Harry Potter: Agent of Conversion
By Toni Collins
Author J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have captured the hearts of millions of children and adults. They’re arguably the most quickly embraced children’s books in history. You’d have to be tucked away in the remotest of hermitages to have avoided the books thus far, and you’d have to be just about as isolated to have avoided the controversy surrounding them.
Controversy does abound, and Harry Potter stirs up strong emotions. Some parents are thrilled that their children are reading enthusiastically for the first time. They love the way the books pit good against evil, and they use the books to help their children learn the difference between right and wrong. But other parents are deeply disturbed about the subject matter in the Harry Potter books. They’re concerned to see so many children embracing a world of witchcraft and wizardry.
I’m a parent who falls within the latter category, and I often find myself uncomfortably trying to explain to the dearest of friends why I’m so disturbed by the books. It’s not pleasant to say to someone, “I know you love these books, but . . .”
When I do, I’m forced to share a bit of my pre-Catholic background that I’d prefer to keep quiet. But it’s become critical to open up about things I’ve done, if only because those of us who share similar experiences seem also to share a feeling of dread about the popularity of Harry Potter. Despite my discomfort with the Harry Potter books, I have to admit that they helped me see how an old unconfessed sin was troubling my life.
Astrology, Hypnotism, Witchcraft
Baptized Catholic in a non-practicing home, I spent my childhood in various Protestant churches. I was taught to say my bedtime prayers. My parents emphasized good morals. I had a deep, abiding sense of God’s presence in my life.
I knew He loved me, and I always knew that I could turn to Him. But as I recall, by the time my parents divorced when I was fourteen, God wasn’t much emphasized in my home. What I do recall is a heavy emphasis on the importance of astrology in explaining people’s personalities, a fascination with fortune telling, and an incredible zodiac-themed party that my mom and I threw, complete with black lights for ambiance and levitation games for entertainment.
Not too much later, I went to see a stage hypnotist whose shows I began to attend frequently, as it gave a stage-hungry teen like me the opportunity to sing in front of an audience. I considered the hypnotism a sham until the evening that hypnotist chose me for his show’s finale. Telling me that my body was “stiff as a steel beam,” he laid me across the back edges of two folding chairs and then stood on top of me.
Having a 250-pound man stand upon my airborne body taught me that something really does happen to you when you’re hypnotized. Christian friends tried to tell me this “something” was not healthy for me spiritually, but I wouldn’t listen. I really didn’t think it could affect me; it was all just a lot of fun. But looking back over my life, I can now tell you that the end of the two years I spent attending that hypnotist’s show coincided with my conscious decision to turn away from God.
Was it a direct result of being hypnotized? Probably not. I can assure you, though, that regularly allowing someone to take over my conscious choices didn’t do my meager faith life any good.
The most frightening event of my life occurred when I tried witchcraft. I had been a lonely child who had grown into a lonely teen, always looking for love. One day I picked up one of those ubiquitous little books sold at the grocery store checkout, and this one was about casting love spells. I took it home, stood in my bedroom, and started to cast a spell over my on-again, off-again boyfriend. I don’t remember the words I spoke (thank you, God), but I’ll never forget what happened.
I started to cast the spell. Wham! A huge black door (picture the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey) slammed shut as if traveling from my left hand to my right.
“God doesn’t want you to do this,” said a deep voice within me.
Wham! A door just as large slammed shut the other direction, and a voice responded, “It doesn’t matter. There is no God.” I was tempted to listen.
Wham! The door slammed back the original direction and a voice stated firmly and slowly, “Yes . . . there . . . is.”
I put the witchcraft book down, never to pick it up again. I was deeply shaken, and I knew that I had encountered something beyond this world. Doubt had entered my life for the first time, and I knew that I could have embraced a Godless universe at the moment that second door slammed shut. I knew that something out there had wanted me to turn away from God forever, and that it had its opportunity when I participated in the world of witchcraft.
