Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone: Why Do These Books Bother (Some) Christians?

Do you remember the concern some Christians voiced (loudly) over the Harry Potter books a few years back?

I do. I remember some discussing the difference between the moral universe in the Harry Potter books and that depicted in The Lord of the Rings. If I recall correctly, one of the complaints was that while both sets of books depict magical realms, with the Lord of the Rings you have a clear line between good and evil, whereas with the Harry Potter books, the suggestion seemed to be that J. K. Rowling was not presenting a world where good is good and evil is bad.

I didn’t read the books at that time. Too busy. I asked a friend who had read one, and he told me that he thought the books were subversive because they present the adults bumbling along getting things wrong, while the kids come along and save the world, even if they have to break the rules to do it.

See: subversion of good and evil. No right and wrong.

I’m grateful for the partial spoilers in the reviews I saw of the seventh movie (see this one in particular), which prompted me to give these books a chance. Having now listened to the audio books of the first three, and having read the first one, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, aloud to my sons, I am mystified as to why these books would bother Christians.

Caveat: I’ve only heard the first three, and only read the first one. So this is admittedly a partial judgment. But I felt no qualms about reading the first one aloud to my 7 and 5 year olds, so if you need it, you’ve got a green light from me on the first three.

Here are my thoughts, hopefully spoiler free, on the profound Christianity of book one, with a few nods to its points of contact with “Literature,” pronounced, slowly, preferably with a British accent, and with great dignity and solemnity (i.e., the great tradition of western word art).

Harry Potter and Jesus of Nazareth

The great evil power tried to kill the baby boy. His inability to destroy the child at birth was in itself a defeat, in response to which he turned on the mother.

Did I just describe Revelation 12, where the birth of Jesus is presented in symbol? Or was that a description of the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, “The Boy Who Lived”? Both. When I read this to my boys, I asked them: “which came first?” Obviously Jesus came first, and Revelation was written long before Harry Potter. “So where do you think J. K. Rowling got the idea?” They got it.

At several points Harry breaks rules. I asked my sons about this, inviting them to tell me about the rules Harry broke and reasons he broke them. They told me in greater detail than I remembered. I asked them what was constant, what was (almost) always the case when Harry broke a rule? They told me that every time Harry got into trouble he was trying to help someone else, and often he had been set up by a bad guy, so that if all the facts were known Harry wouldn’t have been in trouble.

Don’t get me wrong here. Harry’s not perfect. Sometimes he does the wrong thing. But on the whole, he’s on the side of the angels (in Potter-speak – he’s against the Dark Arts). At one point he resists the temptation to make himself great, insisting that he does not want to go that way, preferring to align himself with the brave, chivalrous, and honorable. Again and again he and his friends live out the words of Jesus: “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

“But what about the rules?” Some rules are moral. Some are just rules. What’s interesting is that in the cases that stick out to me, Harry is just breaking rules not doing immoral things. And when he breaks the rules, he does so because he’s recognizing that trying to keep the bad guy from taking over the world is more important than not breaking curfew.

“But he’s just a kid and the adults make the rules!” Ah, but in this story, Harry Potter is the boy who lived. He’s the hero. He’s the one who is laying down his life for his friends, showing them that some things are more precious than life. And there are adults who are helping him and adults whose petty concerns keep them from loving truth, goodness, and beauty. Isn’t that the way life is?

“But what about this charge that the books subvert morality, that they don’t portray a clear line between good and evil?” This charge convinces me that some of the critics of this series just haven’t read the books, while others have failed to read them well. Near the end of book one, the antagonist says to Harry,

“A foolish young man I was then, full of ridiculous ideas about good and evil. Lord Voldemort showed me how wrong I was. There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it”

The bad guy says these words. Harry clearly rejects this line of thinking, and so do his friends and the adults who help him. When I read this passage to my sons, we stopped and talked about it. We talked about how some people think that power is more important than good and evil. I asked them if they thought that was right. They didn’t side with the villain. J. K. Rowling clearly doesn’t either.

“But Harry doesn’t always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth! That’s not just a rule; it’s immoral when he doesn’t give straight answers, or when he even lies.” First, Harry isn’t perfect; that’s clear. He’s not altogether sinless. Who but Jesus is? Second, though, have you noticed that in the gospels Jesus doesn’t always give straight answers? Go look at how he answers the question of where his authority comes from in Mark 11:27–33. At many points, Harry is put in positions where he knows that he won’t be believed if he tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so he has difficult ethical waters to navigate as he seeks to oppose the aims of the evil one. Doesn’t Jesus do the same thing? Didn’t Samuel do the same thing–at the LORD’s instruction–when he went to anoint David king instead of Saul (1 Sam 16)? Shouldn’t missionaries to closed countries do the same thing?

