About a month ago I had lunch with tmatt, who gave me solid arguments for why the Harry Potter series were loaded with Christian themes and messages. I didn't need much convincing since the arguments that the books were bringing children into the occult sounded a lot like the ones people used against C.S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, and those are some of the best books ever written. Disclaimer: I've never cracked one of the Potter books or watched more than a few minutes of the movies, so take this review of the recent splurge of news on the Christian message contained in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows with a grain of salt. I have been fascinated by the news coverage of the Potter phenomena ever since a colleague at a newspaper I was working at in the summer of 2003 stayed up all night to finish an early copy for a properly timed review.
Spoiler alert: there could be spoilers in this review so if you haven't read the book and plan on doing so without any clues on the ending, stop reading this post now.
Jeffrey Weiss has the most compelling personal story to tell on The Dallas Morning News religion blog about how the final book reversed his opinion on the series:
Primus: In which I admit that I've been completely wrong for several years about my religion-related analysis of the Harry Potter saga. I do offer an excuse or two.
... Here's my mea culpa: After finishing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I realized the entire seven-volume story is at least as essentially Christian as C.S. Lewis's Narnia stories. That was a bit of a shock for me, because I've spent a couple of years writing about how the books are devoid of anything resembling explicit religion. And I had suggested that the moral themes that some Christian authors found in the books are also found in many other religions.
Weiss is hardly in the category of Potter-haters like Focus on the Family's James Dobson, but guess who Newsweek's Lisa Miller decided to bring up in writing that the Potter series might in fact be "Christ-like" (gasp!):
These enemies of young Potter arm themselves with this quotation from Deuteronomy: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead." Conservative Christian leaders continue to make public statements against the book. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family, reiterated last week in a statement that he has "spoken out strongly against all of the Harry Potter products," and Chuck Colson, of Prison Fellowship, said in somewhat gentler terms that while most kids will probably read the books, he personally does not recommend them.
But it's not as simple as that. As tmatt explains in his most recent column, Colson's view on the books is slightly more nuanced that simply outright condemning them:
Evangelical activist Chuck Colson, for example, praised the books in 1999, noting that they contrasted good and evil, while the main characters displayed courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. "Not bad lessons in a self-centered world," said the founder of Prison Fellowship.
But Colson's latest statement warned: "Personally, I don't recommend the Potter books. I'd rather Christian kids not read them."
There is a more intricate story to be told about the Christian community's approach to Harry Potter. Remember that this is America, where The Matrix was quoted in sermons.
Will this final Potter novel from J.K. Rowling and its rather surprising (to some) message of Christianity turn some doubters into readers? And will the media cover this shift? I hope so, and I also hope that they cover it with nuance and talk to more people than just James Dobson, though I would be curious to hear what he has to say about this latest novel. As tmatt and Weiss explain, there are more Christian themes in Potter than in just the last book.