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Dr. Perry Glanzer: Picking the Wrong Fight

Aug. 8, 2007

Austin American-Statesman

Saturday, August 04, 2007

A high-profile Christian condemnation of "Harry Potter" just hit the news again. James Dobson, chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, officially renounced Harry Potter. Fearful of the effect reading about witches, wizards and werewolves might have on impressionable young minds, he took a stand.

Well, he actually responded to a Washington Post story that said he liked the books.

Fearful of such an endorsement, Dobson reminded the reporter and the public what he said on a radio broadcast, "We have spoken out strongly against all of the 'Harry Potter' products."

It is unclear whether Dobson has actually read the books.

If he did, he might realize that although God may not be mentioned, messages consistent with Christianity and even a sprinkling of Christian symbolism abound (especially in the seventh book, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows").

In fact, Christians should actually see J.K. Rowling's "Harry Potter" series as fantasy tales in the tradition of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Rowling's series reinforces a core Christian belief that good and evil are not just socially constructed.

The villain, Voldemort, proclaims in the first book, "There is no good and evil, there is only power, and those too weak to seek it." By contrast, Harry and his companions rely on love, courage and friendship to fight and defeat Voldemort.

More importantly, Rowling, who identifies herself as a Christian, clearly draws upon this source throughout book seven.

In one scene, Harry visits his parents' graves at a church yard on Christmas Eve. On his parents' grave, he finds the phrase, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death" - a reference found in 1 Corinthians 15, a chapter about Christ's resurrection.

Yet, like Tolkien, Rowling's faith expresses itself more in the overall narrative than in concrete symbols or references.

The evil Voldemort, one character reveals, could repair his broken soul. How? "Remorse ... you've got to really feel what you've done."

Some might call this confessing one's sins.

The finale offers the supreme example of a message consistent with Christian teachings. Harry defeats evil in a Christ-like manner - through sacrificing himself out of love for others. Whether a resurrection occurs I will leave for readers to learn.

Unfortunately, instead of seeing these themes, Dobson condemns the series because it positively depicts the practice of sorcery. Of course, like the magic in Tolkien's tales, the magical practices of Rowling's characters do not mimic ancient examples or contemporary Wiccan practice.

Dobson should save his ammunition for real - not perceived - attacks upon Christianity such as a movie coming this Christmas. During the holiday season, "The Golden Compass" will appear in theatres, a movie based on Philip Pullman's first book in the best-selling "His Dark Materials" trilogy.

The timing of the movie's release is ironic considering that Pullman hates Christianity.

In The Washington Post, Pullman admitted that, through his work, "I'm trying to undermine the basis of Christian belief."

Pullman also holds disdain for C.S. Lewis and his "Narnia" tales; he claims that Lewis celebrated "bullying, racism, misogyny."

Publicly and in his fiction, Pullman pulls no punches.

To sell tickets, the movie trailer connects the tale to Tolkien's stories about Middle Earth. Yet Tolkien, a Catholic, would have been aghast at Pullman's tale.

Throughout Pullman's wonderfully entertaining and creative stories, one finds anti-Christian pokes, anti-Christian symbolism and even anti-Christian diatribes.

Children are treated to arguments such as "Every church is the same: control, destroy, obliterate every good feeling." None of Tolkien or Rowling's subtlety here.

Pullman also enjoys reinterpreting the Biblical story of the Fall as the beginning of true human freedom.

To top it off, his trilogy ends with what is clearly meant to represent the death of the Christian God, the "Authority," a demented, decrepit angel with delusions of grandeur.

If Dobson wants to start giving thoughtful Christian criticism of popular children's fiction, there is no better place to start than Phillip Pullman's series.

No one would blame Dobson for warning parents not to load up on sugar-coated anti-Christian propaganda dressed as children's fiction.

Unfortunately, since Christians such as Dobson have mistakenly cried wolf about "Harry Potter," those raising critical questions about Pullman's disturbing trilogy may not be taken seriously.

Glanzer is a professor at Baylor's School of Education and the Institute for Church-State Studies.

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Austin American-Statesman