The Harry Potter Bible Study: Enjoying God Through the Final Four Harry Potter Movies.
Jared Moore [Available at Amazon in paperback or Kindle editions]
[Make sure to read my rejoinder to pastor Jared’s rebuttal to this review. I expand a little bit more on the issues of Christians redeeming culture]
Before I proceed, let me provide a bit of background.
This review developed out of a Twitter exchange I had with the author of this book, Jared Moore.
It began when I had tweeted out a link to a stellar review of J.K. Rowling’s newest book A Casual Vacancy. A Twitter follower of mine tweeted me a comment that Jared Moore should make a Bible study out of it like his book on Harry Potter. Jared then replied with a smarty pants response.
I, however, was intrigued by the fact that a pastor of a Baptist church had developed a Bible study around the Harry Potter books. I tweeted out a question asking him to clarify about his “Harry Potter” Bible study. After a number of exchanges, I basically asked the guy how his “study” differed from the Andy Griffith/Mayberry study or the Matrix Bible study. He was adamant his was nothing like those; and honestly, that’s something I expected any author to say who believes his work is special and unique.
I replied that I would look into getting his book, and if I did, I would read it and review it here on my blog. Pastor Moore kindly sent me a PDF of his book, to which I thank him. I also took the opportunity to download a podcast interview with him so I can hear him present his material in his own words. So, with that in mind, I’ll offer a review of the book.
I’ll start out by confessing that I like Harry Potter (HP). My initial encounter with HP was with the religious alarmist types who warned how Rowling’s novels were corrupting our kids to become witches and liking cats. Her books were considered the entry way to dark, Satanic magic and using Ouija boards at slumber parties and liking cats.
When the movie adaptations came to the theaters, they worked perfectly for me because I didn’t have to read the books and they quickly got me through the general story of HP and his pals. After I watched the Sorcerer’s Stone, the first movie in the series, and my wife and I emerged from the theater without being demon-possessed or wanting to own a cat, I knew the claims against these books were highly exaggerated.
Then I began listening to audio books more frequently, so I thought I’d listen to the entire HP series. The books, as is always the case, were way better than the movies, and the reader, Jim Dale, made listening to them thoroughly enjoyable. So, even though I won’t be dressing up as the characters for Comic Con any time soon, I can confidently say I’m a fan. Thus, when I heard about this book, my curiosity was stirred.
Pastor Moore spends the first two chapters of his book explaining his main purpose for writing a “Bible study” on HP. Basically, it is to teach Christians both old and young how to exercise discernment when evaluating pop culture and entertainment.
Attempting to “redeem” the popular culture is a current trend among young Reformed pastors/apologists. The logic goes like this: Jesus is the sovereign Lord of everything. We as his created beings live in His created world. All truth is God’s truth including the “truth” that is found occasionally in pop culture and entertainment. We as Christians must be prepared to discern the truth and recognize it for what it is as God’s truth that points to Christ even when it’s found in novels about wizards.
In fact, Pastor Moore argues along these exact lines when he writes,
To summarize, this Bible study is based on the foundation that Christians should engage their cultures, find the common examples of God’s image therein, extract these common truths, and add Scriptural Truth to them: 1) Man is sinful (Rom. 3:23). 2) God’s answer for the sin problem is Christ’s redeeming work in reconciling sinners and creation to His Father (John 14:6). As you watch Harry Potter, ask at least these 3 questions: 1) What ideas should I accept because they are in full agreement with Scripture? 2) What must I reject because it is in full disagreement with Scripture? 3) What half-truths, in order to be made completely true, must be extracted from Harry Potter and connected to God’s Word in light of man’s sinful condition and Christ’s creating, sustaining, and redeeming work? [26 (I’ll use the numbering of my own PDF version. Page numbers may not sync with the printed book and Kindle editions.)]
His work, then, is meant to train Christians to think redemptively and theologically about the world we live in. He highlights three principles in that regard: Christians need to recognize that participating in the media is an act of worship, that God owns everything in the world, and mankind is dependent upon God’s Word. When we grasp these principles as believers, we will be better prepared to engage the unbelieving world in the area of pop culture and media.
Now, readers need to understand that Pastor Moore’s book doesn’t interact with the actual HP books. Rather, it is based upon the last four movies in the HP series: Order of the Phoenix, Half-blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows parts 1 and 2.
He states that in order to use his book, the student will need the Bible, a TV, a VCR/DVD player, and all four movies. He then outlines some directions on how to use his material effectively with family worship, neighborhood outreach, youth groups, and college age Bible studies.
The first two chapters expand upon what pastor Moore summarized in his introduction concerning how we need to prepare ourselves for engaging pop culture. He writes about how we can worship God through HP and how we as Christians should consider the “evil” elements in the stories, particularly the use of witchcraft and the practice of the “dark arts.”
Regrettably, the second chapter dealing with the evil elements in the series wasn’t as fleshed out as I would have liked it to be [30-31]. While pastor Moore explained that the Bible condemns witchcraft because it was an attempt by sinful men to gain special knowledge apart from revelation, he doesn’t explore the use of “witchcraft” as a literary device to tell a story.
