“Since it is so likely that children will meet cruel enemies,
let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
– C.S. Lewis
I live between two constant tensions.
Tension # 1: Our family currently lives in the US suburbs, in an environment of prosperity (materialism?) and peace (apathy?). We come home, eat pizza for dinner and watch a movie on a comfy couch in an air-conditioned home together. We go to movies and eat ice cream and spend an occasional day at the beach. We have access to safe homes and good schools, healthy food and clean water. While we know about the challenges much of the world faces, we don’t live them.
Tension # 2: My husband works in social work and I teach English as a Second language to adult immigrants and refugees. We care deeply for the world in all of its chaos, in all of its wars and poverty and injustices, in part because we see daily how such tragedies impact people around us and in part because we know such brokenness is close to the heart of God.
Over the years, I’ve struggled to know how to introduce my children to such realities. I don’t think it’s fair to shelter them completely, for even at a young age, they need to understand the realities of living in a fallen world. But I also don’t want to overwhelm them with things they can’t understand.
While they can’t yet fully grasp the evil raging in the world around them, they do have an easier time processing the good they see. The fact that hope still makes more sense than despair may be one of the greatest gifts children give adults. For their sake and mine, I want to instill in them a thirst for goodness, hope, and friendship for the future moments in their lives when all might appear lost.
Enter: Harry Potter
I started reading the first Harry Potter book aloud to my nine-year-old daughter about a year ago. Her seven-year-old brother was banned from listening because he was too young. As little brothers do, he snuck outside her bedroom door and hung on every word. By the time mama caught onto his scheme, he was captivated.
As a book-loving mama, I didn’t have the heart to turn him away, so I decided we would only read through book 3 because the darkness really starts to get thick when Lord Voldemort returns in book 4. But we finished book 3 and they begged to keep going like their lives would end if they had to wait years to learn what came of their beloved Harry, Ron, and Hermione. So cautiously, we read on.
At first, I was a bit hesitant, wondering if the evil, the battle, the fear that rages in the story of good vs. evil would be too much for them. But as we read, I grew more convinced that this was more than an entertaining story, it was food for their souls.
Here was a way we could dialog over issues of evil, of injustice, of fear. Here we could explore the complex realities of relationships, emotional scars, power structures, and even political systems in ways that they could actually understand. Mention the United Nation’s peace efforts and their eyes cross, but bring up Umbridge taking over Hogwarts and they’re suddenly rabid activists for peace and justice.
Every so often, I run across voices decrying the ‘dangers’ of the Harry Potter series and they mystify me, for I have found its themes offer a great deal of biblical, moral and spiritual training. To counter some of these voices, I thought I’d offer my own reasons on why I’ve invested hundreds of hours enthusiastically reading Harry Potter to my kids:
1. It clearly distinguishes good and evil.
One of the downsides of suburban America is that the lines between good and evil blur easily. In urban contexts, darkness is much more difficult to hide. The suburban distractions of materialism and entertainment speak much more loudly than the vices more common in urban contexts simply because evil is not as visibly present. (Kathy Keller does a great job of exploring why darkness is easier to discern in the city in her article, “Why you should raise your kids in the city.”) One of the basic truths I want my children to understand is the reality of good and evil that is present both in the world and in themselves. If they don’t know how to recognize and respond to it, they are more likley to be caught unaware of the impact of their decisions.
2. It tells the (whole) truth.
In a story primarily about the attempt of evil to overthrow the good, it’s difficult to sugarcoat much – life can be hard, scary, and disappointing. People stumble over themselves, make mistakes, and sometimes don’t know what to do next. Sometimes they have scars they are unable to overcome, even if they are ultimately good (Snape). One of the disservices the modern Sunday School program indirectly teaches our children is that stories end perfectly, tied in neat little bows. Mind you, the Bible doesn’t do this, just the Sunday Schools. If you don’t believe me, read Genesis 9 about a naked and drunken Noah. To my knowledge, no Sunday School teacher has ever included that part of the story in Noah’s ark. For their faith to be lasting, children need to know that they may mess up, fall short, or have unanswered questions. They need to see examples all around them of people failing – both real and fictional – who continue to pursue God, not perfect ones who never mess up and know all the answers.
3. It inspires wonder.
Let’s face it, flying on broomsticks playing quidditch outside a magical castle is pretty awe-inspiring to modern kids who ride around in mini-vans and play soccer all day. I don’t want my children limited to the confines of suburban cookie-cutter worlds – I want them to forge creativity, to imagine possibilities beyond their wildest hopes and dreams, to believe in something bigger than what they can actually see. This is how we grow better societies, and in the end, how we also find God.
