Harry Potter, Parents, the Media, and the Lunatic Fringe(s)

“Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.” (German: “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.”) — Heinrich Heine, from his play Almansor (1821)

I saw a report on CNN Headline News, earlier, about the (midnight, last night) release of the latest Harry Potter novel. Forget for a moment that 300,000 Britons felt the need to hang around British bookstores in the middle of the night to buy a supposed children’s book at the earliest possible instant; what bothers me is how the debate over the value of these books is carried on.

CNN was honest enough to acknowledge that many people are, in fact, not Harry Potter fans and wouldn’t be offended by the term “muggle,” since they wouldn’t have a clue what one was talking about. CNN’s acknowledgement, though, was rather weak: the broadcast cited three sources of discontent, all of them with some sort of Christian label, none of them simply concerned that these books might not be good for children for non-religious reasons.

The first source of opposition CNN found was the Jesus Non-Denominational Church of Greenville, Michigan, which appears to be a rather apocalyptic group and whose members burn Harry Potter books and Shania Twain CDs. The church is also a King-James-only congregation. I think even most evangelical Christians – of which I am one – would consider this group a bit extreme. Certainly, they do not represent the mainstream opponents of the Harry Potter series.

The second source of discontent was The Jesus Party, a group in Lewiston, Maine, the primary activities of which appear to be burning or cutting Harry Potter books and showing videos warning of the perils of witchcraft. Again, not terribly representative.

The third source was the new Pope. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had written, in personal correspondence, that the Potter series can plant false ideas that inhibit the development of Christian faith. At least CNN found one recognizable authority.

What bothers me is that not one person was cited as having non-religious concerns. In other words, the only people expressing concerns are two groups on the very fringes of American society and a German pope. There are plenty of Christian and non-Christian parents, out there, who oppose the Potter books on the bases that they are ambiguous at best about cheating, lying, revenge, and a slew of other issues. The author (J. K. Rowling, now the wealthiest woman in the UK) is planning “to kill more characters,” and appears to have a nasty fixation with death and pain, saying, “You are writing children’s books, you need to be a ruthless killer.” Religious and even moral objections aside, this seems like an unhealthy mindset for an author of book primarily intended for children. I can’t find the exact quote, but I have heard Rowling say that she doesn’t believe deaths of fictional characters can be psychologically harmful to children.

I think there are very good – and very valid – arguments from both religious and non-religious perspectives against giving the Harry Potter books to children. Magic alone, in my mind, does not condemn the book, from a Christian viewpoint; after all, I consider Tolkien and Lewis to be both excellent writers and morally sound as Christians, and they both employed magic in their fiction. From any viewpoint, though, Rowling’s preoccupation with death should give us pause. I hope CNN gives more balanced coverage, in the near future.

[The quote above, by the way, struck me as particularly appropriate. I am not saying that the groups above will end up murdering anyone. It seems, though, that books are burned out of fear that they might be read; hence, a book burning is a sign of a group or culture in desperation, flailing for solutions. So, Heine was probably right: people are getting desperate, and things aren’t looking good.]

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