Good or evil? The debate on Harry Potter
November 21 2001 by Mark Wingfield , Managing Editor, Baptist Standard

Good or evil? The debate on Harry Potter | Wednesday, Nov 21, 2001

Wednesday, Nov 21, 2001

Good or evil? The debate on Harry Potter

By Mark Wingfield Managing Editor, Baptist Standard 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 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 is 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 - 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 broke records for the most successful opening weekend ever.

Teachers report the books have inspired more children to read 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 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, warns on the Focus on the Family Web site 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 influence of Harry Potter alone, he writes, has the potential to reap "grave spiritual consequences."

"By disassociating magic and supernatural evil, it becomes possible to portray occult practices as good and healthy, contrary to the scriptural declaration that such practices are detestable to the Lord," he said. "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 Web site where Murray's article is published. The conservative para-church ministry does not dismiss Harry Potter outright. Instead, the Web site 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."

Harry the good? In 1999, just as the third book was published, conservative Christian commentator Charles Colson wrote a column telling parents it's OK for their children to read the Harry 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.

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, Texas, 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, said Marion Hogan, a Baptist pastor's wife and seventh-grade English teacher in the Houston, Texas, 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 said. "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 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.

"Worldviews are like lenses," he said. "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 said.

Advice for parents The best advice is for parents is to be well informed and discerning, said John Echols, a veteran children's minister, consultant and author of children's curriculum 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."

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."

(EDITOR'S NOTE - This article first appeared in the Nov. 9 issue of the Texas Baptist Standard.)

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11/21/2001 12:00:00 AM by Mark Wingfield , Managing Editor, Baptist Standard | with 0 comments
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