Harry Potter's religious critics turn page

Ethics & Values

July 24, 2005|By Nancy Churnin | Nancy Churnin,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Harry Potter: pariah or parable? For a vocal group of Christians, the answer was resoundingly pariah when Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone made its U.S. debut in 1998.

The Harry Potter books, dealing with Harry's education at a school of witchcraft and wizardry, have topped the American Library Association's list of most protested books since 1999, according to Beverley Becker of the association's Office for Intellectual Freedom in Chicago.

Some churches even burned the books. The books' opponents cited biblical injunctions against witchcraft and divination, such as those found in Exodus and Leviticus.

But that opposition may be doing a vanishing act that would do Harry's professors proud.

Reg Grant, professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, has noticed that protests have been muted even as the sixth book, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, set sales records in its first days of release. He wasn't surprised to hear that Harry dropped off the top-10 list of the ALA's most protested books last year.

"We were hearing so many complaints, and now we're hardly hearing any complaints at all," Becker said.

Grant believes that an increasing number of Christians are "seeing there are many lessons we can celebrate and shake hands on." He also credits the Harry Potter films for the apparent change of heart. "I think the movies illustrated how much Christian theology has in common with the message of Harry Potter."

And an increasing number of Christian writers are going further. Connie Neal, John Granger, Gina Burkart and John Killinger - a former youth pastor, classics teacher, creative-writing professor and Congregationalist minister, respectively - are making a case to their faith community that Harry Potter is actually a parable.

Their theory? That instead of leading children down the path of the occult, J.K. Rowling is using magic in the way that Christian authors C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien did, as a way of enchanting children into hearing the story of the Gospel.

Neal shocked many in 2001 when she led the charge with What's a Christian to Do With Harry Potter? (WaterBrook Press) and then followed up in 2002 with The Gospel According to Harry Potter (Westminster John Knox Press).

She read the first Harry Potter book "thinking I would explain to my kids why they wouldn't be reading it," said Neal, 47, an author of Christian and inspirational books.

But, she said, "When I got to the end, I thought that in all my years I can't think of a better illustration of the battle we're in against evil." But when Neal wrote What's a Christian to Do, many opponents were not ready to hear it.

Neal has since noticed a change. Angry letters have slacked off in the past year, and she has even started to get thank-you notes.

Other Christians still oppose Pottermania.

Richard Abanes, a prolific author of Christian books, including the newly released Harry Potter, Narnia, and The Lord of the Rings (Harvest House), scoffs at the idea that the Potter series promotes Christianity.

"That's just wrong," said Abanes, 44, an evangelical Christian whose new book is his third about the Potter phenomenon. He sees Harry as a child-empowerment tale with a supernatural twist that concerns him.

There has been confusion, too, as to the Vatican's position on Rowling's books. Potter fans rejoiced in 2003 when spokesman Paul Fleetwood said of the Potter books, "they help children to see the difference between good and evil."

But when Pope Benedict XVI succeeded Pope John Paul II, Potter critics brought up a letter the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger had written that praised a book critical of the Potter books as "a subtle seduction, which has deeply unnoticed and direct effects in undermining the soul of Christianity before it can really grow properly."

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