February 2002 – Any discussions about the big screen this holiday season couldn’t miss the hoopla over the November smash hit Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a movie filled with wizards and witches.
That means parents who are concerned about entertainment’s effect on their children have another thing to worry about. With plenty of sex, profanity, and violence in books, television, and movies, what should Christians do?
Harry Potter, for anyone who has been holed up in a bomb shelter for the last few years, has been a cultural phenomenon. British author J.K. Rowling has penned four Harry Potter witch-and-wizardry international best-sellers, with three more scheduled in her series.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the first book-to-screen adaptation, with a movie planned for each of Rowling’s novels. The film hyped its way into theaters on November 16, and already is a box office bonanza. Harry Potter grossed $188.1 million in the first 10 days of its release, and after five weeks had raked in more than $253 million.
There has always been division within the Christian community over what believers should watch or read, and the subject of magic in entertainment provides plenty of debate fodder – from the children’s classic The Wizard of Oz to TV hits like Charmed, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The fuss over Harry Potter, however, has eclipsed all of these, perhaps because it is children who do the bewitching. Both the literary and film versions of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone center on 11-year-old Harry, who discovers that he is a wizard, and is invited to sharpen his skills at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
Although he has been raised by an aunt and uncle without magical powers, Harry discovers that his true parents were a witch-and-wizard pair. The young Potter also discovers that the evil wizard Voldemort had killed both his parents when he was just a baby.
Magic, witchcraft, or both?
At Hogwarts, Harry and his chums face various dangers while trying not only to become better witches and wizards, but also to keep the magical “sorcerer’s stone” from falling into the hands of Voldemort. Along the way the youngsters demonstrate good, solid character traits – like courage, loyalty, and self-sacrifice – while meeting numerous challenges.
The controversy, however, centers around the fact that these kids meet their challenges using magic – and make no mistake, Harry Potter is filled with it: magic wands, a hat that can speak, a teacher who can shape-shift into a cat, spells cast on ceilings and staircases, potions and incantations, and broomsticks that fly.
So Harry Potter is filled with magic – but is it the same as real-life witchcraft?
Some Christians think so. Writer Mark Filiatreau, while noting that Harry Potter is not all bad, does admit that “adolescents in this school daily learn to do the kinds of things for which the God of Mount Sinai commanded the death sentence.”
Other believers appear to shrug their shoulders at the magical elements of Harry Potter. Writer Anne Morse said, “It may relieve parents to know that the magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. Harry and his classmates are born with the ability to perform magic…but they don’t attempt to contact the supernatural world.”
It would undoubtedly be much more dangerous to portray a story’s protagonists as contacting spiritual entities in order to obtain their occultic powers. Still, dividing witchcraft into “mechanical” and “supernatural” categories is a distinction made by real-life witches. Wiccans, in fact, believe that the form of witchcraft and magic they practice is mechanical. They insist that they do not contact spirits – evil or otherwise – in order to obtain spiritual power. Are Christians who wind up on the same spiritual page as witches missing something?
Moreover, the category of “mechanical” witchcraft may be without foundation: If the power of Harry Potter’s wizards and witches does not come from the supernatural realm, then what is its origin?
After all, the world of Harry Potter is not the land of Oz – it is our world. And in our world, people cannot successfully cast spells unless imbued with power from demonic spirits.
This is not a matter of merely intellectual concern, for if Harry Potter’s witchcraft is actually supernaturally based, the potential spiritual implications may be profound. That’s because the Harry Potter phenomenon has invaded precisely at our culture’s weakest point: our children.
“I don’t know what [J.K. Rowling’s] agenda is,” says Mission America President Linda Harvey. “It’s probably just to write an entertaining book. Be that as it may, the outcome is that kids are more interested in witchcraft. And in the current context where they can access information extremely quickly, I think parents should really think about this: Do you want your 10-year-olds actually casting spells from their bedrooms?”
Defining good and evil
Rowling has defended her series, however, arguing that “the theme running through all of these books is the fight between good and evil.”
