Story by McKenna Middleton | Opinion Editor, Video by Jenna Welch | Broadcast Reporter
Since the first Harry Potter book was released 20 years ago, more than 500 million books have been sold all over the world in 80 languages. However, many children who grew up in conservative religious families were not allowed to read one of the most popular fictional stories ever written.
Dr. Greg Garrett, professor of english, teaches a class on the Harry Potter novels and said religious objections to the books surfaced because of their association with witchcraft.
“It immediately sort of grated on people from really religious communities who think of witchcraft and sorcery as satanic,” Garrett said.
When the seventh book came out, Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling revealed that Christianity largely inspired her narratives at a press conference to mark the beginning of her Open Book Tour in 2007.
“To me, the religious parallels have always been obvious,” Rowling said. “But I never wanted to talk too openly about it because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.”
The seventh book demonstrated the ways Potter served as a Christ figure and made direct references to Christianity, particularly through the inclusion of two Bible verses on the tombstones of Harry’s parents, Garrett said.
“That whole idea that [Rowling] was playing out the Christian gospel, the narrative of the Christian gospel actually became clear for people. But the trappings, the magic wands and the robes and the sorcerer’s hats still were a big distraction for a lot of people, because it does say in the Old Testament, suffer not a witch to live,” Garrett said.
Garrett said witchcraft serves as a literary tool to tell the story of Harry Potter. Rowling was a classicist and a medievalist, and her studies informed her genre elements through her understanding of Latin and history.
“I always tell people that you could make Harry Potter with ray guns and spaceships. You could make it in a lot of different ways. Those are genre elements to the story because it’s a fantasy story,” Garrett said. “What I like to tell people is if you can get past that nervousness, that it’s an incredibly well-told version of the Christian story. And sometimes I like to talk about it as being maybe the best — certainly the most popular — retelling of the Christian myth in the contemporary world.”
Memphis junior Michael Agapos said growing up in an evangelical Christian family, his parents did not allow him to read or watch Harry Potter because of its connection to witchcraft. His freshman year of college, he finally sat down over winter break and read all seven novels in three days — though he hasn’t seen the movies yet.
“I got that my parents wanted what was best for me and they didn’t want me being exposed to the devil or whatever. So I understood sort of where they were coming from. I thought their reasoning was poor. They definitely didn’t read the books themselves to evaluate whether or not it would be appropriate for a Christian youth. I felt that they were. And when I read them, there were a lot of themes that support Christian values or even just decent moral values,” Agapos said.
Graham senior Alyssa Ray said she was allowed to read Harry Potter despite her parents’ initial concerns with the contents of the novels.
“My parents were scared because of what everyone was saying about the books, so they read the first couple chapters, loved it, and we read the rest of them out loud before bed or on car trips. It was a great bonding experience and killed a lot of time on our annual car trip to Arizona,” Ray said.
Garrett said despite the Christian parallels in Harry Potter, some religious individuals had a hard time getting past the fantasy elements of the story.
“There are all of these powerful themes, but they’re not as obviously apparent. And so I think that’s one of the things that draws more conservative Christians to the work of C.S. Lewis, when they don’t necessarily like the J.K. Rowling novels. Because they can see the Christian subtexts much more obviously, and you have to read a little more deeply and pay a little more attention to see them in the Harry Potter novels,” Garrett said.
Baylor was one of the first, if not the first, American university to offer a course on Harry Potter novels, Garrett said.
“It is really exciting to teach this class at Baylor. And the fact that we were, I think, the first university in America to offer it says something about what Baylor is and what Baylor isn’t. People always have these very stereotypical ideas of Baylor as being conservative, and there is, I think, a lot of educational chance-taking that goes on in our classrooms and our laboratories,” Garrett said.
Garrett said he dedicates time on the first day of his Harry Potter class to have each student talk about why Harry Potter has been so important to them. He said most students emphasize the books’ morals of friendship and courage and even Christianity.
For students who were not allowed to read Harry Potter as children, Garrett said, it’s never too late to pick up a copy and start reading.
“I think like any great books, they speak to you in different ways at different times in your life. And so you might have gotten something out of it if you had read it when you were 10 years old. And the 10-year-old you would have thanked you for that. But the 18-year-old you, or the 28-year-old you or the 48-year-old you is also going to thank you because it’s a great story. And great stories speak to us over and over again, and they’re worth coming back to over and over again,” Garrett said.