Harry Potter

Harry Potter wars forever?

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."

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 HogwartsProfessor.com 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?"

Final Harry Potter wars? Part I

Harry Potter and his best friend Hermione Granger arrived in the magical town of Godric's Hollow on a snowy Christmas Eve.

Carols drifted out of the village church as they searched its graveyard for the resting place of Lily and James Potter, who were murdered by the dark Lord Voldemort. First, they found the headstone honoring the family of Albus Dumbledore, the late headmaster of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The inscription said: "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

Then the Potter headstone proclaimed: "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death." Harry was mystified. Was this about defeating the evil Death Eaters?

"It doesn't mean defeating death in the way the Death Eaters mean it, Harry," said Hermione, gently. "It means ... you know ... living beyond death. Living after death."

For millions of religious believers who embrace Harry Potter, this pivotal scene in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" -- book seven in J.K. Rowling's giant fantasy puzzle -- offers new evidence that the author is, in fact, a Church of Scotland communicant whose faith has helped shape her work.

The first inscription is from St. Matthew's Gospel and the second -- stating the book's theme -- is a passage in St. Paul's first letter to the Corinthians about the meaning of Christ's resurrection. Is this part of what Dumbledore had called an all-powerful "deep magic" built on sacrificial love?

Nevertheless, for millions of Rowling critics the presence of scripture in this final book will not cancel a decade's worth of wizardry, magic and what they believe is vague, New Age spirituality. And besides, Potter clearly didn't recognize the unattributed Bible verses. Right?

Religious battles commenced soon after Rowling released "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone." It didn't help that "Philosopher's Stone" -- a term from medieval alchemy -- was replaced with "Sorcerer's Stone" in U.S. editions. After the sale of 325 million-plus books worldwide, there are now at least three camps of Potter critics in these theological debates and three prominent camps of Potter defenders. The critics include:

* Some who insist these books are secular or subtly anti-religious. Writing in Time, Lev Grossman has argued that Rowling shares more in common with atheists like Christopher Hitchens than with J.R.R. Tolkien or C.S. Lewis, whose books were rooted in Christian faith.

"Look at Rowling's books," says Grossman. "What's missing? If you want to know who dies in Harry Potter, the answer is easy: God. Harry Potter lives in a world free of any religion or spirituality of any kind. He lives surrounded by ghosts but has no one to pray to, even if he were so inclined, which he isn't."

* Conservatives who think Potter-mania can lead to the occult. Some even oppose fantasy novels by Lewis and Tolkien -- which contain references to wizards, magic and demonic powers. The key is a Deuteronomy passage: "There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or daughter pass through fire, or one who practices witchcraft, or a soothsayer, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who conjures spells. ..."

Focus on the Family's James Dobson responded to "Deathly Hallows" by saying: "Magical characters -- witches, wizards, ghosts, goblins, werewolves, poltergeists and so on -- fill the Harry Potter stories, and given the trend toward witchcraft and New Age ideology ... it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds."

* Believers who see mixed signals. Evangelical activist Chuck Colson, for example, praised the books in 1999, noting that they contrasted good and evil, while the main characters displayed courage, loyalty and self-sacrifice. "Not bad lessons in a self-centered world," said the founder of Prison Fellowship.

But Colson's latest statement warned: "Personally, I don?t recommend the Potter books. I?d rather Christian kids not read them."

Soon after that Colson commentary, however, current Prison Fellowship President Mark Earley gently praised Rowling's books and, above all, the role fantasy novels can play for readers numbed by modern life.

"The popularity of these books -- and, yes, even of the Harry Potter series -- reminds us that the yearning for hope, for good to win and evil to be vanquished, is no infantile desire," he said. "Rather, it is one of the deepest and most important parts of our nature, placed in us by the God of all truth."

NEXT WEEK: Believers who embrace Harry Potter.

Please let Harry Potter die

Father Jonathan Tobias knows exactly what he will do when J.K. Rowling releases the final volume of the Harry Potter series.

The family tradition is that he reads the entire book out loud to his wife and two daughters. Then, when the final page has been turned, they start debating what will happen next.

Things will be different this time. However, the Eastern Orthodox priest knows how he hopes the last act plays out. Unlike many other ministers, Tobias doesn't want Potter to renounce magic or to lose his adolescent flaws. It would be awkward, he said, for the young wizard to "fall to his knees and make the sign of the cross." His suggestion is simpler than that.

Rowling should let Potter die, because that is what tragic heroes do.

"There is little decent tragedy around" in modern culture, said Tobias, at his "Second Terrace" weblog. "There is a lot of irony, where a non-heroic central character is pitched into the abyss of ambiguity. There is a lot of farce, where burlesque mummers traipse around in varying degrees of moral undress.

