No Wizard Left Behind

Steven Waldman has an interesting comparison of the Harry Potter novels and some books of which I’d barely heard:

Of the six best-selling books of the past decade, five have been Harry Potters. “Left Behind,” the apocalyptic Christian series by Tim LeHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, has sold more than 60 million copies; currently there are four LeHaye-Jenkins books in the Christian-books Top 10.

Suffice it to say, some secular critics dismiss the Left Behind books as of the wackos, by the wackos, for the wackos. Based on the New Testament’s Revelation, the series begins with the world’s believers disappearing, “raptured” up to heaven. Those “left behind” must struggle through a seven-year ordeal in which the Antichrist comes, much of the population is murdered, and Jesus returns.

These are children’s books?

Some Christians view Harry Potter as anti-Christian because it glorifies witchcraft. “Where will the fascination and emulation end?” asks Richard Abanes in Fantasy and Your Family. “With experimenting with ‘fun’ practices like the divination or spellcasting at Hogwarts? With taking college classes on occultism? As Harry Potter fans mature, will they desire to delve deeper into occultism?” J.K. Rowling, he argues, promotes moral relativism because “Harry, Hermione, Ron, Hagrid and other ‘good’ characters habitually lie, steal, cheat, ignore laws, break rules and disrespect authority.” Oh, and Hagrid is an alcoholic.

The series seem to live in parallel universes, as different as books could be. But as we absorb their latest milestones (the upcoming release of the third Potter movie, the recent release of the climactic Left Behind volume), I have bad news for both camps: The two have a lot in common.

Most obviously, in both cases, we see not a fight between individual good guys and bad guys, but a Manichean struggle between good and evil. That’s the case in Left Behind from early in the first book. Harry Potter starts out as a more limited skirmish between Harry and the evil sorcerer Voldemort. But by the fifth book, the number of combatants has increased, with the entire wizard cadre the Order of the Phoenix battling a vast conspiracy of Voldemort-worshipers and death-eaters.

[Snip — Long series of bullet point comparisons]

Finally, they both have a theology. It’s not, as one might expect, that Left Behind is Christian and Harry Potter pagan, but rather that Left Behind is Protestant and Harry Potter is Catholic. One of the chief theological arguments between Catholics and Protestants has been over whether salvation is earned through faith or by good works. In Left Behind, the only thing that matters is faith in Jesus. Steele explains that church leaders had led so many people astray because they merely “expected them to lead a good life, to do the best they could, to think of others, to be kind, to live in peace. It sounded so good, and yet it was so wrong. How far from the mark!”

While everything is pre-ordained in Left Behind, in Harry Potter, by contrast, Dumbledore explicitly tells Harry that even though he carries some of the essence of Voldemort in him, he has the power to do good because he has the power of choice.

In that sense, despite their similarities, at their hearts the two series are different in a fundamental but not obvious way. Left Behind is fatalistic; Harry Potter sees outcome determined by individual actions. Both provide a roadmap for how to live a good life, but in one case the key is morality, and in the other it is faith.

FILED UNDER: Popular Culture,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steven says:

    Actually, the Left Behind books (which I have not read) aren’t children’s books.

    The Harry Potter books (which I have read) are children’s books that can also be enjoyed by adults.

  2. James Joyner says:

    Interesting. I’ve seen the Potter movies–which were pretty good, actually–but haven’t gotten around to reading the books. I was only tangentially aware of the Left Behind books but just figured they were aimed at the same audience since the comparison was being drawn.

  3. Steven says:

    The books are quite good–indeed, as if often the case, better than the movies (although the first two were quite faithful to their literary forerunners).

    The only direct comparisons between the two series are 1) they deal with things supernatural, and 2) they are both run-away bestsellers.

    My sister has read and enjoyed the Left Behind books–however I haven’t because I not into Biblical fiction anymore than I am into historical fiction (and yes, I am aware of the snarky comments that “Biblical fiction” can produce).

  4. Attila Girl says:

    I’ve read all the Harry Potter books, and I’m a big fan. I know a lot of evangelical types are freaked out by the supposed “magic” in them, but to me that’s all obviously part of their being in a fantasy world, like other children’s books (Half Magic, Thyme Garden–even the Narnia series),

    The comparison I’d make is between the Potter series and *A Wrinkle in Time,* which is also about the struggle between good and evil (though because of when it was written, *Wrinkle in Time* tends to make evil look a lot like Soviet-style totalitarianism).

    One of the best things about the Potter series is that it makes the point all along that people aren’t evil just because you don’t like them or because they’re unpleasant to be around. The issue of good vs. evil is different from the issue of “whom do you like?”

  5. Crank says:

    The Potter books, which are excellent, really do have a deeply moral message (one that’s of far greater relevance in the post-9/11 world), and you have to be pretty insecure in your faith to get worried about readers of the book getting into imaginary witchcraft. I hadn’t thought of the Catholic angle but wonder how much of that is also a result of the obviously heavy Tolkein influence on Rowling’s work, given Tolkein’s explicitly Catholic purposes (ditto for CS Lewis).

  6. jen says:

    Re: Left Behind – I’ve read all but the last one and it’s mediocre Christian fiction, imho. I’ll read the last one, but only because it’s the last one. I’m ready for that series to be done. And Stephen is correct, not kids books.

    Re: Harry Potter vs. Christians – I’m a Christian who’s completely frustrated with a lot of naysayers about these books. Most of them haven’t read the books and don’t know what they’re talking about. The Potter books are pure fiction with elements of the occult – no more or less than Snow White or Cinderella and I don’t hear Christians decrying those tales. Kids are smart enough to tell the difference between reality and fiction. I love Harry Potter and I think kids (and adults) can learn quite a bit about human nature, good, and evil, and everything in between by reading the Potter books.

    I did notice in the 5th book the influence of Tolkien in Rowling’s writing. Maybe it was because I’ve now read The Lord of the Rings books where I hadn’t when I read the first 4 books.

  7. JW says:

    It’s my understanding that the NYT created a children’s fiction list when the first three HP books were all in the NYT Bestseller list at the same time–they wanted to move them into a different category so regular “adult fiction” would have a chance :). So the “bestsellers of the decade” list likely mixes the HP and LB series.

    And James, just to make your hair stand on end again (:P), there are adaptations of LB books specifically for teenagers and grade schoolers written from the point of view of characters in those age groups.

  8. Sam says:

    PAX (a netlet even more minor than UPN) is reported to be producing a drama series based on the “Left Behind” novels.

  9. Attila Girl says:

    I agree with Crank and Jen–Rowling’s supposedly Catholic sensibility could well come from studying Tolkein.

    I’m afraid I’ll have to remind Crank that C.S. Lewis was actually an Anglo-Catholic–an Episcopalian, as we say in this country.