in this issue
The Media vs. the Church
The Scandal of Secrecy
The Cardinal and
The Mormons Score a 9.6
Returning to Normalcy
Harry and the Evangelicals
by Richard Peace
In a society where fundamentalists refuse to let their children
trick-or-treat on Halloween, it should have been expected that there would
be objections to Harry Potter. And in fact, J.K. Rowling’s
unprecendentedly successful children’s fantasy brewed up a tempest in the
teapot of North American evangelicalism.
"By disassociating magic and supernatural evil, it becomes possible
to portray occult practices as good and healthy," wrote Atlanta
educator John Andrew Murray in Citizen, a magazine of the Focus on
the Family organization, in 1999. "It is the duty of Christian parents
to oppose Harry Potter," said Murray, since the Bible condemns
witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:9-12) and tells Christians to "avoid every
kind of evil" (1 Thessalonians 5:22).
In the October 26, 2000 issue of Christianity Today, Jacqui
Komschlies likewise warned of "the perils of Harry Potter,"
declaring, "Regardless of how magic is portrayed in the series, we need
to remember that witchcraft in real life can and does lead to death—the
forever and ever kind." As far as some Christian parents were
concerned, Christian Parenting Today reported in its
September/October 2000 issue, Harry was, despite that innocent smile,
It did not take long for the secular media to take note.
"Don’t Give Us Little Wizards, The Anti-Potter Parents Cry"
ran the headline on Jodi Wilgoren’s November 1, 1999 story in the New
York Times. Over the next two years, dozens of reports in the
Anglo-American press catalogued religious objections to the books—the gist
of which was that, as the Toronto Globe and Mail’s Joan Bodger put
it, "anti-Potter parents seem to fear that Rowling’s books are how-to
manuals on wizardry."
Nor was anti-Potterism just talk. In 2000, the Potter series made No. 1
on the American Library Association’s "Ten Most Challenged
Books" list. (A challenge is a written complaint by parents, library
users or others who ask that a book be removed from a public or school
According to a November 9, 2001 AP dispatch, a library in Kansas canceled
a reading of the books due to complaints about their magical content, while
in Jacksonville, Fla., children were required to present parental permission
slips to read Potter books at the school libraries. Altogether, Joe Williams
of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported December 19, libraries in at
least 19 states had banned the books.
One strategy of anti-Potter activists was to claim that because the U.S.
Supreme Court has recognized Wicca—the faith of latter-day witches—as a
religion, reading aloud from a Harry Potter book in public school would
violate the separation of church and state. Indeed, according to Reuters,
the threat of legal action led to cancellation of a field trip during which
100 students from Agassiz Middle School in Fargo, North Dakota were to see
the movie "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone."
Was there any evidence that the Potter books were fueling interest in
witchcraft and the occult? Sharon Tubbs of the St. Petersburg Times
noted on November 1, 2001 that the London-based Pagan Federation had
reported being "swamped" with inquiries about druids and witches,
and attributed the increased interest to TV shows like "Buffy the
Vampire Slayer" and the Harry Potter books.
Such claims were pooh-poohed by commentators like John Monk, an editorial
writer for The State in Columbia, S.C. "You might as well say
"Gone With the Wind" teaches young readers to be slave owners or
Treasure Island entices children to be pirates, or "Peter Pan"
urges children to run away from home," Monk wrote on October 22, 1999.
"Far from undermining a child’s faith, Rowling’s novels paint a
canvas big enough to engage a child’s imagination without imposing alien
dogma in the name of entertainment," editorialized the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette December 4, 1999. J.K. Rowling herself was widely quoted as
saying that of all the thousands of fans she had met, "not even one
time has a child come up to me and said, ‘Ms. Rowling, I’m so glad I’ve
read these books because now I want to be a witch.’"
And Harry had his evangelical defenders as well.
