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Shalt thou read Harry Potter?

Two books offer different views on the popular J.K. Rowling books and on whether Christians should read them.

By SHARON TUBBS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published November 1, 2001


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Harry Potter is everywhere: He's the inspiration for Halloween costumes, featured in colorful displays in bookstores nationwide, on calendar covers and in magazine stories touting the much-awaited movie, to hit theaters Nov. 16.

People seem to love anything related to the magical adventures of a seemingly ordinary boy.

But even with all the adulation, the bespectacled star of J.K. Rowling's books is at the center of an ongoing rift in the religious world.

Is Harry Potter just a fun-loving kid whose shenanigans inspire young people to read?

Or could his mischievous deeds arouse curiosity about things evil, as some religious leaders contend?

Time and again, Rowling has said she is in no way associated with the occult and certainly did not intend her books to further Satanism, as she has been accused of doing.

And some Christian heavyweights, such as Charles Colson, chairman of Prison Fellowship Ministries and former special counsel to President Nixon, call Harry Potter fun reading that could help kids distinguish right from wrong. Editors for the magazine Christianity Today dubbed the series "a Book of Virtues with a preadolescent funny bone."

But opponents say that Harry and his friends tell lies and deceive in their quest to achieve good. Some say Rowling glamorizes what they see as tools of witchcraft, such as medium gazing. Proof of the books' dark side, some Christians say, came last year in Europe. There, spokespeople for an organization that represents druids and witches told BBC News they had been "swamped" with inquiries. The Pagan Federation attributed the increased interest to TV shows such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Harry Potter.

"They are taken as fantasy entertainment," coven high priest Steve Paine said of the books in a BBC online article. "But they do encourage people to think about different forms of spirituality."

This year, at least two Christian authors have written books about the Harry Potter religious phenomenon.

Richard Abanes, an evangelical minister, cautions against the series in Harry Potter and the Bible. Former youth pastor Connie Neal, however, calls it classic literature in What's a Christian to Do With Harry Potter?

But on one thing the authors agree: Harry Potter is forever etched in literary culture and must be dealt with whether muggles (ordinary humans) like it or not.

* * *

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In his book Harry Potter and the Bible, published by Horizon Books, Abanes says the problem comes in Rowling's positive depictions of practices used in occultism, such as fortune telling and chatting with ghosts.

"Rowling seamlessly weaves into her novels countless references to ancient and modern occultism, sometimes hiding them in people's names or disguising them in minor characters," Abanes contends. "Such inclusions certainly do not teach the precise doctrines of witchcraft . . . but the allusions could easily stir a child's curiosity about occultism -- perhaps enough for that child to one day dabble in it."

Abanes separates the Harry Potter series from other children's books of fantasy because he says the characters interact favorably with what Abanes sees as realms of the occult.

Abanes, 40, who lives near Mission Viejo, Calif., analyzes the four Harry Potter books separately.

The first book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, was originally released in the United Kingdom as Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone. In the Encyclopedia of Occultism and Parapsychology, Abanes says, the "philosopher's stone" is described as a substance that enabled medieval alchemists to turn base metals into gold or silver.

Alchemy was a form of chemistry with philosophical and magical associations that was studied in the Middle Ages. The main goal was to change base metals and to discover the "elixir of perpetual youth," according to Webster's dictionary.

In book one, Harry and his friends seek the philosopher's stone, which they learn was created by a man named Nicholas Flamel.

Although many readers may not know it, Flamel existed in real life. Abanes points out that Flamel was said to be an alchemist who succeeded in making the philosopher's stone in the 1300s. Near the end of the first Harry Potter book, Flamel and his wife know they will die. Of death, one character in the book says: "After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure."

Abanes says the statement mirrors current pagan and Wiccan thinking about reincarnation.

In the third book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry's friend Hermione studies numerology, "a form of divination that analyzes the symbolism of numbers and ascribes numerical values to the letters of the alphabet," Abanes says. Numerology can be traced back to magician and astrologer Cornelius Agrippa. Abanes calls Agrippa a "German occultist" and says he is best known for a three-volume defense of magic. "Interestingly," Abanes writes, "Rowling briefly mentions an "Agrippa' in Book I (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone)."

