Even after 15+ years, it’s still a controversial question in Christian circles today: Should Christians read Harry Potter? To some, the answer seems clear. Doesn’t the Bible condemn the use of magic and witchcraft? Shouldn’t we therefore stay away from a series that has constant depictions of magic and in fact centers around a school whose purpose is to train witches and wizards to use it?
I’ve been on both sides of the fence on this question. I have to say that over the last few years, my view has shifted to the conclusion that this is a matter of Christian liberty and conscience. For those who answer the question in the negative, I have great respect for your convictions, and I do not desire anyone to do anything against their conscience, but I think that an important distinction needs to be made in this conversation. That is the difference between invocational and incantational magic.
Invocational magic is the magic practiced in the world today. Those who practice invocational sorcery attempt to invoke demonic powers to do their bidding. It’s the kind of magic (negatively) depicted in Shakespeare’s MacBeth, for instance, and it is unquestionably evil. Essentially, those who practice it are attempting to prove themselves to be so wicked, and so in league with Satan that they can coerce demons to do their bidding. This is the magic forbidden in Scripture and practiced by some today. This sorcery, however, bears no resemblance to the magic portrayed in Harry Potter.
The magic of Harry Potter is what is referred to as incantational magic. In Harry Potter, magic is an inborn trait in certain gifted individuals that they can learn to harness. The Latin root of the word incantation means to sing along with. The magic of Harry Potter is essentially a talent that witches and wizards can hone and learn to use. This bears no resemblance to real world sorcery. It is purely fantasy on par with the “bippity boppity boo” of Cinderella’s fairy godmother.
It is because of this distinction that I believe the question of whether or not a Christian should read Harry Potter is an issue of Christian liberty. Since there is room for seeing a fundamental distinction between the magic forbidden in Scripture and the magic depicted in Harry Potter, we would do well to avoid attempting to bind the conscience of believers who are comfortable with it, while at the same time, those who are comfortable with it should be careful not to cause those whose conscience condemns them for reading it to stumble.
For those who can read the books with a clear conscience, there is plenty here to enjoy! Rowling has created a literary masterpiece! This may come as a shock to those who have not accepted the invocational / incantational distinction, but when you examine the Harry Potter books on a literary level, they contain a strongly Christian worldview.
Rowling is a member of the Church of Scotland, which is by and large very theologically liberal, but has many orthodox members and clergy as well. There is a strong sense of Christian morality portrayed and extolled throughout the books, with the exception of things like lying and rebellious attitudes, which are often depicted in the books. The books even contain subtle reproof for those who would attempt to redefine morality and human sexuality. And things get really interesting when you look closely at the actual events of the story line. Rowling was asked in an interview if she was intending to communicate Christian allegory in her works, and she replied, “To me, the religious parallels have always been obvious.”
[spoiler alert, from here forward!]
For instance, in the first book, Harry is willing to die to save his fellow students. He passes by a three headed dog, which in literature symbolizes dying, via an allusion to Cerberus, the three headed dog that guarded the gate of Hades in mythology. After passing the dog, Harry voluntarily descends into the depths below the school, faces, and defeats the evil, serpentine lord Voldemort, and rises again from the depths, victorious. This is clearly a depiction of the Christus Victor theory of Christ’s atonement. Again, in the second book, Harry abandons himself and descends below the school to save a fellow student. In the same blow, Harry both sacrifices his own life and slays a giant serpent before being resurrected by a phoenix and defeating lord Voldemort again. He then rises up again from the depths, victorious.
From that point forward, the books begin more intentionally building toward the final face off in the 7th book, where Harry, “the chosen one”, explicitly said to be driven by the power of love, offers his own life to save those whom he loves. Harry willingly dies for his friends and rises again from the dead. In the end, the serpentine Lord Voldemort attempts to kill him, but the murder Voldemort intends for Harry actually results in his own death. As a blatant allegory of the gospel, evil commits suicide as it attempts to slay the chosen one!
The series is clearly not without its faults, but overall, Rowling has created a literary masterpiece that can be enjoyed, if your conscience allows, while appreciating some great underlying worldview statements and Christian allegory along the way. Not to mention, it’s simply a fantastic, unparalleled story! Again, it is a good and noble thing to abstain if your conscience condemns you for reading, but me and my house will be enjoying Rowling’s masterpiece!