"But tragedy? No. ... We do not see the sense of the pollution of evil, and its uncleanness. We have no immediate feeling of the necessity to fix or to cleanse. And we haven't seen much of a fable where the story demanded, clearly, the surmounting and cleansing of evil -- even at the cost of real, hard sacrifice."

Tobias is one voice in a global digital chorus debating this issue at myriad websites with names like SwordOfGryffindor.com and The-Leaky-Cauldron.org. Potter fans have, after all, purchased more than 300 million copies of the six novels.

The faithful have been sweating ever since Jim Dale, the voice behind the U.S. audio-book editions, claimed that the author had told him Harry would die. Then Rowling stunned British television viewers by revealing that she had tweaked the finale (the last word is "scar") so that "one character got a reprieve, but two die that I didn't intend to die." And Harry Potter? She answered, "I can completely understand the mentality of an author who thinks, 'I'm going to kill him off because after I'm dead and gone they won't be able to bring back the character.' "

Podcasting guru Emerson Spartz of MuggleNet.com spoke for millions when he said he couldn't believe that Rowling would build her series around a "kid whose life sucks and then he dies."

Nevertheless, Tobias is convinced that Potter combines many characteristics seen in heroes through the ages. He was born to greatness, but suffered the tragic loss of loved ones. He has special gifts, glaring weaknesses and carries the burden of a haunting prophecy that hints at tragedy, triumph or both. Supernatural trials? Potter has seen it all.

"A hero is not perfect. In fact, his flaws are part of what make him great," said Tobias, pastor of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church outside Pittsburgh. "By the end of a story like this one, the hero has simply become too big to remain in this world. This kind of hero is born for a purpose and he dies for a purpose."

Thus, it's significant that Rowling -- in an early interview with a Canadian newspaper -- noted that she is, in fact, a Christian. "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. ... 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."

Also, Rowling has acknowledged the influence of beloved Christian works like the seven-volume "The Chronicles of Narnia" by C.S. Lewis and "The Lord of the Rings" cycle by J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of these fantasy classics, noted Tobias, feature endings that combine death and rebirth, along with the bittersweet passing of a magical age.

"Part of being a hero is to have a great love and to be willing to make a great sacrifice for that love," he said. "It seems to me that Harry Potter has been walking down that same road. ... It's just hard to see him going home and settling down. He's been through too much."

Harry Potter for grownup believers (of all kinds)

ORLANDO -- Lee Hillman's nightstand contains a copy of Sir James George Frazer's classic "The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion." It's a condensed version, not the two-volume 1890 epic or the12-volume monument from the following decades. The single volume contains more than enough magical minutia for ordinary readers. Six dense pages will usually put Hillman to sleep.

Nevertheless, the practicing pagan keeps reading. It has helped give perspective on her other passion -- reading and writing about a certain young wizard in England.

"There is no relationship set up in the Harry Potter books between magic and religion," said Hillman during Nimbus 2003, the first global convention dissecting the 2,715 pages published so far in the series. "This had to be a deliberate decision by J.K. Rowling. ... She is using literary conceits drawn from throughout Western culture."

She scanned the crowd at a panel discussion last weekend entitled "Harry Potter: Witchcraft? Pagan Perspectives." Then she said the same thing again, as a Wiccan believer and another miscellaneous pagan nodded in agreement.

"There is nothing in these books that relates magic to any particular religion," said Hillman. "There is no connection. None. None. Zero. ... They are not really about witchcraft."

Don't misunderstand. Hillman still loves the Potter books. That's why she was wearing a spectacular witch's hat and robe, a flash of purple that even stood out among the 600 other colorful fans at Disney's Swan Hotel. Among online Potter devotees, the 31-year-old secretary from Rochester, N.Y., is known as "Gwendolyn Grace, Minister of Magic" and she was the driving force behind the gathering.

Nimbus 2003 sprouted out of the Internet, where the "Harry Potter For Grownups" email list has 10,000 members and a "Fiction Alley" list dedicated to stories written by fans for other fans has 30,000 members.

With this kind of reach, organizers attracted participants -- about 90 percent female -- from across the United States, as well as from England and Australia.

In hotel hallways, witch wannabes raised their expensive, professionally carved wands and fought imaginary duels with tickling spells and other incantations. In the lecture halls, others heard papers on everything from Harry Potter and the First Amendment to "Greenhouses are for Girls, Beasts are for Boys? Gender Characterizations in Harry Potter." There were packed sessions on so-called "slash" fiction in which online scribes write gay and lesbian themes into new Potter stories.

Organizers also dedicated an entire track of lectures and panels to spiritual issues, addressing topics such as "Seven Deadly Sins, Seven Heavenly Virtues: Moral Development in Harry Potter" and "Can Any Wisdom Come From Wizardry?"