That being, the characters are wizards and witches and their use of witchcraft is an ordinary occurrence throughout the books. It is clear Rowling uses witchcraft and wizardry to tell a compelling story, not that she is actually promoting the use of magic. When I’ve talked about the HP books with Christians, their concern is with the use of magic in general as a literary tool, not that they are confused as to what God thinks about witchcraft in the Bible. The question they have is whether or not a Christian should be reading something that positively presents an activity condemned in Scripture. Pastor Moore needed to explore and answer that question more soundly than what is offered in his book.
He also discusses the use of inappropriate language in the stories and how Christians should think about such language, though I personally don’t recall any gross profanity in either the books or the movies. He further notes the theme of revenge Harry feels toward Voldemort for him killing his parents in light of what the Bible tells us about seeking vengeance.
Once he addresses those preliminary matters, the remaining chapters, 3-6, [37-106] discuss various themes from each of the movies and provides group discussion questions that draw the study group into thinking “biblically” about them. In other words, this was the actually “Bible study” portion on the HP movies.
In these chapters, some of the questions he asks and discusses in relation to the movies are:
- “Are we willing to lay down our lives for our enemies?”
- “Does Satan rest?”
- “Did Jesus take responsibility for the sins He did not commit?”
- “Is God in control of all things?”
- “What would you do with supernatural power?”
- “Should Christians take performance enhancing drugs as they participate in sports?” (asked in relation to Ron thinking he took a swig of “good luck” potion before a Quidditch match)
- “Is anything in life left up to chance?”
- “How should Christians respond to racism?”
- “Should Christians surround themselves with evil?”
- “Are humans valuable, even in death?” (A rather odd question seeing it was asked in regards to Harry wanting to give Dobby, a non-human house-elf, a “proper burial”)
- “What is the definition of lying?”
- “Does the majority determine what is truth?”
- “Was Jesus treated like a sinner?”
Honestly, while I was reading these chapters and pondering the discussion questions pastor Moore asked, I began to believe a lot of what he was “getting” from these stories was contrived. Maybe it is just me, but I got the feeling he, being a “fan” of the HP books, was reading way too much into them. As if he was attempting to “rescue” the series from the clutches of killjoy legalists who forbid anyone from reading the books and looking at the movies.
Yet, there were a couple of deeper questions I was asking that I think get to the heart of what he wants to do with his book.
As to the first, why must I tie these questions to a movie series in order for them to be asked in a Bible study group? Does tying those questions to the HP novels help make them more “relevant?” I definitely believe the Bible provides answers to those pertinent questions of life, but I am of the opinion that the Bible can stand alone as the means to answer them. I don’t need to show my home Bible study a HP movie (or any Hollywood movie for that matter) in order to make the questions “relevant.” In a way, pastor Moore’s argument smacks of that type of pragmatism seeker-driven churches employ in order to make the Bible look really cool and neat-o to an unbelieving public.
As to the second, if I ask “practical theology” questions derived from these movies, was it really the intended purpose of the author to convey that “theology?” As much as I have come to love the HP novels and appreciate Rowling’s story telling, did she genuinely intend for her readers to ask those questions about the Christian life? Though I would certainly acknowledge Christian oriented themes are woven here and there in her overall story about Harry, it may be that Rowling just pulled from familiar religious themes she grew up with in a British, Judeo-Christian Western society. She never intended to picture Christian “truth” with her work in the same way C.S. Lewis may have intended or even John Bunyan. Why should we go hunting for it? I would imagine pastor Moore will say identifying those themes is bringing this material under the Lordship of Christ. But, really? How exactly does me doing that “help out God?”
I am sympathetic to what the good pastor is saying and I definitely affirm the total Lordship of God over all the earth. Moreover, I recognize that an underlining philosophical “worldview” is constantly presented in our pop culture and entertainment; and for the most part, that worldview promotes an anti-God agenda. I also agree with pastor Moore for the need of Christians to learn discernment so as to identify those philosophies as they encounter the “world.”
But does this mean we are obligated as Christian believers to “Christianize” everything we watch or read or hear in popular entertainment? Can’t I just read HP and watch the movies for the fact that they are fun? Why must I go bounding down rabbit trails in order to find “Christian” motifs within a film? Particularly if the author or filmmaker never intended those motifs to be identified as “Christian”? Do they somehow make the stories better? Does it make the Bible even more divine and practical?
And couldn’t I do this with nearly any movie on Netflix? Maybe develop a Bible study curriculum on the Sanctified Christian Life centered around The Walking Dead series. I’m sure I can find all sorts of illustrations about being dead to sin, alive to Christ, being dead in our trespasses and sins, regenerated by the Holy Spirit, etc.
In our Twitter exchange, I jokingly suggested a study on Christian marriage from the Fifty Shades of Gray book. Pastor Moore rejected such a notion because the borderline pornographic novel was definitely sinful in its content. But if his thesis is correct that “all truth is God’s truth” and all men live in “God’s world,” wouldn’t there be something “redeemable” about the book? Surely the story can tell us something about faithful, loving, marital relationships.