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending those who tell lies. I am saying that life is complicated, that Psalm 18:25–26 is true, and that the Harry Potter stories are true to life on this point. If we’re not going to read the Harry Potter stories because of things like this (or if we’re going to say they’re too morally complicated for children), are we going to stop reading the Bible because the LORD told Moses to tell Pharaoh to let Israel go three days into the wilderness to worship when all along the LORD’s intention was to bring Israel permanently out of Egypt?

More could be said, but I’ll close this section with these claims: the Harry Potter books are set in a moral universe where Harry is contending for the good, and the good (laying down your life for others, opposing evil, standing up for what’s right, living in a way that honors father and mother, etc.) is a Christian kind of good. What’s more, there are many ways that Harry is like Jesus.

One more related thought: the non-magical people in the stories are called “Muggles.” Muggles don’t do magic, don’t see magic, and in general scoff at magic. Their explanations of the world and what happens in it are entirely free of magic. They live for the world. Every time I encounter Muggles, I wonder if this is Rowling’s veiled way of describing worldly people who deny the existence of anything supernatural. I think Muggles are worldlings, secularists, atheists, etc.

Harry Potter and Great Literature

This first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone for Americans, was titled Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in Rowling’s British. I happened to be listening to an audio version of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales right before I started listening to Harry Potter, so I was struck by the fact that one of Chaucer’s last tales has to do with a “philosopher’s (a.k.a. sorcerer’s) stone.” Wonder where Rowling got the idea? This book is rife with references to great literature. There’s a lot, no doubt, that could be pointed out here (for instance, old Cerberus makes an appearance as “Fluffy”), but for space considerations (this post is already too long) I note only this: one of the characters is named “Seamus Finnegan,” which seems to me to be a tip of the hat to Seamus Heaney and Finnegan’s Wake.

I think Rowling is brilliant. There were moments of Sorcerer’s Stone that brought tears to my eyes, moments when I marveled at her ability to bring a complicated logic test into a concise poem, and moments when, the second time through, I smiled at the way she set the plot up for its lurches and twists.

I’ve read and heard people say things like, “I don’t think these books are well written.” My reply may not stand a logical test, but it’s simple: let’s see you write something better.  When you’ve written something that prompts the Scottish Arts Council to give you an award that will enable you to finish the first book, when that book sells a gazillion copies, when the details from that first book become bulls eye hits for details in second and third books (and I assume this will keep happening through books four, five, and six), when kids everywhere can’t put your seven book series down, so that even adults start reading them (the teenage girl who lives next door to us has read the seventh book nine times!), when all seven of your books are made into movies, you can tell me you don’t think the Harry Potter books are well written.

Something has captured imaginations and kept the pages turning. And it’s fun to turn them as they delight, cause laughter, and present a picture of the power of love overcoming evil and all its fury.

32 Responses to Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone: Why Do These Books Bother (Some) Christians?

  1. David Charles October 10, 2011 at 8:17 am #

    Thank you for this review. I must confess that I have never read any of these books (I did start one of them but it held no interest for me) but have been asked about them quite a bit. The only question I have for you concerns the “witchcraft” in the book. Clearly the Bible has much to say about sorcery, and it is all bad (Ex 22:18, Le 19:26,31,20:26-27, 1 S 28:3,7,9, Is 8:19-20,47:13, Ac 16:16-18,19:19. Ga 5:20, Re 21).

    So how do you reconcile God’s prohibition of witchcraft (Deuteronomy 18:10) and these books promotion of the same?

    • JMH October 10, 2011 at 10:26 am #

      I think there’s a difference between a work of fiction set in a magical realm and actually engaging in witchcraft in an attempt to change your life. Engaging in it is forbidden. These books are not advocating engaging in witchcraft any more than Little House on the Prairie is advocating that people go live on the prairie. It’s a fictional realm.

      JMH

      • Dan Phillips October 10, 2011 at 11:03 am #

        Given my laregely favorable reviews of the movies, I’ve been asked that over at my blog as well. Here’s my response:

        Magic in the Harry Potter books cannot be a temptation to any reader. In the Potter world, magic cannot be sought, period. One is either born “magical,” or he is not. If he is not, nothing can be done about it (witness Petunia).

        So if the Potter stories says anything about magic to the readers, they say “You can’t do it.”

        Further, the magical world is hardly depicted idyllically. Many of them are small, petty, horrid people; their justice system is appalling; their bureaucracy worse, if possible, than “Muggle” bureaucracy — and on and on.

        • JMH October 10, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

          Well put!

        • Daniel October 12, 2011 at 12:20 am #

          I think, also, in the fictional HP universe “magic” functions much like the kind of power super heroes are supposed to have. In other words, Harry’s “magic” or “wizardry,” whatever you call it, is no more evil than Superman’s strength or Spiderman’s wall-crawling. It’s simply not the same thing that the Bible condemns.

