A few weeks ago, I reached out to Nancy Brown, author of “The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide” for a story I was doing to coincide with the release of “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I” in theaters.
That book came out in 2007 and sought to address the concerns of families when it came to the Harry Potter series. Some Catholics, and Christians, have steered clear of the books and movies because of the witchcraft and wizardry in the series, most commonly referred to as the occult.
“Well,” I thought, “who wants that?”
Matt Palmer: It seems like the Potter series has splintered Catholics. Some are on board with it as an arresting story, while others are rejecting it because of the overwhelming witchcraft elements. Was your book aiming for one of the audiences in particular or both? Why?
Nancy Brown: The fact that Harry Potter is splintering Catholics echoes my own inner experience, so I completely understand that. I believe that today, those who reject the books are a small minority who have unfortunately had some sort of brush with the occult. My own family, and I suspect most families, don’t have any direct experience with any kinds of exorcist type events in their lives. In every case where someone is adamantly and vociferously against the Potter series, I’ve found someone who has had direct family experience with the occult. Those people, and those that listen to them, are quite sure Harry Potter will lead one down the path to ruin.
Matt Palmer: Can a person be opposed to the witchcraft and still enjoy the series?
Nancy Brown: I am firmly and vociferously against witchcraft, as are most good people. I believe most Catholic families teach their children about the evils of the occult and of witchcraft. And yes, one can have those opinions and still enjoy the series because, again, it is a story about good and evil.
I also need to reiterate to anyone who has seen the movies but not read the books: Hollywood has naturally done it’s own thing with the movies. The movies ARE NOT the books. The movies are to be viewed with caution and only at the appropriate age. It’s even hard for me to recommend the movies, they are such poor renditions of what the books are. I saw Deathly Hallows part One over the weekend, and I wrote up 10 ways it differed from the book. So, books and movies? Apples and oranges to me. It is the books I like. The movies are poor substitutes.
Matt Palmer: The series borrows elements from Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Star Wars and many other fantasies. You see the hero’s journey throughout those series, but also some Christ allegories and Christian themes. How does the Potter series stack up to them in terms of Christian themes?
Nancy Brown: They are all there. Author J.K. Rowling is well read, and borrows from many of her beloved authors. In that sense, she’s written a Christian story, but my belief is that in order to reach more people, you don’t want to call it a Christian story. As soon as you have that label, fewer people are going to read it. And the purpose of more people reading isn’t so Rowling can get rich, although she certainly has done that–and given away millions, too– it’s to evangelize. There is much evidence if one chooses to look, that Rowling’s faith is an important element in her life, her conversion at age 11 and the death of her mother are probably the biggest influences on her for why she wrote the series the way she did. She needed to work out in her own mind how her new Christian faith helped her deal with her mother’s death. Is life truly eternal? What does being immortal mean? Could one try to avoid death? Why would one want to and how would one go about it? These are things she wrestled with and works out on the pages of Harry Potter.
Nancy Brown: Christianity is taken for granted and is there for those with eyes to see. When Harry cries out “Help!” he is really praying. Like most works of fiction that will grab today’s reader’s attention, a book of overt Christianity will not sell. Of course anti-Christianity sells, as we see with His Dark Materials and even Dan Brown. But in order to sneak Christianity positively into fiction today, the author needs to be very subtle. But because of Rowling’s own faith, Christianity is surely there in the books as a backdrop for every decision and every plot twist that goes on.
Matt Palmer: I heard an interview you did that J.K. Rowling’s own Christianity comes across throughout. What did you come to understand about her faith in the series?
Nancy Brown: J.K. Rowling is a very interesting person. Her family was not overtly any religion, although they did tend towards Christianity. But when she was eleven years old, she had a job cleaning the church next door. She had become interested in the Christian symbolism she saw in the church, and eventually asked to be baptized there. Her faith saw her through her mother’s illness and eventual death, too young, from MS. Being a huge Chestertonian myself, once I discovered that J. K. Rowling had been on the membership rolls of the U.K. Chesterton society, I began investigating her other Christian ties. Her favorite painting is Supper at Emmaus by Carravaggio. Jesus is sitting with the two disciples just as they realize who He is. That’s a huge clue as to who Rowling is. Her favorite book as a child is “The Little White Horse” by Elizabeth Goudge.
I read it out of curiosity, and it’s a great example of a very subtly Christian book disguised as an very action-packed little novel. Rowling now professes to belong to the Church of Scotland, which is where she lives. It’s sort of like being Anglican in England, it’s the Christian official church of the country. She’s had all of her children baptized as infants. Those are clues as to who she is.
Nancy Brown: There is more Christianity in the seventh book by far, than all the rest. They bury Mad-Eye’s eye and mark the spot with a cross. They carry out a beautiful and touching funeral ceremony for Dobby. It’s Christmas Eve when they hear carols coming from the Church and there’s bible verses on the graves of Harry’s parents and Dumbledore’s sister. Since Rowling isn’t Catholic, I won’t say there are Catholic elements, but there are certainly Christian elements: (There is) the whole soul splitting with murder idea–the fact that a little part of you died if you murdered someone. (There is) the symbolism that the closest thing to Voldemort is a snake, the silver hand that was a gift from the evil one that eventually kills you, the forgiveness and reconciliations that happen, starting at the beginning where Harry and Dudley reconcile. The fact that Bill and Fleur get married, have a child–Remus and Tonks get married, have a child–Harry and Ginny get married, have children–Ron and Hermione get married, have children, etc.
Nancy Brown: As soon as I read Chesterton, I wanted to know more about him. I googled his name, and back then–about eleven years ago–there really wasn’t much about him on the internet. There was this one site, The American Chesterton Society, and they had a button, “Who is this guy, and why haven’t I heard of him?” and I clicked on it and started learning everything I could about this fascinating man called Chesterton. Dale Ahlquist is the President, and I started asking him why he didn’t have materials for children. Finally, he suggested that I write something, so I did. When one of the Gilbert columnists retired, he asked me to start my own column, which I did. I had started my own blog, and once Dale found that out, he asked me to start a blog for the American Chesterton Society, which I did. Pretty much whatever Dale asks me to do, I do. I started a Facebook fan page and a Twitter, too. And last year, since we didn’t have our own podcast, I started that up too, it’s on iTunes called Uncommon Sense. So somehow over the last ten years, I’ve done a lot of stuff, all because I began to love a man dead over 70 years named Gilbert Chesterton, and all because he loved a man dead 2000 years named Jesus.
Matt Palmer: Would you ever revisit the series for a book update or is there another popular series you have your eye on for a similar book?
Nancy Brown: I did update the Mystery of Harry Potter book which is up on the Our Sunday Visitor page (Editor’s Note: Click on Last Chapter for a free pdf download). I can’t think of another series like Harry Potter that I would defend right now. I have read many good books since Harry Potter, but none that came with the accompanying controversy like that series did and still does. Even within my book on Harry Potter, you’ll see I injected Chesterton into every chapter. I love Chesterton and this summer, after much research, I presented a paper to the American Chesterton society Annual Conference on Frances Chesterton, Gilbert’s loving and faithful wife. Afterwards, there was a groundswell of interest in a biography of Frances, so I’m beginning to work on that now.