Were there consequences from this aborted act of witchcraft? Most assuredly. Shortly thereafter, when the movie The Exorcist came out, that boyfriend became enamored with the Devil, both drawn to him and desiring his power. Eventually he began to cruise the streets of
I too felt consequences, but they didn’t surface until I’d left God, then returned to Him and become a Catholic. At that point I found that I had a remarkable sensitivity to the occult. Anything even remotely associated with the occult — horoscopes, palm readers, metaphysical bookstores, or crystal healing — would disturb me deeply. I would feel a dark whirlpool tugging at my soul, drawing me towards the preternatural. I would fight this whirlpool both by praying for the people involved in such practices and by shielding myself from exposure to anything occultic.
Along Comes Harry
Then along came Harry Potter. I was introduced to him when my dearest friend found that Harry inspired her oldest son to enjoy reading for the first time in his life. The next thing I knew, Harry Potter was everywhere, and my eighteen-year-old daughter was reading the books. But I felt that whirlpool tugging, so I knew I had to find out if my fears had any basis in reality.
Too scared to read the books at first, I instead read what other people had to say about them. I began to notice a pattern. Of the commentators I read who loved the Harry Potter books, virtually none of them had ever experienced the occult. To them this was a delightful fantasy in the same genre as J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. In contrast, almost every commentator I read who had experience with the occult found the books disturbing, almost as if they were primers on witchcraft.
Why the difference of opinions? I read the first two books, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Scholastic Press, 1997 and 1998), and came up with an answer. Much of the Harry Potter books are in fact delightful fantasy. The author, Joanne Rowling, tickles our imaginations with tales of unicorns, Quidditch games, and owls who deliver mail.
But among these charming depictions are much darker sections, particularly in the early part of Harry’s education. This combination — darker elements introduced early and a delightful finish that can only be considered imaginative — leaves many readers with an overall good feeling about the books.
So why did I feel such dread when I read Harry Potter? Why do other people who’ve left the occult feel such distaste for the books? John Gibson, who converted out of neopaganism into Catholicism and whose conversion story appears in Surprised by Truth 2, wrote this to me: “First and foremost, most people who have been involved in the occult still have something like a fingerprint of it on their soul. It gives us a kind of sensitivity to the occult that others don’t have.”
“A fingerprint on the soul” — that was the difference I was seeing between readers who loved Harry Potter and those of us who didn’t. That “fingerprint” was being touched again whenever we read Harry Potter, and our souls were growing troubled. We were recognizing things we’d known in the past and had rejected for the love of God.
To clarify what I mean here, let me offer just a few stories of people whose lives at some point intertwined with the occult and who today voice concerns about Harry Potter.
“There Is Only One Kind of Magic”
Clare McGrath Merkle is a former New Age healer, well educated in the occult, and a revert to Catholicism. Her concern about the Potter books runs deep, because she recognizes within its pages so many of the arts she once practiced. She and her friends in the occult, psychologists, physicists, and other professionals (who were also wizards, warlocks, and witches) defended their studies together “as being of the white magic category, much like [Hogwarts,] the wizardry
Jacqui Komschlies provides a similar warning, telling her readers “we need to remember that witchcraft in real life can and does lead to death — the forever and ever kind.” For over ten years she was fascinated with the supernatural, an appetite she says she developed from reading stories of “wizards, magic, power and adventure.” (Sound familiar?) Eventually she found that the supernatural was taking over her thoughts.
One day the spirits, powers, and goddesses who filled even her dreams began actually to speak to her. Frightened, she cried out to God. He rescued her, and the voices ceased.
