Harry Potter and the Diversity Culture

by Matthew Raley

One of the most common searches that brings readers to Tritone Life is some version of, “Should Christians read Harry Potter?” Readers land on a post from my Tough Questions series last summer.

Evangelicals’ visceral reaction to the Potter books continues to amaze me. The young wizard seems to symbolize their problem of how to guide children through the American diversity culture, the openness to anything and everything, without losing faith in Christ.

At Writing for the Soul, the annual conference of the Christian Writers Guild in Colorado Springs last weekend, this problem was a focus of attention, with Harry still being the reference point.

One catalyst for discussion was a keynote speech by Dr. Dennis Hensley, whose address on postmodernism was a tour de force of analysis and passion. He said that the negative view most pastors have of postmodernism needs to be revised. Postmodernism is indeed a tapestry of dangerous threads. But the increased diversity in American culture, the openness to other points of view, the humbling of Enlightenment arrogance are interwoven with threads of opportunity.

Dr. Hensley showed that our biggest opportunity as Christian writers is to create heroes who do not win their battles, but who successfully live in the moral universe God has created. Such heroes would be biblical: they would model submission to God’s law in self-sacrifice, as Jesus did. They would also speak to postmodern imperatives, showing success through personal authenticity without empty triumphalism.

After such a rich address, the new cultural realities echoed in many conversations.

I talked with a Christian educator, asking whether he had tracked the spiritual journeys of his high school graduates. He had: “The majority are really struggling with their faith.” They enter a culture teeming with sensual temptations, and saturated with moral and spiritual questions, and they flounder. My observations tallied with his: a deep crisis of faith incited by culture shock is now the norm.

Many believers, like my friend, assess the trials of young Christians honestly. Believers can see their kids struggling to keep and express faith in Christ without the cultural support past generations enjoyed. The response of compassion and grace is godly.

Still, many other believers are shocked by the diversity culture and its heroes. These believers will not countenance Harry, as if by pouring scorn on his popularity they can protect their kids from godlessness.

At lunch during the conference, someone asked me what books I’ve read to my boys. I said (trouble-making instinct freely acknowledged), “I read the first Harry Potter book with my 8-year-old. He loved it.” Around the table there was silence, with one or two dangling jaws. My interlocutor said, “A pastor reading Harry Potter to his son?” Two other brave souls volunteered that they’d read the entire series.

That evening at dinner, Harry Potter came up again, and again I got surprised looks from around the table for saying that my son and I had read it. But we  discussed why Harry was so popular. A couple of writers said he was a well-drawn, living character. Rather than trying to make a “Christian” copy of him, they said, we should create vibrant characters of our own.

Artistic power won’t save souls. But it might at least express Christ’s truth.

In some ways, Harry speaks to postmodern children because he fits Dr. Hensley’s description of a postmodern mythic hero. Harry succeeds according to a higher law, but doesn’t always win. In other more important ways, Harry will continue to be a beloved character simply because J. K. Rowling has written classic stories.

For me, as a Christian parent, the issue is not so much the meaning of diversity culture heroes like Harry Potter. The issue is initiation.

Who will initiate my 8-year-old into the culture in which he must live?

If a postmodern true-believer initiates him, then my son will learn how to interpret this era, its stories, and its heroes from a point of view that may as well come from the Anti-Christ. Such is the power of the initiator.

But if I initiate my son into the culture in which he must live . . .

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