I am sitting in my friend Roberta's book-filled living room beside her son, Justin, a Harry Potter fan. "Some grown-ups," I tell Justin, who is a seventh-grader in our church's Sunday school, "are worried that the Harry Potter books are bad for kids, because they're all about warlocks and magic."

Justin blushes. "Well," he says slowly, "you could look at Harry Potter as being un-Christian or something." He blushes again and stares down at his sneakers. Suddenly it occurs to me that Justin is not exactly sure where I, a church lady and sometime Sunday school teacher, stand on the Harry Potter controversy. "Or--or--" Justin frowns. It's obvious that he has been brought up to be polite to adults. "Or you could just look at the books as--" he gulps, then finishes his sentence with a slight gasp "--fiction!"

Justin is one of the lucky ones. At an age when the lives of many kids are appallingly concrete--all wrapped up with test scores, TV merchandising, and mall trips--he still knows and appreciates the world of wonder and imagination. And that makes him and millions of other Harry Potter readers a bit abnormal, as Harry's mean uncle, Mr. Vernon Dursley, would say. In our culture, worth and meaning reside in things that we can count, measure, and accumulate. Even our dreams--like those of Mr. Dursley, who yearns only for business deals and a vacation home in Majorca--are concrete. No wonder J.K. Rowlings calls us "Muggles," people without a drop of magic in our blood.

Religious teaching is supposed to nurture children's awareness of a richer and deeper reality, to open their eyes to visions of a world full of hope and healing and love. It is supposed to prevent children from growing up to be Muggles. But sadly, the way we teach religion to kids is often distressingly literal, as though memorizing Bible verses or moral imperatives--or avoiding books about magic--were the same as relating to God or having a spiritual life.

It's too bad, because if we paid attention to kids, they would show us a better way. From their earliest years children bring imagination to their developing spirituality. Starting around the age of three, they begin to piece together fragments of stories and images they've picked up from parents, playmates, books, and television. At this stage their image of God is likely to be a kaleidoscope of Santa Claus and their minister and Little Red Riding Hood and Jesus and Mom. (This often alarms adult Muggles, who say things like, "No, that's wrong," or "That's not true.") By school age, assuming children are healthy, they have developed the capacity to distinguish fantasy from reality. But the early, playful approach to spirituality that engages children's whole heart and mind is an experience that can stay with them--and needs to be nurtured--all their lives.

As we reach adulthood our capacity to have a spiritual life depends in large measure on our openness to those imaginative powers we discover in childhood. "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matt. 18:3-4). "Whoever then becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." We use our imaginations to envision ways to pray even when God seems absent, to feed the hungry when the need is overwhelming, to empathize with others who are unlike us and to love them.

Some of the best-loved authors of children's fantasy novels have been Christians who understood this vital connection between faith and imagination. "George MacDonald, C.S. Lewis, and Tolkien wrote fantasy books because they believed that deep truths could be expressed in fiction based on poetic myth," observes Beatrice Gormley, author of C.S. Lewis: Christian and Storyteller (Eerdmans) and numerous popular fantasy books of her own for children. "To try to forbid that kind of delight is very sad. It's really missing out on a very important human activity, a whole dimension of our lives. It's like choosing not to hear or choosing not to see."

Lewis envisioned his Narnia Chronicles and other books like them as a desperately needed way to break free of what he called the "worldliness" of our materialistic culture. He wasn't afraid of books about magic. "Spells are used for breaking enchantments as well as inducing them," he wrote. "And you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us from the evil enchantment of worldliness which has been laid on us." Without such spells, without an openness to fantasy, we lose touch with our capacity to approach life and God with the trust and wonder and honesty of children. And then we really are Muggles.

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