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Editor explains Potter themes of good vs. evil

| Saturday, Oct. 25, 2003

Those who believe Harry Potter is doing the devil's work might be surprised to meet Josh Tinley.

The United Methodist Publishing House editor says that fiction such as "Harry Potter" can be relevant to faith and storytelling and a vehicle to pass on that faith.

Discussing the "Harry Potter" books in the context of the Christian storytelling tradition, Tinley illustrated to teens gathered at the recent international Youth '03 conference how the Potter tales embrace themes of good versus evil.

"Harry Potter has renewed the interest in storytelling, and as Christians, storytelling is important," he said. "We have to realize that until a lot of the books in the Bible were written, they were carried on by people who sat around and told stories."

The hugely successful series by J.K. Rowling is about a teenage boy who discovers that he has inherited magical powers. He goes off to a boarding school for wizards to learn about his abilities and how to distinguish between good and evil.

With the popularity of Harry Potter among teens and adults, a debate has emerged among Christians about whether the books are appropriate reading or whether they endorse witchcraft and black magic -- practices forbidden by the Bible.

Potter spends much of his time fighting dark forces for the cause of good, justice and mercy, which are biblical themes, Tinley said. Culturally relevant stories, he said, are those that are familiar or well known and that communicate a message or teach lessons.

"Everything from 'Hamlet' to 'Star Wars' to the 'Three Little Pigs' are relevant," he said.

Particularly important to Christians, he added, is that the Potter tales have returned people to the art of storytelling, prompting many who never read for pleasure to pick up a book.

He reminded that many books in the Bible do not read like history or newspaper articles. "They read like stories and have a lot of drama, and you want to know what happened," Tinley explained.

He believes the Gospels are great examples.

The Gospel writers had many ways to tell the story of Jesus, but chose to do so in narrative, Tinley said. Christ also used stories or parables to convey messages or make a point.

Tinley said that three themes throughout the Potter books are commended in the Bible: the power of sacrificial love, befriending the poor and marginalized, and the prevalence of justice.

The controversy among Christians about Potter centers on the language, Tinley added. Although sorcery and witchcraft are in the book, "Harry brought the real world and the magical world together," he said. Potter was born with special powers and did not use them for evil.

What the books have done is force people to look beneath the surface and find the Christian themes, Tinley said. "Potter and his friends do not blatantly do anything related to the occult, he said. "He just happened to be born with these special powers."

The Gospels and the Potter books speak of sacrifice.

"Look at the sacrifice Jesus made of his life," Tinley said. "Although Potter is not on the same scale, sacrifice is represented over and over in the books, because you see people putting themselves through all sorts of ordeals to try to serve others and to try to serve a greater good."

The heroes in Rowling's books show concern for the poor and the oppressed, teens at the gathering suggested.

"The books illustrate that you should not judge people by their powers and abilities but in how they use their abilities to deal with situations," Tinley said. Potter uses love, courage and perseverance time and time again, he added.

The devil's getting nervous.

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