I Don't Understand Your Portrayal in The Ishbane Conspiracy of the Harry Potter Series
Question from a reader:
My husband and I have long been readers of your fiction, ever since we were introduced to your work through Deadline. We went on to read Dominion aloud together, and since have used your books to begin our own discussions on faith together.
I enjoyed The Ishbane Conspiracy; it greatly reminded me of the influence our culture has on all of us, and the true battleground upon which we live. However, there is one aspect of the book with which I do not agree with and/or understand. Being a lover of literature (I hold a degree in literature and writing), I don’t understand your portrayal in The Ishbane Conspiracy of the Harry Potter series as in any way harmful to Christian readers. I know it seems like a very small bone to pick, but to me, it is frightening when fellow Christians condemn great works of literature. Out of curiosity, I read over your list of favorite novels on your website, and, given your dislike of the Potter series, was surprised to find the Lord of the Rings included or even, The Chosen. The Chosen, as I don’t need to tell you, of course, is a great novel written from the point of view of a Jewish boy. Even though it is not Christian, Christians can learn a tremendous deal from it.
I am not trying to argue that Harry Potter is written from a Christian prospective. However, I believe it is a classic example of good versus evil, and light versus dark. I believe the use of witchcraft in the series is used as a literary vehicle to tell a story about heroes and fighting for what is right. I believe it is fantasy, just as Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz, or even the Chronicles of Narnia uses fantasy and magic to serve a literary purpose. Where does Harry get his magical power from? Love. Only because of the sacrificing love of his mother is he able to defeat evil powers against all odds. He is small and weak, but through faith in his father and mother throughout the series, he is able to defeat dark forces.
Again, I am not saying JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter from a Christian prospective, to my knowledge, nor that the love she writes about is the Fatherly love of Christianity. However, I cannot wait until our sons are old enough to read the series to them, because I think many Christian discussions could spring from them. I hope they will also read other fiction that is not necessarily Christian because there are so many great novels out there that have so much to offer them (as you know, since you loved Huck Finn, for example). I agree Christians must be careful, as Ishbane Conspiracy reminded me, but I don’t think wonderful works of fiction need to be sacrificed if they are read with the guidance of a Christian perspective or with Christian parents.
I am writing this to you in a sincere attempt to explain why I have a concern about your portrayal of Harry Potter in your novel, and sincerely hope you will have the time to explain your point of view. I greatly respect your work, and have learned much from the Biblical truth in your novels. Thank you very much for your time!
Answer from Randy Alcorn:
I understand your viewpoint. As you know, the Christian community is really split on this one, about as much as on alcohol and music. Believe it or not, I land closer to the middle than you think . When I wrote something in it in our newsletter (a dialogue I’ve included below, which we mostly didn’t have room for in Ishbane), I had one person complain that I was too hard on Harry, and three complain I was too soft on him. (The latter felt I should have utterly condemned it and not suggested it could be read with discernment.)
Water Brook has a book called What's a Christian to Do with Harry Potter?? The author exposes some of the internet hoaxes about children turning to Satanism, and argues HP’s not nearly as bad as many Christians say, and that a lot are overreacting. To a degree that may be true, but there are certainly some dangers (and just because some believers have gone nuts over HP doesn’t mean it’s therefore fine).
I don’t have time to get into more specifics, but The Chosen isn’t a good analogy to my concerns about HP. Chaim Potok’s orthodox Jewish underpinnings create some worldview aspects that are quite accurate. Not that they have to be. Huckleberry Finn was written by an atheist, but it’s still a good book. My objection is not that J. K. Rowling is an unbeliever (I read and enjoy many books by unbelievers, just as I do not like many books by Christians), simply that she portrays witches and wizards in a way that is often positive or at worst neutral (which directly contradicts Scripture). There is no reference or allusion to or distinction between a real God and a real Satan. I see nothing to distinguish the difference between the miraculous acts done by one or the other. Of course, Star Wars is dualism and most movies, even “clean” ones, have tainted worldviews and heretical theology. Still, I’m a big science fiction fan (hey, I went to a Star Trek convention and had a blast, but no I wasn’t dressed like a Klingon).