"The magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to
occultic," author and activist Charles Colson insisted in a November
1999 broadcast of his radio show Breakpoint. "That is, Harry and his
friends cast spells, read crystal balls, and turn themselves into animals—but
they don’t make contact with the supernatural world…[It’s not] the
kind of real-life witchcraft the Bible condemns." Colson went on to
commend Harry and his friends for their "courage, loyalty and a
willingness to sacrifice for one another—even at the risk of their
In its September/October 2000 report on anti-Potter concerns, Christian
Parenting Today contended that while the Potter books "aren’t
Christ-centered and don’t promote Christianity, they still offer powerful
lessons in compassion, courage, self-sacrifice and doing the right thing
despite the risks." This January, my Fuller Theological Seminary
colleague Robert Johnson told Southern California Christian Times,
"The whole theme of Harry Potter is that evil cannot stand up to love.
The message that comes through from Harry Potter is not, ‘become a
sorcerer,’ but ‘believe in miracles.’"
Other religious traditions showed little sign of being disturbed by
Harry. Indeed, some positively embraced him.
In "Church Puts Faith in Harry Potter," a September 2, 2001
story in the London Sunday Times, Phil Miller reported on classes at
St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Roman Catholic Church in Syracuse, New York that
used the books to teach lessons of faith. For the classes, in which more
than 1,000 children took part, teachers dressed up as characters from the
books and decorated part of the church to look like Hogwarts, the school of
wizardry that Harry and his friends attend.
Lessons compared the lightning scar on Harry’s head to the crucifixion
marks on Jesus and the infant Harry’s rescue from the evil Voldemort by
his mother’s love to the Christian defeat of death by love. "I
thought it was the most creative teaching programme that I have seen,"
said Father John Wagner. "Some people are concerned with such images
and imagination, but even in Revelation there are images of dragons, of
monsters with many heads."
The fundamentalists’ only allies in anti-Potterism were, interestingly
enough, the Wiccans. "[M]any are unhappy that others believe the books
have anything to do with the realities of their religion," Jan
Glidewell reported in the St. Petersburg Times on November 16, 2001.
"They said, correctly, that Harry’s flying brooms and
transformational spells have about as much to do with Wicca as flying
carpets have to do with Sufism, Easter bunnies with Christianity, or living
in Miami Beach with Judaism."
The "I’m not wild about Harry" story seemed to have run its
course when it suddenly got a new twist with the release last December of
the spectacular film version of the first volume of J.R.R. Tolkien’s
classic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. For it became evident that
the same folks who had denounced Harry Potter as the source of evil
occultism looked with favor on Tolkien’s no less fantastical world.
As Bruce Nolan noted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune January 19,
both Campus Crusade for Christ and Focus on the Family gave The Lord of the
Rings positive reviews and even put up pages on their web sites designed to
help people understand it. What, in a word, made Gandalf the wizard of
Middle Earth a force for good and Dumbledore the wizard of Hogwarts an agent
This was not a question that escaped Tolkien’s fundamentalist
enthusiasts. As Jim Ware admitted in the December issue of Focus on the
Family: "[M]ore than a few filmgoers are wondering what it’s all
about. Especially serious-minded Christians. Elves, dwarves, wizards,
goblins, magic rings—haven’t we been through this kind of thing before?
Isn’t ‘The Lord of the Rings’ just another romp through the occultic
world of Harry Potter?"
In a December 27 article Boston Globe religion writer Michael
Paulson drew the parallels this way. "The two sets of
novels-turned-movies have much in common: a small orphan takes on a dark
evil, aided by magic and luck and some element of the cosmic." One
might add that both books were written by authors from the U.K.; both
authors use initials (J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien); both stories are
told in multi-volume sets (which have sold millions of copies); both are
stories read by both children and adults; both create fantasy worlds; both
posit dark powers that seek to wreak havoc in the world, aided by wizards
gone bad and opposed by wizards who are good.
So what was the difference?
A lot had to do with the authors themselves. As Paulson put it, "Tolkien
was a devout convert to Catholicism whose religion informed his writing,
while Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland, has not emphasized her
religion as a central part of her biography. Tolkien was also a friend and
close associate of C.S. Lewis, the well-known Christian writer."
Indeed, Lewis has assumed the role of patron saint in the evangelical world
for the staunch defense of historic Christianity that he expressed in a
series of books and articles on Christian apologetics, in a popular series
of children’s books (the Chronicles of Narnia), and even in a
science fiction trilogy.
