Almost two years ago I did something I thought I’d never do.
I watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.
My whole life I had grown up hearing the name “Harry Potter” mentioned with extreme disapproval and even disgust. In the Christian circles in which I moved, I only ever heard the series discussed as dangerous, and that it was fundamentally opposed to Christianity. It was all about kids using black magic. It was dark. It was violent. It celebrated sorcery. In short, it was evil. I never questioned this take on Potter as a child. As I grew older and began to come to my own convictions about many other matters, I left the whole issue of Potter on the shelf so to speak. I had plenty of other books that I enjoyed reading, so why should I bother with something sketchy? Even if it wasn’t as terrible as I’d always heard it was, why take the time to sort through the pros and cons, discuss it with other Christians and go through all the hassle of forming my own conviction about it?
But after hearing several of my respected Christian friends talk about how much they enjoyed the Potter series, and how they did not find it to be evil or wrong, I wondered if it just might be worth it to try out at least the first movie. I know when I’m being convicted about watching or reading something wrong, and I knew that if I felt that prick in my conscience that I would stop watching. So in went the DVD, I stretched out on the couch and began watching. I waited for that prick in my heart, but to my great surprise it never came. I didn’t find the film brilliant by any means, but I certainly didn’t find it to be evil either. The Hogwarts magic that I had heard so much about was not true witchcraft, fueled by demons and evil spirits. It was fantasy magic – the same as I had read about and enjoyed so much in books like The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia since I was a little girl. I didn’t see any fundamental difference between Harry’s wand and Gandalf’s (aside from Gandalf’s being admittedly cooler-looking and having the ability to function as a walking stick, orc-whacker and firework-lighter). And seeing as the magic in the Potter series had always been the #1 argument against the books, I was suddenly faced with the shocking fact that I did not find J.K. Rowling’s story to be evil at all. I decided to continue with my experiment and give the next movie a shot as well.
Through the next seven movies (and then seven books, as I read the series) I prayed and thought a lot about the whole Potter issue. The story that I had always thought was black through and through was full of beauty, goodness and truth. I wasn’t crazy about the movies, but I did enjoy a great deal of Harry’s adventures. The more I prayed about it, the more I was sure that the Lord had given me freedom to enjoy Harry Potter. I had been convicted about many things in my life before, and had felt the Lord tell me to stop reading or watching or listening to certain things. But when it came to asking the Lord about Potter, I was met with freedom. It wasn’t what I expected, and it was (honestly) a bit hard to get used to. I was haunted by the feeling that I had somehow gone down a notch in my Christian walk. Like (even though my conscience was clear before God) if other Christians found out that I read Harry Potter that I’d be kicked out of the club, so to speak. I’d be one of the hooligans. I’d be one of the “bad kids”. One of the heathens who not only reads Harry Potter, but actually enjoys it.
Isn’t it so sad that we can get to the point where we can have complete freedom in the Lord to enjoy something, or do something, or say something, but because of peer pressure and the fear of “what others might think” we carry around a big load of guilt on our shoulders? I’ve carried around that guilt in one form or another my whole life, over different issues. The way I dress, talk and act, what music I listen to, what books I read, my life choices – all of who I am has been shaped and molded and refined by Christ, my Savior, Friend, Leader and Shepherd. I strive every day to please Him and glorify Him with my life. But at the same time, I also want to make other people happy as well. I want to make sure that I’m not only pleasing Christ, but also pleasing people. I don’t just want Him to approve of me – I crave the approval of my fellow humans. And for years I have been foiled in this (big surprise). I always seem to be disappointing someone, disapproved of by someone, seen as silly or foolish or wrong or bad by someone, even when I’m living all-out for Christ. I don’t mind so much when the world in general disapproves of me, but it really stings when my fellow Christians look down their noses at me for something I do or listen to or watch or read.
But as the Lord has been teaching me over and over and over again lately, what does it really matter? The religious folks of His day hated Christ. They snorted at Him and looked down their noses and even called Him demon-possessed. Ouch. At least I’ve never been accused of that. It’s a fine line to walk, this line of fellow-Christian-approval. I want to always remain open to the correction and edification and instruction of my fellow believers in Christ. They are often very wise, very discerning, and full of the Holy Spirit. The Lord has used other Christians to lead me, direct me and shape my decisions in many, many different times throughout my life. But when I get to the point where I’m worrying more about what my friends and family think than what He thinks, when I feel at peace about something before Him and ashamed in front of others, when I carry around guilt that He doesn’t intend for me to bear – that’s when the line has been crossed. That’s when “being open to others’ advice” morphs into “living in fear of what others think” and it’s a dangerous place to be in.
