When I was in fifth grade, Harry Potter was becoming all the rage, so our teacher had us read the first book to see what it was all about. Or, I should say rather, she had most of us read it. A couple of students’ parents forbid them to read it, so they got another book instead. After all, the Bible has harsh condemnations of magic and sorcery. It’s one of the reasons God gives for destroying Jerusalem and sending the Jews into exile in Babylon. So, how should Christians respond to such art that glorifies things like magic and idolatry? My blog title refers to Norse mythology, so you can guess what my answer will be, but I didn’t arrive at it without struggling myself and exploring what the Scriptural answer was.
This issue vexed a lot of Church Fathers as well. They enjoyed Greco-Roman literature and oratory, but they felt bad about it. These were works that praised gods that committed all sorts of debauchery and taught the values of a culture that put their brothers and sisters to death. There’s a famous story of St. Jerome. While he was working on his translation of the Bible into Latin, he started out writing in the polished style of the Roman elite, the kind of language that marked you out as a Senator or official. One night, though, he dreamed that God threw him out of Heaven saying, “You are not a Christian; you are a Ciceronian.” When he woke up, he resolved to write in a more accessible- or, if you prefer, a vulgar- style, hence the name of his translation, the Vulgate. Charlemagne’s lead scholar, Alcuin of York, had a similar dream nearly four hundred years later. One Church Father said that pagan literature should be approached like the pagan captive in Deuteronomy 21, carefully separated from all her pagan background before you married her. Much of ancient literature survives because of medieval copyists, but many tried to just extract the quotes they thought were edifying and compile those.
Whatever qualms Jerome and Alcuin had, it appears the actual Biblical writers themselves didn’t share them. Paul directly quotes four pagan Greek writers. In Acts 17:28, he cites two who are praising Zeus and the gods but happened to say things that are correct about the true God as a way to reach out to the pagan Athenians. Even when he’s talking to fellow Christians, he draws on pagan authors in I Corinthians 15:33 and Titus 1:12. To be able to pull up two quotes on the spur of the moment when he was brought to the Areopagus seems to mean he devoted considerable study to the pagan Greeks. Peter we know had some familiarity with Greek mythology as well, since he refers to Tartarus in II Peter 2:4. Because He was speaking to a largely Jewish audience, Jesus called Hell by the name of Gehenna, referring to the valley outside of Jerusalem where they burned the garbage, but when Peter speaks to a wider readership, he explicitly uses the place of eternal torment from Greek mythology.
Matthew Henry thought the “learning” that Festus claims is driving Paul mad in Acts 26:24 was worldly learning, but I’m not so sure. As a Roman noble, Festus would have been steeped in the classics, so I don’t think he would have said that such an education could drive you mad. More likely he thought Paul had just delved too deeply into another one of the Eastern mystery religions Rome constantly had to deal with. Given the context of Acts 17, though, I like the suggestion better that Paul describing humanity groping for God is a subtle allusion to Polyphemus after being blinded by Odysseus in the Odyssey. Many of them would have known, and Paul would have known that they knew, Homer by heart. If he was trying to make such an allusion, it would not have gone unnoticed.
If we could prove that Paul had read the Odyssey, I think we wouldn’t have to worry so much with books like Harry Potter. The Odyssey contains a lot of material the Bible condemns, like magic, consulting the dead, adultery, personal revenge, and of course idolatry. However, I won’t really trace this too much further since it’s less certain. We’ll stick with the explicit stuff.
The fact remains that Paul was willing to read and even memorize material that praised pagan gods. With his Scriptural discernment he could filter through the erroneous imaginings of the heathen authors and find nuggets of truth with which to reach out to nonbelievers who had read and enjoyed the same material.
Critics of Christianity love to suggest that Christianity ripped off the Eastern mystery religions of the day, particularly Mithraism. I don’t think we actually know as much of Mithraism as they think, but they claim there’s stuff about Mithras being born on December 25 and sacrificing himself for his followers. (Some go far enough to claim that the West came within a whisker of turning Mithraist rather than Christian. Rodney Stark disproves this in Cities of God. He points out that most Mithraist sites are found on the border- i.e., where the Roman soldiers were stationed- rather than among the broader population.) Evidently there were enough similarities, though, that the Church Fathers found this accusation leveled at them as well. Their answer was essentially the same as Paul’s: God had let people incorporate such things into their fictional religions so that it would resonate with them and they couldn’t attack it when it was preached by the true religion.