4. It stirs up hope.
As the series grew more tense, my kids started getting a bit nervous about the outcome of all this evil-fighting-good business. They peeked ahead, glimpsed at next chapters and last pages, and breathed sighs of relief to find out that Harry would make it, if only for that particular book. They’ve cheered and hoped for him – booing those who stood in his way and loving those who supported him. In the process, I’m watching them experience what it means to hope, to long deeply for goodness to triumph when you’re not entirely sure what the outcome will be. I want my children to be so familiar with this feeling that they are able to recognize it and act on it as their understanding of ‘real life’ increases.
5. It demonstrates courage.
When Voldemort returned to power, my children cowered and cuddled close, concern burrowed in their little brows. My son’s had nightmares about death eaters and sometimes sleeps with the hall light on, ‘just in case’. But when they play, they are never Voldemort or death eaters. They are, of course, Harry, Ron, Ginny, Hermione, or Neville. These are characters who, though terribly under-qualified and ill-equipped, demonstrate courage beyond their years to fight evil because 1) it needs to be fought and 2) they are friends who have each others’ backs. Seeing this courage-in-action is formative to my own children’s future characters. I don’t know what they’ll face in their lifetimes, but I want them to have a frame of reference rooted in courage to do the right thing, even in the face of great cost to themselves.
6. It values relationships.
In our modern, technological world, honest and committed relationships are struggling. Our environment shouts for instant everything, and provides increasingly fewer models of genuine trust, endurance and perseverance. Harry, Hermione, and Ron model an enduring, committed friendship – one in which they are each themselves and appreciated for who they are, not who they wish each other to be. When Harry tells Ron and Hermione information that has the potential to threaten their very lives, they look at each other and gulp, but barely hesitate to declare their allegiance to him. While there are times that Harry clearly wants to go his own way and fight the battle himself, his friends respond in no uncertain terms, “We will not let you go it alone, it’s too dangerous. We’re coming with you,” and refuse to back down. How I long for my children to seek out these qualities in their own friends and to be this kind of friend in return.
7. It portrays strong male and female role models.
The rigid gender stereo-typed models of warriors and princesses fall far short of what I hope for my children. In Harry Potter, none of the girls are stereotypically frilly or ditzy and none of the boys are stereotypically macho or womanizing. Hermione is a brilliant, hard-working rule-follower. While Neville begins as a nervous and insecure boy, he matures into a spectacular symbol of courage. Ron’s occasionally thick-headed but endearingly genuine. Fred and George are rebellious pranksters who end up both saving the day and sacrificing tremendously. The characters are simply who they have been created to be. They live their imperfect stories fiercely and well, refusing to fit the box their environment tries to put them in.
8. It teaches symbolism.
Perhaps the biggest critique the series has received is from those with concerns about the focus on witches and wizards. Like many great stories, the witches and wizards are merely symbols to help children see truth (Narnia and Lord of the Rings also have strong magical themes and haven’t received near the kind of criticism on this front as Harry Potter). While witches and wizards can have other connotations, they don’t inherently represent the same thing. Throughout history, symbols have been a powerful influence in the life of faith, and it’s helpful for children to learn that sometimes there are multiple meanings and layers to what they actually see – people and objects included.
9. It promotes the value of a keen mind.
Much of the conflict in the series is a battle of minds, of learning that often the most difficult battles rage within our own heads. As a result, the primary content at Hogwarts isn’t braun, but brain. In many ways, the spells are symbols for the knowledge that the students acquire which prepares for adulthood. However, knowledge isn’t entirely enough. The students must also exercise discipline to develop their skills in useful ways, and discernment in knowing how and when to use these skills appropriately.
10. It’s awesome cuddle time.
In the later books, each chapter takes roughly an hour to read aloud, so we have lots of time for extended cuddles. I’m quite aware that the remaining years of this sweet delight are dwindling quickly, and I’m savoring every snuggle while they last.
In spite of the naysayers, I believe Harry Potter is a story for the ages – particularly for Christians – and a symbol of how I want my children to live – authentic lives full of wonder, courage, hope, and commitment, lives that overflow with goodness and stand against evil, lives that sacrifice to know and protect truth, lives that see and care for others well.
Of course, my kids don’t see any of this. All they know is a compelling story that they can’t wait to read with me. I’m ok with that too. Some things they don’t need to understand completely.