And it’s a place I struggled hard to leave when I first started reading Harry Potter. I dreaded being thought badly of, and so I kept my books to myself and read them under the radar. I didn’t discuss them with fellow book-lovers. I didn’t review them on this blog. I was afraid of offending others as much as I feared being disapproved of. But now, two years and two readings of the series later, I’m in a different place. Old fears and old disapprovals still try to cling to me, but I’m learning that I don’t have to let them cling to me. There’s freedom in Christ, and as long as He is happy with me, then all is right with the world.
I am sure that there are plenty of Christians out there who have felt a genuine prick in their own hearts from the Lord about Harry Potter, and who have truly come to their own conviction that reading the books would be wrong for them. The Lord has different plans for everyone, and as such give different marching orders to different soldiers. In my case, I have enjoyed such freedom with the Potter series, and continue to discover new delights the deeper I delve into Harry’s story.
When I first watched the movies I was interested, but not wildly so. The story didn’t make much sense because I had not yet read the books. But the moment I opened the first chapter of the first book and read that utterly delightful, deliciously British opening sentence, it became clear why Harry Potter had become an instant classic.
They were not just good stories. They were brilliant.
The longer I read and the more complex the story became, the more I felt in awe of Rowling’s story-telling ability. She may not have the descriptive powers of Dickens or the painstakingly crafted universe of Tolkien, but she has created a true masterpiece with Harry Potter. From chapter one, I felt an immediate connection with Harry’s world, his sufferings under the ridiculous Dursley cousins, his wonder at discovering his true heritage and wizarding abilities, and the enthralling nature of school life at Hogwarts. Not only is the atmosphere she creates absolutely fabulous, but the actual story is unbelievably well done. It begins simply enough in the first book, and then with each new installment, she subtly weaves in deeper themes, richer complexities and more layers. What starts off as a charmingly witty fairy-tale with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone matures into a powerful, epic fantasy story that solidly takes its place beside The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia as one of the greatest fantasy stories of the century.
I was met with more beauty, laughter, wit, truth, depth, adventure and sheer delight in the Harry Potter series than I had ever hoped to find there. I became friends with a quiet eleven year old boy and watched him grow into a fully grown hero. The Weasleys’ ridiculously cozy and eccentric home felt like the safest place on earth. Quidditch quickly took its place in the category of my top favorite sport. Fred and George had me laughing so hard I could hardly catch my breath (something I had never experienced to such an extent in any book before). Severus Snape intimidated and infuriated and intrigued me like no other character I’d ever met in the pages of a book. Yes, the books can be dark at times. They’re as unsuitable for children as every other good children’s book in the world. Characters die – and not expendable characters, either. There’s magic and wands and cauldrons. There are villains who kill for fun. But amid all of the darkness (one might even say because of the darkness) heroes rise, light shines and good triumphs.
What surprised me most of all, though, was that I kept finding Christ at Hogwarts. Over and over again I would get glimpses of Him through the pages of Rowling’s book. I could see Him in Dumbledore’s patience and humility. I could see Him in Lupin’s gentle heart and Hermione’s compassion, in Ron’s loyalty and Harry’s (eventual) steadiness and courage. I could feel Him, right around the corner as it were, throughout all of Harry’s story – through the loss, sufferings, growth and sacrifice that Harry went through. Most amazing of all was that at the end of the series, when the final, once-and-for-all battle between good and evil takes place, Christ was simply blazing through the pages. He was no longer an echo or suggestion. He was front and center. Under a different name of course, and in a very incomplete, faulty and even bespectacled messenger, but He was unmistakably there. Just as I had found Christ in Gandalf, in Dym, in characters all through literature, I had found Christ in Harry. Harry Potter had helped me to see Christ and the Gospel in a new and powerful way, and helped me to grasp certain Christian truths more deeply than I ever had before.
There was a holiness at Hogwarts that I never expected to find. And I am so glad that I did.
And yes, I have received weird looks. And comments. I’ve fallen a few notches on the scales of some Christians that I know. But it’s been worth it. It’s been worth it as a lesson that I don’t always need the approval of my fellow human beings (even the Christian ones). It’s been worth it to add seven more books to my shelf (they take up almost an entire shelf to themselves) that have already given me countless hours of enjoyment and promise to give me hundreds more as the years go by. It’s been worth it to reinforce to me that the Christian life is so, so much more than a list of do’s and don’t’s and legal-lists, and not to judge other peoples’ marching orders because I don’t want mine to be judged. And it’s been worth it to remember that God can bring joy, truth and beauty into the life of His people with whatever instruments He chooses to use.
Even Harry Potter.