November 19, 2001

harry_logo potter_broom
BROOMSTICK practice proves troublesome for Harry Potter and classmates
in the movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. (All photos by Peter Mountain/Warner Bros.)

Christians stir the debate on heaven, hell and Harry Potter
___By Mark Wingfield
___Managing Editor
___Will reading the Harry Potter books or seeing the movie cast an evil spell over your child?
___The evangelical Christian community is divided over this question, which now looms larger than ever with the Nov. 16 opening of the movie based on the first book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone."
___A pastor's wife in Oklahoma feels torn by the debate that swirls around her like bats flying out of a cave. Her elementary-age children have read the best-selling books and enjoyed them.
___They--and she--
IN THE WACKY WORLD of Harry Potter, Harry learns of his admission to Hogwarts Academy in a hail of flying letters addressed to him.
see no harm in the fictional world of magic and witches and spells created by author J.K. Rowling. The stories, from their perspective, are really about classic themes of good and evil, and they just happen to be set in the make-believe world of a school for young wizards.
___But one of her children's Sunday School teachers is on a rampage against the books, seeing them as a pathway to evil. A nearby school district has banned the books, and "concerned parents" have been urged to attend the showing of a video that purports to demonstrate links between Harry Potter and real occult practices.
___The Arkansas Baptist Convention passed a resolution condemning the Harry Potter books and movie Nov. 7, labeling the literature "anti-Christian."
___Yet the first four books in the planned series of seven have set new records for sales of children's books. And the movie was expected to have one of the most successful opening weekends ever.
___Teachers report the books have inspired more children to read more than ever before. Parents report amazement that their children actually fight over who gets to read a 700-page book first.
___Sounds like a good thing, right?
___Absolutely not, warn some Christian commentators. They see Harry Potter as the devil in tennis shoes--cleverly spun stories that actually desensitize young children to the occult and make them more susceptible to being led astray.
___Harry the horrible?
___For example, promotional literature for a Christian-oriented video, "Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged," warns: "Because many don't recognize occult symbolism or understand witchcraft, thousands of young readers by inference are led to accept them as whimsical and harmless, aided by Rowling's repackaging of witchcraft in probably its most dangerous form--children's fantasy literature."
___John Andrew Murray, headmaster of St. Timothy's-Hale School in Raleigh, N.C., warns on the Focus on the Family website that media influences like Harry Potter, "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch" and "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" are causing a generation of children to be "desensitized to the occult."
___The in
WARWICK DAVIS as Professor Flitwick, one of the teachers at Hogwarts Academy.
fluence of Harry Potter alone, he writes, has the potential to reap "grave spiritual consequences."
___"By disassociating magic and supernatural evil, it
DANIEL RADCLIFFE as Harry Potter in the new movie version of the first book.
becomes possible to portray occult practices as good and healthy, contrary to the scriptural declaration that such practices are detestable to the Lord," he continues. "This, in turn, opens the door for less-discerning individuals--including but not limited to children--to become confused about supernatural matters."
___The difference of opinion on this matter, however, is illustrated by the content of the Focus on the Family website where Murray's article is published. The conservative para-church ministry does not dismiss Harry Potter outright. Instead, the family.org website offers somewhat contrasting opinions and reviews.
___"From every indication given in both her books and in her interviews, author J.K. Rowling has no intention of drawing children into the occult," writes Lindy Beam, a youth culture analyst for Focus on the Family. Beam quotes Rowling as saying, "I don't believe in the kind of magic that appears in my books."
___In reality, Beam suggests, "children who read about Harry will probably discover little about the true world of the occult. That's why some Christian leaders and Christian publications find these books to be more fantastical than threatening."
___Some Christian leaders and publications take a diametrically opposed view to the openness expressed by Beam, however.
___Jeremiah Films, producer and seller of the anti-Potter video, calls the books "accurate in their presentation of witchcraft."
___In an article published by Baptist Press, one of the video's narrators adds to this warning: "The incantations Rowling has written are whimsical, but the principles of witchcraft are accurately presented."
___This warning by Robert McGee of Merritt Island, Fla., appears in one of eight Baptist Press stories issued in the days leading up to the movie opening. All the Baptist Press stories include strong warnings about a slippery slope into the occult presented by Harry Potter.
___While many other critics of the Potter books and movie abound, Jeremiah Films is one of the most prevalent voices crying foul. The company has produced a number of other videos on conservative causes, including homosexuality, the dangers of public education, the threat of globalization and, most notably, "The Clinton Chronicles," a video that attempts to link former President Bill Clinton to multiple conspiracies in his home state of Arkansas.
___Harry the good?
___Not all conservatives find fault with Harry Potter, however.
___In 1999, just as the third book in the series was published, conservative Christian commentator Charles Colson wrote a column telling parents it's OK for their children to read Harry
ROBBIE COLTRANE as Hagrid, the giant gamekeeper who befriends Harry.Hermione, Ron and Harry walk across a life-size chess board where they face a challenge of survival.
Potter books.
