It's Just A Book

One of the statements often made about Harry Potter is that it is "just a book." The implication is that people shouldn't be taking it so seriously. That's a bad idea as there is no such thing as "just a book." Books are, after all, a kind of magic where the intent of the author is expressed through words, a kind of spell or incantation. That's not to say that all books are written explicitly for the purpose of influencing the way we think. An author can have the main intent of telling an entertaining story. Nevertheless, the author has a world view and will inevitably write that world view into the book at some level. It would be extremely difficult, and require an enormous skill as a writer, for an author to consistently express a world view that is different from his own. If the author is writing satire he may create an absurd version of a contrary world view in order to mock and deride it, but for most books, the plot, characters, actions and consequences of the characters will express the world view of the author. Reading a book exposes us to the ideas of the author and if we do not read critically we may absorb those ideas without realizing it.

The ability of books to influence us is expressed in The Chamber of Secrets. Ginny Weasley has found a book that appears to be blank, but as she begins to write in it, the book responds to her. Over time the book begins to take over her mind, and she begins doing things she would never do otherwise. What appeared to be a harmless, blank book turned out to exert a great deal of control over her actions. After her rescue, Ginny's father reminds her, "Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can't see where it keeps its brain." To paraphrase, things that look brainless may not be trustworthy. A book that seems inane or trivial may have an embedded message that is not apparent until it seeps into our own conscience and begins to influence us. This episode of Harry Potter warns us to watch out for books that have a hidden immoral message. It also provides a hint that maybe there is something in Harry Potter beyond simple story telling. As Rowling stated in an interview, "I didn't set out to preach to anyone...I truly didn't set out to teach morals, even though I do think they are moral books."

We can apply the same understanding of books to the Bible. The Bible may inspire some and make others angry. Some readers may get a great deal out of the Bible, while others don't get the message at all. But we would never say that it is "just a book" or tell people to not make too much out of it. We would always tell the reader of the Bible to read carefully and critically, yet let the book speak to you. The complimentary disciplines of hermeneutics and exegesis are taught to Bible students for this very reason. We want to make sure we don't read ideas into the Bible while also making sure we do see the message that was intended. If we don't learn to read all books critically, we can develop bad reading habits that can spill over into Bible study as well.

Some may still object that fiction is used for entertainment purposes while non-fiction is used to present important philosophical and religious ideas. However, myths and legends have been used for centuries to express moral values through storytelling. In the Bible we find that storytelling plays an important role in conveying great truths. When David committed adultery with Bathsheba, the prophet Nathan gets David to see the sin by telling him a story (2 Sa. 12:1). This short parable allows David to see the sin first in a fictional setting, and then realize that the moral applies to him as well.

The greatest story teller in the Bible is Jesus. Jesus would expound on the law and prophets as well as debate with the religious leaders. However, when Jesus taught spiritual concepts, he almost always did so in the form of a parable In his parables, Jesus adapted the elements and form of the story to the audience. When he was teaching rural people, he chose agricultural metaphors, but when teaching city dwellers he would switch to a commercial metaphor. In effect, Jesus takes the ordinary things of life that his hearers are most familiar with and then adapts them to his purpose. This is the most effective teaching method there is. The teacher takes what the person already knows and adapts it to his use, helping the disciple see the principle through familiar ideas and images.

In the parable of the sower, Jesus tells a story that expresses the way we receive new ideas. Some hearers are like hard, compacted soil and will not allow new ideas to penetrate. Others are like stony ground that has insufficient depth to nourish the new ideas. Sill others are like thorny ground where other ideas and concerns prejudice the listener against hearing and applying the new knowledge. Only the fertile soil, prepared and open to receive, will bear fruit. This parable is told in regard to hearing the Gospel, but it is just as applicable to the way we read any book. We must read with a receptive mind, not prejudiced opinion, in order to gain understanding of what the author has to say. Storytelling gets us to engage our knowledge of the world and our imagination, our emotions and intellect, all at once, and in so doing makes us more receptive to the ideas of the author. In addition, the plot of the story creates a structure that helps us remember the elements in the story more easily than if the author presented a long list of items to memorize. Thus, storytelling is the most powerful way we have of conveying ideas to others.

With that in mind, the strategy I am using in these essays is to first look at Harry Potter as a literary work, exploring its form, archetypes, plot devices and characters in order to understand how the story is constructed. With that understanding, it is easy to see how the moral themes in the work are expressed. Once the moral themes are worked out, then and only then is it appropriate for us to compare and contrast the world view expressed in the story. We should be able to see if the book has a secular or religious world view, and whether or not that world view is compatible with Christianity.


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