By Michael G. Maudlin
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon
Last November I interviewed “Movie Mom” Nell Minow for our sister publication Christian Parenting Today. To her radio and Internet fans, Nell is an impassioned advocate for parents being vigilant in protecting their kids from inappropriate and harmful movies (moviemom.com). The magazine received many appreciative letters, but a handful sounded like this one, which I received today: “I went to her Web site and found this: listed among her ‘All-Time Best Movies’ was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone! This is just a joke, right? If not, why do you call yourselves CHRISTians. You give us, who really want to follow Christ, a bad name. Refer to the following verses in the Holy Bible: Deut. 18:10-14; 2 Kings 17:17-18; 2 Chr 33:6; Gal 5:19-21. This is not the first time I found your magazine to be not only in bad taste, but down right stinks of Hell!”
Never mind that the Harry Potter movie was never mentioned in the article, and let us not dwell on the confusion of treating magic as a literary device (to which none of those Bible verses apply) with magic as an occult practice (to which the verses can apply)—the letter is a good example of how J.K. Rowling’s fantasy books have touched a raw nerve among some evangelicals. And the vitriol is not limited to the fringe element: take the venerable Ted Baehr, publisher of Movieguide and head of the Christian Film & Television Commission, a diplomatic mission to make connections between Hollywood and the Christian community. Normally cautious in his criticisms of the film industry and careful about making overgeneralizations that he may have to take back when meeting with studio heads, Baehr has openly campaigned against the Harry Potter movie, calling it “soft porn” in how it seduces our young into a life in the occult.
Cult watcher Richard Abanes has capitalized on the Potter hysteria and fanned the flames of fear in his book Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick (Horizon). But when debating the film on Dennis Praeger’s radio show, Abanes could not come up with a single anecdotal case of someone taking up the occult based on reading or viewing Harry Potter.
This primitive shunning of Harry Potter is made all the more strange when contrasted with the Christian response to The Lord of the Rings, the fantasy trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and the blockbuster movie by director Peter Jackson. Superficially, there are many similarities between the projects. Both are fantasies by British authors who not only populate their stories with magical creatures but with magic as well. In fact, in both series magic is seen as a neutral instrument that can be used for either good or evil. And both authors allow their heroes to make full use of magic in their cause. So why are not both condemned equally?
If one indulged in this paranoid game of spotting evil, then I think a case could be made that Tolkien stinks more of hell than Rowling—as my pen pal would say. First, Middle Earth is surprisingly secular. We do not see any churches or temples, only monuments to past kings and historical figures. In fact, no wizard, elf, dwarf, human, or hobbit prays or mentions a deity (at least I don’t remember such a reference in the five times I have read the series, but I am sure someone will tell me if I am wrong). At least Harry Potter celebrates Christmas. Suffice it to say that religious piety is not modeled in Tolkien.
Second, if you want to condemn a work for what it has inspired, then turn up the heat for Tolkien. While neither Tolkien or Rowling has ever encouraged people to mistake their magical worlds for the real one (in fact, both have made quite the opposite point), many fans have voluntarily entered Middle Earth. It would be hard not to link the occult-friendly role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons to the influence and popularity of Lord of the Rings, which has provided the imaginative landscape for much modern fantasy. One Web site even sells Lord of the Rings Tarot Cards. Have some people used Tolkien as an entry point to the occult? The answer must be yes.
And yet, where is the brouhaha over Lord of the Rings? I have not heard it. All I have heard are desperate, wrong-headed attempts at explaining why Tolkien’s (and Lewis’s Narnia series’) use of magic is fine while Rowling’s is bad. Even Harry’s critics feel compelled to defend Tolkien.
In fact, Tyndale House, the publisher of the Left Behind series and the New Living Translation of the Bible, has gone so far as to publish Finding God in The Lord of the Rings. Written by a vice president at Focus on the Family (another organization that few would claim suffered from liberal leanings), Kurt Bruner and writer Jim Ware attempt to show the “strong Christian faith that inspired and informed [Tolkien’s] imagination.” No scent of hell in that.