’t live through this era, and persons who did might be able to fill in the details, the modern science fiction genre got its start early last century. Its predecessors, though, were more moral-focused, and sometimes quite Christian-themed speculative stories such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, or the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Those, however, gave way to pulp comics that featured artwork, at least that I’ve seen, of basically sailors on the decks of spaceships, with the captain spinning a big wheel; and movie serials, with comical names like Commando Cody and the Moon Men.

Some of it’s silly. Some of it became serious. Again, perhaps Christians older than I can fill in my first-hand knowledge gaps about the Church’s reaction then to science fiction in particular.

The seriousness results from almost all modern science fiction’s rejection of God as a key player in its stories. Somewhere along the way the genre became parallel with the goals of Secular Humanism: mankind will leap to the stars, evolving, and encountering (exploring, fighting with, allying with, romancing with) other alien races who are also evolving. Instead of exploring the universe for the glory of God — which I contend we’ll do in real life someday — characters were exalting man’s technology.

Meanwhile, the whole alien race existence thing anyway seems contrary to Scripture, based on a simple logical inference: sin affected the universe, but Christ died for Adam’s race only, and Christ would never condemn an intelligent alien race for an original sin not their own.

The Vulcans and Barsoomians and Buggers and whomever you like, though, can exist in a parallel universe. And that is an “out” for Christian sci-fi writers: imagining those universes. This is likely why Narnia and Lord of the Rings have succeeded where sci-fi has not — why, they’re different worlds, after all, Christians realize, and those different worlds can have aliens and Magical rules and everything.

Modern fantasy’s backstory is somewhat similar: following some other authors’ earlier efforts, Tolkien and Lewis went completely against the literary grain of their day, and the rest is history. It’s a history co-opted by New Agey, more-pagan fantasy authors, though — the ones whose book covers nearly all show pictures of scantily clad warrior chicks fighting hideous monsters with swords or sorcery-generated light beams or both.

Christians tend to shy away from that stuff, as well they should. Much of it is spiritually, and artistically, pathetic.

But what about Harry?

Learning at Hogwarts

As said before, like my mother and sister I didn’t see much point in reading Harry Potter. There are only so many created-worlds you can take, after all. And even after reading books one through three and enjoying them immensely, it’s doubtful I’ll have the time or motivation soon to take on books four through six. (At present the nonfiction genre, such as the fantastic Bible Doctrine by Wayne Grudem, is my focus.)

But with the new year, I thought I would give it a try. And as when I began viewing Star Trek reruns in October 2005 (yes, I’m only a recent Trekker) first because of “genre research,” I began to enjoy the Potter stories on their own merits.

Despite the witchcraft elements, and despite the frequent sinful behaviors of Harry and his friends — who, I would contend again, are not Christians — I realized for myself that all the reviews about Rowling’s incredible creativity were true. The writing style is entertaining, to the point, but never cheating character development and subplots. The stories are downright hilarious at times; I was often laughing out loud at celebrity wizard Gilderoy Lockhart and an advertisement for correspondence-course magic in Chamber of Secrets.

Then there’s simply that whole “gee-whiz coolness” factor. Say the word light in Latin, for example, and the end of your wand turns into an instant “electric torch,” pardon my British. That’s gee-whiz coolness.

We need more of that artistic awesomeness in Christ-glorifying novels, for adults and children.

And that is not intended to ignore the presence of redeeming moral value in the novels as well. Yes, it’s there, as I’ve pointed out before. Disobediences and sin and all of that are there, but in no way is Potter morally relativistic. Magical forces are there, too, but as with Middle-Earth, which has its own monotheistic creator and everything, one must imagine a completely different universe, with a parallel England that’s populated by wizards, but devoid of the Biblical God.

A captivated audience

I still contend that Harry is not for everyone: not only Christians who are still nervous about the pagan aspects of the novels, or the fantasy / sci-fi / parallel world genres altogether, but for the undiscerning. Children, especially younger ones, fall into this category. If Christian parents wish to introduce the series to their children, it should be only after naturally concluding that the younger reader is spiritually mature enough to ignore the pagan elements and enjoy the story.

However, the fact that this series does target children still warrants extreme concern. Christians who acknowledge freedom for their mature members, but oppose secular librarians forcing the Christian children to read books their parents oppose, do so legitimately (though they might shortcut the process by choosing other school options).

Remaining here, though, is the argument that reading Harry presents a “stumbling block” to even adult believers. ‘Tis a bit difficult to respond to that without sounding — I believe the recently formed term is — snarky.

That’s because it is true that Paul claimed it was the weaker brothers who must be taken into account with issues of more-mature believers’ Christian freedom; ergo, we’re left implying, hoping not to insult or sound sinful, that we are mature, and it is the “weaker” brothers who object and they ought to let us “live and let live” here. (Paul’s language is to “be convinced in your own mind.”)

However, author Randy Alcorn offers a humorous and helpful explanation about what is and isn’t a true stumbling block. It’s well-needed by those who do and don’t think they understand the term:

The stumbling block of 1 Corinthians 8 (and Romans 14) is an action, taken by a biblically informed believer, that does not in itself violate any scriptural precept or principle, but which a less knowledgeable or less mature believer might imitate, in a way that violates his conscience.

[. . .]

It is not a stumbling block for a man to have long hair and a pony tail, if the people who are offended by this are not thereby tempted to have a pony tail themselves, and in doing so violate their conscience.

It cannot be a stumbling block when a woman is offended at a man’s beard, unless she is tempted to grow a beard and in doing so would violate her conscience. It is not a stumbling block when a man is offended at a woman nursing a baby in church, since he is presumably not going to be tempted to start nursing a baby.

I would submit, then, that Christians who would be tempted to read Harry Potter books in a way that would violate their consciences would truly “stumble” over a Christ-follower who has no problem with it. They are the ones who warrant our concern. However, I have much less concern, in this regard, from those who are simply offended — the same groups discussed in last week’s column. My only concern is how they perceive Grace, and the freedom, with Biblical discernment, we have in Christ.

And of course, I remain even more concerned about the bad theology and worse novels found on the shelves of Christian bookstores. If we’re going to go about verbally book-burning, I would rather start there, as an infiltration of the Church from within are far more insidious. What are some examples, or suggestions, that readers might present?

E. Stephen Burnett is coauthor (with Ted Turnau and Jared Moore) of The Pop Culture Parent: Helping Kids Engage Their World for Christ, which will release in spring 2020 from New Growth Press. He also explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor in chief of Lorehaven Magazine and writer at Speculative Faith. He has also written for Christianity Today and Christ and Pop Culture. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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