In Thought: The Spiritual Lives of Children’s Books

by Dr. Tommy Sanders

When talking with a 10-year-old and his parents about conversion, I asked him what sin was. He quickly responded, “Reading Harry Potter books.” Well, I had not heard that one before. The sad thing is that I am hooked on reading children’s chapter books. I space these between my other readings in history, leadership, and spiritual formation. I dread the day that I do not have children recommending books to me. I started this hobby when I told my children that they could not see a movie that was based on a book unless they read the book first. Of course, this meant that I had to follow this as my own personal rule, too.

Even though my children are now 19, 22, and 23, I am still reading children’s chapter books. In the last year or so, I have read Rick Riordan’s trifecta of stories around Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods and Michael Scott’s Nicholas Flamell series. I began reading these books because I wanted to see what children saw in them; however, I started to see a different pattern emerge. These and other recently popular books seem to have a spiritual theme that runs through them. Even the Harry Potter series moves toward spiritual questions in book two, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.  Dumbledore tells Harry that he has a lot in common with the evil He who must not be named, but explains that we are more than our gifts and abilities, we are who we are because of our choices. Then in book seven, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1, Harry asks Dumbledore if “afterlife” was in his head. Dumbledore replies, “of course.”

I initially thought the spiritual nature of the more recent books was a move away from our cultural monotheistic view – you know the “in God we trust” idea – and toward a more polytheistic view. However, the more I think about it, the more I see it as a move toward an individualistic view of the spiritual and deity. Many series are resurrecting the pagan gods of ancient cultures, but only in the sense that the individual comes alongside these gods as equals, foes, and/or collaborators. These same mythological stories and other classical texts were lost to most of the world for more than a thousand years, but the rediscovery of them feed the focus on individualism in the Enlightenment and many argue then, the Reformation.

In these reinvented stories of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods, new forms of individualism are being born. The pre-teen or teen characters individualize themselves with certain gods based on similarities in giftedness or interest. Rick Riordan, especially in his Egyptian series, calls on children and pre-teens to explore the gods within themselves or at least their connections with the gods of earth, wind, fire, and the sort. Specifically, in the Percy Jackson character, he finds that his ADHD and Dyslexia are actually the result of being born a demigod. The very thing that makes Jackson struggle in school is a result of his connection with the Greek gods. One of the areas that may make these books so attractive is the emphasis on individuality. There was a god for everything literally. Janus was a Greek god of doorways. In some ways, the books give children support and encouragement when they realize that they are different from other people. The caution at this point is that individualism in excess can become a basis for narcissism and self-focus. In the Riordan and Scott series, the teenagers often know more than the gods they are expected to worship. This idea is very similar to the American mantra: “You can be anything you want to be.” The goal for Christians is somewhat different: “We can be anything God wants us to be.” The encouragement given by these books must be interpreted and guided by Christian parents and leaders.

The new spiritual emphasis also seems to argue for the worth of the person based in the more spiritual aspects of life. In a way, some of the people are becoming deified. Immortals in Scott’s series live forever in their service to pagan gods. Percy Jackson is given the opportunity to become a god or be immortal. Riordan underscores his view of the afterlife with images of judgment, reward, and something in-between. Even in death, the individual nature of one’s experience is affirmed as Percy discovers that in death all religious people experience the afterlife based on their own individual worldview. The idea that the afterlife morphs into the individual’s perception is truly an underscore of individual beliefs right into eternity. An interesting theme is that death is not feared as the end of life, but another stage of life. Actually, even the gods of both of these series are reliant on human connection for existence, and when forgotten, the god’s have a type of godly afterlife. In Riordan’s case, a nursing home for forgotten gods.

If these select books are featuring religions, what do they say of Christianity? Well, very little directly, although in the first Percy Jackson The Lightening Thief, a television Evangelist is featured for his lies and deception in life and then in death is rewarded with extreme punishment. At one point in this same book, Percy asks if there is one true god to which his mentor dismisses as too existential of a question.

I am certainly not calling for a book burning or ban. The stories of pagan deities and entities can be found in and alluded to in classics by authors such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Part of the fun of fantasy is magic and exploring imaginary worlds. However, I think these books are reflecting a culmination of a more spiritual interest by all age groups. Many of these books talk of prophesy, plans, and destiny. Tales of this sort give hope in a world where so much is out of control.

The reality check for parents and church leaders is to be more aware of what our children are consuming. Reading and watching content together with older elementary children and youth provides opportunities for faith discussion and relationship building.

This recent trend in books has caused me to ponder other questions. Where are the C.S. Lewis writers for this generation? Will we let others set the tone for spiritual discussion and imagination? I have long believed that a healthy part of Christian spiritual formation is imagination. Imagining what God has in store for us and imagining what is beyond this earthly life can be powerful influences in an individual’s life at any stage.

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