Can you read Harry Potter and be a Christian? More importantly, can you read Terry Pratchett and still be a Christian? These questions are perhaps a bit provocative. There will be those who will argue fervently that reading such books is a compromise for a believer; in the same way that some will argue you should not be drinking beer, going to dances or mixing too much with the world. The more I long to follow Jesus, the more He leads me in a very different direction.
Yet I can’t help thinking that the discussion needs to start further back. What are the problems that Christians have with this sort of fiction? One, it appears to be aimed at children, who are vulnerable. Two, it tends to promote witchcraft and wizardry, which Christians know is real and has real power, and real danger. There is indeed a large move afoot today to present witchcraft as a friendly and reasonable force. There is nothing Satan likes so much as to seem to be friendly and an ‘angel of light’. It is easy to be deceived. I don’t have a problem with this sort of teaching and awareness at all. There are two spiritual powers in the world: one is the prince of the power of the air, with a certain level of control in the world – he is a fallen angel, the enemy of those who follow Christ, and has a certain destiny ahead of him. The other spiritual power is Yahweh: Father, Son and Holy Spirit, if you like. I only hunger for the second.
So coming back to the discussion regarding Christians reading this sort of fiction – does it function perhaps as a bridge across into the worlds of those who DON’T know Jesus? Does it take the spiritual world seriously, in a way that other fiction doesn’t, and that many people today do not? I know that I have had discussions with friends regarding the Book of Revelation in the Bible based on their reading of ‘Good Omens’ (which I have not read myself).
If anything, when children read Harry Potter they are convinced that witchcraft is not real, rather than encouraged to take up its practice. Yes, they may know all the chants for the spells, they may possess their own wand… but they are playing. Just like you might play with a light sabre, or with a shark costume (my son’s latest acquisition). Play has a sacred quality to it. It salutes and embraces the imagination. Without imagination, very few of us can enter truly into what Jesus has done for us. If the Force, or Dumbledore, or Granny Weatherwax, is one of the first times that a growing child recognises their desire for a hero, a Saviour; the danger of the world and the desperate, urgent need for someone persistently good, someone strong enough to help – then it has achieved something powerful.
Some things in this world are cut and dried, and for some of us, we will never be able to engage with Harry Potter or Pratchett, or someone more vigorously atheist and ‘poisoned’ like Philip Pullman without feeling contaminated, or underhand, or betraying our Lord. I understand that (I myself remember feeling shocked as a teenager buried in Williams Horwood’s amazing Duncton Chronicles that it was the moles of the Word who were evil, and the moles of the Stone who were good – a deliberate, arch reversal of Christian faith and more than a nudge of approval towards Druidism).
But we need to be ‘all things to all men’, and some of us are called to engage in those conversations, to meet people where they’re at, to take someone’s yearnings after a more passionate, more engaged, more meaningful life and help them to seek after God. ‘Only connect’ was E.M. Forster’s dictum regarding writing novels. Novels are not about doctrine. They are not about religion and piety (although if you’re looking for a very thought-provoking novel in that direction, I recommend ‘Jane Eyre’ as a recent, stirring and sympathetic read). They are about imagination, about identification, about quest, about society. They shape us inadvertently (and perhaps this is what some of my friends are worried about), and we can allow them to shape us deliberately in a God-direction if we so choose. Jesus pretty quickly shows us if we need to put certain books down – this is my experience.
Even the Psalms talk about taking wing and flying away – sometimes we (particularly children) love to be able to do that as well, and escape into a story. We are reminded in Paul’s writings in the Testament that what is unseen is eternal, and that heaven is more real than the things we see. Valuing the imagination, and universal human impulses that are schooled and ‘put through their paces’ in top quality story-telling, are part of building our character. Sharing our reading experiences with others is part of helping others to get there too.