On Saturday, July 8, I plan to spend most of the day reading the new Harry Potter book, "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." Given that it is rumored to weigh in at 700 pages, I will most likely stay up far into the night devouring this fourth episode of Harry's adventures. And then, come Sunday morning, I will go to church.

I know there are some Christians who view these two activities as a contradiction--who think that Hogwarts is worse than hogwash, and that the magical scenarios of J.K. Rowling's imagination are inherently un-Christian. I would counter that, instead, these books have the potential to be profoundly Christian if readers can see past the medium (magic) to the novels' deeper messages about self-sacrifice, the triumph of good over evil, and the glorious possibility of human redemption.

As a book-industry professional, I am as amazed as everyone else at the phenomenon that is Harry Potter. I was first bewitched by Harry last fall. Passing an independent bookshop in Northern California, I noticed that the window displayed the first Harry Potter book as one of many that individuals have attempted to ban from America's public school libraries. I wondered what could be so dangerous about a children's book--and so, defiantly, I plunked down my money and read it in one night. (Evangelicals really should take stock of the fact that their boycotts often backfire by calling attention to the very products they want the public to ignore. How many thousands of people saw the terrible film "The Last Temptation of Christ" just because some folks got their knickers in a twist about it?)

The Harry brouhaha is probably going to increase with each installment of J.K. Rowling's seven-book series. Rowling has conceded in interviews that in order to make readers realize that Voldemort is not just a comic book villain, several beloved characters will be killed, beginning with the first death in Book 4. She has also stated that when she began plotting the series, she placed unalterable parameters on magical powers in the wizarding world. One thing that no wizard can do is bring someone back from the dead.

As the books become darker, they will also begin tackling issues that form the heart of sacred experience. Voldemort, as we know from Book 2, is something of a Luciferesque fallen angel. The cleverest and most promising of Hogwarts students, his perverted selfishness took him down a dark path where his only goal was to accumulate more power for himself.

Far from being a dangerous message, I feel that children in this age range (the Harry Potter books are recommended for ages 9 and up) can learn a great deal from Voldemort's horrifying fall from grace. Harry, who fears he is like Voldemort because he shares similar and unusual powers, functions as Voldemort's character foil precisely because he, too, has the potential to abuse others to become powerful.

Yet Harry consistently resists this, choosing instead to risk his own safety and good standing to save those weaker than himself. The parallels to Christ are fairly obvious. Why, then, is this considered such a threatening tale for Christian kids?

Some Christians would argue that despite the books' overall moral function, they are damaging to children because they teach witchcraft. This is malarkey. Muggle children have not attacked their teachers with spells gleaned from the books. Nor are slayings of unicorns statistically elevated over 1997, when the first book was published. Thefts of magical flying cars have not increased. Wizardry is merely the setting of the series, an exciting and dramatic backdrop for the ancient story of the struggle between good and evil. Besides, if we were to omit all mention of witchcraft from children's books, evangelical Christians would have to put away their beloved copies of "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," "The Wizard of Oz," and--gulp--the Bible, which contains not a few mentions of witchcraft, even if only to condemn it.

Christians who object to Harry fail to make the distinction between a passage in the New Testament book of Acts, say, that condemns sorcery and a fairy tale that features it. Anti-Harry charges are too often lodged by people who have not seen fit to read the books. In my mind, parents ought to decide, based on what they have actually observed, which books or television shows are compatible with the values they are seeking to instill. The fear that drives evangelicals' refusal to even crack the spine of "The Sorcerer's Stone" affirms precisely the opposite message that Christian parents are trying to send. They are teaching their children that witchcraft is powerful, and that it is real enough to fear.

Although the series has not catalyzed youngsters to embrace the Craft, it has still had a tangible impact on children. What has changed--what has risen dramatically--are the numbers of young people, especially boys, who have discovered the joy of reading. And mind you, this is before the blockbuster movie arrives, and all manner of Harry-phernalia finds its way into the nation's Happy Meals. Kids are reading. They can hardly wait until 12:01 a.m. on July 8, the witching hour when "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire" is released. Then again, neither can I.

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