Opinion

What do Christian protests about Harry Potter books teach us?

A fan reads "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" by J.K. Rowling as he sits outside a bookstore in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on July 21, 2007. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Amit Dave

(The Conversation) On Monday (June 26), Harry James Potter — the world’s most famous wizard — will celebrate his 20th birthday. His many fans will likely mark the occasion by rereading a favorite Harry Potter novel or rewatching one of the blockbuster films. Some may even raise a butterbeer toast in Harry’s honor at one of three Harry Potter-themed amusement parks.

But not everyone will be celebrating Harry’s big day. In fact, a vocal group of Christians – usually identified as “Bible-believing” or fundamentalist Christians – has been resistant to Harry’s charms from the start. Members of this community, who believe the Bible to be literal truth, campaigned vigorously to keep J.K. Rowling’s best-selling novels out of classrooms and libraries. They even staged public book burnings across the country, at which children and parents were invited to cast Rowling’s books into the flames. These fiery spectacles garnered widespread media coverage, sparking reactions ranging from bemusement to outrage.

Harry Potter turns 20 on June 26.
Lesley Choa, CC BY-NC-ND

What could justify the use of such drastic measures to keep these books out of the hands of young readers?

The different views on Harry Potter

Book burnings may be relatively rare in modern America, but efforts to protect young readers from “dangerous” texts are not. Such texts, and the efforts to limit their readership, are the subject of a class I teach at the University of Southern California.

In this class, students survey a collection of books that have been challenged on moral, political and religious grounds. These include classics such as “1984” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” as well as newer texts like “Persepolis” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” The point is not to determine which challenges are “good” and which are “bad.” Instead, we seek to understand how differing beliefs about reading and subjectivity make certain texts seem dangerous and others seem safe to particular populations of readers.

Harry Potter is one of the first books we discuss.

Most readers of Rowling’s novel – including many Christian readers – interpret the characters’ tutelage in spells and potions as harmless fantasy, or as metaphors for the development of wisdom and knowledge. Similarly, they read incidents in which Harry and his friends disobey adults or make questionable choices as opportunities for characters and readers alike to learn important lessons and begin to develop their own moral and ethical codes.

What makes some literary texts appear ‘dangerous?’
kayepants, CC BY-NC-SA

For some fundamentalist Christians, however, Harry’s magical exploits pose an active danger. According to them, Hogwarts teaches the kinds of witchcraft explicitly condemned as punishable by death and damnation in the biblical books of Deuteronomy and Exodus. They believe the books must be banned – even burned – because their positive portrayal of magic is likely to attract unsuspecting children to real-world witchcraft.

Similarly, they think that when Harry disobeys his cruel Muggle guardians or flouts Dumbledore’s rules to save his friends, he actively encourages child readers to engage in lying and disobedience, which are explicitly forbidden by the Bible. As evangelical Christian writer Richard Abanes puts it,

“The morals and ethics in Rowling’s fantasy tales are at best unclear, and at worst, patently unbiblical.”

Making assumptions

Why don’t Bible-believing Christians trust young readers to discern the difference between fantasy and reality? And why don’t they think children can learn positive lessons from Harry’s adventures – like the importance of standing up to injustice?

According to scholar Christine Jenkins, people who try to censor texts often hold a set of false assumptions about how reading works.

One of those assumptions is that particular literary content (like positive portrayals of witchcraft) will invariably produce particular effects (more witches in real life). Another is that reactions to a particular text are likely to be consistent across readers. In other words, if one reader finds a passage scary, funny or offensive, the assumption is that other readers invariably will do so as well.

As Jenkins points out, however, research has shown that readers’ responses are highly variable and contextual. In fact, psychologists Amie Senland and Elizabeth Vozzola have demonstrated this about readers of Harry Potter.

