A Catholic school in Nashville, Tennessee, has banned the entire Harry Potter series of books because a pastor at the school believes they contain real spells that actually work in real life.
The Tennessean reported over the weekend that Rev. Dan Reehil, a pastor at the school, sent out an email to parents telling them that the seven books in the series were being removed from the library. In the email, he tells parents, “The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text.”
The spells in the Harry Potter books are, of course, a fictional creation of author J.K. Rowling. We know this by virtue of the lack of children today zooming about the atmosphere screaming, “Ascendio!”
The ban announcement quickly went viral, no doubt fed by Reehil’s absurd reasoning and the almost nostalgic nature of it. Reehil is hardly the first to call for the banning of Harry Potter books, and he’s not the first to pin it to religion-fueled fears of occult references in fictional works. Prior to 2004, when the first books in the series were still fresh, schools faced hundreds of challenges to try to get them banned, according to the American Library Association’s (ALA) annual list of “Top Ten Most Challenged Books.”
But then the Harry Potter books fell off the list, even as the series was adapted to film and became a pop culture mainstay. You can even “visit” settings from the books and movie adaptations at Universal Studios theme parks in Los Angeles, California, and Orlando, Florida, and buy your own magic wand. You still won’t be able to fly, but the wand does other things in the park itself—through clever application of technology, not actual magic.
Deborah Caldwell-Stone, interim director of the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom, says that efforts to ban Harry Potter books still pop up occasionally, particularly in Catholic schools. Because Catholic schools are privately organized and operated, the typical First Amendment legal concerns don’t apply. As for students in public schools, a 2003 ruling by the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas said that it violated the First Amendment rights of students in the Cedarville School District to lock away Harry Potter books and require children to get written permission from parents to read them.
The recent drop in such cases makes the action in Nashville much more noticeable.
“It has become a Modern children’s classic and become more widely accepted, but we still see incidents where it’s still challenged,” Caldwell-Stone explains. And it’s not just about the magic and witchcraft. “They think Harry’s a terrible role model who teaches kids to defy authority.”
In other words, the passage of more than 20 years since the first book was published has made it clear that any religious fears that the Harry Potter books would lead to real world occultism or devil worship are simply unfounded.
These days, books are less likely to be challenged for representing magic or witchcraft and are more likely to be fought because they include LGBT characters, profanity, or violence. Harry Potter is no longer a major concern, making Reehil’s abrupt decision even more head-scratching. In addition, book banning requests usually come from parents or library patrons and very rarely from administrators (and almost never from the students themselves), according to data from the ALA’s Office for Intellectual Freedom.
The Tennessean notes that the Catholic Church itself has not taken any sort of position on the Harry Potter books. Reehil seems to be acting on his own. The other Catholic schools in the diocese still have the books in their libraries. Superintendent Rebecca Hammel told the Tennessean that the school hadn’t banned any other books for similar reasons. While the church might not have a formal position, Pope Benedict XVI was not a fan of the series back when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, according to a letter he sent in 2003. But even back then, some other religious leaders thought it was absurd to think the books presented a danger to young Christian minds.
The reasoning behind the ban is reminiscent of the religious panic over the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role-playing game that happened back in the 1980s and 1990s (and still persists in some quarters). While part of the panic was due to dislike among some Christians of anything that embraced even a fictional representation of magic and the supernatural, this fear was also partly a result of misinterpreting what the game actually was.
Not a few critics of Dungeons & Dragons believed that kids (and adults) playing the game were literally attempting to cast the magic spells listed in the manuals in real life. You can see remnants of that idea from this unsigned Christian analysis of the game from 2003:
Magic-users, elves, and clerics use spells, which must be memorized before a game begins after consultation with the proper book of spells. The spell must then be spoken or read aloud in order to have any effect.
As a big Dungeons & Dragons nerd, I can explain how this is mistaken. It is true that the wholly imaginary characters must memorize spells, but the players themselves do not and don’t have to consult with a book prior to playing a game. All they’re actually doing is picking which spells they want to have prepared from a large list. Wizards and the like have a limited number of spells they can cast per day. This was implemented as a form of game balance to keep the game’s magical classes from being too powerful (compared to warriors and thieves and others with no magic skills) that has somehow been misinterpreted as rules that the players themselves must follow.
Similarly, I’ve seen religious critics of the game misinterpret the fanciful descriptions in the manuals of how the spells are cast with instructions that the players must follow in real life as part of the game. This is the mentality to led to the panic that players were living out these fantasies in real life. I read a panic-fueled analysis of the game back in the 1990s that warned that kids were being ordered to eat live spiders in order to gain the ability to climb walls (like Spider-man) because it was listed in a spell’s description. This was not what was actually happening. The imaginary wizards being controlled by the player were eating imaginary spiders (assuming the players even cared all that much about the spell’s components). These were fanciful accounts of how the spell is cast—and they were complete fiction.
That panic has faded, probably because decades of Dungeons & Dragons play has not resulted in any portals to Hell opening on Earth, because claims that the game lead to suicide were shown to be nonsense, and because the game is currently enjoying a renaissance. In fact, not a few Christians have become avid gamers themselves and are encouraging others to do the same. (You can play monks!)
The Harry Potter books, too, have become simply a harmless part of our popular culture and shouldn’t be inspiring this absurd ban. The ban does, however, serve as a useful reminder that Banned Book Week is coming up later this month from September 22 through 28. While the ALA documents hundreds of challenges every year, Caldwell-Stone notes that actual book bans are infrequent.
“We’re heartened by the fact that in the public school and public venues, more frequently than not, even when there are challenges the book, they choose to retain the book, on the grounds that they’re a public institution,” she says.