He says there are other parallels between Harry Potter and things occult.

For instance, the divination teacher at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry where Harry Potter is a student says this:

"Crystal gazing is a particularly refined art . . . . We shall start by practicing relaxing the conscious mind and external eyes . . . so as to clear the Inner Eye and the superconscious."

Abanes contends that the teacher is describing actual techniques used by tea-leaf and crystal-ball readers, also called "scryers."

"This is exactly what scryers do when they enter a trance and attempt to contact the spiritual dimension to gain knowledge about the future," Abanes writes. "In other words, we have a fantasy character giving realistic scrying instructions."

Abanes says that Harry and his friends lie, steal, cheat and seek revenge -- actions with which Jesus Christ would not be pleased.

So should Christians get rid of Harry Potter?

Surprisingly, Abanes says no. "I don't want books banned," he said. "I don't want books burned . . . . If you want your kids to read these books, fine. But know what's in them."

Abanes says that Christians who have backed the books are part of a growing movement among the religious to avoid being viewed as extremists.

"A large majority of them don't really know anything about occultism," Abanes said. "I think there's an agenda that many Christians have to not look narrow-minded. . . . They're wanting desperately to say, "You know, these books are fine.' "

* * *

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Connie Neal says she has been heavily criticized by some Christians and patted on the back by others for her book, What's a Christian to Do With Harry Potter?, published by WaterBrook Press.

Without question, the Bible forbids witchcraft and experimenting with occult practices, Neal said, noting a passage in Deuteronomy: "There shall not be found among you any one that maketh his son or his daughter to pass through the fire, or that useth divination, or an observer of times, or an enchanter, or a witch."

"We are not asking, "Can a Christian practice witchcraft?' " Neal writes. "We are asking whether Christians are free to read stories that are closely associated with such practices and treat them positively."

To Neal, the answer differs from person to person.

People whose Christian consciences Harry doesn't sit well with should not read them, she says. But for many, including herself, the books are nothing more than a trip through a fantasy land, Neal says.

Neal notes that there are no specific references to Wiccan gods or supernatural forces in Harry Potter books. Yes, there is much magic:

"Christians are perhaps right to be wary of an overly positive portrayal of magic," Neal writes, "but the Harry Potter books don't do that: In them magic is often fun, often surprising and exciting, but also always potentially dangerous."

So how is it that reading Harry Potter books can be okay for one Christian but wrong for another?

Neal uses Scriptures from the books of Romans and I Corinthians, where the apostle Paul talks about Christian matters in dispute. "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind," he says in one verse.

"Sincere, Bible-believing Christians who seek the Lord with all their hearts can be led by the same Holy Spirit to opposing conclusions," Neal writes.

Neal says Christians must allow for the possibility that some see Harry Potter's magic as literary technique and nothing more. She compares Harry's magic with scenes in A Christmas Carol where Scrooge encounters ghosts. If Christians argue that Harry Potter's magic is contrary to the Bible, so too must be Scrooge's chats with the dead.

Neal says parents can use the books to talk with their children about good and evil. Involved parents can allow their kids to read Harry Potter while helping them to draw distinct lines between Christianity and the occult.

Her book gives specific instructions on how to use analogies from Harry Potter to train children biblically.

"There certainly are times when Harry and his friends lie, cheat, deceive and break rules for no good reason," Neal writes. "They cover up something they've chosen to do because they selfishly wanted to do it."

The characters are also sometimes overpowered by emotions of hatred, jealousy, vengeance and murderous rage, Neal says.

"In these cases, there is no justification for wrongdoing," she said. "Surely we can't use them as good role models when they are clearly doing wrong."

Yet, she said, "When they do wrong for no good reason, Rowling makes sure they get caught, pay consequences, and are disciplined or instructed. The result is that the reader can watch them growing in goodness under the careful direction of their adult mentors who are on the side of good."

Overall, Neal said, Christians must stop judging each other.

"Christians have freedom whether or not to read this literature," she said from her home in Sacramento. "Christians on both sides should just stop condemning each other."

- Times researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report.

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