It’s not so much the direct effects of Harry Potter as the indirect ones that concern me. I’m afraid that in this New Age-dominated spiritually-open-but-undiscerning climate, Harry is acting for some as a desenstizer or even a gateway to an openness to the occult. The recent past younger generation was raised with a materialistic “there is no spiritual realm” worldview but now it’s “there is a spiritual realm and it’s cool and exciting.” Unfortunately while they see Touched by an Angel, there’s no program called “Touched by a Fallen Angel,” making clear that there are two sources of the supernatural, one of which is evil and terribly dangerous. Harry Potter is widely popular because it appeals to people’s spiritual and supernatural longings. The question is whether it draws them toward Christ, who their longing is truly for, or toward counterfeits.
Scripture approaches this subject without the slightest hint of ambivalence:
You are to be holy to me because I, the LORD, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be my own. “‘A man or woman who is a medium or spiritist among you must be put to death. You are to stone them; their blood will be on their own heads.’” (Lev 20:26-27)
When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. Anyone who does these things is detestable to the LORD, and because of these detestable practices the LORD your God will drive out those nations before you. You must be blameless before the LORD your God. The nations you will dispossess listen to those who practice sorcery or divination. But as for you, the LORD your God has not permitted you to do so. (Deut 18:9-14)
I’m not advocating the death penalty for witches under the new covenant, but God’s opinion of these matters—and the dangers they present to his people and all people—has certainly not changed.
However, as I show in the dialogue below, a mature and discerning Christian—someone who knows Scripture—should certainly be able to read Harry without the negative effects. If my child wanted to read Harry we’d discuss the pros and cons, the accuracies and inaccuracies, and the importance of the biblical teaching that forbids the practice of witchcraft and categorically portrays it as evil. Provided that’s understood, they could likely read the stories. ( You call them “great works of literature.” My personal opinion is that the HP books—at least the one I read—are nowhere near the literary quality of Lewis or Tolkien, but that’s just a matter of taste and is irrelevant to the discussion.)
I address the Lewis/Tolkien issue in the dialogue, but people are constantly making the mistake of saying “there’s magic in Lewis and Tolkien, so if they’re okay then Harry Potter is.” But it’s not about common words, it’s about their meaning and the underlying assumptions attached to them. There’s certainly a distinct difference in the underlying assumptions and worldview of HP and Narnia. Lewis is much more explicitly Christian than Tolkien (a Roman Catholic believer who deliberately kept theology out of Middle Earth—one could come to faith in Christ through Narnia but not the Lord of the Rings, much as I love the trilogy, as my collection of Inklings books attests). But in Harry Potter the source of the supernatural power is vague and leaves me uneasy. It’s almost as if it doesn’t matter. But biblically, supernatural power always has a source and is never neutral.
In The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician's Nephew, Softcover Lewis makes clear that Narnia’s magic doesn’t belong in this world. Queen Jadis is a clear type of Satan, and Uncle Andrew is a conjuring magician who is a small time punk compared to the greater evil of Jadis. Nonetheless, his involvement in witchcraft and magic has turned him into an evil, mean and dangerous person (and an arrogant buffoon at the same time). It’s hard for me to imagine any child reading Narnia, then turning around and going to a Ouija board or Tarot cards. On the other hand, I could see this happening with some kids (not most, but some) through Harry Potter. In any case, they will become more “open-minded” about witchcraft. And the truth is, we should be closed-minded about that which God explicitly forbids.
There are other issues besides the witchcraft—in the one I read there was a lot of disrespect for adults, for one thing, and the reader is made to feel good when Harry terrorizes his aunt by inflating her until she fills the room. But my big concern is immunizing kids to witchcraft and the occult. Especially because muggles or normal people are shown to be very wrong in fearing witches and opposing magic, etc. This puts witchcraft on the moral high ground, and portrays any opposition to it (which would primarily come from Christians) as bigotry.
You might not agree with the following, but I hope it further clarifies my position. As I’ve said to those on both sides of the Harry Potter issue, “on this one we will have to agree to disagree.” Best wishes.
(The following is an excerpt from early manuscript of The Ishbane Conspiracy; I cut out most of it in our final edit):
“Just call me the Oblivious Mother,” Diane said. “Either I never knew you were watching those movies or I didn’t understand what they could do to you. I’m so sorry. Tonight Daniel’s at this anger-management class he has to pass to get back in school. Well, yesterday I asked Daniel how he first heard about the Ouija board, before his uncle gave him one. You know what he told me? Remember those Teddy Ruxpin books, Jilly? There was one called The Missing Princess.”
