Later this week (the 8th) is International Literacy Day, so let me tell you a story about…well…books…
I was a Harry Potter kid. Hardcore. I still have merch. I was very much less a Harry Potter teen. Now, I experience a low-level rage at what’s happened to the IP over the years and can look back on it with a much more critical eye for its problematic elements. In an ideal world, I would attribute this shift to some complex reckoning with the media I consume as I age, but really I just didn’t like the fifth book. Harry’s angst over being the chosen one reads hollow when your own brain is actively trying to kill you on a daily basis. So, you know, that combined with the absolute idiocy of the seventh book…
Prior to that I was IN IT. This was the dawn of fandom rabidity for me. When a new book was out, it came with me everywhere. When I did re-reads before the new book came out, it came with me everywhere. I wore it on my body, on the shelves in my room, in the corners of my brain. And oddly, despite my entrenched religious upbringing, I had distance from the insistence that the series was anti-god. That it promoted witchcraft and satanism.
We were technically part of the Southern Baptist Convention, but when I compare my upbringing to that of others I know in the SBC, it wasn’t…as…bad? More comparatively progressive parents and pastor provided a necessary ballast for the more Fundamentalist-lite elements of the ideology as a whole. But the people were there in the congregation, at the Youth Evangelical Conference, at Girls in Action, at Bible Study Camp. But the people who took Harry Potter that seriously? No no no no we weren’t THOSE Christians who saw Satan in everything secular. We understood nuance. We were reasonable. We weren’t the crazy Christians.
The summer the fourth book came out, Mom decided she wanted to visit another, smaller church. I never really knew why, but as I didn’t have a say in the matter, the reason was immaterial. I remember the Sunday School class distinctly, though. When the teacher asked what were looking forward to in the new school year, I lamented that I wouldn’t be able to finish Goblet of Fire before the end of the summer vacation. That’s when she asked me a question that would go on to haunt me for years to come.
“Do you really think that’s the kind of book that young Christian’s should be reading?”
We didn’t go back to that church after that Sunday, and I was able to ease my mind that “ah no, these were just the wacky Christians okay.”
Then something I didn’t quite expect unfolded.
At a social function a few months later, I was hunkered down over some hot dogs with one of my few church friends and discussing the events around the triwizard tournament. My mother then leans over and says to me, sotto voice, “don’t talk about that book at church.”
And I asked “why?”
And I was told it wasn’t appropriate.
I can’t tell you what changed. I can’t have never mentioned Harry Potter in the past few years (at that point), so why now was it a problem?
If the book wasn’t “appropriate” then why was I being permitted to read it to begin with?
W-were…were we the crazy Christians, afterall?
That, of course, like many things from my childhood, forced me into an existential spiral. What books were permitted to read at church in the downtime between classes and events and meals?
- Chronicles of Narnia
- Left Behind
- Janette Oke
- Laura Ingalls Wilder
- Nancy Drew
- Little Women
- American Girl
- things required for school (despite their thematic similarity to “unacceptable” books)
All permitted. Not a terrible list, but there’s certainly a theme.
- Michael Crichton
- Ray Bradbury
- Edgar Allen Poe
- The Dark is Rising Cycle
Thin fucking ice.
- Any of my mythology and folklore books.
- The Gnostic Gospels of Jesus
Absolutely forbidden or caused too much of a ruckus to be worth it.
Now I feel like from the outside this seems like a non-problem. Situational context, right? Certain things belong in certain settings. But that’s something else you have to understand about the dogma I was entrenched in at the time. We were encouraged to walk the way of Christ in our every day life. You were supposed to “bring church home.” So, of course, my logic followed that I could “bring home to church.” That the secular and the religious should be marginally intertwinable if you’re doing it correctly. Right? R-right…?
I came to understand it was never actually about Harry Potter. It was never really about any specific book at all.
Literature was a catalyst, but it was never about the words and stories themselves. It was the reaction to those things, the implication that there was some fundamental part of myself that I had to hide from my church to fit in to the mold it was trying to pour of me. I had been inculcated with two, contrasting ideas about how I was supposed to live my life, provided examples from opposite ends of the spectrum from two sources that I trusted.
So my logic followed:
If the two sources conflicted, then neither of them must, objectively, be fully correct.
And once introduced to the idea that the arbiters of my faith can be fallible, whichever option let me keep reading Harry Potter, something I saw no internal moral qualms with, was obviously going to win out in the long run.
Now, this wasn’t just…the only thing. There was…there was a lot. A lot of other chances for things to go as awry as they eventually would. Even before the various book-related fiascos, I had started to suspect that the adult leaders in my church didn’t have all the answers I required to take the teachings on faith alone. But I think that’s why the “Harry Potter thing” (as I would come to think of it in the years to come) was such a huge turning point. If any one of these specific adults in my life had just admitted “hey, kiddo, guess what, sometimes adults disagree on major issues, but we can still mutually respect each other” then at least that would have fit in the worldview I was already developing (ie, that adults are also idiots). I can understand nuance. I could’ve grasped that some things were just slightly more complicated than others.
But they didn’t.
So I had to form the opinion that adults were either clueless or hypocrites or both all on my own.
And I would probably would have still deconstructed, eventually. I’m not made for the kind of blind devotion my church was asking of me.
But maybe it wouldn’t have hurt so much.