Hillman and other pagan panelists were convinced that Rowling -- who has said she attends the Church of Scotland and does not believe in magic -- is a wonderful writer for children, but is clearly not interested in witchcraft. This is not the magic in which they believe.

"There is a cause-and-effect relationship to everything in these books," said Hillman. "You say the spell, you see the effect. ... It's like turning on a light. You flip the switch and the magic is there. That just isn't how things work."

Meanwhile, evangelical writer Connie Neal enthusiastically found echoes of biblical stories and parables in the Potter canon. Her book "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" has been banned in many Christian stores, but "this only seems to have made the secular stores more interested," she said. She keeps challenging people to set up evangelistic reading groups that mix Bible study and Harry Potter discussions.

A Jewish cantor found echoes of the Talmud. A Mormon speaker found strong family values. And classics teacher John Granger aired the thesis of his book "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter," arguing that Rowling has soaked her work in centuries of Christian symbolism and spiritual alchemy themes shared with Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, C.S. Lewis and countless others.

"The human person was designed for resurrection, in love. That is what we yearn for because that is how we were created," he said. "That is what these books are about. We respond to them because we are human. Rowling is using symbols and themes that have worked for centuries. And you know what? They still work."

J.K. Rowling, Inkling?

Harry Potter froze in terror as the hellish Dementors rushed to suck out his godfather's soul. But he was not powerless, because he had learned the Patronus Charm for use against the evil ones. So the boy wizard focused on a joyful memory and shouted, "Expecto Patronum!"

Salvation arrived in the form of a dazzling silver animal that defeated the ghouls and then cantered across the surface of a lake to Harry. It was as "bright as a unicorn," but on second glance was not a unicorn. It was a majestic stag that bowed its antlered head in salute and then vanished.

If C.S. Lewis or J.R.R. Tolkien had written this scene in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," literary critics and Christian apologists would know how to break the code, according to John Granger, author of "The Hidden Key to Harry Potter." They would parse the Latin charm and study author J.K. Rowling's delicate use of medieval symbolism.

"The key is that stag, which is often a Christ symbol. But she is not content to make it a stag. It's a stag that looks like a unicorn," said Granger, who teaches Latin and Greek in Port Hadlock, Wash.

"She's saying to the reader, 'A stag may be a reach for you. So I'll have it be a stag that looks like a unicorn, since that has been a universally recognized Christ symbol for ages.' It's almost, 'Let me make this clear for you.' "

But these symbols have eluded most readers who have bought 192 million copies of these novels in 55 languages. (Rowling requested Latin.)

This weekend bookstores are serving up the first 8.5 million copies of the 768-page fifth volume, "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix." The usual suspects will immediately say the usual things. Many Christians will quote Bible verses condemning magic. Academics will call the book a childish confection and analyze it as media myth and pop psychology. Librarians will give thanks that children are reading -- anything.

Granger believes they are missing the obvious: Rowling has baptized her work in medieval Christian symbols and themes that shape and define her tales of good versus evil. Potter's creator, he noted, received a superior education -- with studies in French and classical languages at the University of Exeter -- and has a working knowledge of ancient and medieval literature. She has made no effort to hide her admiration of great writers, especially Jane Austen and Lewis.

Granger has focused on her language and symbolism, in large part because of his similar studies in "Great Books" and ancient languages. He has also attempted to predict how these themes will play out in Rowling's future Potter novels.

"I started reading the Potter books as an Orthodox Christian father who had to explain to his oldest daughter why we don't read such trash," he said. "But once I started turning the pages the University of Chicago side of me kicked in."

Take that climactic scene in "The Prisoner of Azkaban," he said. The Latin "expecto," as used in the Apostles' Creed, is best translated "to look out for" or "to long for expectantly." And "patronus" means guardian, but can also mean "deliverer" or "savior." So Potter cries "I look for a savior" and a stag appears, one that looks mysteriously like a unicorn.

In the Middle Ages, noted Granger, stags were Christ symbols, in part because of the regeneration of their antlers as "living trees." A cross was often pictured in the prongs. Lewis uses a white stag in this manner in "The Chronicles of Narnia." Unicorns were also popular Christ symbols, portraying purity and strength.

Rowling repeatedly links Potter with creatures -- a phoenix, griffins, centaurs, hippogriffs, red lions -- used by centuries of Christian artists.

Her use of alchemy symbolism taps into medieval images of spiritual purification, illumination and perfection.

None of this is accidental, he said. Anyone who cares about Potter-mania must take Rowling more seriously.

"What we are seeing is a religious phenomenon taking place in a profoundly secular, profane culture," said Granger. "J.K. Rowling is pouring living water into a desert. ... She is mounting a head-on attack on a materialistic world that denies the existence of the supernatural and, so far, she is getting away with it."