I recently had a discussion with some Christian friends on whether Christians should be reading the Harry Potter books. Having just read them for the first time, I maintained that the Harry Potter series is harmless, but my friends strongly disagreed. In the end, we agreed to disagree, but I realized that I had never considered the issue of witchcraft in fantasy literature, even though it remains one of my favorite genres. Magic is present in almost every fantastical realm, whether in Narnia, Middle Earth, or Hogwarts. Since the Bible clearly condemns the practice of witchcraft, Christians should not lightly embrace the fantasy genre without evaluating the worldview that these stories promote. For the most part, the Harry Potter controversy has come and gone, but the fantasy genre remains immensely popular and it’s something that needs a Christian perspective. And the Potter series is here to stay, so for those Christians who are meeting Harry Potter for the first time (I envy you!), I hope that that this post will be helpful.
The Dangers of Fluff
I grew up reading classic literature: Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens, C.S. Lewis, etc. My mom helped to cultivate my reading list and current popular books were usually avoided. These “fluffy” books, as my mom would call them, tended to be poorly written with shallow characters and many of them contained subjects that weren’t good for a Christian to dwell on—like teen romance/infatuation, occult worldviews, etc. Occasionally I would read a more modern book, but I tended to look down upon those that read popular books as spiritually and literately inferior. Then I attended a Christian college and discovered those who remained mature, committed Christians and read these popular books—even Harry Potter and Twilight! Not only that, they managed to find redemptive themes in them! Needless to say, I was intrigued and considered that there might be some needles in the haystack of popular books. After the urging of a friend whose literary taste I trusted, I read the Harry Potter series and watched the movies for the first time.
To my surprise, I loved them. The first book was entertaining and didn’t have much substance, but I enjoyed Rowling’s storytelling. As the series progressed, I gradually saw the larger themes of Rowling’s tale. The books unfolded an epic tale of good and evil, bravery and heroism, temptation and redemption. It wasn’t until the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, that Rowling laid the Christian symbolism on thick. Like Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, the Deathly Hallows strongly spoke of the power of sacrificial love and the ultimate triumph of good over evil. I also noticed several parallels to The Lord of the Rings plotwise. While Rowling’s writing can’t compare with Lewis or Tolkien, she still is an excellent storyteller, and I was excited to discover a new author that taught truths via the medium of fantasy literature.
Oops. I quickly discovered the controversy that Harry Potter had stirred up among the conservative Christian community, one in which I find my home. For the Potter haters, the argument is a simple one: the Bible condemns witchcraft; the Harry Potter books contain/promote witchcraft; therefore it is sin to read the Harry Potter books. It seemed to me that they hadn’t done their research—either they hadn’t read the Potter books or hadn’t considered the witchcraft in Lewis or Tolkien. However, I also hadn’t done my research—I’d never considered the ban on witchcraft and its relation to fantasy literature. As a fan of the genre and of literature in general, I knew it was an issue I needed to examine. Now that my research is done, I thought that I would share what I learned.
For Conscience’ Sake
For any Christian reading this, I’d like to remind you of Romans 14:22-23:
The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith and whatever is not from faith is sin.
Paul is talking about the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, but this could be equally applied to entertainment choices, an adiophora of our day (I dislike the term “grey area”). If you are convicted in your conscience that you should not do something, be it read the Harry Potter books or whatever else, don’t do it! I am not trying to persuade anyone to violate their conscience—that would be sinful on my part. I’m also not saying that my opinion is the only correct biblical response. I know sincere, mature Christians that disagree with me. Throughout this post and at the end, I will include links that I found helpful in my research. I encourage any Christian that is studying this topic to conduct their own research and bible study. The personal conviction of the Holy Spirit is what is most important in these types of discussions.
