On July 21, 2007, Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, the last book of the wildly popular Harry Potter series, hits the stores. The release of the seventh book marks the end of a ten-year journey for fans all over the world. To date, the first six books of the series have sold more than 325 million copies and have been translated into 63 different languages. For the last book in the series, publishers have already announced they'll print a record-setting 12 million copies, just for distribution in the United States alone.
Of course, the books are also becoming, one at a time, major motion pictures. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is scheduled for release on July 13, about a week before the final book goes on sale.
So, to say that anticipation is growing among fans is an understatement. Take a bit of time to visit Potter-oriented blogs and you'll see that fan anticipation is growing exponentially. Understandably, fans are expressing both exhiliration at the prospect of having so many of their questions answered by the final book, and sadness at seeing the series come to its final close.
And in the midst of the wild sucess enjoyed by this series, there has also been ongoing controversy surrounding it as well. It's ironic that, while the individual books in the series have all enjoyed high best-seller rankings, they also suffer high rankings on "banned" lists as well. Author J.K. Rowling even mentioned the fact that, in 2006, her books featured prominently on the year's list of most-banned books.
As an evangelical Christian, I have listened to the "Harry Potter debate" unfold in our community since shortly after the release of Sorcerer's Stone. What surprised me was the fact that there were such strong feelings on both sides of the issue within the Christian community. I remember listening to a debate moderated by James Dobson on his show, Focus on The Family.
Dobson didn't take a position; rather, he sat back and listened to his guests debate back and forth regarding the value vs. the danger of some of the themes in the book. These books do, after all, prominently feature the practice of witchcraft, with most of the story taking place at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
What could be clearer than this? The Bible condemns the practice of witchcraft. In Deuteronomy 18, versus 10 and 11, for example, we're told, "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."
What most people do not know, and what God is addressing in Deuteronomy, is the practice of witchraft in Canaan, which happened to commonly include ritual human sacrifice. As Deuteronomy tells us, and archeology has confirmed, newborn infants were often burned alive as sacrifices to their gods.
Witchcraft was unacceptable then and it is unacceptable for believers today. I believe that and, ultimately, know that practicing "witchcraft" or "Wicca" as many call it today, is fundamentally (no pun intended), a rejection of God. That said, I know quite a few people who are Wiccans, including one who is a High Priestess, and I'm happy to count them as friends. I disagree with what they believe, they know I disagree, and we have some good debates regarding our beliefs.
But I digress…
The important question then is whether or not it is clear, based on Biblical exhortations, that Christians should avoid this series of books? Believe it or not, the answer is not a clear "yes" or "no." As I mentioned previously, there are devout Christians who adamantly oppose this series and those who who wholeheartedly endorse these books. So, where do I stand?
It just so happens that I am one of those who wholeheartedly endorses this series. In order to explain my reasoning as well as my recommendations to fellow Christians who may not yet have read these books yet are considering it, I think it is necessary to step back a number of years to the time when I first learned to love reading.
It was 1975, I was ten years old and was in the fourth grade at Germantown Elementary School in Annapolis, MD. One day I walked over to the library during a break in classes to see if I could find something interesting to read.
When I entered the library, it was very busy, with the librarian frantically working to get books back on the shelves as quickly as students were pulling them off. I thought to myself, "the librarian should know what is worth reading," so I walked over to her, standing near a particular shelf of books with her book cart, where she was diligently creating order out of chaos.
I asked her, "Could you help me find a good book?" She gave me hardly a glance. Instead, she looked quickly up to the nearest shelf, grabbed a book, and placed it in my hands. "Here," she said, "this is a good one." I looked down and read the title, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. I thanked her and walked off.
I vividly recall opening the book to begin reading it later that same day. I remember because the book captured my attention quickly and I remember reading about a little girl named Lucy, who entered a wardrobe thinking it a good hiding place during a game of hide-and-seek with her two brothers and sister. Trying to hide as completele as possible, she walked farther and farther into the wardrobe, until she found herself in a quiet wood with snow falling all around.
When I read this, my eyes widened and I said out loud to myself, "it's a magical wardrobe!" I was, no pun intended, enchanted. And my love of reading in general was greatly enhanced because of this wonderful book. Over the next few years I read all seven books in the series and loved every one of them.
Now, many know that the author of those books, C.S. Lewis, was a good friend of his fellow Oxford Professor J.R.R. Tolkein, and was one of the greatest Christian apologists (defenders of the Christian faith) of the 20th century. His friend Tolkein had helped him move from devout atheism to devout Christianity. Lewis was a prolific author and the body of his work includes fantasy, sci-fi, Christian theology, and some biographical works.
Lewis wrote the series we know today as The Chronicles of Narnia because he wanted to write a children's series that would help readers to feel the power of the Christian story. He did not write these books in an allegorical manner; rather, Lewis literally inserted Jesus into his Chronicles as Aslan, a great lion who created Narnia, was sacrificed on the Stone Table by the White Witch, and rose again to free his people from her tyranny.
Through this mode of story-telling, Lewis hoped to teach a story readers likely already knew, but in a different way. For me, the strategy worked perfectly. Growing up, I longed to know the Aslan of those stories. And one day, mid-way through college, I met him in the person of Jesus, whom I gave my life over to and whom I today call Lord and Savior.