The danger with this “redemptive” mindset is that we stir up in ourselves the tendency to overly “spiritualize” entertainment that really has no connection to Christianity at all.
Take for example an article I read a number of years ago in which the author, another pastor by the way, argued how the movie Titanic was a metaphor for the Gospel. He saw things I never saw when I watched that movie including how Jack’s faithful love to Rose is like God’s faithful love to us, even suggesting his outstretched arms in the scene where they stood together on the bow of the ship pictures Christ’s outstretched arms on the cross. I just saw two stupid narcissistic people who, if they had survived the disaster of the Titanic, would eventually throw their phony relationship into disaster.
Overall I had mixed feelings about pastor Moore’s HP Bible study. Some of the things he discusses resonates with me. Like I stated above, I appreciate his attempt to focus his study on the Lordship of Christ and the importance of addressing worldviews as Christians engage our unbelieving culture.
Moreover, looking over his blog, I imagine we probably share a lot of similar theological convictions. He looks like he may be Calvinistic. He uses a lot of “calviny” buzz words like “redemption,” “absolute sovereignty,” “presuppositions,” and “worldview.”
But our disagreement with each other runs along the lines of practical application. At that juncture, he seems to aim in the direction of the Arminian classic apologist trying to show the unbeliever that Christianity is a viable option in the market place of ideas. But I believe when we try overlaying Christianity on top of what the world offers, rather than putting God on display, we diminish the power of the Gospel to save. That’s because we’ve removed the authority of our saving message from its true source and tether it to a source that can never save. As well intentioned as pastor Moore’s may be with his book, he leans toward that direction.
I’m with you, Fred. Whenever my wife and I see folks try to “Christianize” something, the eye-rolling begins. Somebody always does something like this — Superman, Batman, Matrix, Star Wars, Harry Potter, you name it… if it’s big and heroic then, dollars-to-donuts, someone is trying to justify his watching it by finding Christian themes in it. Few films/books (e.g. LOTR, Narnia) actually *try* to present Christianity through analogous story-telling.
We used to be in to hip-hop (and still enjoy artists like Shai Linne). I remember years ago when Biggie Smalls and Eminem were big in the secular hip-hop world, Christian rap had guys that *sounded exactly like them.* Do we really need to Christianize artists? “You have your Biggie, we have ours! It’s all redeemable!” Sigh.
Here is a question to kick up dust (and a total rabbit trail): have you used the online service Plugged In (www.pluggedin.com) or something similar? We use that service to find out ahead of time what’s in a movie in terms of lewd content, so we can avoid it. But I wonder: what about these folks that kindly review the movie for me? They subject themselves to hours of (potential) filth. I’m not talking about their review of Madagascar 3 for the kiddies; I’m taking about the R-rated, heavily-profane, nudity, etc. stuff. Supposedly, Christians reviewed this stuff. While I appreciate the fact they have saved my eyes from stuff I don’t want to subject them to, I wonder about the “profession” itself.
This (the book) is just one more attempt to “reach the unbelievers where they are” and allure them into Christianity through mingling Christian worldview into their culture. We become thus people without a separate “story”, but wrapped in the wordly and sinful culture of our day.
You really hit the nail on the head when you said this:
“But does this mean we are obligated as Christian believers to “Christianize” everything we watch or read or hear in popular entertainment? Can’t I just read HP and watch the movies for the fact that they are fun? Why must I go bounding down rabbit trails in order to find “Christian” motifs within a film? Particularly if the author or filmmaker never intended those motifs to be identified as “Christian”? Do they somehow make the stories better? Does it make the Bible even more divine and practical?”
“The danger with this “redemptive” mindset is that we stir up in ourselves the tendency to overly “spiritualize” entertainment that really has no connection to Christianity at all.”
Thank you for writing about such relevant things,
Forgot to add this to my comment. Some known pastor, a couple of months ago, also wrote about finding the Gospel in another recent movie. It came from someone really unexpected to me, he is a solid Christian and teacher.
I happened to have gone to see that movie (I am a bit of sci-fi fan) and after reading his review I thought to myself either I am dumb for not seeing the Gospel in the movie, or…???
Thanks for the thoughtful review. This ‘Bible study’ reminded me of a similar effort by a ministry branch of Christianity Today, called Christian Bible Studies (http://biblestudies.stores.yahoo.net/modigu.html). Someone mentioned it to me recently, and I’m curious whether it’s of this same ‘cultural relevancy’ ilk. They’re geared towards church/group discussion, providing a downloadable (pay) document with rights to make copies for up to 1,000 people.
Has anyone had exposure to these studies, to know whether it’s worthwhile or not? Given CT’s theological bent I have my doubts.
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So the author wants you to waste precious time watching four movies about occultic practices so that we can then learn how to interact “redemptively” within our culture?!?!?
I understand that the author does raise some valid questions about learning discernment, and such, but how about we not call his book a “Bible Study,” because it certainly isn’t.
I’m a firm believer in the adage, “what you win them with is what you win them too.” I will never feel the need to use a movie to teach biblical truths. I think the whole idea is about as wrong-headed as it gets.
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