The New York Times, Mar. 8, 2003
By MINDY SINK
COLORADO SPRINGS — While Harry Potter books remain banned in some places, there is a growing acceptance of the stories of the boy wizard, with a blessing of sorts from the Vatican recently and even new efforts to preach Christianity itself through them.
One such effort is under way here at the Vanguard Church, housed in an old movie theater. The church, whose congregation is Southern Baptist, is presenting a series of workshops, “The Potter Project,” intended to teach children about Christianity by play-acting aspects of the Harry Potter stories.
Nearly 200 children twitched with excitement at the church the other day as they watched the Sorting Hat of the Harry Potter books come to life onstage for the first day of the series. But when the hat announced that all the children, mostly second through fifth graders, had been assigned to the Slytherin House, the home of young Harry’s archenemy, Draco Malfoy, one of them shouted from the middle of the theater, “I don’t want to be evil!”
Adults dressed up as Harry’s professors had to stifle laughs.
The idea for the series “came about because Harry Potter is a phenomenon in the world of children,” said Tosha Williams, a co-founder of the church.
“We’re using Harry Potter as a springboard to teach spiritual truths,” Mrs. Williams said, “and using one story to teach them what we believe is the greatest story. We are using the Harry Potter phenomenon almost like a bridge.”
The bridge begins as the children line up to enter through Gate 9 3/8 into Diagon Alley and then participate in the Warthogs Extension School — Harry attends Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry — which includes a glow-in-the-dark imitation Quidditch game and the Chamber of Choices. Dressed as characters from the books, adults walk the children through lessons about truth and loving Jesus.
A church volunteer, Chad MacEnulty, plays a “visiting professor” who, dressed in a floor-length red and gold robe, tells the children that everyone has evil traits, like deceitfulness and prejudice, and that this is why they have been consigned to the dark house of Slytherin.
He then refers to the Bible as the way out of Slytherin.
“The mysterious book gives us the key,” the professor nearly shouts. “It tells us of Jesus, of the greatest house, the Father’s house, where there is peace, happiness and joy.”
The children, some dressed in wizard hats and dark robes, applaud.
While the Vanguard Church has fully embraced Harry Potter, Christians elsewhere remain vehemently divided as to whether he fosters occultism or, to the contrary, is an instance of popular culture that can be used to promote their religion.
The American Library Association ranks the Harry Potter books, by the British author J. K. Rowling, as among the most challenged in the country. People in New Mexico publicly burned the books because they believed that the Potter stories taught witchcraft, occultism and Satanism. Others protested outside movie theaters when the books came to the screen.
One critic of the Harry Potter stories is Doug Groothuis, professor of philosophy at the interdenominational, graduate-level Denver Seminary.
“The roots of the Harry Potter books are definitely not Christian,” Dr. Groothuis said. “They are not even neutral in the ancient tradition of the occult. Children’s imaginations should be treated very carefully and wisely.”
Richard Abanes, who has written two books that highlight what he sees as the wrongs of the Harry Potter stories, said: “I suppose you could take anything and make it Christian. Some people want to portray Harry as a Christlike figure and bring up several things he does that they say are noble, courageous and loyal to his friends. They ignore many moments where he is very un-Christian and is blatantly immoral, lying, cheating, deceiving.”
The Vatican, however, appears to disagree. Last month the Rev. Don Peter Fleetwood, who had helped draft a Vatican document on New Age phenomena, said the books “aren’t serving as a banner for an anti-Christian ideology.”
Father Fleetwood, responding to a reporter’s question at a news conference on the document, added, “I don’t think there’s anyone in this room who grew up without fairies, magic and angels in their imaginary world.”
Connie Neal has created a cottage industry out of finding the Christian aspects of Harry Potter, having written two books on the subject and produced two related audiotapes and a video.
“You can’t escape Harry Potter, because kids love it,” Mrs. Neal said. “It takes a lot more energy to forbid them everything permeating the culture. It’s so much easier to turn it around and use in a positive way.”
Mrs. Neal agrees with critics like Mr. Abanes that people can see what they want in the books.
“People tend to find in books whatever they want to find,” she said. “My premise is reductionism. I’m sure if Freud were looking for it, he could find something sexual in it.”
Both Mrs. Neal and Mrs. Williams, co-founder of the Vanguard Church, compare the love of Harry’s mother to Jesus’ love, because she sacrificed her own life as an evil wizard tried to kill the infant Harry.
“Jesus died for me so that I could live,” Mrs. Williams said, pointing to “a huge spiritual truth” for the children: “that somebody loves them so much they gave so much.”
Certainly parents and children alike are voicing enthusiasm for the Vanguard Church’s project.
“I think it’s a good way to integrate our beliefs into what the kids are interested in today,” said Gina Cottrill, mother of a 6-year-old who has seen the Harry Potter movies. “I like the idea that there is another world you belong to. Like when Harry is living with the Dursleys and he gets to go to this magical place — it’s kind of a way to see going to heaven.”