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Latest 'Harry Potter' book meets cautionary response from Christians

Monday, August 27, 2001 | Tag Cloud Tags:

By Art Toalston

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)--It's not just the release of a fourth Harry Potter book that increasingly will force Christians to deal with the overarching occult themes in the series about a fictional teenager who attends a school for witchcraft and wizardry.

A movie from Warner Bros. will begin production next year in England and, according to The Wall Street Journal, big profits are envisioned from sequels, TV broadcast rights, cartoon spin-offs, home video sales, theme park rides and interactive games. Nearly 50 deals with toy makers, worth $1 billion, already have been cut, according to The Washington Post.

The bespectacled-orphaned son of a murdered wizard and witch has become "the soul mate of millions of children around the world," USA Today declared in a July 7 front-page story.

Focus on the Family and the American Family Association were at the forefront of issuing cautionary comments on "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" by English author and single mom J.K. Rowling soon after the 734-page book's July 8 release.

On Focus on the Family's Internet site, www.family.org, an essay, "The Trouble with Harry," was posted.

The author, John Andrew Murray, headmaster at St. Timothy's-Hale, an Episcopal school in Raleigh, N.C., and writer/director of the video "Think About It: Understanding the Impact of TV-Movie Violence," recounted that the first three Harry Potter books "created a stir in public schools across America. Some Christian parents have complained that J.K. Rowling's tales of young witches and wizards are terrifying to young children and inappropriate for classroom use. They've been rewarded for their concern with ridicule in newspapers and editorial cartoons.

"Complicating the matter," Murray noted, "is the fact that several Christian leaders and conservative magazines have praised the series' ability to captivate even the most reluctant young readers."

Murray predicted: "With the growing popularity of youth-oriented TV shows on witchcraft -- 'Sabrina, the Teenage Witch;' 'Charmed;' 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer' -- a generation of children is becoming desensitized to the occult. But with Hollywood's help, Harry Potter will likely surpass all these influences, potentially reaping some grave spiritual consequences." An early sign: "The throngs that line up to meet Rowling [to autograph their books] are often teeming with children clad in wizard cloaks and sporting [Harry-like] lightning-bolt scars tattooed -- temporarily -- to their foreheads," Murray wrote.

Murray also was quoted in USA Today as noting that the Harry Potter books, evidencing "no higher authority," push young readers into a morally confused world.

And it can be a gory world, Murray wrote on the Focus on the Family website, "including a professor whose leg is mangled by a three-headed dog; a mysterious figure who is caught drinking blood from a unicorn carcass; ... and Nearly Headless Nick -- a ghost whose head is barely attached."

"Harry frequently -- and unapologetically -- lies, breaks rules and disobeys authority figures," Murray also noted.

The American Family Association, in a news release, described the "Harry Potter" series as "books that promote witchcraft and wizardry."

But, the Donald Wildmon-led AFA likewise noted, "within the conservative community, there are varying opinions on whether Christians should be concerned about the content. ... Since the books first came on the market, many Christians have voiced strong objection to their use of magic and the occult and its frightening passages. But others disagree."

The AFA noted that well-known conservative spokesman Charles Colson "has been quoted in recent days saying the magic and the sorcery in the Potter books are 'purely mechanical as opposed to occultic.' Colson says Harry and friends develop courage, loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice for one another. He says those are not bad lessons in a self-centered world.

"Many others argue, however, that putting witchcraft in such a positive light is not a message Christian parents would want to endorse," the AFA stated.

Colson's essay can be found in his Internet site's archives at www.breakpoint.org.

"Some Christians may try to keep their kids from reading these books," Colson commented, "but with 8 million copies of the Harry Potter books floating around American homes, it's almost inevitable that your own children or grandchildren will be exposed to them.

"If they do read these books, help them to see the deeper messages," Colson advised. "Contrast the mechanical magic in the Potter books to the kind of real-life witchcraft the Bible condemns -- the kind that encourages involvement with supernatural evil. Help them, as well, to see how the author presents evil as evil, and good as good.

