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EDITOR’S JOURNAL: Harry Potter and Sunday School

Now that the evangelical furor and fundraising has temporarily subsided over the release of latest Harry Potter movie, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” perhaps a brief educational study is in order.

To be sure, the movie includes witches, potions, the dark arts, magic spells and talk of all things evil in the ongoing saga between Lord Voldemort and the orphaned Harry Potter. The alternative universe created by author J.K. Rowling is understood by a unique vocabulary endemic to Hogwarts (the boarding school for wizards) where the young Harry trains for his final face-off with evil personified.

Theological heartburn over Rowling’s characters and subjects aside, is there a message for evangelicals eclipsed (perhaps ignored) in the events and statistics surrounding the book? To be sure, sin sells. Talk of wizards and magic always titillates the hearts of children. Rather than find these passions satisfied through a proper understanding of biblical theology where the cosmic battle of the ages was fought and won on two pieces of wood by a Galilean carpenter, human hearts sinfully choose to battle the wrong people with the wrong weapons as they work toward the wrong goal. Such is the strategy of Satan.

The pedagogical achievement of Rowling’s novels has caused the modern education establishment great embarrassment. Educational “specialists” have long held that new technologies inevitably will render books obsolete. Children prefer videos to books, and any publishing house intent on making a profit had best banish the books and roll out the toys.

Educational publishers concluded long ago that today’s media-saturated children do not like to read, and in order for any book to sell, a vast array of graphics must appear beside clumps of easy words so as to hold the attention of an overly medicated generation. Reading thick books with small print and no pictures ranks up there with the idea that another thick book with no pictures (the Bible) could even remotely capture the mind and heart of children. Such an absurd thought is destined for the ash heap of history. “New is true—old is mold” is the modern mantra of both the school and, quite surprisingly, the church.

Indeed, only an unsophisticated, out-of-touch, plebian non-educator would postulate that millions of school children could understand the intricate plots, character variances and underlying message of books like Rowling’s world without the benefit of “professionally” crafted leading questions, an “educationally sensitive” teacher’s guide, “pre-visioning,” and, in the words of Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, “the other junk pedagogical strategies that burden American school children in their English classes.”

The logical question for Christian parents, pastors and educators: Are evangelicals any different? The year is 2009, and who knows what is taught to children in Sunday School? For all the criticism rightfully leveled at Rowling for her unbridled sinful themes, she unequivocally demonstrates that children actually can read. She refuses to dumb down the language or simplify the plot. Few visuals accompany her prose because she requires that her readers read all 652 pages of the book. She evidences a trust in the power of words that evangelicals seem to have lost.

A brief survey of some of the most popular Sunday School literature for children and adolescents reveals that many evangelical publishers need to re-read their Bibles and revisit their marketing plans—in that order. The myriad of cartoon characters, camp songs, fire engines, specialty Bibles and apocryphal novels do not rise to the technical level of Rowling’s pen, and the business executives of major secular publishing houses know it.
The dirty little secret is that thousands of evangelically “churched” children know more about Harry Potter than Jesus. And this from the heritage of evangelical Protestantism that once gave the church the documents such as the Heidelberg Catechism with its penetrating, unnerving and unsettling first question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Not exactly the content of modern educational theorists or even modern Christian educators.

Perhaps the lesson for evangelicals is not that Satanic themes are being injected into the mainstream of modern life through the fictional tale of Harry Potter, but that Gospel themes are not despite the millions of dollars per year spent on Christian books and trinkets. At least Rowling’s overt thought trajectories are not cloaked behind a pretense to avoid the very themes which tell her story. She has no ambivalence in her description of darkness, death and evil. Contrast that to some of the latest children’s Sunday School curricula where Jesus’ death, if mentioned at all, is characterized as some sort of tragic happening for which God did not plan. It was sad, but not significant for the world.

Perhaps before another fundraising letter emerges decrying the evils of Harry Potter and the critical need to combat its influence through customized para-church resources, the church should revisit Scripture to discover there a saga more potent and captivating than any theme earthly writers could pen. For there, the thirst for man’s worship is satiated not with fairy tales, but with a future hope grounded on truth. Jesus defeated evil, and, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, has “fully satisfied” God’s rightful wrath for sin so that all who believe will have eternal life (I John 2:2). Once that is known, fantasy no longer satisfies.

Douglas E. Baker is executive editor of the Baptist Messenger and Communications Team leader for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.

