Friday, July 22, 2005

 

Wayfaring Strangers, Part 21



(Wayfaring Strangers is a continuing series about our experiences as my wife and I study to convert to Catholicism.)

On Harry Potter And Christian Parenting

You may have heard that the Pope has reservations about Harry Potter:

The Pope believes the Harry Potter books are pure Hogwash and "distort Christianity in the soul", according to two letters published online.

The comments were made to a German author who wrote Harry Potter - Good or Evil? which criticises JK Rowling's popular tales.

"It is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because these are subtle seductions which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly," he wrote.


As a Christian father in a Christian family, I can attest that Wendy and I are trying as hard as we can to raise our children in the faith. We are regular church goers, usually at least twice a week. We say grace before supper, we talk about our faith openly with our children, we encourage them to have questions and to draw their own conclusions. As a Christian, I believe that each person must have his own individual relationship with Christ. It's my goal to help our kids each form his or her relationship personally, not to try to make them carbon copies of Wendy or me. Christ has lead Wendy and I to the Roman Catholic Church, and I'd like to think that our family will attend church together from now on. Down the road, if one or (for that matter) all of the kids find a different road to Christ, I should hope to think I'll accept that and celebrate it.

If one of the kids strays from Christ, I think that my job should be to provide love and support, to provide a Christian example, to pray for our child and to pray that I'd be the kind of parent Christ would have me be.

All of this is serious to Wendy and me. We talk about it a lot, we go to great pains to try to make sure our parenting is all that it should be, and we try to keep the focus always on Christ first.

We also take our kids to see the Harry Potter movies, and we enjoy them as much...maybe more... than the kids do.

It bothers me a little when I hear Christians voice the concern that Harry Potter has an evil effect on children. I try to take that concern seriously, and I suppose that it is a legitimate concern in certain instances. I insist, though, that Harry Potter could only influence a child negatively if the child is not benefiting from proper parenting. A child more influenced by Harry Potter than by his or her own parents has bigger and more immediate problems than Hogwarts.

Our kids are too young yet to read J.K. Rowling's massive six and seven hundred page books... the day might come, though, that they want to read them when they are older. I suppose I'll have to read them too, at that point. In the meantime, our exposure to Harry Potter is strictly cinematic.

A protestant uncle of mine, who I consider to be more than a little flakey, once told me that we were exposing our children to the threat of satanic possession by taking them to the Harry Potter movies. A co-worker of mine, a Pentecostal, flat out told me that "Harry Potter is the devil," and that he's teaching his three sons to believe that to be the case. In both of these instances, I had a strong negative reaction. Basically, what I had to say was "You're nuts," and left it at that.

That is not to say that I totally disregard the concern that some Christians feel about the books and movies.

I've read some of what other Christians have had to say about Harry Potter, and to some degree, I do share their concerns. The Reverend Dr. Robert Leroe wrote the following:

Parents need to decide whether Rowling's books are helpful or harmful. Although the books encourage children to push away from the TV and read, are they also opening the door to occult practices? Do they offer another religion, different from that which we are trying to teach our children?


That's a fair question, and an important one. After all, there is nothing in the movies to suggest that Rowling is a Christian, or that she is consciously trying to impart Christian values in her stories. There is a basic good-and-bad element in the movies, though. The children, wizards and witches though they may be, are clearly good people at odds with evil. I suggest that the movies can provide fodder for important conversation between children and parents, and that while Harry may not be a Christian, his behavior in times of trouble is more often than not the kind of behavior Christ would probably approve of.

With regard to the ultimate effect the stories have on children, I believe that how they are discussed and interpreted afterwards by the family is more important than the movies themselves. There are even a few elements in the films that allow parents to very easily work Christianity into a discussion of the movies with their children. For instance, in the first movie, A Christmas tree is present in one scene. I admit, a Christmas tree is really more of a secular symbol than a religious one. Still, it does present a door that parents can open as they talk with their children. In the second film, the monstrous villain at the end is a snake, a symbol that the movies share with Christianity. In the third film, a condemned prisoner turns out to be a decent fellow after all. These are all avenues of opportunity for parents when they discuss the movies with their children. Harry Potter need not be an "alternative" religion. Like most other secular entertainment, it can be fashioned into part of the foundation of the development and enrichment of a spiritual life.

