Forwarded with the permission of the author
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly's religion column for 10/27/99.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The first of two columns.
It was the kind of proclamation that mayors sign all of the time - with a
"WHEREAS, Earth Religions are among the oldest spiritual systems on the
planet; and WHEREAS, Followers of many earth-centered religions live and
worship in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina. �"
Thus, Asheville Mayor Leni Sitnick declared the last week of October
"Earth Religions Awareness Week," in a rite attended by local witches and
scores of singing children, led by a priestess in a long, black robe. A few
days later, a witch read one of her favorite books to elementary
No, it wasn't a Harry Potter book, one of those supernaturally popular
novels about a youngster at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.
But a lot of people are having troubled welcoming witches into the public
square - period.
"This is precisely the kind of thing that keeps happening these days and
more people are getting concerned," said Joel Belz, publisher of World, a
national evangelical newsmagazine based in Asheville.
After all, Harry Potter-mania is everywhere. The books recently held the
top three slots on the U.S. hardback fiction bestseller lists and the top two
slots on the paperback lists. British author Joanne Kathleen Rowling's books
have been translated into 28 languages and she has promised four more books
in the series. Hollywood is gearing up, too.
What's a parent or pastor to do?
"We know that what's in the Harry Potter books is not all bad and that
lots of Christian families will read them and enjoy them," said Belz. "No one
wants to be reactionary. But we have to take issues of good and evil
seriously and we just can't endorse the kind of moral ambiguity that we see
in these books."
Thus, the book division of God's World Publishing has stopped selling
"Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," "Harry Potter and the Secret
Chamber" and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban." Customers made their
concerns very clear, said Belz. Also, the editors at World magazine had
decided to reverse course.
A May review focusing on the first Harry Potter novel said: "Magic and
wizardry are problematic for Christian readers. Mrs. Rowling, though, keeps
it safe, inoffensive and non-occult. This is the realm of Gandalf and the
Wizard of Id, on witchcraft. There is a fairy-tale order to it all in which,
as (G.K.) Chesterton and (J.R.R.) Tolkien pointed out, magic must have rules,
and good does not - cannot - mix with bad."
But a new cover story argues that Rowling's work has evolved and now
resembles the "tangled terrain and psychology of Batman." While the Harry
Potter books may seem innocent, this "safety, this apparent harmlessness, may
create a problem by putting a smiling mask on evil. A reader drawn in would
find that the real world of witchcraft is not Harry's world."
Others are just as worried about the violence in the books. Earlier this
month, the South Carolina Board of Education agreed to review the status of
the Harry Potter books. In a quotation featured in news reports from coast to
coast, Elizabeth Mounce of Columbia told the board: "The books have a serious
tone of death, hate, lack of respect and sheer evil." These debates are not
merely a Bible Belt phenomenon. Critics are speaking up in states such as
Michigan, Minnesota and New York.
Meanwhile, Rowling has been touring the United States and offering this
blunt advice: Anyone who is worried about the content of her books shouldn't
read them. But she also has repeatedly warned her readers that the tone of
the Harry Potter books will become increasingly dark and potentially
disturbing. She is committed to portraying evil in a serious way, with
characters that are more complex than cardboard cutouts.
"If you ban all the books with witchcraft and the supernatural, you'll
ban three-quarters of children's literature," she told the Washington Post.
"I positively think they are moral books. � I've met thousands of children,
but I've never met a single child who has asked me about the occult."
WASHINGTON BUREAU: Terry Mattingly's religion column for 11/2/99.
EDITOR'S NOTE: The second of two columns about Harry Potter and religion.
Harry Potter had just triumphed in another face-to-face showdown with the
forces of evil -- represented, logically enough, by a gigantic serpent.
But the young wizard also discovered darkness, as well as light, in his
own soul. His ordeal in the Chamber of Secrets revealed that he truly was
free to have embraced evil and the house of Salazar Slytherin, rather than
the noble house of Godric Gryffindor.
"It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our
abilities," says Albus Dumbledore, headmaster of the Hogwarts School of
Witchcraft and Wizardry.
This kind of scene is typical of the vaguely moral, "good versus evil"
plots in many fantasy novels, said literary critic Kathryn Lindskoog, who is
best known for her books about the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis. Yet the
Harry Potter books also specifically address the complex and confusing world
of modern childhood. The characters are tempted to do what is wrong, as well
as challenged to do what they know is right. They face real choices.
"The Harry Potter books are cute and naughty in that us-versus-them sort
of way that kids like so much and I guess it is true that they contain some
moral ambiguities," said Lindskoog. "Welcome to the real world. � The
question is whether these books tell children that they are supposed to
choose good over evil. It seems to me that, so far, they are doing just that."
One thing is certain: millions of people are choosing to invite Harry
Potter and his friends into their homes. "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's
Stone," "Harry Potter and the Secret Chamber" and "Harry Potter and the
Prisoner of Azkaban" recently grabbed the top three slots on the U.S.
hardback fiction bestseller lists at the same time. British author Joanne
Kathleen Rowling has promised four more books in the series.
The books have their critics. Some worry that they are too violent and,
since Rowling has said future volumes will be darker and more complex, they
are likely to become bloodier and more distressing. Others believe that the
books may popularize witchcraft, in an era in which the principalities and
powers of public education and popular culture would certainly reject, let's
say, "Harry Potter and the Rock of Ages."
Nevertheless, evangelical activist Charles Colson and his
radio-commentary researchers have concluded, "the magic in these books is
purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic. 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." Meanwhile, the characters
learn "courage, loyalty and a willingness to sacrifice for one another --
even at the risk of their lives. Not bad lessons, in a self-centered world."
Fantasy fiction often causes controversy, stressed Lindskoog, because it
blends powerful emotions and messages with symbols and stories that are wide
open to different interpretations. But there are common themes that grace the
classic fantasy novels. In an updated edition of her book "How to Grow a
Young Reader" - which surveys 1,800 works of children's literature --
Lindskoog and co-author Ranelda Mack Hunsicker note that these works
* Emphasize the importance of personal choices.
* Focus on the "heroic thoughts and deeds of seemingly ordinary
* Recognize the "presence of evil in the world and the need for vigilance
on the part of those who love truth."
* Help the reader achieve a "clearer understanding of oneself and society
without resorting to preaching."
* Provide a sense of hope.
The jury remains out on Harry Potter, said Lindskoog. But this frenzy is
typical of the media fads that sweep through youth culture, including
children's literature. Meanwhile, researchers continue to find increasing
numbers of adolescents with cable-era television and VCRs in their rooms and,
in 1998, 66 percent of American movies were rated R or worse.
"There is real evil out there and parents need to stay on guard," said
Lindskoog. "So I hope parents are out there reading the Harry Potter books
for themselves and discussing them with their kids. Anything that pushes
parents to get more involved in the lives of their children can't be all bad."