My Church Was Right: Harry Potter Was a Threat to My Faith | Sojourners

My Church Was Right: Harry Potter Was a Threat to My Faith

A young child reading 'Harry Potter and the half blood prince' dressed up as Harry Potter
A young child dressed up as Harry Potter reads Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. James Boardman / Alamy

This year marks 25 years after the first Harry Potter book first turned many children into avid readers — and the beloved series has never been in worse shape.

In recent years the series’ author, J.K. Rowling, has repeatedly expressed concern about the effect that trans rights legislation will have on women and girls — transphobic views that have moved her fans and opponents alike to call her a transgender exclusionary radical feminist, or “TERF.” The series itself has been heavily criticized for its functional but ungraceful prose, numerous plot holes, and reliance on stereotypes of marginalized groups, including antisemitic goblins and an Irish character known for blowing up his spells. As a result, a generation who grew up with The Boy Who Lived are abandoning the series and moving on.

It’s a complicated time to still consider myself a fan of the original story.

When I first learned about J.K. Rowling’s transphobic views, I was devastated. Like many other millennials, I considered myself to be a card-carrying member of the Harry Potter generation, graduating from high school right as the seventh and final book in the series was released. I loved being a part of many literary fandoms, from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Lord of the Rings, and the Harry Potter series was my favorite.

But for me, Harry Potter fandom wasn’t just about enjoying a fun book series or exploring a fantasy world; reading J.K. Rowling’s books transformed my understanding of the Christian faith, helping me scrutinize my fundamentalist Baptist upbringing and eventually leave conservative Christianity. Characters like the Weasley family and Hermione Granger — who stood with muggle-born wizards and house elves when others in the magical community did not — taught me what it means to love and welcome my neighbor. Similarly, the protagonists’ protracted struggle to convince the Ministry of Magic to take Lord Voldemort’s return seriously enabled me to see more clearly the way the structures in our world, including our churches and government, fall short. I didn’t want to become a person who ignored things that were evil; I wanted to be someone who took action to end them.

I was in elementary school when the first Harry Potter books were published in the United States. At the time, I was a painfully shy and awkward child; I treasured my library card and found solace in the stacks of books I carried home from our local branch. Though I was a prime target for a sensational new children’s book series, my parents — like the rest of our fundamentalist Baptist church — deemed anything about witchcraft inappropriate reading for good Christian children.

I pleaded with them for months and we finally struck a bargain: I would read the book alongside my parents, and we would discuss any concerning themes; they relented. I was elated as I brought home Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. By the end of the book, I felt confident they would see what I had seen: a battle between good and evil, hate and love — one that mirrored the child-size theology about God and sin I had been taught in Sunday school. The story seemed wholesome, like an obvious fit for me.

My parents disagreed. “It has witches in it,” my mother shrugged. “It’s not appropriate.” They told me not to read any more of the books; I was devastated — but accepted the challenge.

On my second day of middle school, I found Julianne, a fellow nerdy kid and now-lifelong friend. She was also Christian, but unlike me, her family attended a church that was part of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) denomination. She was allowed to read the book series, which seemed deeply unfair.

We devised a plan: Julianne would bring me the other books that had been released, and I would sneak them into my bedroom to read once my parents had gone to sleep. It worked brilliantly, though my mother became increasingly suspicious when the corner of my mattress popped up higher and higher as each book was thicker than the previous one.

As I read more books from the world of Harry Potter and beyond, I began thinking critically about what happens when communities accept and even celebrate differences, especially the differences that often mark someone as an outsider. I began to consider how evil forces can corrupt trusted systems, even systems with well-meaning adults at the helm. In the books, it took people outside of the established power structures of magical society to see the good and the evil in the wizarding world. Neither the Minister of Magic nor the upper-class members of the wizarding community save the day; it was the bravery and courage and love coming from ordinary and often marginalized wizards and magical creatures that ultimately prevailed. It made me wonder what else the cookie-cutter, prosperity gospel-focused side of the Christian church, and my own faith by extension, was missing.

Eventually, I left the fundamentalist church of my childhood. I took a break from Christianity, then joined Julianne’s church, which seemed to more closely reflect what Jesus called his followers to do. I befriended kids from many faith backgrounds at summer camp, and by the time the sixth book came out, I was the rebellious goth kid standing in line at Barnes & Noble to get my copy at midnight.

So when I think about the Harry Potter books today, I’m left wondering: what now? How do I engage with a series that isn’t spectacularly well written, whose author has taken a stand against people I love and care about?

I will always have mixed feelings about it because of who I am and how my story played out. The series isn’t exactly the pinnacle of fantasy writing, and I will always mourn for its shortcomings, the views of its author, and those who could have been reached through it if she hadn’t alienated so many with her hurtful, oppressive views. I am happy to financially abandon the franchise, supporting only the independent creators who are inspired by the book series. I still own the book series, though it no longer has place of pride on the main bookshelf in my living room. And instead of re-reading the books, I’m more likely to listen to podcasts like Witch, Please, which thoughtfully and critically examine the story through a progressive academic lens.

But it was a crucial part of the path that led me to where I am now in my faith journey. My story is intertwined with the story of Hermione’s house-elf activism, Luna’s dedicated friendship despite knowing her peers see her as an oddball, and the Order of the Phoenix speaking against the powers of Death Eaters in their midst. And when I speak truth to power, I’m reminded of Harry himself, resisting the authority of the adults in his life who wanted him to lie for their benefit and, instead, choosing to tell the truth, even when it was hard or inconvenient — remarkably like the teachings of Jesus. Without Harry Potter, I wouldn’t be the progressive Christian I am today, and a part of me will always love the series for giving me that.

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