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Hello, fellow wayfarers. What J. K. Rowling’s witch trials have to do with our fracturing culture … How changing minds means showing people where they’re wrong—and right … How deepfake videos might make us even more confused and cynical than ever … Finding some long-forgotten words or melodies with a Desert Island Playlist from Africa … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

J. K. Rowling’s Witch Trials—and Ours

Back in the early- to mid-2000s, I would guest-host a Christian talk radio program from time to time, and I learned a lot from the experience. One thing I discovered is that two issues, more than any others, would prompt rage from the listeners calling in.

One of those subjects was any critique of Christian romance novels. And the other was any positive assessment of Harry Potter.

I said to a friend at the time, “I’m never talking about Harry Potter again; it brings out crazy.” Ah, for those innocent days of youth! I could never have imagined what would happen when the whole country turned into a call-in talk radio show. I thought the days were long past when I would even have occasion to talk about Harry Potter again—until today.

In the past several weeks, three friends—all from different social spheres—recommended that I listen to a new podcast documentary series, The Witch Trials of J. K. Rowling, hosted by Megan Phelps-Roper (an exile from the infamous Westboro Baptist Church). The series traces how Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter novels, became an incendiary object of rage by two very different communities in two very different times.

Twenty years ago, conservative evangelical Christians were the ones trying to ban Rowling’s books, painting her as a threat leading the next generation into witchcraft and occult practices. Many believed that narrating the life of a wizard training to practice magic would lead Christian kids to want to emulate it. But that wasn’t the only danger—some felt that the very presence of Harry Potter books could be a gateway to the satanic.

These days, Rowling is still denounced as a devilish influence, but usually from the Left rather than the Right. She’s been outspoken against the kind of gender theories that would diminish “women” as a biological category. At a time when at least some culture-making institutions are going to great pains to change their wording to “pregnant persons” or “menstruating persons” rather than “women,” her views are strikingly out of step.

Many in the LGBT community see her as the embodiment of “trans-exclusionary radical feminists,” or TERFS for short. Her outspoken views, they say, exemplify a bigotry that disrespects and maybe even endangers transgender people.

Rowling has said she has no issue with transgender people—only with the idea that there’s no substantive difference between a trans woman and a woman.

Many conservative Christians of twenty years ago had sincere, good-faith reasons to be worried about the Harry Potter series. I reject occultism and real witchcraft too; I just don’t think fantasy and fictional magic lead to it.

Likewise, many on the Left who are angered by Rowling today are arguing in sincerity and good faith. Most of us who may have sharp theological differences on the transgender debate don’t want to see people bullied, harassed, or left alone in suicidal despair.

But on their own, these sorts of good-faith disagreements rarely lead to “witch trials,” whether literal or metaphorical. That level of targeted attack requires what journalist Amanda Ripley calls “conflict entrepreneurs”—those who can leverage someone else’s fear and anxiety for their own gain.

The typical pattern of such attacks is to suggest that the people on the “other side” are not just wrong; they are inhuman and powerful and will soon take everything you love away from you. Once this is established, all avenues of debate and persuasion are off the table. All that’s left is to “fight fire with fire” by silencing them before they silence you. In one’s mind, it becomes a battle of good versus bad, or of Gryffindor versus Slytherin.

That’s why we see calls for banning books, whether from right-wing parents screaming at school board meetings or from left-wing activists chanting on picket lines. Because, regardless of the books or ideologies being targeted, the language used by their adversaries indicates not just that the ideas in these books are wrong or lead to bad things—but that the very existence of the ideas themselves is an act of aggression.

These sorts of witch trials may suppress ideas for a while, but they never ultimately achieve what those stoking them want them to do. They can also hurt a lot of people.

An entire generation of evangelical youth heard some pastors and church leaders tell them that Dumbledore was a slippery slope to Baphomet. But what happened when they saw that wasn’t true? Ultimately, they realized their elders missed a crucial part of the Christian imagination—George MacDonald’s fairy stories, C. S. Lewis’s Narnia, and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Middle-earth, for instance.

They eventually saw that some of these fictional stories of witches and wizards, spells and incantations, were far more Christian than talk radio.

Others grew up assuming that what they saw in their childhood contexts was representative of 2,000 years of Christianity and began questioning their leaders’ legitimacy: “If I can’t trust these people to understand how to approach Harry Potter books, how can I trust them to teach me the Bible? How can I trust them to explain the meaning of life, forgiveness of sin, or life after death?”