Readers’ responses can vary widely.
Seamus McCauley, CC BY

In their study comparing the perceptions of fundamentalist and liberal Christian readers of Harry Potter, Senland and Vozzola reveal that different reading responses are possible in even relatively homogeneous groups. On the one hand, despite adults’ fears to the contrary, few children in either group believed that the magic practiced in Harry Potter could be replicated in real life. On the other, the children disagreed about a number of things, including whether or not Dumbledore’s bending of the rules for Harry made Dumbledore harder to respect.

Senland and Vozzola’s study joins a body of scholarship that indicates that children perform complex negotiations as they read. Children’s reading experiences are informed by both their unique personal histories and their cultural contexts.

In other words, there’s no “normal” way to read Harry Potter — or any other book, for that matter.

Distrusting child readers

Fundamentalist Christians aren’t the only group who have trouble trusting the capabilities of child readers.

Take the case of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

For decades, parents have argued that Harper Lee’s novel poses a danger to young readers, and have sought to remove it from classrooms for this reason. Some parents worry that the novel’s vulgar language and sexual content will corrupt children’s morals, while others fear that the novel’s marginalization of black characters will damage the self-image of black readers.

Despite their different ideological orientations, I believe that both of these groups of protesters — like the fundamentalists who attempt to censor Harry Potter — are driven by surprisingly similar misapprehensions about reading.

In all of these cases, the protesters presume that being exposed to a phenomenon in literature (whether witchcraft, foul language or racism) naturally leads to a reproduction of that phenomenon in life. They also believe that their individual experience of a text is correct and applicable to disparate readers.

The ConversationThese cases of attempted censorship show a profound distrust of child readers and their imaginations. And they ignore evidence that child readers are far more sophisticated than adults tend to credit them for.

(Trisha Tucker is assistant professor of writing at the University of Southern California – Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.)

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Trisha Tucker

19 Comments

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  • They (fundamentalists) tell us that only their book of fairy tales is valid and all others are “demonic”. The pot calling the cauldron black.

  • What do the beliefs of some Christians about books they have no intention of reading tell us?

    That they have found a new way to grift.

    That their faith is not so solid that it can withstand an imaginary assault by a fictional character.

    They they wish to control other people.

    That their book of tales is valid, while the book of tales of other people is not,

    That they have no respect for freedom. Well they do. Freedom of religion is for me. FReedom to follow my religion is for you..

    Dominionism isn’t dead.

    And all of that on m first cuppa.

  • Gosh, I just posted something on Facebook about this. I am a thoroughly orthodox Catholic and actually started reading the HP books because I had read condemnations of the books by Christians. What such people failed (and fail) to discern is that while magic and witchcraft are forbidden in real life, they are not forbidden in fiction. I will repeat my FB comment by noting that there are lots of magic in LOTR and it is one of the most Catholic books ever written. Harry has his faults, as do the rest of us, but he is a boy who is in daily danger of his life for no fault of his own save for not being killed. He is no saint. He is, However, a hero who risks his life time after time to save his friends. For a Christian defense of the books consult John Granger’s “How Harry Potter Casts His Spell”, Saltriver/Tyndale 2008. Granger appears to be Eastern Orthodox. Tyndale is a Christian publishing house. Finally, how can anyone who has actually read the books, fail to understand in Whose footsteps Harry is shown to be walking when he goes voluntarily to his death to save his friends and save the world?

  • “Finally, how can anyone who has actually read the books, fail to
    understand in Whose footsteps Harry is shown to be walking when he goes
    voluntarily to his death to save his friends and save the world?”

    Because people who ban books seldom actually read them.

  • That non-religious people or non-Christians love criticizing other flavors of religious people or religious people in general?

  • I had to laugh over this story. As you may imagine, my wife and I line up pretty tightly on our beliefs and our faith, but we differ markedly on this issue. I may have a bias because Fairy Tales/Fantasy/Science Fiction all bore me to tears. And naturally, I don’t include the bible in those categories. She finds Harry Potter harmless, I find him problematic. I won’t bore you with the arguments, the author above did a pretty good job of outlining them, and dismantling them (from her point of view). Call me a curmudgeonly old conservative.