  2. Ivan M. October 10, 2011 at 8:28 am #

    Having read all seven myself, spanning from my pre-pubescent years well into my college years, I couldn’t agree more with what you said. After becoming a Christian I came to appreciate them in a greater way and then marvel at how redemptive elements permeate the story from beginning to end. Enjoy!

  3. Eric Schumacher October 10, 2011 at 10:45 am #

    You beat me to it!

    I just started reading aloud Book 1 to my boys this past week.

    I couldn’t believe what I was reading: In his infancy, “the Boy Who Lived” was hated and attacked by a cruel, evil, powerful tyrant, the mention of whose name caused the whole land to tremble. But, he could not be killed. This forced an infancy exile. But, the time has come for his return! He is despised and rejected by his own kin. The are believers who hail him and his coming. There are unbelievers who scoff and/or miss him. A burly man in dressed in a cloak of skins is sent to prepare his way.

    Am I describing chapters 1-3 of Sorcerer’s Stone or Matthew’s Gospel?

    Why, I won’t be surprised if the child dies and rises again to save the world!

    • JMH October 10, 2011 at 1:14 pm #

      Great observations!

    • pandora89 October 11, 2011 at 10:19 am #

      “Why, I won’t be surprised if the child dies and rises again to save the world!”

      Just wait to you read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I would also recommed watching the movie. Part 2 is one of my all time favorite movies now. I consider it equal, if not better, than The Chronicles of Narnia.

      Would love to say more but SPOILERS.

  4. Andrew McClurg October 10, 2011 at 1:10 pm #

    I read book one a while ago, and it was hard read the whole book, not because of any subversive qualities but simply because it is not very good literature (my step-mother, a lover of good books, started it and never finished it for the same reason). I think the books are fine for kids (although as a child, I was exposed to really good books, e.g., by Mark Twain, and am grateful). My take on Harry Potter book one is similar to a critique I once heard of Charles Dickens novels. The characters are two-dimensional, but the author moves them around so quickly that they appear to be three-dimensional.

    • Dan Phillips October 10, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

      That criticism makes sense coming from someone who hasn’t read the books. It does apply to the Dursleys, with the partial exception only of Dudley and only in the last book. They are startlingly flat, and never grow.

      But the other characters are very three-dimensional and full. More, Rowling clearly improves as a writer through the second half of the set — which is admirable, since by that time she (like Stephen King) could have had her grocery list published as a best-seller.

  5. Kyle Carlson October 11, 2011 at 2:45 pm #

    Thanks for this, Doc. I read book one about a decade ago, but have always wanted to go back and re-read it and continue through the series. This provides some inspiration to do that.

    I appreciate all of your argumentation in this post, with the exception of your last point. To suggest that one can’t rightly judge whether literature is fine or poor until he has himself published literature of the same vein (and in comparable quantity) is not convincing. You seem to be aware of this limitation of your argument, even as you make it! (“My reply may not stand a logical test, but…”)

    The one example I’ll cite to refute your argument is William Paul Young’s “The Shack.” I’ve never written any fiction. I’ve never published any books of any kind. But I can tell that “The Shack” is sloppy and overly-sentimental storytelling. (Yes, I’ve read it.)

    I hope this small critique is received in the spirit of warmth and friendliness in which it is offered. Thanks again for the great defense of the Harry Potter stories.

    Grace,

    Kyle

    • JMH October 11, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

      Great point – touche!

  6. Fred October 11, 2011 at 3:41 pm #

    I am listening to the unabridged versions on CD currently. The narrator, Jim Dale, is amazing with his presentation. The man not only has a great voice for the stories, the voices he uses to make the characters come alive is truly a remarkable talent.

    Fred

    • JMH October 11, 2011 at 4:02 pm #

      Amen!

  7. Michael October 11, 2011 at 5:49 pm #

    I have not read the books, only seen the movies with the wife. Have been hesitant to include them into our home library. A couple of questions?

    1. What is the (implied?) source of the magic in the books?

    2. How do you feel about the fact that when the main characters get a predicament, they seek magical powers/spells to get themselves out of trouble?

    • JMH October 11, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

      1) From what I’ve seen in the first three books, the source of the magic is not explored. Rowling has called it morally neutral magic that can be used for good or evil, so I would say the source of the magic is the same as the source of the life. And Rowling has said that she’s a believer in God . . .

      2) I don’t think they seek it so much as it’s at their disposal and they use it, the same way a non-magical but clever person uses the cleverness at his disposal.

    • Reformed Catholic October 11, 2011 at 11:12 pm #

      There may be SPOILERS in this … be forewarned.

      1. Based on having read all the books at least twice, I can infer that magic runs in families. However, in some Muggle families a child can be born with the ‘magic gene’, so to speak. Harry, has a father who is from an old magical family, and a Muggle-born mother who discovered her talent as a very young girl.

