Well, he’s back. Harry Potter, the wily young wizard featured in four best-selling novels and two hit movies, is back in a fifth novel, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. The 870-page tome from author J. K. Rowling is poised to become the biggest seller in the series. So far Harry has sold over 200 million copies world wide.
There are several factors contributing to Harry’s success. For one thing, it’s a darned good story. Part fairy-tale fantasy, part coming-of-age saga, Harry resonates with both young and old as he battles the forces of evil, even while struggling with self doubt and emerging identity. Harry represents the quintessential hero, who is able to rise from humble beginnings to achieve greatness. We love that stuff.
But there is another piece to Harry’s success. The Potter series from the very beginning has been under attack by segments of the Christian community. The prevalence of magic, witchcraft, sorcery has been enough for many Christian groups to label the books satanic.
If you want your book or movie to be a hit, pray that it will be condemned by Jerry Falwell or James Dobson. Telling people not to read a certain book or see a certain movie almost always has the opposite effect. There is nothing quite like a good book burning to boost sales.
In the past, church leaders found ways to transform certain opposing ideas into metaphors of the Christian faith. The observance of Christmas in connection with the winter solstice and Easter with the spring equinox are but the two most dramatic examples of this process. Church leaders were able to link great themes of the church with cultural celebrations that were already in place. In time, those celebrations became entirely Christian.
Why are the faithful today afraid to engage culture in creative and transforming dialogue? The impulse to ban, condemn, and silence the competition certainly comes from a position of power the church holds today, but seems to reflect an inherent insecurity. It’s almost as if church leaders are afraid the gospel can’t compete in the marketplace of ideas.
There are a few creative voices at work. Scott Moore, philosophy professor at Baylor University, has found some remarkable Christian symbolism in the Potter series. In an interview with the Baptist Standard Moore points to an important sub-text in the Potter stories that illustrates an important Christian principle. The evil character Voldermont is so feared by characters in Harry’s world that they will not call him by name. In fact, that is how he is referenced in the stories: He Who Must Not Be Named.
But Harry calls him by name. “One of the most pernicious examples of lack of character we have in our culture is the failure to call things by their proper name,” Moore states. “Harry has the courage to call Voldemort by his proper name.”
It certainly raises an interesting point. Our world is marked by greed, violence and hatred. Our country is wracked by fear and divided by racism. The poor in our midst are despised and neglected while the rich get tax cuts.
In the face of such obvious evil, why spend our time and energy trying to discredit and silence Harry Potter? Instead of condemning Harry, maybe we should learn courage from him to name as evil what apparently we are afraid to speak.
James L. Evans is pastor of Crosscreek Baptist Church in Pelham, Ala.