WASHINGTON (BP)–Now that the evangelical furor and fundraising has temporarily subsided over the release of the sixth Harry Potter book, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” perhaps a brief educational study is in order.
To be sure, the book includes witches, potions, the dark arts, magic spells and talk of all things evil in the ongoing saga between Lord Voldemort and the orphaned Harry Potter. The alternative universe created by author J.K. Rowling is understood by a unique vocabulary endemic to Hogwarts (the boarding school for wizards) where the young Harry trains for his final face-off with evil personified.
Theological heartburn over Rowling’s characters and subjects aside, is there a message for evangelicals eclipsed (perhaps ignored) in the events and statistics surrounding the book? To be sure, sin sells. Talk of wizards and magic always titillates the hearts of children. Rather than find these passions satisfied through a proper understanding of biblical theology where the cosmic battle of the ages was fought and won on two pieces of wood by a Galilean carpenter, human hearts sinfully choose to battle the wrong people with the wrong weapons as they work toward the wrong goal. Such is the strategy of Satan.
Although Rowling’s novels are written for pre-adolescents and adolescents, they also have a large adult following. Worldwide sales topped 270 million copies, and there is no end in sight to the almost daily launch of another website where readers discuss in crowded chat rooms their ideas as to what might take place next with Harry and his friends.
The pedagogical achievement of Rowling’s novels has caused the modern education establishment great embarrassment. Educational “specialists” have long held that new technologies inevitably will render books obsolete. Children prefer videos to books, and any publishing house intent on making a profit had best banish the books and roll out the toys.
Educational publishers concluded long ago that today’s media-saturated children do not like to read, and in order for any book to sell a vast array of graphics must appear beside clumps of easy words so as to hold the attention of an overly medicated generation. Reading thick books with small print and no pictures ranks up there with the idea that another thick book with no pictures (the Bible) could even remotely capture the mind and heart of children. Such an absurd thought is destined for the ash heap of history. “New is true –- old is mold” is the modern mantra of both the school and, quite surprisingly, the church.
Indeed, only an unsophisticated, out-of-touch, plebian non-educator would postulate that millions of school children could understand the intricate plots, character variances, and underlying message of books like Rowling’s world without the benefit of “professionally” crafted leading questions, an “educationally sensitive” teacher’s guide, “pre-visioning,” and, in the words of Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, “the other junk pedagogical strategies that burden American school children in their English classes.”
The logical question for Christian parents, pastors and educators: Are evangelicals any different? The year is 2006, and who knows what is taught to children in Sunday School? For all the criticism rightfully leveled at Rowling for her unbridled sinful themes, she unequivocally demonstrates that children actually can read. She refuses to dumb down the language or simplify the plot (Harold Bloom notwithstanding); few visuals accompany her prose because she requires that her readers read all 652 pages of the book. She evidences a trust in the power of words that evangelicals seem to have lost.
A brief survey of some of the most popular Sunday School literature for children and adolescents reveals that many evangelical publishers need to re-read their Bibles and revisit their marketing plans –- in that order. The myriad of cartoon characters, camp songs, fire engines, specialty Bibles, and apocryphal novels do not rise to the technical level of Rowling’s pen, and the business executives of major secular publishing houses know it. The dirty little secret is that thousands of evangelically “churched” children know more about Harry Potter than Jesus. And this from the heritage of evangelical Protestantism that once gave the church the documents such as the Heidelberg Catechism with its penetrating, unnerving and unsettling first question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” Not exactly the content of modern educational theorists or even modern Christian educators.
Many, no doubt, state that evangelicals have their own marketing niche, and they would be right. “The Chronicles of Narnia” took in more than $290 million at last winter’s box office. Christian music now has more than $700 million in annual sales, and predictions are that the figures could even rise higher. Yet attention to the Gospel with subsequent faithful attendance at a local church by the masses who spend their money on Christian literature and music is not the result of the evangelical business machine. Why, then, all the criticism of Rowling? It seems that she is at least succeeding on her own merits.
Perhaps the lesson for evangelicals is not that Satanic themes are being injected into the mainstream of modern life through the fictional tale of Harry Potter, but that Gospel themes are not despite the millions of dollars per year spent on Christian books and trinkets. At least Rowling’s overt thought trajectories are not cloaked behind a pretense to avoid the very themes which tell her story. She has no ambivalence in her description of darkness, death and evil. Contrast that to some of the latest children’s Sunday School curricula where Jesus’ death, if mentioned at all, is characterized as some sort of tragic happening for which God did not plan. It was sad, but not significant for the world.
Perhaps before another fundraising letter emerges decrying the evils of Harry Potter and the critical need to combat its influence through customized para-church resources, the church should revisit Scripture to discover there a saga more potent and captivating than any theme earthly writers could pen. For there, the thirst for man’s worship is satiated not with fairy tales, but with a future hope grounded on truth. Jesus defeated evil, and, in the words of the Heidelberg Catechism, has “fully satisfied” God’s rightful wrath for sin so that all who believe will have eternal life (1 John 2:2). Once that is known, fantasy no longer satisfies.
Douglas Baker is a writer who lives and works in the Washington, D.C. area.