At first blush, Timothy Ralston seems like any other professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. He has a gray beard, neatly parted hair, and a vast knowledge of Christian scripture.
But there is something unusual, some would even say subversive, about this conservative former pastor.
He's a Harry Potter fan.
To some evangelical Christians, Harry Potter is the devil's work. For them, the July 21 release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in the Potter series, isn't a date worth celebrating, as it is for much of the secular world. Instead, it's one more sign that the Apocalypse is near.
In 1998, when the first Harry Potter book came out, many Christians condemned the children's novel for its positive portrayal of magic and witchcraft. Some groups demanded that school libraries remove the book; others burned it. In 1999 the American Library Association named Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone the year's most protested book.
But over the last few years, there has been a subtle shift within the evangelical Christian community over the Potter books.
Connie Neal, a former youth pastor, was one of the first Christians to defend the Potter books. Ironically, Neal first read the books so that she could explain to her children why they wouldn't be allowed to. But after finishing the first book she said she realized the books weren't evil; they were actually good, filled with themes and symbolism which Christians could recognize and embrace. She has since written two pro-Harry Potter books geared toward skeptical Christians: What's a Christian To Do With Harry Potter? and The Gospel According to Harry Potter.
When Neal first began releasing her books she received many angry e-mails accusing her of leading children into the occult and of being a blasphemer who would wind up in hell. The e-mails sometimes reduced her to tears and eventually led her to remove her e-mail address from her Web site.
Neal says that in recent years she has noticed a big difference in many Christians' attitudes toward the books. In 2001, she debated Richard Abanes, a Christian writer who has written several books against Harry Potter, at the Christian Booksellers Association Convention. Neal said 90 percent of the people there were anti-Harry Potter. In 2002, her book The Gospel According to Harry Potter was blacklisted among most Christian booksellers.
But in 2005, things began to change. At a CBA convention that year, hundreds of readers approached her to share how much they appreciated her Potter books. Only one who approached her was anti-Potter, and another was still leery about the books.
"People have, I think, come to understand this is really a complex issue. This is not, 'Am I for or against witchcraft and children using witchcraft,' the way it was presented originally," Neal says. "In a nutshell, what I've seen happen is the people who were loudly denouncing Harry Potter have just gone quiet. From what I've seen, I doubt if you will see any major Christian media come out with a Harry Potter-bashing this time around. It's like a non-issue."
So what has turned the tide? Many people give credit to the Harry Potter movies.
"This idea that these books were dangerous was largely dispelled by people's experience with the movies," says John Granger, author of the book Looking for God in Harry Potter. Granger says that people who didn't want to take the time to read the books were willing to see the movie.
Another factor, Granger says, is that the Potter books didn't contribute to a widespread increase in children turning to black magic.
"Believe me, if there had been any significant rise in the real-world numbers of occult members, the Harry Potter critics would have had a field day," he says. "You'd have read about it on the front page. But there hasn't been. If anything, if we can trust Massimo Introvigne, the Italian social scientist, he says there's been a decline in the occult in Europe and the United States for the past 10 years."
Still, not everyone's wild about Harry. "A large portion of the Christian intelligentsia has endorsed these books, but they are endorsing a worldview which is anti-Christian," says David Haddon, a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance. Haddon has published an article in The American Spectator titled "Child-on-Child Crime" in which he shares his conviction that Harry and his friends are an extremely poor role models for our children. "Rule-breaking and lying are Harry's middle name," Haddon says. "He lies about everything."
Haddon is also concerned that the books are giving children a negative view of authority and confusing children about the difference between wrong and right.
"In Potter there's just overwhelming moral ambiguity," Haddon says. One of Haddon's biggest concerns, however, is the animosity and desire for revenge that exists between Harry Potter and one of his classmates, Draco Malfoy. Because there is an element of reality in the classroom settings at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and also in the interaction among students, Haddon believes that many students may be encouraged to seek violent revenge on students who are bullying them.
Ralston understands Haddon's concerns but disagrees with him. "Good characters should have depth, which means good and bad in them. And what makes so much Christian literature insipid and bad is these 100 percent good characters who don't do bad things and are therefore unbelievable," Ralston says. "When you have a well-developed character, the question is not so much is the character entirely good or evil, does he or she have flaws, but what happens when they behave according to their flaws?"
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Ralston says that Harry does suffer the consequences for lying and breaking the rules. While Harry is not always caught and punished by a teacher for breaking the rules, there are always negative consequences in the books when he makes the wrong choices.
Ralston offers his own hypothesis on why some Christians have stopped protesting the Potter books. "I feel like they just got tired. Christians, it seems, are always looking for something to rail against. They got distracted by The DaVinci Code."
If Ralston is a blasphemer for loving the Potter books, he's not alone. The professors who keep offices next to his at DTS are also Potter fans. And down the hall from their offices are a number of banners bearing the Hogwarts coat of arms. Ralston even has one on the door to his office.
Perhaps it is a sign of the times.