Many Christians have claimed that the Harry Potter books are dangerous, encouraging children to get involved in witchcraft. We are called to exercise discernment and reject such literature completely. It is interesting to observe how much popular children’s literature escapes such judgment, for instance literature that presents disfunctional relationships between children and parents and broken families as the norm and encourages the reader to identify and empathize with promiscuous and morally twisted characters. It is quite heartening to observe just how robust the family values put forward in the Harry Potter books are. Marriage, faithful relationships and strong relationships between children and their elders are presented as the norm. Given that these are books written by a former single mother in a society where countless families are broken and disfunctional, this fact probably deserves more attention than it has generally received (one also wonders whether Rowling has her own experience in mind when she has Harry speak some strong words to a particular character about marital commitment in book 7).
The contrast between Harry Potter and the messages that many popular TV shows, movies and books are giving young people about relationships is quite startling. The fact that many Christian parents permit their children to sit in front of TV shows and films that subtly but determinedly corrupt morals and expect their children to be mature enough to deal with such influences whilst fearing that Harry Potter will lead them to dabble in the occult is quite bizarre.
When it comes to the accusation of witchcraft, I actually believe that Rowling can help us arrive at a more Christian view of witchcraft. The world that Rowling writes of is a world of Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes, self-shuffling cards, flying cars, wands hidden in umbrellas, bat bogey hexes, Whomping Willows, Quidditch, owls who deliver the mail, wizards who wear the most ridiculous garments to pass themselves off as Muggles, and the like. It is a delightfully humourous and playful portrayal of a magical world. It is not intended to be taken seriously. The fact that many Christians do take it seriously is a sign that something is badly wrong with us.
One of my favourite creatures found in Harry Potter’s world is the Boggart.
‘Now, then,’ said Lupin, beckoning the class toward the end of the room, where there was nothing but an old wardrobe where the teachers kept their spare robes. As Professor Lupin went to stand next to it, the wardrobe gave a sudden wobble, banging off the wall.
‘Nothing to worry about,’ said Professor Lupin calmly because a few people had jumped backward in alarm. ‘There’s a Boggart in there.’
Most people seemed to feel that this was something to worry about. Neville gave Professor Lupin a look of pure terror, and Seamus Finnigan eyed the now rattling doorknob apprehensively.
‘Boggarts like dark, enclosed spaces,’ said Professor Lupin. ‘Wardrobes, the gap beneath beds, the cupboards under sinks — I’ve even met one that had lodged itself in a grandfather clock. This one moved in yesterday afternoon, and I asked the headmaster if the staff would leave it to give my third years some practice.
‘So, the first question we must ask ourselves is, what is a Boggart?’
Hermione put up her hand.
‘It’s a shape-shifter,’ she said. ‘It can take the shape of whatever it thinks will frighten us most.’
‘Couldn’t have put it better myself,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione glowed. ‘So the Boggart sitting in the darkness within has not yet assumed a form. He does not yet know what will frighten the person on the other side of the door. Nobody knows what a Boggart looks like when he is alone, but when I let him out, he will immediately become whatever each of us most fears.’
‘This means,’ said Professor Lupin, choosing to ignore Neville’s small sputter of terror, ‘that we have a huge advantage over the Boggart before we begin. Have you spotted it, Harry?’
Trying to answer a question with Hermione next to him, bobbing up and down on the balls of her feet with her hand in the air, was very off-putting, but Harry had a go.
‘Er — because there are so many of us, it won’t know what shape it should be?’
‘Precisely,’ said Professor Lupin, and Hermione put her hand down, looking a little disappointed. ‘It’s always best to have company when you’re dealing with a boggart. He becomes confused. Which should he become, a headless corpse or a flesh-eating slug? I once saw a Boggart make that very mistake — tried to frighten two people at once and turned himself into half a slug. Not remotely frightening.
‘The charm that repels a Boggart is simple, yet it requires force of mind. You see, the thing that really finishes a Boggart is laughter. What you need to do is force it to assume a shape that you find amusing.
‘We will practice the charm without wands first. After me, please … riddikulus!’
The pre-Christian world was full of dark, enclosed spaces for Boggarts to hide. People were plagued and tyrannized by fear, held in its bondage. Satan played with people’s imaginations, holding them in bondage as much (if not far more) by means of the fear within as by external demonic forces without. One of the effects of the gospel was to flood the world with light, driving the Boggarts out from their darkened lairs.
In the light of the gospel we can, like Harry and his classmates, learn to perform the riddikulus charm on our demonically-induced fears. After the gospel has taken effect we can mock things that once terrified us. This is one of the purposes of the celebration of Halloween. The gospel reveals that much of the fear that Satan excited in men prior to the advent of Christ resulted merely from the exaggerated shadows that he cast in the darkness. Now that light has come the shadows are removed and Satan is reduced to a far less terrifying stature. We can begin to laugh at the shapes that we once saw in the shadows.
Whilst there are undoubtedly evil forces at work in our world — Harry’s world contains Dementors and Death Eaters, not just Boggarts — we need to learn that many of the terrors that haunt us are merely products of our fearful imaginations. Satan loves to have the huge shadows that he tries to cast taken seriously. We will only truly defeat him when we learn to laugh at the shadows, walking through death’s shade while fearing no evil.
Good Christian fiction writers can help us to do this. Christian authors can and should tell stories of Greek and Norse gods, of dragons, giants, goblins, faeries, of witches on broomsticks, of pixies, gnomes, elves and dwarves. These stories are the chains in which defeated Boggarts are paraded in triumph before the Risen Christ. J.K. Rowling, by presenting us with a delightfully exaggerated magical world, has robbed real witchcraft of power, performing the riddikulus charm on many of its Boggarts. Much of the power of witchcraft derives from the huge aura that it builds up around itself and the irrational fears that it creates in us. Once these irrational fears and superstitions have been exorcized by humourous light fiction, witchcraft looks considerably less threatening (even though it never ceases to be real).
Many Christians operate in terms of a view of the world that is driven by fear and superstition. There is a terrible fascination with the morbid and the dangerous; such people see demons and witchcraft everywhere. The wonderful thing is that Christ died to set us free from such a paranoid fear of the demonic realm. There is witchcraft in our world and it is evil and dangerous and Christians should openly and strongly resist it. However, it is by no means as all-pervasive as some fevered imaginations might suggest.
Many of those who object to Rowling’s works are those who are still terrified by Boggarts. They continue in panic, hysteria and conspiracy theory-driven witchhunts. Thankfully, orthodox Christians have historically encouraged far greater scepticism towards such exaggerated myths of occult practices. This strong Christian scepticism towards many of the claims made for the occult has encouraged the rise of science and a more rational society. It is no accident that the sciences seldom prosper in superstitious societies. It is only as the old witch-hunts and superstitions end that our clearer vision enables us to come to a more scientific understanding of our world. This is one of the chief ways in which the clearer light of the gospel paves the way for science.
Occult practices undoubtedly exist, but viewed through eyes freed from fear and superstition through Christ’s victory we see a world where many of our former fears are revealed as mere creations of our own imaginations. Works like Harry Potter are a good way to start innoculating ourselves and our children against such fears.