Recently it’s come to my attention that some Christian fantasy writers are calling for more so-called “non-magical fantasy.” If this seems like a contradiction in terms, you’re not alone. As far as I can gather, non-magical fantasy involves made-up or semi-made up worlds, medieval aesthetic, and self-proclaimed deep, stirring themes. These concerned citizens allow for books like the Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings that are written from a strict biblical worldview by known believers, but decry any magic systems involving demon worship or witchcraft that is not defeated in the end—specifically calling out Harry Potter.
I’m sorry. What?
I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and grew up as part of the so-called Harry Potter generation. As a whole, members of the Church seem to be less worried about Harry Potter than Evangelical Christians, so I largely missed out on the debate on whether the books promoted satanism. Although I discovered Harry Potter later than my (almost universally church-going) classmates, I loved the books as much as (or more than) the next nine year old geek. I made myself a wand, sorted myself into Gryffindor, copied spells into homemade spell books, and ran around on a costume broomstick trying to curse the neighbor kids—and dodge their curses in my turn. Although it could be argued that I could have used some of this energy reading scriptures or memorizing the Articles of Faith, I never felt like this period of fanaticism negatively impacted my testimony. And while my ardor for the Wizarding World has waned over the years, I make no objection to my children experiencing the wonder for themselves.
That said, the Bible warns us to avoid witchcraft. Leviticus 19:31 says, “Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the LORD your God.” Deuteronomy 18:10-12 warns, “There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch, Or a charmer, or a consulter with familiar spirits, or a wizard, or a necromancer.” And there’s always the classic Exodus 22:18, “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.”
Seems pretty definitive. So am I just justifying a sinful guilty pleasure in my defense of Harry Potter? I would argue, no. Why? Because the witchcraft in Harry Potter isn’t real witchcraft as laid out in the Bible.
The story of the Old Testament is one of a people whose God—a loving, powerful, real Father in Heaven—brought them out of darkness and bondage and showed them how to live and in whom to put their trust. And time and time again, the people turned from God and tried to worship literally everything else. Trees. Statues. Demonic spirits. Money. Themselves. These forms of worship ranged from woefully ineffective (see 1 Kings 18) to absolutely horrifying (the phrase about making your son or daughter “pass through the fire” above refers to child sacrifice—spend a few minutes googling Molech if you have a strong stomach). Moses spent enough time with his traveling companions to know this would become a serious problem (I leave you guys alone for five minutes and you’re already forgotten everything God did for you and are worshiping a stupid golden calf?), and prophets through the ages have had their hands full trying rein this tendency in before it destroys civilizations.
This is the context in which we read about witchcraft and wizardry—a warning against horrific acts such as human sacrifice, consulting with demonic spirits, and seeking forbidden knowledge. We can infer that words like “witch,” “wizard,” “charmer,” and “enchanter” are words for a practitioner of these evil forms of worship. According to this fascinating article from Haaretz, we really have no idea what the original word from the aforementioned bible verses, mekashapha, actually means—although scholars have guessed that it could mean an herbalist, poisoner, or evildoer. (As an aside, could I interpret this to mean that essential oils peddlers deserve the death penalty? Discuss.) The Old English word for witch, wicce, is even more inscrutable, but seems to have connotations relating to evil spirits and poison, and the devil.
This is decidedly not the definition J. K. Rowling uses. Witchcraft in the Harry Potter books is a magical ability an individual is born with, which can be used for good or evil according to a person’s moral agency. Harry did not make any deals with the devil or demonic entities to gain his powers. He inherited them from his parents along with his iconic messy hair and green eyes. The Bible does not condemn this kind of witchcraft—it can’t, because it does not exist and never has. As every eleven-year -old Harry Potter fan knows painfully well.
There are, of course, characters who choose to use their magic in ways reminiscent of the verses above—satanic rituals, murdering to gain power and immortality, and engaging in necromancy. They are called Death Eaters, and it’s safe to say they are roundly defeated in the end—which was one of the conditions for an acceptable fantasy book, according to the non-magical curmudgeons (NMCs). As Dumbledore says, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.”
Maybe it’s unfortunate that Rowling picked such a religiously-fraught word as “witch” to describe someone like Hermione Granger, but she could have easily picked any number of words: mage, magician, fairy, mistborn, surgebinder, or she-wizard (note: wizards are condemned in Deuteronomy just like witches, but you don’t see anyone warning that Gandalf is going to lead their children into forbidden paths). Rowling picked the words she did because of the modern-day aesthetic she was going for—one that evokes images of broomsticks, bubbling cauldrons, spooky castles, and pumpkin as a staple food. As followers of Christ, we should be capable of exercising enough spiritual discernment to avoid condemnation of something good based on questionable word choice.
And yes, the Harry Potter series is good—morally good, not just fun and interesting. The books are full of Christian symbolism and themes: love, forgiveness, self-sacrifice, repentance, agency, the Resurrection, and life after death. Magic is a vital vehicle for delivering these ideas–the beauty of Lily Potter’s sacrifice for her son comes alive in its protective power against Voldemort, and a horcrux is a chilling symbol of the way murder rips the soul apart (and remorse–repentance–puts it back together). J. K. Rowling places Bible verses on the tombstones of Harry’s parents (1 Corinthians 15:26, “The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.”) and Dumbledore’s mother and sister (Matthew 6:21, “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”), explicitly stating that these verses “epitomize the whole series.” It’s worth noting that Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf, an Apostle of the Lord, has quoted or made reference to Harry Potter multiple times in official talks. If your reading standards are more stodgy than an actual Apostle’s, you may want to consider loosening up a little.
NMC claims that J. K. Rowling isn’t a believer are unfounded. She may not be especially open about her beliefs, but she is quoted as saying, “I believe in God, not magic,” and once told reporters that if she talked about her Christian faith too much, readers would guess what was coming too easily. Admittedly, this is a silly reason not to share your beliefs with others. But the way her testimony bleeds over into so many aspects of her books speaks volumes about her faith. J. K. Rowling is not be a perfect Christian—or even a Lewis or a Tolkien—and I disagree with her on many, many subjects. But you simply cannot say Harry Potter isn’t written from a biblical worldview.
I agree with the NMCs in that each person must use agency and discernment in deciding what media to consume, and above all seek and take direction from the Lord. Goodness knows there are so many awful fantasy books out there, many of which really do glorify satanic practices or are little more than pornography. I’m all for encouraging writers to glorify God with their writing and improve their craft so we can crowd this garbage out of the market—it’s what I’m actively trying to do. But Harry Potter isn’t the problem here, and there are times when a witch is not a witch. Part of exercising discernment means having all the facts before condemning a wholesome, uplifting, beloved book series that has given generations of children a love for reading.
As puppet Dumbledore once said, “Let them have their flapdoodles.”