Some of these young people then went looking for answers in whatever group they deemed to be the opposite of the book burners—and in some cases ended up in another group of book burners.

Now, the same pattern is playing out on the illiberal Left. On the question of whether gender is part of the givenness of created human nature or a spectrum of countless alternatives, is any and every person who disagrees with them truly a bigot—whose views, whenever articulated, are an inherent act of violence?

If so, what happens when their children or grandchildren grow up to realize that their leaders’ definition of a violent cauldron of bigotry fits not just virtually all of Christianity—Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant—but also every other major world religion and nearly every human society, past or present?

But that’s where the danger of this type of witch-trial discourse really lies.

Most conservative Christians in my talk radio days really didn’t think that Gandalf and Dumbledore were equivalent to Simon Magus or the Witch of Endor. They didn’t truly believe that Mr. Tumnus, with his horns and hooves, was the devil. But few people wanted to say that—because who wants to get hounded as an occultist by the person in the next pew?

A lot of progressives, even in the LGBT rights movement, privately believe there are problems with putting young children on puberty blockers. But they find it easier to just be quiet on the subject for fear of being exiled as bigots.

Political scientist John G. Grove observed in National Affairs that extreme illiberal “wokeness” and extreme illiberal “anti-wokeness” are remarkably similar. He points to the “post-liberal” thinkers on the Right who argue that authoritarian Hungary—where about 10 percent of the population regularly attend worship—is a model for “Christian civilization.”

He writes, “This idea of enforcing the outer signs and symbols of religion bears striking resemblance to the kind of coerced virtue signaling that makes woke causes appear to be universally accepted, even by those who don’t truly believe the dogma.”

But saying whatever shibboleths need to be said to stay in your herd is a poor substitute for original thought. Doing so represents a dangerous lack of the literal meaning of integrity—of “holding together.”

By contrast, Jesus referred to a kind of inner and outer congruence when he said “Let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” (Matt. 5:37, NKJV) and when he warned against performing outward displays of devotion “to be honored by others” (Matt. 6:2). Even when it comes to the gospel, one must “declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead” (Rom. 10:9, emphasis mine). Our inner belief and outward confession must be aligned and connected.

Lacking this kind of integrity can lead us to give up on debate, argument, and persuasion. Ultimately, it can lead us to join the mob in calling out the witches from among us, even when we can see there are none—just fallen, fallible, wrong-headed people like us. And once that happens, it’s a short trip from Hogwarts to Salem.

I think we can do better than that.

Proving People Right

You all know that I love the work of writer Seth Godin. He still writes an old-style blog, and I read it every day (albeit in newsletter form). Recently he repeated a point he’s made before about how persuasion works. The key, he argues, is not just proving people wrong but proving them right.

If you want to be chosen for a job, for example, your best argument is along the lines of “I’m the person you were hoping to hire,” or if you’re selling an appliance, it’s “We have the stove you were hoping to buy.” Godin rightly argues that this is not enough. Producing actual change involves convincing people of where they were wrong.

“But to do that, we need to find something in the other person’s set of desires and beliefs that doesn’t have to change,” Godin writes. “‘You’ve always wanted to do the right thing, and you thought the right thing was X, but now I’m hoping you’ll see it’s Y.’”

There’s much more to say about how persuasion works, but this basic framework is remarkably consistent with a biblical view of both created and fallen human beings.

For instance, the apostle Paul’s speech on Mars Hill pointed out quite a bit that was wrong about Greek polytheism and Athenian philosophy. Paul was summoned there, after all, because he was “preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” (Acts 17:18). Yet he recognized that Satan does not develop idolatry ex nihilo. Something is being twisted—the longing to worship, an awareness of something or Someone beyond the visible.

Paul showed the Athenians that their viewpoints failed to align not only with his but also with their own. People can’t contend that they exhaustively know the divine when they’ve posted an altar to an “unknown god.” They don’t really believe that their temples house the deities when their own philosophers say, “In him we live and move and have our being” (17:28).

Paul didn’t just argue this way on “pagan” soil either. When on trial before Agrippa, Paul appealed to the Pharisees, citing Moses and the prophets: “Why should any of you consider it incredible that God raises the dead?” (26:8).

Jesus did the same. When a lawyer asked how to inherit eternal life, Jesus started by asking him how he interpreted the Law. When the man responded with the command to love God and neighbor, Jesus said, “You have answered correctly. … Do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28).