But as a child, I read these books over and over again, longing to visit Narnia, and longing most of all to know God the way Narnians knew Aslan. A personal relationship with a Lord who saw through them, understood all the weaknesses of those who loved him, and loved them anyway with a love that transcended all understanding.
It was many years before I understood that this is exactly what Jesus offers, a personal relationship. So, the Chronicles of Narnia gave me that first taste of what God really offered, not staid religiosity, but a personal walk with the creator of the universe.
The lesson I ultimately learned from this experience was that stories, even ones which include magic, can still teach important moral lessons. And because of my love for these books, I was encouraged to read other series; including The Lord of The Rings. And, while J.R.R. Tolkien consciously presented a clear "good vs. evil" message, he did not overtly or covertly insert a Christian theme into his books.
Regardless of the fact that both Tolkien and Lewis were devout Christians, there have been ongoing debates over the fact that protagonists in both series understand and, at times, employ magic to accomplish their goals. So, is the use of magic in the context of a fictional story a bad thing? Many Christians, and I include myself among them, do not believe so.
Understanding this, one can better understand why there are many Christians like myself who have enjoyed the Harry Potter series. And in may ways I believe that this series is as significant as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.
I did not begin reading the Potter books until late in 2005, seven years after the first book appeared. But then a co-worker began to loan me the books on tape and CD. I was so enchanted — again, no pun intended — by the books that, I finished listening to books one through six in the space of just about four months, the entire time thrilling at the quality of each of the books and the awesome narration skills of Jim Dale.
I listened to the books while driving to and from work each day. With a 100-mile-per-day round trip, I was, at that time, a prolific audiobook consumer. And during those months of listening to the Potter books, I was never so happy to be stuck in traffic.
Despite my own love for these books, other Christians might ask if there are worthwhile themes in this series from a Christian perspective? The answer is a definite yes!
From a high-level perspective, some of the most important themes relate to love, family, friendship, loyalty, forgiveness, and even redemption. Specifically, we see the constant and overarching theme of love.
Professor Dumbledore, the Hogwarts Headmaster, expresses the belief that love is more powerful than any magic several times, and tries to teach Harry that this is his only hope of defeating his arch-enemy, Lord Voldemort. Dumbledore is the personification of love, just as Voldemort is the personification of hate.
So, you can see while we do not hear the words "good vs. evil" much in the series, we constantly see the theme of "love vs. hate." And the benefits of love and the consequences of hate are constantly, and quite effectively, portrayed by Rowling.
The hate-filled Lord Voldemort loves no one, trusts no one, and confides in no one; not even his closest followers. Voldemort is utterly without mercy, eliminating anything and anyone who gets in his way. As you read about him, you see his psychotic personality. A genius, but one who is utterly controlled by his hate, fear, distrust, and ambition.
In contrast, Dumbledore is ever-loving, always forgiving, and seeks always to influence his students in a positive way. In the sixth book of the series, Half-Blood Prince, Dumbeldore shows love and compassion even to one of his students who is threatening to kill him. Dumbledore believes in the power of love and lives his life in a manner that is consistent with his beliefs. And as Rowling hints throughout the series, Dumbelodore's insistence on the power of love will somehow be the key to victory over Voldemort and his followers.
Another well-expressed theme in the series is the value of family. Harry Potter's parents were ruthlessly murdered by Voldemort when he was just an infant, and his non-magical relatives do not treat Harry well while raising him. So the family of one of his best friends from Hogwarts, Ron Weasly, takes him in and treats him as one of their own.
Ron Weasley is one of seven children, a family which is poor in monetary terms but incredibly rich and alive with their love for each other. And Ron's parents show great love and devotion to Harry, showing Harry, and readers of the series, the joy and value of family.
Here, Rowling does a phenomenal job of communcating something that many of us never understand, that a loving family life is worth far more than a mountain of gold. You feel right down to the depths of your soul what the young Harry Potter understands; he would gladly give up every ounce of his family's personal fortune to have his parents back.
Overall, I think it difficult for anyone to argue these books are "devoid of value," as some claim. Like the Chronicles of Narnia and Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series is full of important values and lessons, only in the backdrop of a magical world.
Does this mean that I recommend the Potter series unequivocally? No, I do not.
Rather, I think that, for parents who are concerned, they should read through the books before their children and decide for themselves if they wish to let their children read them or not. For adults who feel the content, despite the positives, is too dark or too oriented on witchcraft, then I recommend they not read the series.
Just as in every community, there are varying levels of opinion, I think it important for both Christians and non-Christians to respect those who might respectfully disagree with the themes written into the Harry Potter Series. And I place an emphasis on "respectful disagreement."
In the end, this is a story, not a biography, and the events of the story are fictional. That said, what a wonderful experience this has been for fans of the series! A story this engaging and compelling does not come along very often, and we've had the opportunity to watch both the characters and the tale itself unfold and develop over the past ten years.
It has been a great ride, and in July of this year, we'll see the conclusion of the series with the release of Deathly Hallows. Like other fans, I'm excited and sad to know that the final book is almost here.
I wish her all the best and I truly appreciate the work she has done in the creation of this wonderful, inspiring, and worthwhile series of books. What an amazing adventure it has been so far.