Magic vs. Magick
I found a total of 29 passages in the Old Testament and 8 passages in the New Testament that either forbid witchcraft/sorcery/divination or spoke negatively about it. It is unanimous—God hates these practices. (note: from now on, I will use the general term witchcraft to refer to all of its associated practices: witchcraft, sorcery, astrology & divination). In my college Pentateuch class, my professor pointed out that crimes that resulted in capital punishment revealed what was most valuable to the culture. For the Israelites, these crimes were cursing/striking parents, sex outside of God’s design, child sacrifice, thieving in the night, stealing slaves, murder, letting an owner’s animal (ox) kill another person, idolatry and witchcraft. These can be divided into roughly three categories; these laws pertain to either (1) Life, (2) Family Structure or (3) Worship. Since these laws were all established by God, these are things that He considers as most valuable. Idolatry and witchcraft fall into the Worship category. When comparing verses condemning witchcraft, I noticed that most all of them associated it with idolatry. The use of witchcraft robs God of His rightful worship. In Deuteronomy 4:19, it warns not to “be drawn away and worship and serve” the sun, moon and stars (referring to astrology/divination as well as idolatry). It goes on in verse 20 to remind that God has taken the Israelites out of Egypt to “be a people for His own possession.” Because the Israelites were set aside for God, they were not to seek elsewhere for spiritual fulfillment. In 13:5, it says of those that have produced signs and wonders and didn’t attribute these to the Lord have “counseled rebellion against God.” King Saul “died of his trespass which he committed against the Lord . . . because he asked counsel of a medium, making inquiry of it and did not inquire of the Lord” (1 Chronicles 10:13, emphasis added). Instead of going to the One who is all-knowing, King Saul sought to use another source of power to obtain the future. The prophet Isaiah asks why people persist in using “mediums and spiritists who whisper and mutter, should not a people consult their God?” (8:19). Witchcraft is often generally referred to as participating in prostitution and harlotry (Leviticus 20:6, 2 Kings 9:22, Isaiah 57:3, Nahum 3:3-5). Those who participate in these practices are being unfaithful to God.
So, if those that participate in witchcraft are not worshiping and serving the Lord, what exactly are they serving? The first option is that they are worshipping a simple human creation, the “work of [their] hands” (Micah 5:11-13). They are being deceived by their own minds (Ezekiel 13:6, Jeremiah 14:14). But there is also a possibility of involvement with other spiritual beings—demons. Acts 16:16-24 tells the story of slave girl that had a ‘spirit of divination’ and made her masters money by her fortune telling. When Paul and Silas cast out this spirit, her masters were angry and threw the apostles into prison. This story is an important one, because it shows that demon spirits do have power to perform signs and wonders. Demons can also inhabit man-made idols (1 Corinthians 10:20). However, followers of the true God have nothing to fear because He rules over everything, including the spiritual realm. There are limits to Satan’s power—Pharaoh’s magicians in Exodus 8:19 were unable to make gnats from dust, prompting them to say “this is the finger of God.” Those who practice witchcraft are ultimately subject to God, which Balaam learned the hard way (Numbers 22:7-24:25). The Lord “make[s] fools out of diviners . . . and turn[s] their knowledge to foolishness” (Isaiah 44:25). Either in this world or the next, those who practice these arts will perish (Isaiah 47:8-15 and Ezekiel 13:20-23).
The remaining question is: Does ________ (The Chronicles of Narnia, The Wizard of Oz, the Harry Potter series, etc.) contain/promote the witchcraft that is prohibited in the Bible? The answer will depend on the book or movie in question, but for the ones I’ve specifically mentioned so far, the answer is no.
As mentioned before, witchcraft in the Bible is an issue of worship. Idolatry and practicing witchcraft was part of a religious ritual. In none of the books and movies I have mentioned has the practice of magic been an expression of worship.
There are also distinct differences between the fantasy magic in the Narnia, LOTR, and Harry Potter books and that of the “magick” (occultic magic) mentioned in the Bible. Both of these give power to the user who can manipulate surroundings to his liking, ignoring Newtonian natural law. The key difference is the source of the power. In real-life magick, this power is from demons, which ultimately results in demon worship. In the storybook magic of Disney movies, Wizard of Oz, and Hogwarts, magic is a mysterious, powerful, and morally neutral force, much like electricity in our world.* While supernatural in the sense that it doesn’t obey the natural laws of the Newtonian worldview, fantasy magic of the sort mentioned here has nothing to do with demons. In the Potterverse, the ability to perform magic is a physical, genetic trait; just like blue eyes or having a knack for music. Some people have the gift (witches/wizards) and some don’t (muggles). Christian author John Granger, distinguishes between “invocational” magic (invoking of demonic spirits) and “incantational” magic (creating magic by incantations=words). Granger writes “not one character in any of the seven books [of the Harry Potter series] ever calls in evil spirits. Not once.” For more on the magic in Narnia and LOTR and how the authors distinguished the fantasy magic therein from real world magick, read this.
*okay, most Disney movies (ex: the Evil Queen in Snow White, Cinderella’s fairy godmother, etc.). The Princess in the Frog–that’s another story. Christians should not support this movie. Voodoo magick is practiced in real-life and is evil.