Author: Douglas Baker

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  • Andy

    I agree with you for the most part, in that Christian writers have been lacking in the writing category, especially when it comes to Sunday school curriculum. Does this say something more about writers, or publishing standards, though?
    In part I disagree about your “Satanic” themes in Harry Potter. I think evangelical leaders have a double-standard here by saying that they love authors like Tolkien (Lord of the Rings) and Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia) – when both of those books have wizards, talking beasts, talking trees, spell casting, epic battles, etc. Part of fiction writing is creating a new world – and if Tolkien is applauded for it, why are we so against Rowling? Granted, she does not fit her fictional world into a “biblical worldview” (Tolkien, maybe unconsciously, does), but the main points of her books have nothing to do with magic or the dark arts. In fact, she does a pretty good at getting across the importance of taking the “good” side in the battle of good and evil (there is “good” magic in her world, as well as “dark” magic — just like LOTR between the wizards), of the importance of friendship, and other themes that fit well within a biblical worldview – even though Jesus Christ isn’t mentioned by name (well, other than Christmas).
    Part of the reason kids like reading these books rather than other “Christian” fiction – is that this fiction is actually interested and not completely transparent. Characters have depth and in the fictional world are actually believable characters. The best fiction makes its point subtly, and Christians are usually not subtle. Once that happens maybe we’ll have a better chance at some bestsellers.

    • Douglas Baker

      Andy –

      Thanks for your comment. Regarding your first point, I am not certain. To be sure, market forces and the sheer requirement of monetary profit can easily steer the editorial ship more than we like to admit. Good writers (especially of good Sunday School curriculum) are often over-looked because their content is deemed too difficult. By God’s grace, that is changing with many publishing houses.

      As to your second idea about the quality of Christian writing, your point is well-taken. Tolkien and Lewis do employ the use of creatures and ideas which may not neatly fit into our categories. Fiction is very difficult to write. As you have ably shown, few authors do it well. Christian fiction is often not written well. The great need of the hour is for good writing to once again dominate the evangelical scene in ways which does not sequester us behind our own fortresses or categories. We need people who can venture into the mainstream media and compete in the marketplace of ideas where skill truly matters. In that arena, the nuances which you mention will make all the difference in winning readers – even (and perhaps especially) those who are not Christians.

  • I’m actually a bit surprised at the criticism leveled at the Harry Potter series in this editorial. These questions were answered more than two years ago in several articles and interviews with Rowling. Check the links provided below for two examples:

    Further, I’m not sure how someone could read the series, especially the final book, and not come away with a profound assurance that this is indeed Christian allegory in the same style of CS Lewis. Considering the final chapters of Deathly Hallows as anything else is impossible.

    I will agree with Mr. Baker that the quality of writing, both in teaching literature and in fiction, in Christiandom today is horrific. We have sold our theological souls to the big machine of 2 or 3 publishing houses and they have fed us milk not solid food.

    Finally, one area mentioned in the article is the catechism as a means for teaching children. I would like to point you toward Bruce Ware’s Big Truths for Young Hearts as a possible cure for the mindlessness of most children’s teaching material in the church. This book does a masterful job of teaching real theology on a child’s level.

    • Douglas Baker

      Ryan –

      Thanks for your note. I am aware of the ongoing discussion about Rowling and her open confession of belief in God. That does not, as I see it, negate the fact that some of the ideas included in books border on some questionable content. I am not certain that she would own the literary genre’ of “Christian allegory.” C.S. Lewis also did not own the category of “Christian allegory.” In fact, if my memory serves me correctly, he explicitly denied that his work was in the same trajectory of thought as was Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress, which was openly known as Christian allegory.

      Impossible not to read as Christian allegory? I would posit that many people read the section which you mention in ways not associated with Christianity.

      The point of the editorial was to clarify and expose the travesty of much of Christian publishing/writing when compared with the writing of someone like Rowling who breaks every “rule” of much modern Christian writing/publishing.

      I agree with you about Bruce’s excellent book. Our family has benefitted from it greatly.

