When our son, Jack, read the Harry Potter series for the first time, he was nine.
Well-meaning folks told us in shocked tones that he would not be able to “handle” the elements of darkness in the story. They were right. Jack was devastated. When a main character died at the climactic conclusion of one of the books, he wept. He cuddled up to me and whispered what he had just read.
“I know,” I replied, holding him close, “Its so hard. Evil is evil.”
“Mom,” he said, his eyes full of tears, “I hate evil.”
Those who said Jack could not handle it were right. Evil cannot be handled. It must be destroyed, and to be destroyed it must be hated. Jack’s experience with Harry Potter was holy, because it is more important that he rejects evil than that he handles it. From the earliest days of their lives, we tell our children about the fallen world and the God who redeems it, but it is art that invites them to engage in the universal battle against evil. From the parables of Christ to sad songs to fantasy novels, art needs darkness to shine forth the light. Childhood’s formative season is the ordained time to instill the universal story of the gospel - creation, fall, redemption, and restoration - in their hearts and minds. Redemptive art must be honest about the fall if it is to participate in this sacred work.
In a topic this sensitive, it behooves me to be specific. I am advocating for Christian parents to allow their children to engage in great art, even if it portrays evil that may distress them. By this, I mean representational art that is commonly considered part of an excellent traditional or pop culture canon that may or may not be created by or intended for Christians. In this criteria, I include art that is often controversial in Christian circles, like the Harry Potter series, Shakespeare’s tragedies, ancient mythologies, Grimm’s fairy tales, the Broadway music of Les Miserablesor Hamilton, and the paintings and poetry of William Blake.
The elements of darkness in art of this magnitude is mitigated by its resolution within the art, thus representing a little cosmos that mirrors the fall and redemption in the larger world. The darkness is not disordering, but healing and harmonizing to the soul, because it is an essential part of a bridge that connects the world of imagination with the world that is reconciled and redeemed through the work of Christ. Children and adults respond differently to moral quandaries, which creates an opportunity to orient children’s affections to goodness.
To adults, good and evil can appear hopelessly mingled, leading to complex dilemmas. We assume that will be the case with our children, so we attempt to preserve their innocence by protecting them from exposure to great art in order to avoid evil, but this is a mistake. To children, it is simple. Children know that good is good and bad is bad. Far from being a time to shelter them, childhood shouts a clarion call to parents to shape their souls through engaging the reality that the world is full of darkness, but Christ has overcome it and we, like the characters in a story, are called to participate in the overcoming.
That all sounds very lofty, but it prompts the question: how? Another aspect of holy parenting is to protect our children from the effects of evil, which distorts and damages the image of God. How can we protect them from harm while also uniting their beliefs and hearts, to the truth? Art that tells the truth about the fallen world and its salvation is a path between true peril and the inner sense of risk and purpose that weaves their souls into humanity’s larger story. When they read Lord of the Rings, the dangers they encounter are not factual, but the visceral response that invites them to courage, heroism, loyalty, leadership, and virtue binds them to revere those qualities far more than they would through a sermon or admonition. Art may not be literal, but it is embodied truth nonetheless.
The ancients tell us that we become what we behold. Art creates pathways into the interior mysteries of God and creation that we can travel again and again. Children are as human as adults, with complex inner worlds that thrive on validation and depth. Art that engages them in the universal human experiences of love, grief, joy, despair, suffering, and glory nourishes their souls just as it does for adults. They weep too when listening to Fantine’s tender aria because, although they have never been a starving prostitute, they recognize the universal existential nightmare of bewildered loneliness in a cruel world. I have never known a child to ask about Fantine’s profession - they are drawn only to her longing for mercy. Their humanity is just as fallen as ours, and art helps us navigate our way to grace in the implacable landscape of the world.
This does not mean that we should expose our children to any and all art. The world is full of inferior and deceptive art that inflicts harm on our souls. It requires intention and discernment to curate redemptive art in Christian families. A worthy rule of thumb is that redemptive art, to begin with, clearly identifies good as good and evil as evil. Its portrayal of darkness is not gratuitous, but purposeful. If the art in question is a story, the evil is conquered through the course of the narrative. If the art is visual, it either portrays beauty or utilizes ugliness only to redeem or expose it. If it is music, its lyrical and tonal dissonance is resolved in harmony. Great art tells the truth about the world. As Andrew Peterson sings, “the world was good, the world is fallen, the world will be redeemed.” This is the universal story that has been told through great art since time immemorial.
C.S. Lewis maintained that he became a Christian through reading pagan literature. He identified the golden threads of the universal story in Homer and Virgil, just as my son traced it in Harry Potter. In this, Holy Scripture comforts us. “Little children, do not fear, for the Father is pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). The rich inheritance of art through the ages is ours to claim for the glory of God in the lives of our families .
Heidi White is a teacher, featured contributor at The Close Reads Podcast Network and the Deputy Editor of Forma Journal. She serves on the Anselm Society board and lives in Colorado Springs with her husband and children.