Today she warns: “Our world is exploding with interest in real witchcraft. Type ‘How can I become a witch?’ in Google.com and you’ll get listings for dozens of related sites. The same query in AskJeeves.com brings up many articles — the main one giving a simple eight-step process for becoming a witch on your own.”2
Though Vivian Dudro has no background in the occult, she shares Mrs. Komschlies’ concerns about children’s increased fascination with the occult. Her own research has shown that “in
“Playing With a Fire From Hell”
The editor of that same newsletter, Steve Wood, weighed in with the revelation of his own background in the occult. Many readers of this magazine will recognize Mr. Wood as the soft-spoken host of the
“Before my conversion to Christianity,” he recalls, “I was involved in New Age and false religious movements that actually practiced several of the things casually described in the Harry Potter novels. . . . I have led young people out of the very world described in the Harry Potter novels to a commitment to Christ. . . . I have personally confronted and ministered to demonically possessed individuals involved in Satanism and the occult. In light of this experience, I warn fathers that exposing your children to the enchanting world of Harry Potter is playing with a fire from hell.”4
It’s not only laymen who worry about Harry Potter. Fr. Phillip Scott is a priest who lives near a community of “Gothics” in
Fr. Scott believes that the entry into this horrendous lifestyle begins with curiosity, and he believes that books like Harry Potter can stimulate such curiosity. In an interview with Steve Wood, Fr. Scott tells of having ministered to a young boy whose mind was filled with the images in the Harry Potter books. What is most frightening is that the books had not been written at the time the boy received ministry; Fr. Scott in retrospect recognized within the pages of Harry Potter the very images that had been tormenting the young man.
What does Fr. Scott say about the Harry Potter books? He calls them “poison.”5
Spells and Brews
What are some of these images and their ensuing dangers? In her 1991 book, Ungodly Rage, Donna Steichen shared this insightful quote from a repentant former practitioner of Wicca, Carmen Helen Guerra:
When I was a witch, I performed rituals. I evoked spirits. I called entities. I cast spells, burned candles, concocted brews. The only thing I didn’t do was fly on a broom, but I probably would have figured it out if given time. But where did it lead to? Into darkness, depression, and the creation of an aura of gloom around me. I was frequently under demon attack. The house where I lived was alive with poltergeist activity . . . due to residual “guests” from rituals. My friends and family were afraid of me. I knew I had no future; all I had was a dark present. I was locked in by oaths and “destiny.” But I had power, something I’d always wanted. It wasn’t Satan’s fault. He didn’t exist — or so I thought. I gave it all up, and came to Jesus on my knees. . . . He freed me from the oppression and gave me back my soul — the one I had so foolishly given to evil in exchange for power.6
Does this have anything to do with Harry Potter? You bet. Though it’s all dressed up as sweetness and light, the first Harry Potter book has rituals (for example, “the Sorting Ceremony,” pp. 117-122); spells (Hermione casts the full Body-Bind spell on Neville, p. 273); spirits and other non-human entities (Voldemort inhabits Quirrell’s body, pp. 293-295, and the myriad ghosts of Hogwarts); candles (thousands floating above the tables at Hogwarts, p. 116); and brews (Professor Snape’s potions class, pp. 136-139).
It’s not pleasant to contemplate, but there really are people out there who practice witchcraft, who cast spells and perform rituals, and who see results. J. K. Rowling writes as if their powers can be channeled into good, and that is the great danger of her books. Rituals and spells and brews are used by witches in the real world, and they work because of the power of evil spirits. As such they can never lead to good. Portraying these innately evil practices as if they can be harnessed for good is a dangerous lie.
Rowling further confuses the issue by portraying witchcraft not as a moral issue, but as an issue of heredity. In Rowling’s world, the ability to practice witchcraft is inherited. But in reality, you don’t need to possess a particular bloodline in order to make witchcraft work. All you have to do is tap into evil spirits, turn over your will, and leave Jesus Christ for the world of the occult.
We thus have two falsehoods presented to the children who read these books: first, that their status as a witch is written in their genes; and second, if they’re one of the “lucky” ones, they can use their powers for good. These are harmful lies to teach, because the reality is so different and so dangerous. Just ask Carmen Helen Guerra.
The Church’s Warning
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states unequivocally: “All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others — even if this were for the sake of restoring their health — are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. … The Church for her part warns the faithful against it” (2117).