  • Rhonda Russell

    My own research on J.K.Rowling makes clear that she is a Christian. She says that
    she was careful not to reveal that before the books were read, otherwise those who
    are Christians would see where she was headed with the story and the surprises
    would be lost. She says that “Harry” is the Christ-like character, alone, on a mission
    against evil and wins ultimately because of “love”. She further says that in not saying
    anything about the Christian references she hoped that many children who do not
    have the opportunity to attend church or read a Bible might be allowed to read her
    books and see her movies. One good reference to read is “Looking for God In
    Harry Potter” by John Granger (not related to Hermione) written from the perspective
    of a Christian Dad who did not want his children to read Harry Potter and then
    decided to encourage them to read Harry Potter.
    My Baptist preacher Dad taught me to learn from the parables that I could look
    for God in anything and thereby relate it to the person to whom I am witnessing. The
    familiarity of the subject opens the door to explain the simple truths of faith. It has
    worked for many years. GGBTS also taught that understanding. After over 40 years
    in Music Ministry it is second nature to me to know that “what is written and how it
    is perceived” varies with the one doing the reading. Whether intended or not, I
    read Tolkien, Lewis, Rowling, and most everything else with my own Christian
    perspective in the event that a discussion about it could open a door for witnessing.
    Cleverness is involved in writing the Harry Potter books. The allegories are very
    good. Most Christian writers simply choose to “preach” or “teach” and avoid using
    cleverness. Perhaps we should pray for Christian writers who can be “clever”. As
    for the witches, wizards, sorcery, and magic…..watching my Dad pastor churches for over 40 years was almost like watching Harry Potter try to survive at Hogwarts! One
    never knew what unusual events the new year would hold.

  • Christopher Russell

    Most good stories have an agenda, a central theme that expresses the author’s most deeply held beliefs and convictions. The agenda usually presents some truth to the human experience that speaks to many people. Having read all 7 Harry Potter books, and having seen all of the movies, I have come to the conclusion that the ultimate, recurring theme that Rowling is presenting is an “anti-predjudice” Christian message. When you finally get to the end of the story, it becomes crystal clear that despite all distractions, the actual heart of the story is the dynamic relationship Harry Potter has with one of his teachers at Hogwarts: Professor Severus Snape. Throughout the entire series Harry hates Snape and does not trust him at all. Harry frequently misinterprets what he is seeing and acts impulsively with what information he has. The reason for all the deaths that Harry witnesses is that he gradually loses all of the people that he loves and it brings him to a moment of total discouragement, much like George Bailey in “It’s A Wonderful Life” to where Snape is the only one who can help him. It seems to be over, but in the midst of the devastating battle Harry makes the touching discovery that Snape was one of Harry’s most courageous and strongest allies. The man he had hated for so long is the one that gives him the information he needs to defeat evil. Severus is the character Rowling uses to state her agenda that you cannot judge moral worth solely based on outward appearance and behavior. People should not judge others based on how someone looks, acts, or dresses. At the end of the epilogue, Harry tells his son, Albus Severus Potter, that Snape was “probably the bravest man he ever knew”. As a Christian, I belive in and support Rowling’s anti-predjudice agenda because it is an important truth that many people, even Christians, still tend to overlook today.

  • Samantha

    What’s the problem with reading something that’s entertaining that takes us away from this messed up world? I have read and watched every Harry Potter book and movie and thoroughly enjoyed them! This has neither hindered or tarnished my walk with Jesus in any way. I’m a firm believer in the Gospel and strive for a closer walk with my Savior daily. Yet I still enjoy these books. Sin? I don’t think so. Not unless you’re dressing up like a wizard and parading around your house trying to perform an unforgivable curse on your younger brother. Entertainment? Absolutely.

  • Monday: December 21St, 2009 Reply from Dec, 14th, 2009 comment:

    We are in the age of an end of the earth, unfortunately so many Christendom seem not to take the words of Jesus Christ into serious account when He declared that He is coming back to Judge the Earth! Obviously, many people seem to forget about the matter! History moves inexorably according to the will of the Sovereign God alone. It is God alone who will have the final word-say when all is said and done! God had predicted in advance that He will Judge the world once again, but it is once and for all! Christian writers today falter in their writings because their writings focus in amusing their audience for self-gain [Money]:

    Christian-Fiction Books have destroyed our planet! I agree with Andy that most part, in that Christian writers have been lacking in the writing category, especially when it comes to Sunday school curriculum, no biblical references but animals pictures only! What can children learn from animal pictures?

    Hell from beneath is excited about you: To meet you at your coming; It stirs up the dead for you: All the chief ones of the earth: It has raised up from their thrones! All the Kings of the nations; they all shall speak and say to you: “Have you also become as weak as we?” [Isaiah 55: 10-11]:

    Jesus Christ is inevitable! If individuals and humanity are to progress, Jesus Christ is inescapable! Jesus Christ being fully human and fully spiritual, lived on earth thoughtfully, and acted inspired by Divine Truth, by the Sacred Word of God. He acted upon a vision of humanity evolving toward a world of peace and harmony! You may ignore Him at your own wicked risk! [2 Corinth 5: 10]:

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