Of course, not all Christian voices are in opposition to the Harry Potter stories.

"'The Wizard of Oz,' for our time, was your Harry Potter," says Dr. Timothy Jackson, pastor of Greater First Baptist Church. "In my mind, one of the things we have to be careful of is that we don't stifle the imagination of people. I knew when I read 'The Wizard of Oz' that that's a make-believe world. To me, [Harry Potter] does not confuse, nor does it orient me to false teachings about the real world and what we can know of the spiritual world. So I don't see where the Harry Potter books are all that damaging for believers."

He also has suggestions for Christian parents who don't wish their kids to be attracted to the occult: "The best way to tell a counterfeit dollar bill is to study what a real dollar bill actually feels like. My perception is, if churches and parents [are] teaching truth, then their children will understand, 'this is not true, this is make-believe.' Everything has to be evaluated with a reasoning mind and a spiritual mind."


I agree with Dr. Jackson. The elements that shape a child's spiritual growth shouldn't come from movies and fantasy books. Movies and fantasy books are pure entertainment. If a parent is doing the real work of raising children properly, fantasy will not take on a context other than it's own.

I am encouraged also by other Christians who see the Harry Potter books as potential tools to impart the basics of Christianity:

(Theological professor Reg) Grant believes that an increasing number of Christians are "seeing there are many lessons we can celebrate and shake hands on." He also credits the Harry Potter films for the apparent change of heart. "I think the movies illustrated how much Christian theology has in common with the message of Harry Potter. Without the movies, we would still have a huge uproar."

And an increasing number of Christian writers are going further. Connie Neal, John Granger, Gina Burkart and John Killinger -- a former youth pastor, classics teacher, creative writing professor and Congregationalist minister, respectively -- are making a case to their faith community that Harry Potter is a parable.

Their theory? That instead of leading children down the path of the occult, J.K. Rowling is using magic in the way that Christian authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did, as a way of enchanting children into hearing the story of the Gospel.


Of course, C.S. Lewis's The Chronicles of Narnia may be the best example of popular modern Christian fantasy. Lewis's fables of Narnia, where people and events mirror the major themes of Christianity, have been beloved favorites of Christian families for years. (As an aside, we're reading the Narnia books to our kids now, and when my son restlessly asks "When will Aslan get there?" it gives me a quiet thrill.)

The Christian themes of the Narnia books are so apparent, in fact, that many people believe that Lewis intentionally crafted them as religious parables. That isn't so. As Stephen Burnett writes:

Evidently Lewis' fans last century thought that for sure any Christian symbols or messages got into Narnia because Lewis put them there intentionally. They assumed that surely Lewis wrote only to preach Christianity - so they figured he decided to study the market, sneak the morals and messages in to his audience with a fairy tale, inject some child psychology and make up the allegories on purpose, right?

"This is all pure moonshine," Lewis himself said. "I couldn't write in that way at all."

Instead, Lewis explained, "everything began with images; a faun carrying an umbrella, a queen on a sledge, a magnificent lion. At first there wasn't even anything Christian about them; that element pushed itself in of its own accord."

You mean - Lewis didn't try? He didn't want to copy off things that were selling at the secular bookstore? He didn't become appalled at what children were reading and decided he had to provide a Christian Alternative? You mean C.S. Lewis actually just - wanted to tell a timeless story first?

Well, it worked, didn't it?


It might come as a surprise to learn that Lewis didn't intentionally craft his fairytales as Christian metaphor. It was a surprise for me. If you've read the books, you know that the presence of Christian parable is so strong and so apparent in the stories that it's hard to believe that Lewis didn't start with his faith and write his stories from there.

In fact, it happened the other way around. Lewis started with the stories. His Christianity was so inherent and so strong in him, it couldn't help but work it's way through as he wrote. Lewis didn't intend to craft Christian fairy tales. He just couldn't help himself.

I'd like to suggest that, with the Harry Potter books, the same imparting of Christianity that happened when C. S Lewis wrote of Narnia can actually happen in reverse. J.K. Rowling may not have intended her books to do the work of Christ. However, in the hands of Christian parents, as shared with Christian children, the lessons of the Lord will come through whether Rowling intended them or not.

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