“Sure. I remember you reading it to us.”
“We still have it—I went and looked it over, and if I hadn’t I’m not sure I’d believe it. The children go to someone called the Wizard of Wee Gee. Get it—wee gee? They consult a Ouija board to find where the princess is. Daniel says he always thought that was really cool. We read that book out loud, and I never thought twice about it. I feel like a terrible parent.”
“Don’t blame yourself, Mom. I should have known better. After he came to Christ, Dad talked to me about movies and some of my romance novels. But by then I’d already seen and read a lot of stuff I shouldn’t have. Hey, I’m the one that gave Daniel the Harry Potter books for Christmas, remember? I thought he’d get into the fantasy and the supernatural stuff. At first he turned up his nose because it seemed like they were for little kids, but next thing you know he was reading them all the time, and checking out the other ones.”
“As a teacher and a mom,” Jodi said, “the Harry Potter books are a hot button with me. Kristi and I have talked about it a lot, haven’t we? More kids and adults are reading these books than anything else. Their sales are incredible—tens of millions of them. What bothers me, is I keep hearing Christians say that the magic in Harry Potter books is no different than the magic in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia stories and Tolkien’s Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Well I’ve read both and they are different. In the Narnia books the children are brought to Narnia through ‘magic.’ But it’s the Creator, it’s Aslan who does the miracles, including empowering them each time to get from earth to Narnia.”
“Exactly,” Kristi said. “And that ‘magic’ is just another name for supernatural acts, miracles done by God. What Lewis called the ‘ancient magic’ is God’s eternal standards that sin would have to be judged, and that the Son of God’s redemption would win back human sinners who have betrayed him. That’s a magic beyond the witch’s power and understanding. And when the King’s servants do magic, they recognize Him as the source of power. It’s more like the apostles praying to God to do miracles.”
“But the white witch’s magic is different,” Jodi said, “it’s evil. It’s disconnected from God. There’s a clear distinction between the two kinds of magic in the Lewis books—you just can’t miss it. Supernatural acts done by God are welcomed. But the ones empowered by evil are to be avoided at all costs. But in Harry Potter, the distinction’s not so clear. There’s no recognition of God as Creator, Judge or Savior.”
“I admit for the most part I like the stories,” Kristi said. “But they wouldn’t be good for someone like Daniel, because the source of Harry’s magic isn’t clear. Yeah, it doesn’t appear to be evil. I mean he’s this likable young wizard who’s orphaned, then raised by non-magical relatives and invited to study at a school of witchcraft and wizardry. It’s good versus evil, and good always wins in the end. Harry has mostly good character and motives, there are virtues like loyalty and friendship and self-sacrifice. But it’s full of wizards and witches, and you end up feeling good about witchcraft. But who’s actually behind it? What makes the magic work? Is it God, the devil, angels, demons, hidden human powers, nature, impersonal cosmic forces, New Age entities, or what?”
“One thing’s for sure,” Jodie said, “it’s not the God of the Bible. It’s not Jesus. And in Scripture there’s no such thing as neutral supernatural power sources—they’re either good or evil. Those that don’t believe in God’s Son are evil, even if they’re disguised as good.”
“That’s what I’ve told Brittany about Skyla,” Jillian said. “She keeps quoting me the Wiccan creed ‘Do no harm.’ That’s supposed to make witchcraft okay. But Rob has shown me these Scripture passages saying it’s forbidden for us to call on or try to communicate with any supernatural powers except God himself.”
“Rob’s right on target there,” Greg said.
“And if you’re not sure,” Kristi said, “you have to stay away. That’s why when we have kids I wouldn’t want them to read Harry Potter until they’re old enough that we can read them together and use some discernment. If you’ve got a strong Christian filter in place, you can screen out the part that’s off base, but if you don’t...”
“You don’t want it to be a doorway to something else,” Greg said. “How many kids—and even adults—watch the programs and read the books and learn that witchcraft is really okay, that there’s no reason to fear it, that you can use supernatural powers to good ends, even when the God of the Bible has nothing to do with it? It’s subtle, but it’s dangerous.”
Additional resources regarding Harry Potter:
For more information on this subject, see Randy Alcorn’s book The Ishbane Conspiracy.