By contrast, the word on the fundamentalist street was that Rowling was
herself a witch of sorts. Writing in Crossroads and Worthy News in
August 2000, Berit Kjos claimed that Rowling had grown up "loving the
occult." Her childhood friend Vikki Potter (!) told Kjos, "We used
to dress up and play witches all the time. My brother would dress up as a
wizard. Joanne [Rowling] was always reading to us…we would make secret
potions for her. She would always send us off to get twigs for the
As if that wasn’t enough to give fundamentalists the willies, Claudia
Puig reported in USA Today November 16 that Rowling had conducted
extensive research into the Western magical tradition. "The plot and
specific magical environment are Rowling’s own invention, but nearly all
of the creatures and their exploits—as well as spells, potions, and
supernatural explanations of events—have roots in European folklore, with
some references dating back thousands of years…Rowling’s richly
detailed, meticulously researched tales draw upon hundreds of years of
Not that The Lord of the Rings was explicitly Christian. In
contrast, say, to Narnia’s heroic lion Aslan, there was no stand-in for
Jesus. In his Focus on the Family article Jim Ware relied on Tolkien’s
oft-quoted remark from a letter to a friend: "The Lord of the Rings is
of course a fundamentally religious work …unconsciously so at first, but
consciously in the revision."
Writing in the January/February 2002 issue of the conservative
pan-Christian magazine Touchstone, senior editor David Mills mounted
a case that The Lord of the Rings is in fact a Christian work—"in
the sense that its Christianity might be deduced from the story by
itself." One of Mills’ deductions had to do with the purported role
of Providence: The existence of "higher powers" is crucial to the
story but they "appear only through their effect on the characters and
In an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Brian Carney staked out a
secularized preference for Tolkien, dismissing the Potter books as a morally
vapid version of the struggle between good and evil. "Harry, of course,
is Good, and the wizard Voldemort, who killed Harry’s parents, is Evil.
Why is Voldemort evil? Well, he wants to ‘take over,’ we learn, and he
kills people. Harry is good because he’s nice, and we can’t help
sympathizing with him, since Voldemort killed his parents and all. This is
very straightforward stuff, and there’s little to argue with in it. But
there’s also little to argue for." He points out: "Morally
speaking, Harry’s magical world is trite."
By contrast, Carney wrote, Tolkien "delves deeper" with a tale
that explores what happens when good people are tempted to use the massive
power of the ring "for good" only to find that they too are
corrupted by the ring. Tolkien showed "the ethical challenges we all
face as individuals and as nations."
On one side of the evangelical world is the fundamentalist right with its
deep-seated fear of "secular culture." That culture is the enemy,
the place of corruption, the realm where witchcraft actually exists (though
mostly hidden away).
If this is the case, and most fundamentalists believe it is, then it
becomes vital to oppose Harry Potter. He has the potential to arouse the
curiosity of their children and thus lure them into exploration of this
mysterious, magical realm that is evil. The Harry Potter books activate
these fears, in part, because they use the conventional trappings of
witchcraft: peaked hats, broomsticks, spells, crystal balls, etc.
On the other side of the evangelical world this is mostly a non-issue.
Harry Potter is just a children’s story (and a good one too). J.K. Rowling’s
solid opting for the "good" in the battle of good vs. evil shows
that she is no recruiting agent for the Satanic realm. When she does make
moral statements they are in line with Christian values (e.g., love as the
strongest power, the power of sacrificing oneself for another). The
trappings of witchcraft are mere props. So why not enjoy a good tale well
told? Besides, Harry Potter gets kids to read.
In the end, the question is not whether a fictional story contains
wizards, witches, and magic but how it is told and by whom. Conservative
Christians are unhappy when they think the story moves children toward
occult-based magic and the author lacks the credentials of orthodoxy. They
are happy when the story is understood to spring from faith and lead (at
least potentially) to faith. Tolkien and his wizard are given a pass, as it
were, because of Tolkien’s personal Christian commitment and the
imprimatur of C.S. Lewis.
Round two of Tolkien v. Potter will be fought this fall when the second
film in each series will be released. Stay tuned.