Christian art

Final Harry Potter wars? Part II

Coming soon to a parish near you: Sunday school with Harry Potter.

This could happen if your congregation buys the new "Mixing it up with Harry Potter" study guides from the Church of England. The goal of the 12-part series is to use scenes from these omnipresent books and movies to help children discuss big issues such as death, sacrifice, loneliness, fear, mercy and grief.

"Jesus used storytelling to engage and challenge his listeners," said Bishop John Pritchard of Oxford, speaking on behalf of the curriculum. "There's nothing better than a good story to make people think, and there's plenty in the Harry Potter books to make young people think about the choices they make in their everyday lives."

In his introduction, study-guide author Owen Smith addressed the concerns many believers have voiced about J.K. Rowling's books. As most residents of Planet Earth know by now, more than 325 million copies of the seven Harry Potter novels have been sold so far.

"The magic in the books is simply part of the magic that J. K. Rowling has created, in the same way that magic is part of the world of Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis," said Smith. "To say ... these books draw younger readers towards the occult seems to me both to malign J. K. Rowling and to vastly underestimate the ability of children and young people to separate the real from the imaginary."

At least three kinds of critics have knocked Rowling's work, when it comes to religion. Some say the books are secular and contain no theological content at all, while, on the other side, many others insist that Potter-mania may lead to interest in witchcraft. Some simply say the books send mixed signals and should be avoided.

However, there are also at least three positive schools of thought about Rowling's take on faith.

* Like the Church of England educators, some supporters say the Potter books can -- at the very least -- be mined as acceptable sources of stories to help teach young people about faith. One early evangelical book making this case, "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" by Connie Neal, was blacklisted in many Christian bookstores.

* While Catholics have debated the merits of Rowling's work, a Vatican voice on culture has said the novels portray clashes between good and evil in a manner consistent with Christianity. Speaking in 2003, Father Peter Fleetwood noted that the author is "Christian by conviction, is Christian in her mode of living, even in her way of writing."

Rowling has confirmed that she is a Christian and a communicant in the Church of Scotland, which has Presbyterian roots. In one oft-quoted interview, she told a Canadian newspaper: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said, 'yes,' because I do. But no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that and, I have to say that does suit me."

Thus, this group of Potter supporters argues that Rowling is a Christian -- perhaps one with liberal beliefs -- who has chosen to write mainstream books containing Christian symbols and language. In other words, she is a Christian who writes books, but not "Christian books."

* Some go further and find elements of overt Christian storytelling -- especially in the new "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." They may, for example, see parallels between Potter's willingness to surrender his life to save others from the evil Lord Voldemort and the redemptive sacrifice made by the Christ figure in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by Lewis.

There's more. In a pivotal baptism sequence, Potter dives into deadly waters to recover a sword -- described as a "great silver cross" -- required to destroy evil treasures. Finally, there is a vision of life after death set in a heavenly "King's Cross" train station.

Literary critic John Granger of has been making this argument for years. He thinks Rowling must be considered a "Christian artist," yet one who faces her own doubts and struggles.

"The Gospel messages and allusions in the series finale were so transparent and edifying, surely, I thought, the Harry Haters must be having second thoughts, if not regrets about things they have said with such conviction the past 10 years in print and from the pulpit," said Granger. "I haven't seen any sign of this. Have you?"

The future of Narnia

Soon after the smashing opening weekend of "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," the Rev. Bob Beltz had a vision of what his Hollywood colleagues might be doing someday just before his funeral.

"They could end up holding the first screening of 'The Last Battle' just before my funeral service. That's about how long it may take us to do the whole series," quipped the 55-year-old Presbyterian pastor, referring to the seventh and final Narnia novel by the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis.

Pre-production work has begun on "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian" and its creators are shooting for a pre-Christmas 2007 release.

Using a best-case scenario, it would take two years to make each movie, said Beltz, director of special media projects for the billionaire media entrepreneur Philip Anschutz. That would mean 12 more years and the last film would appear in 2017. But what if there are snags?

"Seriously, when we started seeing those first really big numbers roll in at the box office, that's when it hit me," said Beltz. "Some of us worked on this first movie for a very long time and now it seems like we may literally get to work on the Chronicles for the rest of our lives."

Of course, Anschutz and his Walden Media associates were convinced that the Narnia novels -- with 100 million copies sold over the past 55 years -- could turn into the kind of family-friendly franchise that makes Hollywood insiders see visions of "Star Wars," "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter." That's why Walt Disney Studios helped pour $180 million into creating "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe."

Within days of the movie's release, Beltz and other members of Narnia team knew that they had a green light. At the beginning of this week (Feb.28), the global box office for first Narnia movie was nearing $664 million. And for fantasy fans that are keeping score, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" has rung up $288,193,914 at the U.S. box office since its Dec. 9 release, while "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire," which came out three weeks earlier, is a nose ahead at $288,733,970.

Director Adam Adamson of New Zealand will return for the next film, along with the young quartet of British actors at the heart of the first film -- Georgie Henley, 10, Skandar Keynes, 14, Anna Popplewell, 17, and William Moseley, 18. In "Prince Caspian," the four heroes return to the land of Narnia soon after their first adventure, only to discover that centuries have passed in Narnian time. With the help of the great lion Aslan, the Christ figure in the series, the children fight to bring the young Prince Caspian, the rightful heir, to the throne of Narnia.

The clock is already ticking. With the interconnecting plots, the actors playing the Pevensie siblings cannot look radically different even though they will be two to three years older than they were while filming "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe." To further complicate matters, the two youngest children -- the characters Lucy and Edmund -- are featured in the next novel, "The Voyage of the Dawn Treader."

The key to the whole project is the response of the millions of readers who have shared the novels with their children for decades, said Douglas Gresham, the 61-year-old stepson of Lewis and co-producer of the first film. He stressed that he will work on the Narnia movies as long as he is able to do so.

As important as the movies are, he said, the ultimate goal is to faithfully deliver the author's stories, symbols and themes. The books must have the last word.

"The challenge for us as filmmakers, and I have had to become one, is that everyone who has ever read the Chronicles of Narnia ... has a firmly cast picture, a precise visualization, in their mind of what Narnia looks like, what the creatures look like, how they should behave and how they should seem," said Gresham.

"We must produce films in which we equal or exceed every single one of those visual imageries. If we do that, then I believe that readers who love the books will keep going to theaters and we'll be able to complete the series."