"If your kids do develop a taste for Harry Potter and his wizard friends, this interest might just open them up to an appreciation for other fantasy books with a distinctly Christian worldview," Colson continued. "When your kids finish reading Harry Potter, give them C.S. Lewis' 'Narnia' books and J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy. These books also feature wizards and witches and magical potions -- but in addition, they inspire the imagination within a Christian framework -- and prepare the hearts of readers for the real-life story of Christ."

A detailed analysis of the Harry Potter series, meanwhile, is available on the Internet site of an organization that keeps parents informed about questionable content in popular books, Family Friendly Libraries, at www.fflibraries.org. One of the articles, titled "Harry Potter Takes Drugs," deals with two passages in one of the books involving the teen hero's making and taking of potions, including a psychedelic/hypnotic drug, thujone, banned by the United States since 1915.

Elsewhere in the media, reviews of the latest Harry Potter book ranged from USA Today's "'Goblet of Fire' burns out ... Lengthy fourth book lacks spark of imagination" to positive reviews in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

"Alas, the 734-page tome mostly makes the reader wistful for the exquisitely plotted, beautifully buffed, enchantingly imaginative first two books, 'Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone' and 'Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,'" USA Today reviewer Deirdre Donahue wrote. "This installment has the telltale loping pace and paper-chewing verbosity that best-selling authors develop when they try to write a book a year. ... There were dreaded signs of this syndrome in the third installment, 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban,' but the disease is full-blown in 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.'"

A USA Today editorial, meanwhile, made reference to the "cross-pollination of paganism and Christianity" in the Harry Potter books, noting, for example, that his school of witchcraft and wizardry celebrates Halloween along with Christmas and Easter. Such content "has been a feature of popular English literature almost from the start," the editorial stated, citing the 1,000-year-old epic "Beowulf."

The editorial also acknowledged, "One of the raps against Harry Potter, written with sparkling creativity by J.K. Rowling, has been that the stories can be a little harsh. Potter is a child-wizard, orphaned by murder into the malevolent custody of his Muggle (non-wizard) aunt and uncle. At school, Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardy, he's stalked by a raft of evil wizards and monsters. A run-in with Dementors causes him to have flashbacks of his dying mother's screams."

Ethical concerns were voiced in a USA Today news story by parent Ken McCormick of Birchrunville, Pa., who described "a general nastiness underneath the mantle of cuteness" in the Harry Potter books. "The kids lie, they steal, they take revenge," the father of 8- and 11-year-old children told the newspaper. "This is a disturbing moral world, and it conflicts with what I am trying to teach my children."

At the other end of the spectrum, Caroline Ward, president of the American Library Association's Services to Children and coordinator of a Stamford, Conn., library's children's services, told USA Today, "It's hard to believe that one series of books could almost turn an entire nation back to reading, but that is not an exaggeration." The 30-year librarian said 50 copies of the first Harry Potter book never remain idle on her library's shelves.

The first printing of the fourth in what is planned as a seven-part series totaled 5.3 million, with nearly 400,000 copies sold worldwide by Amazon.com before publication, making it the biggest-selling book in e-retail history, a spokesman for the Internet bookseller told The Washington Post. The Barnes & Noble chain had 360,000 orders and expected to break records for first-day and first-week sales for any book, The Post continued.

Worldwide, 30 million copies of the three earlier books are in print in 33 languages.

The latest installment "is darker than its predecessors," including the first-ever death in a Harry Potter book and "a disturbing scene" of torture, noted MSNBC reviewer Connie Fletcher. Yet, "once you start reading it, you'll find it so well constructed, so artfully paced and so packed with surprises, both delightful and dreadful, that you will wish it were much longer" than its 734 pages, Fletcher wrote.

The Washington Post's Jabari Asim enthused in one part of her review that "perhaps there is some appeal in this anxious age" to one of the strengths author Rowling "bestows on her young hero, a strength that is as important as magic -- the power of a mother's love. As Dumbledore tells Harry: 'Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing [archenemy] Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever."

Saul Goodman of Chevy Chase, Md., referring to his daughter Rebecca, 10, told The Post, "I'm just proud she's reading something, besides playing Nintendo or watching TV."

Baptist Press
Used with permission.

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