Were you allowed to read Harry Potter as a kid?
I was, for a minute. And then I wasn’t, for another minute. Then finally I was, again.
I have two distinct Harry Potter memories.
First: curled up in my bean bag chair, in a Book Nook that I made with bookcases on top of each other to block off a little den in my room, reading The Prisoner of Azkaban. Chapter 19 (then you should have died! Died rather than betrayed your friends, as we would have done for you!) captured my thirteen year old heroic imagination and I read it aloud, different voices for different parts with the soundtrack of The Mask of Zorro on in the background. And then that night before bed, I read it out loud again, and then again the next night, and the night after. Everyone had a different voice: Lupin, anxiously needing peace, Sirius’ heartbroken rage, Snape’s resentment, Pettigrew’s cowardice. And Harry’s fierce pacifism that knows that we aren’t just pacifists for the Other but for our own souls – “I don’t reckon my dad would’ve wanted them to become murderers. Just for him.” I read that chapter again and again and again and I still know most of it by heart.
Next: A few months later. The homeschooling fundamentalist tide turned against the boy wizard. We got a local homeschooling newsletter in the mail, and there was a front page article about Harry Potter and its corrupting influence on Godly kids. It was a few months before the release of Book 4, and my parents were starting to wonder if they’d made the right choice, letting me check those books out of the library. I walked barefoot down our long dirt driveway through the woods to get the mail, and when I saw the newsletter article, I stuffed it in my pocket, and when I got back to the house I ripped it into tiny shreds and hid it in my closet so that no one could ever read it.
What was really interesting about that article is that the author wasn’t arguing against Harry Potter because of witchcraft and sorcery. Nah, she was pro-fantasy, pro-magical books for kids, and wasn’t worried that we’d all become witches because Hermione was so great.
Harry Potter was so dangerous, she argued, because it taught kids that they could go off and save the world without adults.
It taught kids that they could be smarter than authority figures.
It taught kids to follow their nose, even if the powers that be told them their noses weren’t to be trusted.
It taught kids to try and fix things themselves, instead of relying on their parents.
It taught kids to be curious, instead of submissive.
In short, Harry Potter undermined all the work that good fundamentalism had on impressionable kids.
I read a really compelling article about Katy Perry this week, and not a lot has changed in fundamentalist subculture.
“I was a very curious person,” Katy is quoted as saying, “and the curiosity — sometimes it wasn’t allowed because you had to have faith.” She talks about why she left the church – the endless, terrible stifling of curiosity, the refusal to play, the disinterest in asking questions.
But fascinatingly, what does the article take out of this?
Do more apologetics, team. If only Katy Perry had had apologetics, she’d be in the fold today!
All right, guys. OK. All my fundamentalist kids gather round, now. Did y’all suffer from a dearth of apologetics?
I didn’t think so.
We were drowning in apologetics. From Mere Christianity to The Case for Christ to The Reason for God, our shelves were all packed with snappy answers to every possible question someone could about religion. We were taught how to argue down an atheist, how to argue from science or from ethics or from mythology. Every time we had a question, someone shot back an answer. Apologetics became the wrapping paper to tie up our questions so that they couldn’t get out, a kind of intellectual Dead End Road sign that shut us up. You have a question about the Problem of Evil? Lewis solved it – read his answer and accept it. Instead of being a way to engage our curiosity, apologetics in fundamentalism was a way to keep a lid on questions, to prove that the questions themselves weren’t valid, because Someone Has Already Answered It. We lived, breathed, drank apologetics in fundamentalism. I’m sure Katy Perry did, too.
The problem wasn’t that she didn’t get adequate answers. The problem was that her questions weren’t celebrated.
The problem is that submission and obedience are ultimate virtues in fundamentalism.
The problem is that curiosity, bravery, and independence are dangerous.
The problem is that kids are taught to be afraid of unknowing.
I was a brave and curious little kid, unafraid of questions, strangers, or problems without answers. Somewhere along the way, fundamentalism got to me. It gave me apologetics not to answer my questions, but to stop me from asking them. It told me to be obedient, even if my instincts and gut were warning me away. Fundamentalism taught me to be afraid.
And because the goal of fundamentalism is conformity, submission, and codependency, something like Harry Potter, that teaches kids that Voldemort could be hiding in the back of the head of an innocuous teacher, is dangerous as hell.
Katy Perry’s struggle with fundamentalism is realAF. But “more apologetics” (that is to say, more solutions and answers for a child’s curiosity) doesn’t feel like a very rich answer for raising healthy, independent, brave kids who love Jesus.
A culture of independence, of teaching our kids how powerful they can be, of helping kids to see that “not knowing” is our friend and not our enemy, of treating unanswered questions like an adventure instead of a temptation, could be the difference between leaving the Church and staying.
If we’d teach our kids to stand up to our friends, not just our enemies; that it does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live; that the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters; that sometimes we’re faced with choices between what is right and what is easy; and that our best and wisest mentors have made terrible decisions in their past – but that we are all a mess of bad choices and good choices, wisdom and foolishness, knowing and not knowing, and that is all a little scary but we can be brave enough to face it –
if we’d teach our kids that, can you imagine how fierce, kind, and prophetic our Church could be?
More Harry Potter. Less apologetics.