This is strong language in the catechism, the same language used to condemn lust, fornication, and abortion. Catholics cannot in good conscience take such a warning lightly. If Harry were using lust, fornication, or abortion to save his friends at Hogwarts, would we still think these books were acceptable children’s fare?
It’s important to note that the witchcraft about which Rowling writes stands in stark contrast to fantasy magic as it’s portrayed in Tolkien and Lewis. The good characters in Middle Earth and Narnia don’t cast spells on people, don’t call up spirits and commune with them like beloved neighbors, don’t perform rituals, and don’t mix potions. The good characters at Hogwarts do.
In Narnia, a ring transports you to another world, and in Middle Earth lightning flashes at a critical time to perform some powerful feat. But at Hogwarts, the evil Voldemort enchants a diary to take possession of a girl’s soul. These are vast and substantial differences, requiring us to view Rowling’s witchcraft in a much different light from Tolkien’s and Lewis’s magic.
Bad Role Models
What about the argument that the Potter books help to teach the difference between right and wrong? Putting witchcraft aside, it’s true there are definite “bad guys” in the books, and that they are consistently fought by the “good guys.” But I found those “good guys” to be less-than-stellar role models.
At first glance, Harry Potter seems a noble little boy, one who will put his own life at risk to save his friends. He defends the weak, comforts the sad, and fights evil. But I found he also had a nasty propensity to flaunt school rules and to lie.
In fact, at the end of the first book, Harry saves the world from the evil Lord Voldemort by screwing up his courage and telling a lie. Now, telling a lie to save the world may at first seem to be acceptable, but we have to remember that this is a work of fiction, and the author could have easily found a truthful way for Harry to save the world. A close reading of the second book shows that lying now comes much more easily to Harry than it did in the first book, so we see Harry’s character growing weaker rather than stronger.
I’m also concerned about the way Harry is allowed to avoid proper discipline. He’s famous, he’s talented, and he’s a celebrity. Time after time in both the first two books, when Harry breaks school rules, he is either clever enough to get away with it or he’s a skillful-enough liar not to be chastised.
Repeatedly threatened with expulsion, he is always forgiven. In the worst case of all, he’s threatened with expulsion from Hogwarts if he flies on his broomstick. But when he in fact does, and does so with great talent, he’s actually rewarded with a prime spot on the school Quidditch team.
Much like some American college football heroes, he receives not a lick of punishment precisely because he’s such a great athlete. Even the points that Harry and his friends lose for their schoolhouse during the course of the first book are handed back to them with bonuses at the end, and enough so that their house wins the coveted school cup. What’s the overall message? If you’re cute enough, talented enough, strong enough, or clever enough, you don’t have to worry about following the rules in your little corner of the universe. This is hardly teaching the difference between right and wrong.
Disturbing Religious Elements
I further noticed some disturbing religious elements in the books — an apparent twisting of Catholic terminology, symbolism, and even theology. Whether or not all the instances of such twisting were intentional, the dangerous confusion resulting in the minds of young readers remains the same.
Picture this. In Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, pages 51-52, Harry is hidden in a shop that sells paraphernalia of the Dark Arts. He sees a customer express interest in a withered hand sitting on a cushion. Turns out it’s called the “Hand of Glory,” and it’s considered the “best friend” of thieves and plunderers.
Wait a minute. “Glory” is a term of worship used by angels and humans alike. Why is it being used to describe the favorite tool of robbers?
Later, when attending a “deathday party” for ghosts, Harry and his friends notice “a group of gloomy nuns . . . and the fat friar” (p. 132). This was a dark and dreary party of obviously tortured souls, and the friar and the nuns could have easily been left out. Did Rowling think this was cute or did she mean to give insult?
Blink and you’d miss it, but in two short paragraphs of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Rowling twists and perverts the meaning of a word of tremendous significance to Catholics. The word is “transfiguration,” which should call to every Catholic child’s mind the glorification of our Lord on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah. Instead, Rowling uses the word to mean “some of the most complex and dangerous magic you will learn”: that of changing one object into another (p. 134).
