- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 31, 2002

The Harry Potter books, like Halloween, have been shunned by many Christians for their plots honeycombed with wizards, witches and spells. But several authors are suggesting a different approach: Using the teenage wizard as a springboard for the Gospel.
Three publications "The Gospel According to Harry Potter," "A Charmed Life" and a booklet published by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland encourage readers to see the good in stories about British teenagers who attend a boarding school for the dark arts.
In fact, the Potter books have biblical parallels, says "The Gospel According to Harry Potter." Author Connie Neal suggests the sacrificial love of Harry's mother reflects Christ's sacrificial death.
The evil wizard Voldemort represents Satan, she adds, in a struggle between good and evil that helps young readers make moral decisions.
Mrs. Neal, a 10-year California youth pastor, hosts Harry Potter book clubs and Bible studies at her Sacramento home.
"In the past," she says, "you almost had to be a closet Harry Potter fan. If I bring up Harry Potter in a group of 10 or more, immediately the arms cross."
Mrs. Neal used her first book, "What's a Christian To Do With Harry Potter?" to ask parents to read the best-selling series for themselves instead of believing "ridiculous things that were creating extreme fear," she said.
She cited a satirical Web site, www.theonion.com, that spoofed the series a few years ago with a fictional claim that 14 million children had been seduced into witchcraft through the Potter series.
Mrs. Neal then approached Westminster John Knox Press for a book along the lines of "The Gospel According to the Simpsons" and "The Gospel According to Peanuts." "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" has sold nearly 30,000 copies.
Still, skeptics abound. "There are some mainstream media that will not even entertain the possibility that there is anything good that can come out of Harry Potter," Mrs. Neal says.
The new pro-Potter books show that "Christians are more willing to explore the pop culture than they used to be," says Westminster senior editor David Dobson.
"Because of what Mrs. Neal has done, people are willing to look [at Potter] for themselves," he says.
The Rev. Francis Bridger, principal of Trinity Theological College in Bristol, England, and author of "A Charmed Life," says his book has received favorable response. The debate in Britain where Potter author J.K. Rowling lives is not as bitter as it has been in the United States, he says, adding that his friends expect him to oppose Harry Potter.
"I could not in all good conscience comply with this demand."
From the 1997 arrival of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first book in the four-volume series, the best-selling children's literature has received bad press from Christians. World magazine, based in Asheville, N.C., says the Potter books are "putting a smiling mask on evil."
"A reader drawn in would find that the real world of witchcraft is not Harry Potter's world," according to the magazine.
Focus on the Family magazine's Lindy Beam says, "Children who become fascinated by [Mrs. Rowlings] charms and spells could eventually stumble into the very real world of witchcraft and the occult."
But evangelical monthly Christianity Today went against the trend by calling Potter "a Book of Virtues with a pre-adolescent funny bone."
The Potter books have sold an estimated 175 million copies worldwide in at least 43 languages.
A fifth book, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," is due out soon and a second Harry Potter movie, "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets," will be released next month.
Clergy and church reaction are all over the literary map. A report in the Church of England Newspaper quoted "Gospel Magic," a book by the Rev. Andrew Thompson that encourages clergy to "become Harry Potters and learn conjuring tricks to introduce people to the Bible and halt the decline in church attendance."
John Granger, who teaches Latin, Greek and logic in Port Hadlock, Wash., and leads discussions for several C.S. Lewis Society chapters nationwide, will publish the 400-page book "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter" next month. He criticizes Potter-phobia and tries to document Christian symbolism secreted throughout the books.
Like Mrs. Neal, he says Voldemort personifies Satan. Dumbledore, the wizard schoolmaster, represents God the Father.
"The magic," he says, "is a reference to things that are not physical but eternal.
"You can't read [the Potter] books and not see Christian themes. The pendulum had swung so far the other way, it was ridiculous."
Richard Abanes, a critic of the Potter series and the California author of "Harry Potter and the Bible" and "Fantasy and Your Family," says the rash of new books seeking biblical virtues in Harry Potter springs from authors who are trying to distance Christianity from "backward-thinking" people.
"They are fearful that raising concerns about Harry Potter is going to turn people off from Christianity and make Christians look like a bunch of idiots," he says.
"They have a right desire, but a wrong way of accomplishing that. And I think it is a disservice to the Christian community, to the secular community and to the literary world."
In no way, he adds, can these books be used as a parallel to the Gospel.
"They can be used as a springboard to talk about occultism," he says, "because that is the foundation of the book." Using the Potter books to talk about the Gospel is like "reading a book on sewing and saying that can be used as a springboard for cooking. How ridiculous is that?"
To advertise Harry Potter to present the Gospel is "not only twisting the Bible," he says, "but also twisting Harry Potter."
But Mrs. Neal has big plans for the wizard. She plans at least two more books on the topic. One, she says will be a children's version of "The Gospel According to Harry Potter."
The other? Something along the lines of a Potter "Book of Virtues," she says, that will use some main characters such as Harry and his friends Ron and Hermione to demonstrate traits such as diligence and bravery.
"I see these books to be very moral, even biblically moral," Mrs. Neal says.

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