In so doing, Jesus revealed how the man’s beliefs were in conflict—his confession and his conscience were not aligned. And Jesus showed him this through a story, causing the man to see that he must choose between the right longing to love his neighbor and the refusal to do so when that neighbor was of the “wrong” sort.

This is true for more trivial things as well. Think about issues on which you’ve changed your perspective. Usually, changing your mind involves realizing not just where you were wrong but also how your view doesn’t fit with what you already know to be right.

Deep Fakes and Democracy

This past week I was with a gathering of some of my fellow pro-democracy advocates, talking about challenges to freedom on the horizon. One presentation stuck out for me. An expert on artificial intelligence and augmented reality discussed the way that “deepfake” technology is evolving. Deepfakes are images, audio, or video created to be indistinguishable from real life.

Think of the way that a viral photo of Pope Francis in a Justin Bieber-esque puffy white jacket was taken at face value before experts, examining the hands, pointed out that it was manufactured. And what we’ve seen so far is (to use a video-game analogy) still in the “Pong” phase.

The primary long-term danger, the democracy expert warned, is not that people will believe the deepfakes. Once people are accustomed to the fact that deepfakes exist, they won’t immediately trust a video of Ron DeSantis taking an envelope full of cash from a Disney executive or one of Tom Hanks catcalling a production assistant. The danger is that these will be so ubiquitous that people won’t believe when a video or a picture shows them something real—such as Spiro Agnew taking an envelope full of cash or Harvey Weinstein propositioning a production assistant.

That’s ultimately the point of any kind of lie, no matter how technologically savvy: to get people to believe everything to the point that they believe nothing. The path of misinformation always leads us, in the long run, to nihilism. That’s why we need to cultivate the habits that recognize what truth and propaganda are and how to tell the difference.

Desert Island Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. This week’s submission comes from reader Kris Carter in Uganda. Kris writes:

I have a small quibble with the rules of the game here. A desert island bookshelf with as many as 12 books could occupy me for months (particularly given how slowly I read). But a desert island playlist with only 12 songs wouldn’t even get me through the first afternoon. I really want this to be 12 albums instead of 12 songs, but with that small grievance lodged, I will proceed by the rules as given.

If I imagine myself stranded on a desert island with only 12 songs available (and hopefully a solar charger), I’m going to be looking not just for my favorite songs but also for a wide diversity of genres, as well as other features like great performances or great lyrics. This list tries to cover all these bases.

  • “Love Theme—Cinema Paradiso (Tema d’Amore)” by Ennio Morricone—Forgive me, John Williams, but for my part Ennio Morricone is the greatest movie music composer of all time. It’s hard to choose just one of his pieces, but it has to come down to either this piece or “Gabriel’s Oboe” from The Mission. If I get rescued from this desert island and have the bad luck to end up shipwrecked a second time, I’ll switch them out, but for this island visit, let’s go with Cinema Paradiso.

  • “Traveller” by Chris Stapleton—I have a similar problem choosing just one Chris Stapleton song. How a guy with this voice spent more than a decade as just a “Nashville songwriter” is one of life’s great mysteries.

  • “Well-Worn Pages” by Mark Heard—We lost this amazing singer-songwriter way too soon. I find this song about an old man and his relationship with his Bible to be particularly poignant given that Heard never lived long enough to live out this story himself. I hope it can be my story.

  • “The Story” by Brandi Carlile—When my daughter was in her teens, the one artist that could always be played in the house while keeping her, my wife, and myself happy was Brandi Carlile. As Gregory Alan Isakov introduced her at the Red Rocks show we saw, “Brandi’s voice is a national treasure.”

  • “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Frank Sinatra—This song represents Frank’s big 1950s comeback and perhaps the best Nelson Riddle arrangement of all. Never let me land on a desert island without a little Frank.

  • “Chelsea Bridge” by Ben Webster—While we’re doing old school, let’s include my favorite tune from my favorite saxophonist Ben Webster. His tone was deep and rich, and the way you could hear his breath through his tenor sax was magical.

  • “Seven Days” by Sting—There are probably Sting songs I might choose to listen to before this one (“Shape of My Heart” and “Fragile,” for example), but if I’m stuck listening to something over and over, “Seven Days” offers more interest both musically and lyrically. Recorded in 5/4 time (like Dave Brubeck’s famous “Take Five”), it tells the story of a guy who has seven days to decide if he will fight another (much larger) suitor for a woman’s hand. It includes the wonderful line: “IQ is no problem here / We won’t be playing Scrabble for her hand I fear.”