___"It may relieve you to know that the magic in these books is purely mechanical, as opposed to occultist," he wrote. "That is, Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls and turn themselves into animals, but they don't make contact with a supernatural world."
___A recent column in the conservative political magazine National Review went so far as to say the new Harry Potter movie may actually do the nation good. The movie "will have much to say about good and evil and the necessity and nobility of fighting evil for the sake of justice," wrote Thomas Hibbs, associate professor of philosophy at Boston College.
___Christians who object to the use of magic in the Harry Potter books cast aspersions "absurdly wide of the mark," he said, adding that "none of the critics I have encountered gives evidence of having read the books with care."
___Rather than casting a negative spell on today's youth, the Harry Potter books and movie "are remarkably timely, offering precisely the sort of lessons and examples young persons need to prepare them for life in a nation at war with the evil of terrorism," Hibbs said.
___Brett Younger, pastor of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth and father of young children, agrees that there's good to be found in Harry Potter.
___"The stories are not about potions, cauldrons and sorcerers so much as they are about loneliness, love and loyalty," he said. "What's magical about Harry Potter is that it takes readers into the world of the imagination and the wonder of story. We can all be joyless muggles (non-magical people in Potter's world) who need to exercise our hearts and minds. Stepping into a fictional world helps us see our own world in a new and different way."
___And it is a fictional world, insisted Marion Hogan, a Baptist pastor's wife and seventh-grade English teacher in the Houston area who has read the books and has talked about them with her students.
___"If you declare all stories that have witches and wizards as evil, then you have to throw out every fairy tale there is," she explained. "Some people want to take this to the point where you can't even have a fairy tale story."
___Harry Potter is "a simple children's story of fantasy," Hogan said. "I see Harry Potter as fiction and having no relation to Satanism at all. ... I don't see any way a child could read Harry Potter and come out being a Satanist as a result. If children read it and think it's real, there may be some danger there. But I can't
HERMOINE, Ron and Harry walk across a life-size chess board where they face a challenge of survival.
imagine children would think it's real."
___Her students certainly don't think it's real, she said. "They're amazed that anybody could think these are negative books. They're amazed that anybody would think there's evil there."
___Opposing worldviews
___So how can committed Christians come down so far apart on the Harry Potter issue?
___The answer may be found in differing worldviews, said Cliff Vaughn, associate director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn. Vaughn holds a doctorate in American cultural studies from Bowling Green State University.
___"Worldviews are like lenses," he explained. "They affect the way we see the world. In broad terms, people speak of two worldviews. One is objective, whereas the other is interpretive.
___"In the case of Harry Potter, one worldview sees an evil. No bones about it. It must be eradicated. The other worldview says not necessarily. The world isn't that tidy, and the book's malevolence isn't a foregone conclusion.
___"In the final analysis, Christians who see Harry Potter as evil probably find less room for discussion about Potter. For them, Potter is an evil waiting to be discovered. Other Christians don't see evil in the heart of Harry. Any evil they see there is the evil people make of it."
___Finding one's way between these two opposing positions may not be easy, but it may be possible, he insisted. It's certainly worth a try, because the basic issues involved in the Potter debate won't dissipate.
___"Years ago, the Smurfs were public enemy No. 1. Then it was He-Man. Now it's Harry Potter. This wave of concern demonstrates yet again there's nothing new under the sun."
___Advice for parents
___The best advice is for parents is to be well informed and discerning, suggested John Echols, a veteran children's minister, consultant and author of children's curriculum pieces who lives in Chattanooga, Tenn.
___"I'm not going to read this book with my 5-year-old who has trouble distinguishing between reality and non-reality," he said. "But by the time a child is in fourth or fifth grade, they've had that lesson about fiction vs. non-fiction.
___"When things happen in the story that are fantastical, like the troll coming in or flying on a broomstick, at the end of that chapter, you say, 'That was a really great story. Too bad it can't be true.' That's the parents' job to remind them it can't be true."
___While acknowledging valid concerns about exposing children to the reality of Wicca and the occult, Echols insisted the Harry Potter stories are far-fetched and fantastical.
___"I don't think modern-day witches and wizards are like Harry Potter," he explained. "Maybe they do put spells on people and curse people and those kinds of things, but the things Harry Potter does are fantastical. Magic wands and magic potions are not true. They're just not true.
___"If you get really upset about that as an adult, I want to say to the adults: 'It's not true. This is a fantasy. Even modern-day witches and wizards don't fly around on broomsticks.'"
___From a theological perspective, Echols said, he finds more to fault with some standard Disney fare, such as "Anastasia" and "Pocahontas" and "Atlantis."
___"There are a lot of theological issues in 'Pocahontas' that nobody complained about. She's a historical figure, and it's harder to say to children, 'This is a historical figure but it's a fantasy, which part of it is real and which part is not real. With Harry Potter, you can say the whole thing is a fantasy."
___Regardless, concerns about Harry Potter could create more opportunities for children and parents to read and talk together, Echols said.
___"If your child wants to read it, read it together and talk about it while you're reading. If there's a place that makes you uncomfortable, articulate that in front of your child."
___And as for the movie, "If you're concerned about it, go to it by yourself before you take your children."

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