It’s been a couple of weeks since the record-breaking publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and while most of the familiar elements – midnight queues, speed-reading reviewers, claims that JK Rowling can’t write for toffee – were present and correct, one thing seemed to be missing this time round.
Where are the pictures of angry, book-burning Christians? Where are the denouncements of the books as pagan incitements to the occult, drawing the nation’s children down the path of witchcraft? It has all been strangely quiet on the theological front.
While the view from the lunatic fringe of American evangelism doubtless remains as rabid as ever, there are signs of a definite softening of attitudes in the UK. The clearest of these is the publication last month of a Church of England guidebook to the billion-selling series – Mixing It Up With Harry Potter by Kent youth worker Owen Smith.
– J.K. Rowling in Author has frank words for the religious right
Aimed at 9-13 year olds, the book uses JK Rowling’s magical novels as the basis of 12 lessons – or “sessions” – which provide the basis for an hour’s discussion and activities, from film clips to prayers. The book draws parallels between events in the books and the real world to explore concepts such as sacrifice and mercy.
Owen Smith has little time for claims that the books are dangerous: “The magic in the books is simply part of the magic that JK Rowling has created, in the same way that magic is part of the world of Christian writers such as CS Lewis. To say, as some have, that these books draw younger readers towards the occult seems to me both to malign JK Rowling and to vastly underestimate the ability of children and young people to separate the real from the imaginary.”
The Rt Revd John Pritchard, Bishop of Oxford, agrees. “Although the fictional world of Harry Potter is very different from our own, Harry and his friends face struggles and dilemmas that are familiar to us all. Jesus used storytelling to engage and challenge his listeners. There’s nothing better than a good story to make people think, and there’s plenty in the Harry Potter books to make young people think about the choices they make in their everyday lives and their place in the world.”
In 2000, Warner Bros was refused permission by the church to use Canterbury Cathedral in the first Harry Potter. The studio wanted to turn the sacred monument into Harry’s wizarding school, Hogwarts, but was turned down by cathedral authorities concerned about the story’s “pagan” theme.
The Roman Catholic church, meanwhile, made their position clear four years ago in a Vatican document which set out its views on the “new age”. Father Peter Fleetwood, a member of the Vatican’s council for culture said at the time, “I don’t see any problems in the Harry Potter series.”
He went on to say that the good-versus-evil message of the books was consistent with Christian morality.
Countering suggestions from some evangelical groups that the tales of the magical school add glamour to occult beliefs, he said, “I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who grew up without fairies, magic and angels in their imaginary world. They aren’t bad. They aren’t serving as a banner for an anti-Christian ideology. If I have understood well the intentions of Harry Potter’s author, they help children to see the difference between good and evil. And she is very clear on this.”
Finally, he said JK Rowling was “Christian by conviction, is Christian in her mode of living, even in her way of writing.”
Rowling said as much herself in an interview with Vancouver Sun in 2000. It “seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I said I thought there was no God,” she commented, and added that it suited her not discuss her faith too freely because, otherwise, “I think the intelligent reader, whether 10 or 60, will be able to guess what’s coming in the books.”
Now, with the publication of the seventh and last book in the series, many more Christians seem to be coming round to this viewpoint.
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