      2. Harry doesn’t always use magic to get out of trouble. Most of the time the climax of the story involves Harry and his friends using their wits to win over the villain.

      The movies, by the way they need to be put together, leave a lot out. You don’t get the subtleties of the way this world is put together. While the movies are very faithful to the books, reading the books tends to fill in the blanks the movies leave.

  8. Ryan Bishop October 12, 2011 at 1:29 am #

    Hey, brother, I really enjoyed the post. I’ve been wondering about when to introduce the books to my own children. I appreciate your take. Will you call me within a day or two of finishing book seven? I’d like your fresh reaction…

  9. JWG October 12, 2011 at 12:57 pm #

    It seems that a necessary condition for great literature is that it points us to truth or gets us thinking about truth. Partly why David Foster Wallace or Thomas Pynchon are considered great writers is that they point out the absurdity of life apart from God (if life arose by mere chance, then our lives are meaningless). By this definition we may consider the Harry Potter series great literature because it points us to God. While it’s not an allegory Harry Potter certainly seems to be an archetype of a messianic figure. Later books will also allude to biblical truths (spoiler alert) such as gaining the world for the sake or your soul is a losing proposition.

    The Harry Potter series is a Christian story and written in such a way that it points us to God — the ultimate truth.

  10. Jason Oesterling October 12, 2011 at 2:08 pm #

    I heartily agree! I just finished the 7 books recently, as well as John Granger’s book Finding God in Harry Potter. That’s a great book to help you think through some of the redemptive themes in the book, as well as the many references to great literature throughout the series.
    Once you begin to see the many layers of writing, and all the symbolic meanings, etc., any criticisms of the writing will fall away. In some ways, it reminds me of the gospel of John – we send new believers to it because of its supposed simplicity, but when you study it the depths are amazing. (I’d love to be able to preach with that simultaneous depth and simplicity!) I think the criticisms of the book as literature stem from a premature judgment of the books as simple, without prolonged reflection on their depth.
    Also, Jerram Barrs has some audio discussions of the book that are helpful, as well.

  11. David Charles October 12, 2011 at 7:26 pm #

    James would you extend your pass to homosexuality in a fictional book as well? IOW if a children’s book simply had homosexual characters, but does not promote homosexuality, would you read and recommend this as well?

    This is NOT to enflame any readers here, but an honest question.

    • JMH October 12, 2011 at 8:53 pm #

      The appeal to demonic ways of knowing and manipulating circumstances that the Bible condemns is not what is depicted in the Harry Potter stories.

      So in my opinion you are suggesting a false analogy.

      Blessings!

      JMH

    • Michael October 13, 2011 at 11:58 am #

      Is there homosexually depicted characters in the books? I’m not recalling any in the movies I’ve seen?

      • JMH October 13, 2011 at 2:27 pm #

        No, he was just arguing from analogy. I think the argument went like this: you’re justifying witchcraft, which the Bible condemns, would you also justify homosexuality, which the Bible condemns.

        My response is that I think it’s a false analogy, since the magic in the books is not the witchcraft the Bible condemns,

        JMH

  12. John Thomson October 13, 2011 at 3:51 pm #

    I have not read the books though I have seen some of the films (once they came on TV). The morality of the tales would not trouble me (in the films I have viewed at least). What troubles me more is that they and many others make the idea of magic morally acceptable. Like many a book or film what people take away is not necessarily the more sophisticated message but the surface message. I suspect a climate gets (unwittingly) created which makes the language of paganism plausible and for a growing generation; there is a conditioning at work.

    This does not at all mean I would forbid reading these books but the danger exists nonetheless.

  13. Collin Garbarino October 13, 2011 at 7:27 pm #

    Great post, Jim. I’ve read all the books multiple times, and I concur with most of your thoughts. Harry Potter is an extremely diverting series. The bad news, however, is that you’ve read the best volumes already. Books 1 through 3 are nigh perfect. Book 4 loses its focus. Book 5 ought never have been written. Book 6 approaches the magnificence of the first three. And then Book 7 ends the series in a satisfying, yet flawed, manner. (All my opinion, of course.)

    The other thing that I would caution you about is that the books’ target audience ages as Harry does. Books 5-7 probably are a bit to mature for most 7-9 year olds. (Again, my opinion.) However, elements of Christian allegory are even more obvious in the last couple of books.

  14. David Wells October 27, 2011 at 6:24 pm #

    Oh no, say it ain’t so – Jim Hamilton likes Rowling’s Potter – end of the world as we know it. What’s next? The Hoggs will think they have a shot at the Nat’l title? It’s just not right, and exposing young innocent ears to it.

    Now, I haven’t read or watched any of these and have no clue what I’m talking about, but you can’t say Tolkien would approve.

    David

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