Last night my husband and I were chatting and the subject came up of Christian families who don’t let their children read the Harry Potter books. (For the record,this post is about the general phenomenon and not anyone specific.) Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s/Sorcerer’s Stone came out when I was around eleven or twelve years old, and so I am of the generation that grew up reading the series, eagerly awaiting each new release over the decade during which they were being written. And while my siblings and I were allowed to read them all, I do remember the general suspicion with which the books were met in much of the wider Christian community. After all, Harry Potter was ridiculously popular, and about witches and wizards — what if it led our children straight to the occult? The word “satanic” was occasionally bandied about. It was a strange time.
The trouble with the decision to forbid Harry Potter, as I see it, is that it often seemed to be made (a) out of fear and (b) without ever having read the books. Yes, Harry Potter is about witches and wizards — and also dragons and goblins and trolls, not to mention house elves, gryphons, mermaids, and all manner of spells, charms, curses, and potions. But Harry Potter is also about self-sacrificial love, friendship, loyalty, and courage — not to mention redemption, the care of one’s soul, forgiveness, and life after death. There are profoundly Christian themes throughout the entire series. As Andrew Peterson writes in his article Harry Potter, Jesus, and Me:
Let me be clear: Harry Potter is NOT Jesus. This story isn’t inspired, at least not in the sense that Scripture is inspired; but because I believe that all truth is God’s truth, that the resurrection is at the heart of the Christian story, and the main character of the Christian story is Christ, because I believe in God the Father, almighty maker of heaven and earth and in Jesus Christ his only begotten son—and because I believe that he inhabits my heart and has adopted me as his son, into his family, his kingdom, his church—I have the freedom to rejoice in the Harry Potter story, because even there, Christ is King. Wherever we see beauty, light, truth, goodness, we see Christ. Do we think him so small that he couldn’t invade a series of books about a boy wizard? Do we think him cut off from a story like this, as if he were afraid, or weak, or worried? Remember when Santa Claus shows up (incongruously) in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? It’s a strange moment, but to my great surprise I’ve been moved by it. Lewis reminds me that even Father Christmas is subject to Jesus, just as in Prince Caspian the hosts of mythology are subject to him. The Harry Potter story is subject to him, too, and Jesus can use it however he wants. In my case, Jesus used it to help me long for heaven, to remind me of the invisible world, to keep my imagination active and young, and he used it to show me his holy bravery in his triumph over the grave.
I think it’s wise to restrict Harry Potter, or at least the latter half of the series, until children are a bit older given the heavy themes that emerge as the series goes on. But there’s no need for a total ban. In fact, the moral universe of Harry Potter is so clear-cut — good is so good, and evil is so evil — that I would far prefer my children read Harry Potter and the Philsopher’s Stone (etc.) than something like Twilight or the rubbishy V. C. Andrews books that got passed around when I was in middle school, for example.
But to move away from these seven particular books, the arguments for and against Harry Potter do raise the question of how and when and why we restrict our children’s reading. I find that when I think about it, my concern is less with the specific books my children will read or not read, than with whether they will have been given the intellectual and moral framework to competently evaluate what they read. Can they recognise an agenda? Can they trace an argument? Are they secure in their own convictions? Those, I think, are the types of questions that matter.
My role in this shouldn’t primarily be a matter or allowing or restricting (though certainly that is sometimes necessary), but of guiding. All things — or near enough — may be permissible, but I hope above all to teach my children to discern what is beneficial and edifying. After all, as the years go by I will be less and less involved in their media consumption. I want them to know how to make wise choices once they’re the ones holding the reins. More productive than turning certain books into forbidden fruit — which seems as likely to invite rebellion and sneakiness as anything else — is to engage with them with your child: to read what they’re reading (either in tandem or before they start), to cultivate a family culture the encourages discussion, to lead by example in approaching books with thoughtfulness rather than reactionism.
Harry Potter won’t turn our kids into wiccans any more than The Lord of the Rings will turn them into elves or Pride and Prejudice will turn them into early 19th-century landed gentlemen. By all means let us decide that some things are not worth consuming — let’s just not do it from a place of fear.
One thought on “Forbidden fruit”
I agree 100%! If you’ve never heard of Vigen Guroian, you might want to check out his book: “Tending the Heart of Virtue: How Classic Stories Awaken a Childs Moral Imagination”. Here’s Amazon’s description of the book: “As the popularity of William Bennetts Book of Virtues attests, parents are turning more and more to childrens literature to help instill values in their kids. Now, in this elegantly written and passionate book, Vigen Guroian provides the perfect complement to books such as Bennetts, offering parents and teachers a much-needed roadmap to some of our finest childrens stories. Guroian illuminates the complex ways in which fairy tales and fantasies educate the moral imagination from earliest childhood. Examining a wide range of stories–from Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid to Charlottes Web, The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wind in the Willows, and the Chronicles of Narnia–he argues that these tales capture the meaning of morality through vivid depictions of the struggle between good and evil, in which characters must make difficult choices between right and wrong, or heroes and villains contest the very fate of imaginary worlds. Character and the virtues are depicted compellingly in these stories; the virtues glimmer as if in a looking glass, and wickedness and deception are unmasked of their pretensions to goodness and truth. We are made to face the unvarnished truth about ourselves, and what kind of people we want to be. Throughout, Guroian highlights the classical moral virtues such as courage, goodness, and honesty, especially as they are understood in traditional Christianity. At the same time, he so persuasively evokes the enduring charm of these familiar works that many readers will be inspired to reread their favorites and explore those they may have missed.”
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