  • Fantasy/sci-fi puts me to sleep as well. Harry Potter is one cultural phenomenon that passed me completely by. Real history is better than anything anyone could make up, IMHO.

  • I feel this article is a bit sensationalist. Most bible believing Christians I know have no problems reading Harry Potter and I know plenty who are huge fans of the series. The Christians who call for book bans are a tiny minority that get exaggerated by attention craving news media. I feel like though negative reactions to Harry Potter have fallen to the wayside and you barely hear complaints about it anymore and even Rowlling’s revelation about Dumbledore’s sexuality was mostly greeted with a shrug. There’s a lot to be critical of religious extremists about but I don’t see that it’s helpful to dig up this dead debate that most people don’t really care about and most Christians don’t have an issue with. I just think it’s a bit msileading to put the love of Harry Potter into this false dichotomy between secular atheists and Christians as though there are no Harry Potter fans that are conservative Christians.

  • Reading is magic. You look at runish characters and suddenly an image of something in the world flashes in your head. If the power that formed the characters is evil it lodges deeply into your soul and begins to replicate like a virus. Once the virus develops enough mass in your soul it opens a black hole in which demons enter. Soon you are casting magic spells by putting the same runes on paper and passing them around. Even if 99.999% of the runes are good, it takes only one lying rune to destroy them, because truth is so delicate it can’t stand up to the tiniest of lies. Lord, help us.

  • I think most people understand that it is only the fundamentalists that attack Harry Potter and similar “pagan” and “demonic” books and movies. When those views are made public and acted on, they deserve and should expect criticism.

  • Nothing wrong with intellectually honest criticism from all sides. Conservative Christians are certainly not shy with their opinions and criticisms.

  • I don’t favor banning, and I admit I’m not doing any crusading for or against Harry Potter. It’s just not on my front burner. (Not even the middle burner, honestly.)

    But I do favor Christians at least taking the time to inform themselves, their kids/grandkids, and also the general public, about what’s being offered inside the Harry Potter books & movies. For example:

    “Is the Harry Potter series harmless?”

    http://www.christiananswers.net/q-eden/harrypotter.html

  • I’ve often cast many magic spells. I do it all the time. Sometimes I command god to curse people. And you’re so right. 99.9% of the time, it doesn’t work. But I once commanded god to curse this old guy. And ten years later, the guy died!!!!

  • Hmmm… Scrambling to frame some questions for engaging youth in discussions around the H.P. series & the core from which portions of it are derived, i.e., the author’s own “deepened & darkened depression” that “seeped into every part of the books.” Thus, her creation of the “Dementors” to characterize that “foul” place. Though the good professor notes in the article that children are generally more sophisticated than to presume such interventions as Harry Potter would when they become depressed, “What to do,” then, when there is no magic wand, is yet a real question in a culture where youth depression & suicide are quite real, increasing, and the series has made its reach as a “global phenomenon.” I wish to be a fly on the wall when children process the “Dementors” in the context in which they were cast… Thoughts?

  • What are you people about and how on earth can you justify your comments. Harry Potter is all about good overcoming evil. The great and the good winning against the worst. This is not witchcraft, it’s storytelling at its best. Children have amazing imagination and the places that JK Rowling takes her stories is beyond brilliant. The basic principles of her books are the basic teachings of Christianity. Honour, Valour, Bravery and most of all good winning over evil. I pity your children, I really do, you are not equipping them for the world they will face. You are bigoted beyond belief and your Children will suffer the limited, narrow path you layout for them. If you are a true Christian, which I cannot think for a second you are, let them live, love, think, feel and make up thier own minds. You are taking something wonderful and twisting it to your own ends. Your children are people in their own right and should not have to life the rest of thier lives with your limited values. Let them become people of thier own minds and souls and make thier own decisions based on what they learn, not what you have brainwashed into them. I pity your children, they are individuals entitled to thier own thinking, grant then thier own minds at the very least.

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