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Sunday, November 25, 2001

Some don't find 'Potter' bewitching

Certain religious leaders think the sorcery in J.K. Rowling's tale is in conflict with the Bible.

By Kristin E. Holmes
INQUIRER STAFF WRITER

In a debate over the influence of a fictional boy warlock, Bible-school professors Tom Allen and Patricia Rahn come down on different sides of the broomstick.

Harry Potter and his classmates at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry make sorcery appear attractive and enticing - when the Bible clearly says it's evil, says Allen, an assistant professor at Philadelphia Biblical University in Langhorne.

For pro-Potter colleague Rahn, author J.K. Rowling's best-selling books and the hit movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone are fantasies that teach valuable lessons.

"The main characters show love, courage, loyalty and sacrifice," said Rahn, who teaches children's literature at the Bible college. "The only thing I would recommend is that parents read the books with their children."

Earlier this year, Allen and Rahn sat on a panel discussing the phenomenon that has spawned four best-sellers and a movie that is setting box-office records.

Though Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone has delighted millions of children, some conservative Christian leaders aren't sold on it. They insist that the mysticism of Harry's world, in which magical people predict the future, change shapes and communicate with ghosts, sends an "unscriptural" message.

"There's a real religious concern," says Jana Riess of Publishers Weekly, who moderated a Potter debate at a July convention of Christian retailers. "Evangelical Christians believe that witchcraft is real."

"Although the story is fictional, Harry Potter has real-world occult parallels," said Richard Abanes, author of Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick.

"The books present astrology, numerology mediumship, crystal-gazing," he said. "Kids are enthralled with it. And kids like to copy."

"I'm so tired of people saying he's evil," says Connie Neal, a Christian author who has investigated the Potter claims. "They're choosing to interpret the books in a very selective way." Neal - a mother of three and author of What's a Christian to Do With Harry Potter? - characterized herself as a "discreet fan."

Scottish author Rowling calls the accusations about her work "absurd," saying Harry Potter's world is entirely imaginary.

"I have met thousands of children now, and not even one time has a child come up to me and said, 'Ms. Rowling, I'm so glad I've read these books because now I want to be a witch,' " the author has said.

Though the religious critics are clamoring, it's not clear how many families are heeding them.

Catholic News Service movie reviewer Anne Navarro wrote that the movie is "innocuous fantasy" and no threat to Catholic beliefs.

Christians should remember that Harry Potter is make-believe, said William T. Devlin of the Urban Family Council, an evangelical Christian group.

Instead of debating a fantasy, Devlin urges Christians to use their energy to confront evil in the real world.

"Stop drawing your sword against novelized, imagined and fantasized evil," Devlin said. "Share the love of Jesus Christ at an occult bookstore or meet with a Wiccan. They're in the phone book."

But fantasy still has the power to change beliefs and values, said the Rev. J.R. Damiani, senior pastor of the Family Worship Center in Lansdale.

"A lot of this stuff smacks of Satanism," he said. "Even though it appears kind of innocent, there is evil at the root of it."

The Rev. Charles Dear of Crescentville Baptist Church in Northeast Philadelphia preached a sermon about Potter several months ago hoping to "inoculate" his congregation before the movie opened. The pastor says Pottermania is not harmless fun.

"It deals with things of the unseen world that can be played with and that puts both adults and children at risk," Mr. Dear said. "The Bible says that Satan is alive. He is a real being, and both he and his agents that are demons use people to advance his cause, and these things we are not to fool with."

Some have called for the books to be banned from public school libraries and have staged book burnings. The Potter books top the banned book listing for 2000, compiled by the American Library Association.

But others in the religious world say that if Potter is to be condemned, so must the works of other authors who create fantasies in which otherworldly things occur.

"For me to discount Harry Potter, you have to discount J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis because of the worlds they create," said John Oliff, an instructor at Philadelphia Biblical University, citing the authors of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Chronicles of Narnia. "And I don't discount either of them."

The Rev. Rich Craven, a senior pastor at Church of the Saviour in Wayne, says the novel must be judged by the manner in which the evil is portrayed in the book. Are evil powers used for selfish gain, he asks.

"You can't just look at the book and say it has a wizard and therefore discount it right away to think the book will somehow serve evil ends or purposes," Mr. Craven said.

For Rabbi Linda Potemken, Harry Potter is a force for good.

Earlier this year, Rabbi Potemken of Beth Israel Congregation in Media led a discussion called "the Torah of Harry Potter." She discussed the ethical wisdom in the books and playfully paralleled them to Torah lessons.

"These books clearly delivered moral lessons that would be attractive to people of many different faith communities," the rabbi said. "They speak of the power of love, right and wrong, and the power of our choices to determine who we are. They exalt human virtue."

 

Kristin E. Holmes' e-mail address is kholmes@phillynews.com.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Philadelphia Inquirer