The Harry Potter culture warriors have surged into action one last time, adding their familiar notes of discord to the fanfares greeting the release of "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2." "It's no secret that the Harry Potter storyline about both good and evil wizards has fueled global teenage increase in Wicca and the occult," according to an urgent Christian Newswire press release. "Stephanie Meyer's The Twilight Saga about good and evil vampires has done the same thing for vampirism. Blood drinking among teens has surged. What's next?"
Whatever comes next cannot hope to match the firestorm sparked by the 1997 release of J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone," which led to global sales of nearly half a billion volumes for the seven-book series.
Nevertheless, that very first title -- containing a medieval Christian alchemy image for eternal life -- was a sign of debates to come. Publishers changed the title image to "Sorcerer's Stone" in America, assuming Americans would shun "philosopher" talk. Before you could say "Deuteronomy 18 (There shall not be found among you anyone who ... who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells)" -- the Potter wars began.
It mattered little that Rowling soon outed herself as a communicant in the Scottish Episcopal Church and told a Canadian newspaper: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said, 'yes,' because I do. ... If I talk too freely about that, I think the intelligent reader -- whether 10 or 60 -- will be able to guess what is coming in the books."
Thus, the series unfolded, with each book containing waves of medieval Christian symbols, including many used by artists to point to Jesus -- such as white stags, unicorns, hippogriffs, a phoenix and a red lion.
Meanwhile, the plots were built on alchemical themes of dissolution, purification, illumination and perfection, themes shared with Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others. In each book, Harry Potter the "everyman" tries to sacrifice himself for others, before somehow being raised to new life in the presence of a Christ symbol.
Nevertheless, many critics failed to see how Rowling's work stands in contrast to the spirits of materialism and individualism that dominate modern life, according to classics scholar John Granger, an Orthodox Christian best known as the scribe behind HogwartsProfessor.com and numerous related books. I met him at Nimbus 2003, an early global conference on Potter studies, and we have compared notes ever since.
"In a secular culture like ours, fiction of this kind serves an almost sacramental function for millions of people," said Granger. "This offers a hint of the transcendent, a taste of spiritual transformation -- but it's not the real thing. ... Reading Harry Potter could, however, help some people become more open to transformative experiences and perhaps even to yearn for them."
In the end, the faith-based side of Potter mania produced at least five camps that rendered clashing judgments on these books, including:
* Rowling intentionally wrote occult books, creating a doorway into witchcraft for young readers.
* The books are merely tempting trifles celebrating adolescent behavior and mushy morals. They were not intentionally evil, but simply bad books.
* These fables are a mixed bag, mixing good messages with the bad. But if Rowling used Christian symbolism it was as mere window dressing.
* Rowling intentionally wrote "Christian books" containing literal, almost mechanical allegories that can serve as evangelistic tools, in and of themselves.
* The books, according to Granger and many other academics, are part of a British tradition of storytelling built on Christian symbols and themes (including clear biblical references) and can be enjoyed on several levels, including as stories of transformation and redemption. Thus, the Church of England produced "Mixing it up with Harry Potter" study guides.
After years of debating Potter critics, Granger said he still finds it stunning that so many people can study Rowling's work without seeing her extensive use of Christian themes and symbols. At the same time, her approach is "very English" and there is "no way anyone could call these books evangelical," he added.
"Clearly these books contain Christian content, but there is no altar call at the end of each one," said Granger. "If there was an altar call at the end, there never would have been a Potter mania. People would have seen through that."