Obviously, a clear demarcation between good and evil is always welcome, and such distinctions are drawn in Harry Potter. The difference between the good wizard Harry and the evil wizard Voldemort is the motive behind their use of wizardly powers. The former exercises witchcraft towards a good end – helping others – the latter to obtain selfish power.
However, this all begs the question: How do we define the evil that is to be opposed, and upon what basis do we decide between those for whom we cheer and those we don’t?
Christians are called to make these distinctions based upon the standards of Scripture – and the Bible clearly declares witchcraft to be evil. How then can a believer applaud the courage or loyalty of a movie character when that character is practicing witchcraft? It is like saluting the philanthropy of a wealthy Columbian drug lord. In both cases, evil deeds so soil whatever good deeds are performed that one cannot legitimately draw any clear lessons for children
This is the linchpin issue for those Christians who, however cautiously, defend Harry Potter. For example, Connie Neal, author of What’s a Christian to Do With Harry Potter?, says:
“If you read or view stories from popular culture with your kids, you have the chance to put them in a Christian context. You can do as we did with the Harry Potter stories and explain forbidden occult practices using the stories as illustrations. You can point out the peril and folly involved in such real occult practices. You can also note good moral lessons, mistakes the characters make. All the while you are helping your children practice discernment skills in a culturally relevant way….”
While Neal’s desire to teach children discernment is certainly admirable, her boundaries are drawn too broadly. What about the fear of the Lord and the command to hate evil? Why this insistence on bending over backward to accommodate culture, bathing in it in order to address it? Do Christians not risk becoming “tasteless” in their headlong rush to become salt (Matthew 5:13)?
Sadly, parents may actually be modeling improper behavior when they say to their children, in essence, “OK, we know that what Harry and his friends are doing is wrong, but we’re gonna have fun watching them do it anyway.”
Rather than teach children discernment, it may instead teach them the very opposite. We are instructing kids to nod in agreement with the truth that witchcraft is an abomination, while simultaneously showing them how to suppress that truth – to overlook it, ignore it, and pay lip service to it – all in the pursuit of entertainment.
When they become teenagers, our children may have difficulty holding on to absolute truth in a postmodern world. By the time they become adults, they may not be able to recognize truth at all.
Lord of the Rings A fanciful alternative
Like the furor over Harry Potter’s witchcraft, J.R.R. Tolkien initially endured criticism from some fellow believers when he penned his own fantasy classics – The Hobbit (1937) and its trilogy sequel The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). Tolkien wrote about magical worlds of make-believe, and filled them with men, elves, dwarves, nasty orcs, trolls, and wizards.
So it was interesting that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was not the only movie that was magic at the theaters over the holiday season. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the first of three films based on Tolkien’s trilogy, opened December 19 and was also a hit.
However, The Fellowship of the Ring, like the novels, is cut from a different cloth than Harry Potter. Unless a Christian simply has problems with the fantasy genre per se, many believers might feel more comfortable with Tolkien.
The heroes of the Tolkien film set out on a dangerous quest: to destroy a ring that would give the evil wizard Sauron the power to cover the world – called “Middle-earth” in Tolkien’s novels – with darkness and oppression.
Despite the presence of wizards, however, Tolkien was no pagan. A devoted Christian who played a huge role in the conversion of C.S. Lewis to Christianity, Tolkien’s wizards are not wizards in the Harry Potter sense. Instead, they are more akin to angelic beings – capable of falling into a state of dark corruption and rebellion against the One True God who created them (as explained in Tolkien’s background history to Lord of the Rings, entitled The Silmarillon.)
The Lord of the Rings trilogy also contains sublime spiritual insights founded upon a Christian worldview, which is lacking in Harry Potter. These truths include the power of sin to corrupt and enslave; the self-deluding power of pride; and the nature of demonic evil as personal and universally destructive, rather than psychological or metaphorical.
Nevertheless, unless a viewer is familiar with the background of Tolkien’s work, some elements in the movie will appear to be little different from those in Harry Potter. Christians should handle all such entertainment with care.