Having thus assigned “transfiguration” a decidedly un-Christian meaning in the first book, she peppers the second book with numerous references to the subject. My heart breaks when I think of how many children will forever more listen to the Gospel reading about the Transfiguration, and will find their minds drawn to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
The book of Revelation is arguably the least understood book of the Bible, but the significance of one element in it is generally agreed upon: The number “666” is the diabolical number of the beast (see Rev 13:18), and it’s not a good thing. Yet J. K. Rowling has chosen to use this number as significant for one of the most unselfish and noble of her characters, Mr. Nicolas Flamel.
Always portrayed as a good character, at the end of the first book he is raised to heights of actual heroism when he decides to lose his life for the sake of the world. We the readers are introduced to Flamel when Harry and his friends read Flamel’s biography on page 220. Figuring prominently in this biography is the fact that last year Mr. Flamel celebrated his six hundred and sixty-fifth birthday. That means that the year in which his biography was written, the year in which he is immortalized for all of us, Mr. Flamel is in the 666th year of his life. The symbol of the beast for Christians is the age of the savior of humanity for Hogwarts.
Rowling then presents a perversion of Catholic theology when a unicorn is killed just before the climax of the first book. “The blood of a unicorn will keep you alive, even if you are an inch from death, but at a terrible price,” writes Rowling on page 258. Drinking blood will keep us alive?
When I first read this, I wondered if we were about to see a Catholic metaphor that might redeem the entire book. The next phrase kept my hope alive, “You have slain something pure and defenseless to save yourself. . . .” Yes, I thought, we are about to see a Eucharistic analogy, but then my eyes traveled to the next line on the page: “You will have but a half-life, a cursed life, from the moment the blood touches your lips.”
I felt as if I’d been punched in the stomach. It isn’t the crime of killing the pure and defenseless unicorn that curses, but the act of drinking its blood. What a horrendous twisting of the biblical promise that drinking the blood of Jesus, who is the purest of the pure, will bring us eternal life. The antithetical notion that a pure creature’s blood will bring us “a half-life, a cursed life” is a slap in the face of Catholics.
An Agent of Conversion
There’s a lot I see wrong in the Potter books, but I’ve left out an important way in which they’ve changed my life for the better. Remember the love spell I tried to cast as a teenager? Not having been raised Catholic, it never occurred to me that I needed to take that act into the confessional. In my great distress over the books, feeling that dark whirlpool tug at my soul just looking at them, I finally realized that I needed the grace of Reconciliation for having once tried to cast a spell. I could have argued that I didn’t need confession (I hadn’t quite met all the qualifications for mortal sin), but I’m so glad I went.
Through my confession, God in His mercy gave me a great gift: His forgiveness has blessed my life, and I’ve experienced palpable benefits from the sacrament I received that day. That whirlpool, that dragging, dark force that used to draw me back toward the occult, is gone. I still pray for fortunetellers and witches when I come across them, and I regularly pray for protection from the occult, but I no longer have to protect myself fearfully from its drag.
What blessed freedom! In that sense, I must view Harry Potter as an agent of my conversion. It’s in that sense that I hope you too will see him as an agent of conversion in your children’s lives.
Not everyone who reads Harry Potter will be harmed spiritually. While I do see danger in the books stimulating an interest in the occult, I’m the least worried about children who are protected by the sacraments and well grounded in their faith.
If your children haven’t yet read Harry Potter, I hope I’ve given you plenty of reasons why they shouldn’t. But if they’ve already read the books, as have so many American children, I hope you’ll use this article to spur a discussion in your family. Share with your kids the teaching of the Catholic Church on witchcraft, and share with them the destructive influences the occult has on people.
If Harry Potter can become an inoculation against the occult instead of a gateway into it, he will have unwittingly done your children a great favor.