"Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" opened to huge box office numbers over the weekend of November 18-20. Not only was this the best performance among the four Harry Potter films, but at more than $101 million in receipts, it actually ranked as the fourth-best three-day opening weekend of all time.
Should Christians be worried?
Author J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter phenomenon has been credited with making reading cool among children no small feat. Six successful novels, now four hit movies, and a variety of toys and games have built a mini-literary empire.
Yet, since the first book was published in 1997, Christians have been divided over Harry and his fellow students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Various Christians feel a bit queasy with these stories. In fact, some have moved far beyond uneasiness to view the books and movies as downright hostile to Christianity.
But there is much to be said for the values communicated in the Harry Potter tales. For example, this latest movie, while carrying an appropriate PG-13 rating due to some intense scenes, shows that making the right choice is crucial, but not always easy. Harry sacrifices for others, and at one point, is commended for his "moral fiber."
So, what's the beef? This past summer, it was widely reported that in 2003 Pope Benedict XVI, before he became pope, wrote in a letter that the Potter books present "subtle seductions that are barely noticeable, and precisely because of that have a deep effect and corrupt the Christian faith in souls before it could properly grow." Others see far less subtle troubles. Consider the movie review of "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" by Ted Baehr, chairman of the Christian Film & Television Commission. He wrote that "both the book and the movie promote an abhorrent, evil, occult worldview that is dangerous to both children and adults." Yikes!
It is the issue of witchcraft that gets some Christians quite upset. Various passages from Holy Scripture usually are noted. For example, Deuteronomy 18:10-11 instructs: "There shall not be found among you anyone ... whoo practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead." In Galatians 5:19-20, St. Paul lists witchcraft, or sorcery, as sinful.
Obviously, Christians must obey such biblical declarations. And with various reports noting that many young people are dabbling in the occult these days, these clearly carry significance for our own time.
Unfortunately, though, some Christians apparently have trouble differentiating between dabbling in witchcraft, and using stories involving witches and wizards as a literary device. Holy Scripture does not prohibit this literary use of God-given imagination, which also was utilized by such great Christian authors as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkein. In fact, Rowling's presentation of witches and wizards in an imaginary world turns out to be virtuous, as she conveys the message that a real difference exists between good and evil, and makes clear the imperative that good must triumph.
At worst when it comes to Harry Potter, Christians should be able to agree to disagree. But that is not enough for some. For example, Baehr asserted in his review that Christians who embrace and promote the Harry Potter books and movies "are turning their backs on Jesus Christ" and "are promoting heresy and rebellion against God."
Such harsh legalism itself goes against Holy Scripture by violating the freedom of the Christian. Jesus Christ warned about the Pharisees "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men." (Matthew 15:9) That is, they try to bind consciences by what man says, rather than God.
The most extreme attacks on Harry Potter can have the effect of painting all Christians as the worst kind of fundamentalists who actually fail to grasp the meaning of their own Scriptures.
Raymond J. Keating, also a columnist with Newsday, can be reached at ChurchandSociety@aol.com.
Copyright © Raymond J. Keating