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July 12, 2005:

Is Harry Bewitching Our Youth?
Parents and Churches Respond to the Potter Phenomenon

by Jon M. Sweeney

Harry Potter is a wizard. He attends a school dedicated to the teaching of witchcraft and wizardry. And yet, most Christian experts say, the books and films are full of Christian symbolism and values.

Go figure. It’s not the first time that Christians have taken the best of secular culture and turned it to spiritual ends. It was not until the mid-fourth century that December 25 was officially declared the day of the Nativity. Most scholars argue that Jesus probably was born in Bethlehem in the springtime, because the shepherds would have tended their flocks in the spring. But when the fourth-century pope announced the December birthday, he was consciously offering a spiritual antidote to a pagan holiday. Parties around the winter solstice were popular in ancient Rome, and Christmas offered Christians an opportunity to party for a better cause.

Didn’t Martin Luther use the best tavern tunes for his new, Lutheran hymns? Today, we have Harry Potter for Christians.

A generation ago, we had books such as The Gospel According to Peanuts (1979), followed by a Tao of Pooh (1982), but today, it’s Connie Neal's The Gospel According to Harry Potter (2004), and much more.

Resources for parents
“We are not debating whether or not it is okay for a Christian to practice witchcraft, or cast a spell,” explains Neal in her other book, What’s a Christian to Do with Harry Potter? “The Christian position on that is clear. We agree that we should never participate in anything listed in Deuteronomy 18:9-14, never practice any form of occult involvement. But reading Harry Potter is not the same as practicing or even—as some assert—promoting witchcraft. However, some can take it to mean that.”

In God, the Devil, and Harry Potter, Protestant minister John Killinger explores the relationship between the mysterious birth and infancy of Harry and the virgin birth of Jesus. After describing the harrowing events surrounding Harry’s birth and his parents’ deaths at the hands of the evil Lord Voldemort, Killinger explains: “Anyone familiar with the narratives surrounding the birth of Christ must surely feel a tingling of the skin at this point, recalling not only the acts of sympathetic magic in the universe when he was born but the wicked attempt to exterminate him and the godly presence he represented.”

Even Evangelical Christian leaders are lining up to defend Harry Potter. The publishers of Looking for God in Harry Potter by John Granger are the same ones who publish the Left Behind series; they describe Granger’s book this way: “John Granger, a devout Christian, teacher of classic literature, and father of seven children, first read the Harry Potter books so he could explain to his children why they weren’t allowed to read them. After intense study, however, he became convinced that the books are underestimated as literature--and reflect important Christian truths.”

The Introduction to Granger’s books announces “A Parental Shift from Alarm to Approval,” and chapter three explains “The Hero’s Christlike Journey.” Granger explains that “Harry’s adventures take him through life, death, and resurrection.”

Sunday school lessons
Churches around the world are even talking about Harry Potter in Sunday school. Church Street United Methodist Church in Knoxville, Tennessee, offers one of the best examples.

Church Street children’s ministry director Sue Isbell writes on the church’s website: “One of my goals is to help children learn to live as spiritual beings in a physical world and to learn to live as Christians in a secular society. With the popularity and then criticism of the Harry Potter stories, I felt it was something children can enjoy, in the proper context, without damage to their spirits. Plus, I happen to be a children's director who loves the whole Harry Potter world—just as I loved Narnia, Oz, and all the fairy tales from my childhood.”

Isbell continues: “I find great teachings in the stories about using good to fight evil in our world, great wisdom about living and loving those closest to us, and great lessons about making decisions and living as a good person in what can be an unfriendly environment. I do not believe Harry Potter or magic to be evil any more than I believe money or power to be evil. It is the use of these things that make them good or bad in our world. Harry Potter is a story, and I believe that with the help of reasonable, imaginative and caring adults, children today are sophisticated enough to read it as just that.”

The Church Street curriculum is awe-inspiring for the Harry Potter fan, even if it deals only with issues raised by the inaugural book in the series. You can see in detail what is covered in each of the five lessons on the church’s website: http://www.churchstreetumc.org/harry-potter.html, but here is a thumbnail sketch:

Lesson 1: “Magic and the Bible.” Explores how Harry is a magical person and compares his magic to the miracles of Jesus in the New Testament. Asks kids the question: What is the difference between magic and miracle? Scriptures read: John 2:2-11; John 6:8-14; John 11:38. HP texts: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, chapter 1.

Lesson 2: “Magic or Muggle?” Deepens kids’ understanding of what it means to have special abilities, a special identity inside oneself. Also explores the ethical questions of how Harry, and we, learn to use our special identities for good and not evil. Scriptures read: Philippians 4:13. HP texts: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, chapter 4.

Lesson 3: “The Perfect Wand.” Just as Harry has a wand as a tool to do his work in the world, so do we have important tools. Asks kids the question: What tools do you have that help to deepen and strengthen your faith? Scriptures read: Ephesians 6:10-20. HP texts: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, chapter 5.

Lesson 4: “The Sorting Hat.” Each new student at Harry’s Hogwart’s School of Witchcraft and Wizardry is tested by the sorting hat. This actual hat is like an all-knowing seer and determines each child’s character and destiny. The “gifts of the Spirit” are not very different in the body of Christ, the church. Helps kids to explore: What are your gifts? For what do you feel you have been chosen? Scriptures read: 1 Corinthians 12. HP texts: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, chapter 7.

Lesson 5: “The Power of Love.” Harry finally defeats Lord Voldemort, his evil nemesis, through self-sacrificing love. Similarly, evil may have won out in the Garden of Eden, or on the Cross, but there is a larger purpose for these events and the self-sacrificing love (and victory) of Christ overshadows all. Scriptures read: John 3:16; John 15:13; Mark 15. HP texts: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, chapter 17.

In a recent interview with explorefaith.org, Sue Isbell summarized her philosophy of teaching kids about Harry Potter: “I always remind children, regardless of what we are discussing, that if you have a knowledge of the Bible in your head and a true love for God in your heart, then you will learn to identify teachings of the faith in all you read, watch, and experience in life.” In that spirit, parents and teachers now have plenty of resources to use in exploring the spiritual values of Harry Potter with their kids.

Jon M. Sweeney is a writer and editor living in Vermont. His most recent book is The Lure of Saints: A Protestant Experience of Catholic Tradition.
More by Jon Sweeney.

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