Famously, this was how C.S. Lewis was converted. Even while he was a skeptic towards religion, he loved pagan mythologies. J.R.R. Tolkien and another friend showed him that the stuff he loved from pagan mythology was largely true about Jesus. In Norse mythology, for instance, Baldur is the purest and most beautiful of the gods, and he is murdered by the malicious Loki, only to return to life to preside over the restored creation after the cataclysm of Ragnarok. Tolkien asked Lewis why he delighted in such stories when he knew they were false but rejected the one that was presented as fact, which opened Lewis’s eyes and created one of the greatest Christian writers of all time, a Christian author who was never afraid to work in pagan literature and fairy tales into his own work.
This might surprise you, but it appears that even a group of people as purist as the Old Testament prophets were willing to appropriate pagan literature for the purpose of glorifying God. Psalm 104:4 says that God “maketh his angels spirits, his ministers a flaming fire” (KJV). In all the literal (that is, nonpoetic) depictions of angels in the Bible, that’s not a very common motif. They can be associated with fire, have it in their eyes, or be half-fire from the waist down, but you don’t see many angels looking like the Human Torch. But do you know who really was believed to be served by angels of fire? Ba’al, of all people! The previous verse about God riding on the clouds and the wind is also used to depict Ba’al in pagan literature. In Exodus 11:7, I find the suggestion that Moses says about the Passover, “Against the children of Israel shall not a dog move its tongue” (KJV), as a reference to Anubis, the part-jackal Egyptian god of the dead, almost irresistible. Certainly both Moses and Pharaoh knew of Anubis. It seems that the prophets did like Paul and appropriated imagery from their opponents that they could use to glorify God.
The Bible also more explicitly uses mythological creatures from other religions as symbols. Leviathan is a creature from the Canaanite religion the Israelites were commanded to wipe out, and Isaiah compares Egypt to another sea monster, Rahab. You’ll notice that nowhere are these creatures the worthy opponent of the gods like they are in the original mythologies; they are always under God’s control and no match for Him.
The difference between a Paul or a psalmist reading pagan literature and a Virgil writing an invocation to the Muses, to me, is that Paul and the psalmist knew such things weren’t true. I think we can read and write fiction that we know is fiction and won’t be tempted by. This isn’t license to read and watch just anything (more on that later), but it does resolve how men of God could read and apparently enjoy things that were written in opposition to God.
And I think I can back this approach up with Scripture. You might have noticed how II Samuel refers to Ish-bosheth, Mephibosheth, and Jerubbesheth, but I Chronicles 8 refers to the same men as Eshbaal and Merib-baal, and Judges lists Gideon’s nickname as Jerubbaal. What accounts for this? I doubt anyone called them the names in II Samuel in their lifetime since the root “boshet” means “shame” in Hebrew. Maybe some called Ish-bosheth that during David’s time after his ignominious end (it means Man of Shame), but why would a Biblical author want to attach shame to one of Israel’s greatest judges or a man David was determined to show kindness and honor to because of his honorable father, the hero Jonathan? Well, if we go with the dates and situations of composition theorized by some, it makes sense and backs up my own theory. Chronicles was written after the exile when Israel had been shocked out of its idolatry, and Judges was possibly written as a piece in support of David’s reign (notice how it laments what happened when there was no king of Israel and the extremely bad light it portrays Saul’s hometown and tribe in), another time when idolatry wouldn’t have been put up with. II Samuel was probably written in between- i.e., during the period when Israel had its greatest struggles with idolatry. Thus the authors of Chronicles and Judges could feel free to use the actual names of the people with Ba’al in them without fear of tempting anyone, but the author of Samuel wanted to avoid the slightest whiff of idolatry.
