Harry Potter and the Tired Story Hooks

1581345283As for me and my blogmates, we will be avoiding the media hurricane of spoilers and debates surrounding all of those Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows scans, leaks, early mailings and embargo-busters. But I will scream "Boooooooooooo!" at the Baltimore Sun for publishing the last line of its early review. No, I will not provide a link. But, by all means, let me offer a burst of sarcastic laughter at the tired story that The Washington Post put on page one under the headline "Christian Fantasy Genre Builds Niche Without Hogwarts, Muggles or Spells." My journalism professors (long ago) always warned against ledes that asked questions. Like this one: "Could the next Harry Potter be a devout Christian?"

Let's not get pulled, once again, into the whole "is she or isn't see" debate about J.K. Rowling and the role of her professed Christian faith in her work and all those Christian symbols that she has woven into her alchemical tales (sorry, I could not help myself).

No, this Post story takes two very old stories and combines them into one pre-Potter weekend feature. One is the much-discussed explosion of interest in what has to be called Contemporary Christian Fiction (CCF?) in the post-Left Behind world (a hide-and-seek story hook that has been around for about two decades post-Frank "This Present Darkness" Peretti) and the other is the world of anti-Potter fundamentalists who love to torment librarians (the angle that helped Harry Potter burst into the hip mainstream).

Put the two themes together and you get:

Christian fantasy, which had been a slow seller, has caught fire recently, industry analysts say, ignited by the success of the Potter series, which has sent some Christian readers looking for alternatives. Secular and Christian publishers are churning out titles aimed at the lucrative and growing audience of readers, who are snapping up an estimated $2.4 billion in Christian books a year -- about a 30 percent increase in the past four years.

Some Christian religious leaders and Christian parents have expressed unease with the Potter series, believing, among other issues, that humans' use of magic is forbidden by the Bible. The series is on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books at school libraries.

Tapping into that unease are an increasing number of Christian writers who are producing Potteresque books without the elements that some Christians say violate the Bible. ...

The growth in Christian fantasy books is part of the recent escalation in sales of Christian fiction. Stirred by the success of the apocalypse-themed Left Behind series, publishers are producing works of Christian suspense, thrillers, sci-fi, romance, horror (the devil is a prominent figure), mystery and -- the latest trend -- "chick lit."

Oh my, the modest-bodice-buster story has been around forever, too.

This story contains all of the Bible verse quotations that one needs to know that, yes, there are people in Christian pews who are not comfortable with wizards, wands, spells and what not. But, folks, that is a really old, old story, too. In fact, one of the most serious holes in this long story is linked precisely to that fact.

... (Critics) have said that J.K. Rowling's series gives Harry Potter deity-like powers, although he has no known religion. Critics also say that the books lack a definitive portrayal of good and evil. (Harry does engage in some occasional fibbing, and his skills at deceiving adults are well honed). A few critics have said that the lightning-bolt scar on Harry's forehead represents the mark of the antichrist.

Rowling has dismissed such claims as "absurd."

But Christian fantasy writers avoid those issues. Some deal with Christianity in overt ways, setting their stories in biblical times. Others follow in the footsteps of Christian fantasy writer C.S. Lewis, using allegory and symbolism to illustrate Christian themes.

books HoodThe team at the Post that produced this story does not seem to realize that wizards and magic appear in the Narnia books and that there used to be people who were offended by these books, too. And it goes without saying that the same could be said of the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, who expressed his strong Catholic faith in much more subtle ways. Believe me, the Tolkien bashers are still out there.

Meanwhile, there are other popular writers in the fantasy world whose work has long appealed to believers and nonbelievers alike. One of my favorites is Stephen Lawhead, whose work -- much of it Celtic in nature -- tends to be published by "Christian" companies in North America and by "secular" publishers elsewhere. Go figure. Needless to say, bards and magic play major roles in his books and you'll find them in all kinds of bookstores. Book two of his Raven/Hood trilogy is about to come out. (Yes, Raven Hood.)

So this anti-Potter CCF story is, for me, a stretch on several levels.

Meanwhile, there is also a chance that the Post buried the lede, for most of its readers. Near the bottom we learn:

Many religious leaders have rejected such objections. They have said that the books have a strong moral message. Some even see Christian symbolism in them.

Christian parenting guru James Dobson has praised the Potter books.

Holy smoke! Dobson has kind of endorsed Harry Potter? Stop the presses.

Now, I already knew that and the odds are good that many other people who have followed the Harry Potter wars through the years know it as well. Check out this anti-Potter site that knocks Dobson and other pro-Potter Christian folks.

However, since this page-one Post story was full of old news, the Dobson headline still would have been a grabber. Alas, a missed opportunity.

Update: It turns out that the Dobson reference, according to the man himself, is wrong. You know that this has to be a major fundraising issue at Focus on the Family. Thus, this letter currently fronts the organization's website:

Dr. James Dobson wants all friends of Focus on the Family to know about an error involving him that appeared on Page 1 of Wednesday's Washington Post. In a story about Christians' views on the Harry Potter books and films, reporter Jacqueline Salmon wrote that "Christian parenting guru James Dobson has praised the Potter books."

This is the exact opposite of Dr. Dobson's opinion — in fact, he said a few years ago on his daily radio broadcast that "We have spoken out strongly against all of the Harry Potter products." His rationale for that statement: 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 in the larger culture, it's difficult to ignore the effects such stories (albeit imaginary) might have on young, impressionable minds.

Ms. Salmon has not only acknowledged, but apologized for, the mistake and has promised the Post will correct it Friday. It seems she simply repeated misinformation that appeared in a less high-profile publication; she acknowledged she should have contacted us directly to make sure the assertion was true -- and we appreciate her humility and professionalism in saying so.

We await the organization's statements on Lewis, Tolkien, Lawhead and many others.

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