  • “Acaso” by Cesar Camargo Mariano and Pedro Mariano—Thank goodness for the day I walked by my colleague’s cubicle in 2005 and heard this music playing. It stopped me in my tracks, and I had to know what it was. It was this album by Brazilian jazz pianist Cesar Camargo Mariano and his son Pedro, who has a mesmerizing voice. Simply called Piano & Voz (Piano & Voice), this hard-to-find album is a must for any desert island, especially if that island is in the Southern Hemisphere. Seriously, go find this record. It’s worth the effort.

  • “Carry On Wayward Son” by Kansas—We’re going to need some serious rock n’ roll on this desert island, and this one not only rocks but also delivers on both musical complexity and lyrical richness. Musically, it is like Bach wrote a mid-’70s prog-rock tune. Lyrically, it was penned by Kerry Livgren at a time that he was “on a spiritual sojourn, looking for truth and meaning,” which would eventually lead him to Christ (after another sojourn song “Dust in the Wind”). Few rock songs earn the label “masterpiece,” but I think this one fits the bill.

  • “Innocence Lost” by Susan Ashton—This one is selected primarily for the lyrics, which are brilliant on multiple layers. The many references to historical characters and literary works provide a great test of whether you paid attention in your high school English and history classes. Mostly it just captures beautifully the timeless challenge of growing up into our common brokenness.

  • “Show the Way” by David Wilcox—If you don’t know David Wilcox, you should. A great singer-songwriter out of Asheville, Wilcox has produced a couple decades of insightful folk music, often toying with themes of faith. This song is perhaps his most poignant on the subject and held me together during several years when I had walked away from Christ. “If someone wrote a play / Just to glorify what’s stronger than hate / Would they not arrange the stage / To look as if the hero came too late.”

  • “Gravity” by Sara Bareilles—I’m a sucker for a good pop song, but this one is included primarily for the performance (along with the last two below). There are just certain moments captured by the human voice that reveal the beauty and glory of God’s greatest creation … us. When you get to the key moment at 2:45 to 3:05, turn the headphones up and see if you know what I mean.

  • “Nessun Dorma” by Luciano Pavarotti—This is another one that is included primarily for the performance, and there is no greater performance of any operatic piece ever than Pavarotti’s live performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the 1990 Three Tenors concert. It’s now the most famous opera recording ever, and with good reason. The key headphone-cranking moment begins at 1:50 and runs through to the end. If you can listen to 2:25–2:35 without crying, I’m not sure you’re alive.

  • “Over the Rainbow” by Eva Cassidy—It’s crazy to take on a cover of the “Best Song of the 20th Century” when there is already a definitive and much-beloved version. It’s also crazy to challenge 16-year-old Judy Garland to a singing contest, but with all due respect, Eva wins here. Eva Cassidy was never signed to a major label and died from melanoma at only 33. She was from the Washington, DC, area, where her local fan base was mostly African American, even though she was very blonde and very white. She lived, sang, and died in relative obscurity and only became famous a couple years after her death when this song was first played in the UK on BBC Radio 2. It instantly jammed the BBC phone lines with folks wondering who this singer was, and the legend of Eva Cassidy was born. Like the previous two tunes, this song has a key headphone-cranking moment that starts about 2:44 and peaks at the 3-minute mark. In my opinion, 3:00 to 3:15 may be the best 15 seconds of music ever recorded. For me personally, this is another one of those songs that got me through my period of lost faith. Just listening to this angelic voice was a reminder that there must be a God and that if he created something this beautiful, he must really love me.

So that’s it. My desert island playlist. If you counted closely, you noticed that I cheated and included 14 songs instead of 12. But again, that’s still less than an hour of music, which is about how long it takes me to read a long CT article! If I had any more choices, I would throw in some Amos Lee, Jason Isbell, and a smattering of Motown soul ballads. Now let’s hope I don’t forget that solar charger!

Thank you, Kris—and I am totally with you on Chris Stapleton and Brandi Carlisle!

Readers, what do y’all think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of 5–12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of 5–12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the Moment

Is all creation groaning? It is.
Is a new creation coming? It is.

Is the glory of the Lord to be
The light within our midst? It is.
Is it good that we remind ourselves of this? It is.

—Andrew Peterson and Ben Shive

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Russell Moore
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