Warning: literature is dangerous! (note: I disagree with one point in the article—the Harry Potter books have quite a bit ‘underneath’ them, but this was written early in the series before Rowling’s story had fully developed). There are several responses to the dangers of literature. Extremes of either avoiding or accepting all literature are unhealthy for the Christian. Careful discernment is the better option. There are some books and movies I will not partake in; they are too dangerous for me. But for many other books and movies, learning about the ideas and worldview within them can help strengthen my own worldview. What is most important is that I am sensitive to my conscience and that I compare all ideas to that of the ultimate authority—God’s Word. A case could be made that fantasy books are guilty by association—even though they don’t represent invocational magick, they could possibly lead to interest in other things that are occult or desensitize the reader to the real dangers of witchcraft. Because of this, it is vital that the difference between incantational fantasy magic and invocational magick is emphasized. For Christian parents, reading books such as the Harry Potter series along with their children and discussing it with them would be a very wise course of action. If a Christian is still uncomfortable with fantasy magic in a book or movie or finds themselves interested in other works that contain the occult, they should absolutely avoid that book or movie—it is too dangerous for them. I personally find the genre of fantasy edifying and so far, for what I have read, the dangers are far outweighed by the benefits.
Other Issues with Harry Potter
In regards to Harry Potter specifically, there are other reasons besides the issue of witchcraft that are legitimate reasons to avoid the series:
- the books are secular (do not mention God or Christianity)
- the books promote the philosophy that “the end justifies the means”
- the books are too dark for their intended audience
For more on the worldview present in the series, read this article. Yes, the issue of secularism is present and should be considered when exercising discernment. However, there are many other books that are equally secular, such as works by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, that I enjoy. Just because a book doesn’t mention God or Jesus doesn’t mean it can’t teach biblical truths. Actually, comparing and contrasting the Christian worldview to that of a book or movie can be a great way to teach biblical truths to children. Despite the seemingly secular worldview within the Potterverse, the overarching themes of the books themselves fall within a Christian worldview—which is no surprise, since Rowling herself professes Christianity. I don’t agree with all of Rowling’s beliefs, however I continue to enjoy and glean truths from her books.
The second problem with the Harry Potter series is that they seem to promote the idea that the “end justifies the means.” In order to save the Hogwarts from some evil or another, Harry and his friends are not past breaking the rules to save the day. They sometimes receive punishment, but it is often excused since they have become heroes. Like all children, Harry and his friends need to mature. As he matures, Harry learns that his actions do have consequences and that he should trust his elders, even when he believes they are wrong. Yes, Harry is a flawed hero, and his shortcomings, such as his disobedience, should be discussed as part of enforcing a Christian worldview. I don’t think that this issue alone is enough to condemn the series, though it should be taken into consideration.
I absolutely agree with the last point—the Harry Potter series is incredibly dark and should not be read by young children. While the first book is light-hearted for the most part, as the series unfolds, evil becomes much more sinister and macabre. Rowling herself states that death is a major theme of the books. It will depend on the child, but I personally think that the Harry Potter series should only be read by teens and up. Those that are seriously disturbed by dark themes should also avoid the Harry Potter books, no matter their age. Rowling, like Tolkien, used storytelling to show how truly dark and destructive evil can be. But, in both of these stories, ultimately good triumphs over evil. Whether the Harry Potter series is edifying will depend on personal preferences and sensitivities.
The Last Word
So how should Christians treat the Harry Potter series? Well, if you have a clear conscience and you find the genre of fantasy fiction edifying; read and enjoy them! I agree with Christian musician and author Andrew Peterson who wrote “. . . Jesus used [the Harry Potter series] to help me long for heaven, to remind me of the invisible world, to keep my imagination active and young, and . . . to show me his holy bravery in his triumph over the grave.” For more on the Christian symbolism in the series, see my resources section below (spoiler warning!)
No matter what your ultimate decision is in regards to fantasy literature, I challenge you to apply equal discernment in whatever you read. In seeking after truth, you will grow closer to the author of Truth, Jesus Christ.
The following are resources that I recommend for those doing further research on this topic. There are many more where these came from, but these are the best from what I found. There are a variety of opinions represented here. Just because I have a link here, doesn’t mean that I agree with it or other writings of the author. And last warning–if you haven’t yet read the Harry Potter, Narnia or LOTR series, a good number of these links contain major spoilers!
The power and benefits of fantasy literature:
Fantasy Media by Gene Veith, Christian Research Institute
Stories are Soul Food: Don’t Let Your Children Hunger by N.D. Wilson, DesiringGod Blog
Christian responses to fantasy literature:
Harry Potter vs. Gandalf: An in-depth analysis of the literary use of magic in the works of J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis by Steven D. Greydanus, Decent Films Guide
Christian symbolism in Harry Potter:
Harry Potter 7 Is Matthew 6 by Dave Bruno, Christianity Today
Redeeming Harry Potter by Russ Breimeier, Christianity Today
The Perils of Harry Potter by Jacqui Komschlies, Christianity Today
Harry Potter, Jesus and Me by Andrew Peterson
Harry Potter’s Magic by Alan Jacobs, First Things
Harry Potter and the Christian Critics by Mark Shea, First Things
Musings on Harry Potter by Greg Koukl, Stand to Reason