The Devil’s Books?

Prepare to be offended. I want to ask two related questions. First, should Christians read the classics? Second, what principles should guide their reading?

Let me sharthe the background of what got me thinking on this. Recently, I was having an email conversation with a “Facebook friend.” We’re both Christians, both thoughtful people, and both reasonably well educated. In the course of our writing back and forth, she asked me why I had read Rowling’s Harry Potter books. Here are my exact words to her: “Ha, I read widely. I was a latecomer to Harry Potter (sic). I read a lot of history, theology, and literature. But when something is as influential as those books, I thought I should read them all in order to understand their worldview. Just because I read something doesn’t mean that I buy into its ideology or worldview. I read many things with which I disagree. But I think it’s important to know the entire marketplace of ideas, not just things that make me comfortable or with which I agree.”

Can you guess her response? Here is the first part: “I’ve heard that before. Please don’t be offended, but don’t you think we can know about it because we know about the enemy and his worldview? All I need to know is that it is inspired by the dark side. When Harry uses supernatural powers that do not glorify Jesus Christ, it’s pretty obvious that it’s not good for us. We can know a lot about it because we know the enemy. We know how he works and we know his tactics, but we don’t need to eat from his table. It’s kinda (sic) like the Lord’s warnings in the Old Testament about going to them for counsel.”

What does that conversation reveal about the issues raised? Am I sinning because I read the Harry Potter books? I don’t practice divination; I don’t consult the dead; I don’t cast spells. But I did enjoy the books. I cannot speak for other readers, but I was never as interested in the magic that Harry performed as I was in Harry’s character—how Rowling made him (and other characters) come alive in the stories. We see how Harry grew up, and how and why his personality was the way it was.

The same goes for any literary character, right? Read The Great Gatsby? I feel like Jay Gatsby, Nick Carraway, and Daisy Buchanan live in my imagination, but they were just literary characters. I don’t worship them. Rather I learn from them. How? I can only say, in the way that great literature alone accomplishes. It is part of the (forgive the pun) magic of great literature.

On the other hand, I have tried to think through my friend’s counsel. She is right in that Scripture clearly condemns magic, astrology, demonic spirits, witchcraft, etc. (see Deut. 18:9-12 and 1 Chr. 10:13, e.g.). There are scores of examples in Scripture where witchcraft is condemned. I selected these as among the most obvious, for those who will read them and think through them. Does thinking on things that are honorable, just, pure, lovely, and commendable (Phil. 4:8) preclude me from reading anything but Scripture and Sunday school literature?

I asked her if Christians should read War and Peace and Huckleberry Finn. I’m still waiting on her answer. Because we need to think through these things. Much is at stake. I’d hate to think that all my shelves of Dostoyevsky, Tolkien, O’Connor, Walker Percy, Tolstoy, C.S. Lewis, Larry Woiwode, and T.S. Eliot are for naught. Murders abound in Dostoyevsky, but he’s generally considered a Christian novelist. Tolkien wrote of hobbits, magic, etc., but his writings have reached thousands with the gospel worldview. O’Connor’s writings are filled with sexual deviancy but she’s overtly biblical. Percy, like O’Connor, was Roman Catholic, but I wrote my master’s thesis on Percy, and he was saturated with the biblical worldview, and warned through his writings of man, outside of Christ, is “lost in the cosmos.” Tolstoy, Lewis, Woiwode, Eliot, et al were all orthodox Christians, but each had things in his writings that wouldn’t make it into one’s Sunday school curricula. And the Christian world should evade reading them? I don’t think so.

Fear not, we’re still “Facebook friends.” Iron sharpens iron, right? Hopefully, we can discuss more than the 66 books we both cherish. I hear some good ones have been written. Many even term them “the classics.”

I realize I didn’t answer the questions myself, but you might infer what I think. I continue to teach literature and writing to this very day. I think life without literature, like life without music, would be a mistake. Scripture must guide our evaluations of what constitutes “great” literature (often termed ‘the classics’). Though I don’t make the case that the Harry Potter books constitute great literature, I do think they’re worthy of being read.

Secularism does not lend itself to the creation of great literature simply because secularism is reductionistic. Only a biblical Judeo-Christian worldview gives objective reasons for man’s dignity (he is the creation of God who is goodness Himself) and art, as an ability of co-creation of the true, good, and beautiful, is rooted in a biblical worldview.   But to disparage quality literature as inspired by the devil, it seems to me, cheapens the discussion and tends more towards intellectual cowardice than towards sanctification. Romeo and Juliet, e.g. is replete with metaphors about astrology and the roles of fate. However, to ignore and/or forsake the incomparable beauty and truths in that play, or others of that caliber, ends in making Christian holy huddles an object of pity.

As thoughtful Christians, let us trust truth-tellers, even if they don’t have coffee with us in our Sunday school classes. God even uses pharaohs to manifest his glory.

 

4 thoughts on “The Devil’s Books?

  1. Well written, Jon, although some might argue that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy wrote from Christian perspectives. Your stance on this issue is very close to my own. A practice that I have found useful is to learn something about the writer of what I read and what motivated them to write.

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  2. Hi Jon
    Teresa read to me your post last night and as a church librarian your conversation here hits pretty close to home for us. Before I get long winded with a reply let me just say that we have decided long ago not to put this particular series of books in the church library.

    A simple 2 cents worth of my opinion. I believe it is virtually impossible for someone to write a book, a song, or a screenplay and not attach a message to it. There is always a reason or purpose the author is trying to convey. Whether they intend to or not those reasons or purposes will come from their own thoughts, experiences, background, and simply their life. Their worldview.

    First I will say I agree with both of you. For you, you want to go deeper into the worldview of J.K. Rowling’s. On the other hand your Facebook friend is also right. Scripture is very clear that witchcraft is an abomination to the Lord. Personally I have never read any of the Harry Potter books, but I have seen a couple of the films. I understand the basic premise of the stories and for this reason I cannot endorse these stories. The problem with this series of books is simply this. It glorifies witchcraft. The story is crafted in such a way that connects with young minds and gives credibility to that which the Lord abhors. Our children even young immature Christians ask, ‘what is so wrong with it.

    Do I fault you for reading the books. No. You are a mature Christian and reading for specific purpose.
    At the same time I agree with your friend. Immature Christians should be cautioned to steer away from these books. But it absolutely takes someone like you who can speak from a firsthand knowledge to not just tell them but to be able to tell them why. The days of giving the answer “because I say so” are long gone. If we cannot answer why they shouldn’t question then we might as well go back to days of burning books to eradicate the disease. It didn’t work then it won’t work now.

    So should we put the books in the church library? Let me answer this way. The overarching purpose of our library is to edify the church. To take the position that these books should be allowed and let everyone make up their own minds I believe would be very irresponsible on our part. Are we censoring? Absolutely. These books can be found elsewhere and we cannot stop any one from using these other sources. Are we wrong for taking this position? I would rather answer to God than the court of public opinion.

    Thanks for letting me weigh in and providing this medium to discuss such issues.

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful response, David. As to whether or not a church library should advertise them or encourage the reading of them, that was not my main argument. Ostensibly, the visible church consists of the redeemed. But there are great differences in maturity among the redeemed. Many, one could argue, remain infants. Others go on to maturity. Certainly it should be an autonomous church’s prerogative what to stock on its shelves. My thesis was less audacious: I don’t want to encourage witchcraft, obviously, but there is also danger in intellectual retreat. The gospel is true. Therefore, we should not fear competing worldviews. They fall of their own weight.

      Again, I appreciate your feedback.

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