Of course the verse that perturbed me was Exodus 23:13: “And make no mention of the names of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth” (KJV). At the time I was writing a novel heavily influenced by Celtic and Norse mythology with the Morrigan as an important character, and this verse wounded my conscience. I did know the answer wasn’t as extreme as one person I read who said he was resolved not to use a single English word derived from a pagan god’s name. My response is, “Good luck with that. You’ll be unintelligible. You won’t be able to mention most of the days of the week, some months, or even cereal. You can’t even call Easter or Hell by those names (yes, to all you Thor: Ragnarok fans, that goddess is where English speakers get their name for God’s place of eternal punishment).” Anyway, I resolved my dilemma when I realized that the New Testament refers to the believers Dionysius the Areopagite (named for the Greek god of drunken orgies) and Apollos (meaning one who belongs to the Greek god Apollo). If the early Church had taken that verse in Exodus at its most literal meaning, how hard would it have been for these two men to adopt non-pagan names so that we would have no record that any Christian ever bore such a designation? Keeping their pagan names meant that everyone who addressed them would be breaking Exodus 23:13. Isaiah 46:1 refers to the Babylonian gods Bel and Nebo as though they were real people (albeit bowing down in defeat before God). I think now that what God is getting at in Exodus is more that there should be no references to gods arising from faith in them, like an actual invocation. You see that again in II Samuel. When idolatry was a problem, the writer avoided using the name of a false god, but once that problem was largely solved, the Chronicler didn’t mind writing Ba’al with his pen.
Like I said, though, knowing something’s fiction isn’t an excuse to read or watch just anything. Paul instructed the Philippians, “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (4:8, KJV). Those are the kinds of things we are to be devoting our reflective moments towards. I think you’ll find the common denominator in all the pagan references in the Bible is that they’re being used to glorify God.
Certainly there’s plenty of art out there that we shouldn’t be exposing ourselves to. Let’s face it: it’s not getting any more wholesome (not that Greco-Roman art was that wholesome either). The difference, which I’ll examine in a later post, is between depicting a sin and glorifying it. When a work of art is portraying a sin and you find yourself wishing you could do that too- stop reading!
Consider the Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis. Here’s a book all about demons, but it’s about the various ways they tempt people so the readers will be on their guard. I don’t think that writing about them in this way even when they’re evil things is any more wrong than when Biblical writers do so for the same reason. Lewis doesn’t glorify them in the least, unlike some artists.
With regards to Harry Potter itself, I only read the first book, but I didn’t find anything in its actual message that a Christian should find particularly objectionable. Obviously it wasn’t teaching that there are real wizards and witches, but it was conveying the value of loyalty, friendship, and bravery. Looking back on it now, I can safely say there are going to be a lot of Neville Longbottoms on Judgment Day who get recognized for trying to do the right thing even though they failed to accomplish their objective.
Or consider the Odyssey that Paul very possibly read and used in his evangelism. As I explained, it’s got a whole lot of stuff that’s antithetical to the Christian religion, but look at the broader themes. It’s about a husband and father desperately trying to return to his family and using his ingenuity to survive in a harsh world, a wife trying to remain faithful to him in spite of enormous pressure upon her, and his son desiring to maintain his father’s honor while longing for his return. Who can object to that? (And there’s not a dog-lover in the world who doesn’t want to cry when Odysseus finally returns home and his dog Argos, who has grown decrepit waiting for him for twenty years, is the only one to recognize him, wags his tail, and then dies.) The Iliad tells the story of Achilles sulking over the seizure of a concubine, but he returns to his sense of duty when his inactivity causes his best friend’s death. The Aeneid is essentially propaganda for the Roman Empire, but it depicts steadfast Aeneas letting nothing stand in his way of accomplishing his divinely given task. Germanic heroes like Beowulf are far too concerned with their personal glory, but they get it by fighting for their families and their nation when they know it will probably (or even certainly) cost them their lives. A religion that praises its martyrs can’t really find too much fault with that.
Has anyone ever criticized you for reading books like Harry Potter? I can certainly understand their scruples, and many of their honorable forefathers shared them. I think that as long as the book isn’t tempting us to actual sin (i.e., where we can distinguish between the fiction and the underlying reality), what the writers fantasize about isn’t as big a deal. Certainly there is Biblical precedent for harnessing pagan mythology and putting it to work to glorify God.