A major newspaper backed away from declaring Focus on the Family founder James Dobson a fan of Harry Potter, despite articles on Dobson’s Web site which fellow fundamentalists have long attacked as “conditional acceptance” of the hit fantasy film and book series that some Christians fear leads children into witchcraft.
The Washington Post promptly corrected a story saying the Christian family guru “has praised the Potter books” after the Focus on the Family Web site publicly challenged the newspaper’s facts.
“This is the exact opposite of Dr. Dobson’s opinion,” said a statement on Family.org. “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.'”
Focus on the Family offered this as Dobson’s rationale: “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.”
The ministry said the Post reporter seems to have “simply repeated misinformation that appeared in a less high-profile publication,” apologized for the mistake and promised to correct the error on Friday.
The Focus on the Family statement didn’t identify the “misinformation” source, but various fundamentalist Christian Web sites have targeted an article that appeared in Dobson’s own flagship magazine seven years ago to accuse the organization of waffling in its critique of Harry Potter.
The author of a June 2000 article in The Last Trumpet Newsletter reported writing in front of a copy of Dobson’s Focus On The Family Magazine for May, 2000. Pages 14 and 15 of that issue reportedly carried an article by Lindy Beam, at the time youth culture analyst for Focus on the Family.
The article no longer appears on the Focus on the Family Web site. Christina Loznicka, a Focus on the Family publicist, told EthicsDaily.com the article was removed several years ago, not because of criticsm but simply because it has “run its course.”
“Focus on the Family strives to keep the Web site current, and we don’t keep archives of all our content online,” she explained in an e-mail message Friday.
What appears to be the same article appears on another Web site–belonging to the Minnesota Family Council–under a headline, “What Shall We Do About Harry?”
Commenting on reactions both pro and con to previous reviews she had written about the Potter phenomenon, Beam observed: “Harry Potter is a standard tale of good vs. evil, and good always wins in the end. Harry, the hero, often triumphs because of his upright character and pure motives. Unconditional love and courage are held as ideals of great importance. By following Harry and his best friend Ron, the reader gets a glimpse of true loyalty and friendship, as well as self-sacrifice.”
Beam didn’t argue that Christians should ignore the series’ dark themes. She planted three concerns–desensitization to witchcraft, wordly values and violence–but lamented that Christians were “missing a huge opportunity” by fleeing Harry Potter instead of engaging him.
“Harry Potter is popular, in part, because it touches on deep human questions about a reality beyond the physical,” she wrote. “Christians have an opportunity to intelligently challenge the dangers we see in Harry Potter and give evidence of a better answer found in Christ. But instead of capitalizing on this opportunity, our fear gives us an excuse to be reactionary, remain ignorant or both. If we continue to choose these approaches, the church will remain a small voice shouting from the bleachers rather than a quarterback in the cultural huddle.”
She continued: “Specifically, we’ve oversimplified what the church’s approach to Harry Potter should be. We have taken to heart the biblical admonition to ‘have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness…,’ but we have neglected our responsibility to ‘expose them’ (Eph. 5:12). In other words, we’ve done the reactive part, but we’ve dismissed the proactive part of what God calls us to do. We know God hates the practice of witchcraft (Deut. 18:10). But we have committed a fault of logic in saying that reading about witches and wizards necessarily translates into these occult practices. I would propose instead that reading Harry Potter produces curiosity and that it is what we do with that curiosity that makes all the difference.”
Beam said children who will glorify or be enamored with troubling elements should not read Harry Potter. “However, we must remember that avoidance is a defensive action, not an offensive one,” she said.
“And while our short-range goal is defensive (to protect our families from the negative influences of society), our long-range goal is offensive (to change society from the inside out). To be on the offensive, we need to raise up more Christian thinkers who can enter the realm of entertainment armed with a critical knowledge of both the Scripture and the false world views they’re combating.”
While no longer the assistant editor, Beam, now named Lindy Keffer, is still a contributing editor at Dobson’s Plugged In Web site for parents, youth leaders, ministers and teens. Nothing in her review of the newest Harry Potter film, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” suggests her opinion has changed.
“By now, there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to the use of magic in the Harry Potter series of books and movies,” she writes.
“Even with all the magic in the air, the worldview of Phoenix can’t be called consistently occult,” she continues. “Like the world we live in today, it’s a hodgepodge of ideas that are accepted simultaneously, even if they don’t really fit together. Students repeatedly wish each other ‘Merry Christmas’ before their school holiday begins. At one point, Snape tells Harry to pray, with no reference to whom he should pray to. And much of the magic in the film is arguably ‘mechanical,’ lending support to a naturalistic philosophy.”
The reference to “mechanical” magic refers back to her earlier article, where she quoted Christian author Chuck Colson as an example of Christians who find the books to be “more fantastical than threatening.”
Colson described magic in the books as “purely mechanical, as opposed to occultic.”
“Harry and his friends cast spells, read crystal balls and turn themselves into animals,” Colson explained. “But they don’t make contact with a supernatural world.”
Criticized alongside Dobson for making that distinction, Colson revisited the Harry Potter issue in his BreakPoint commentary July 20.
Colson said he personally doesn’t recommend that Christian kids read the Potter books, but with 325 million of them in print, many are probably going to read them anyway. “And if your kids do enjoy Harry’s magical world, you should give them copies of C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy,” he suggested.
“These books also feature wizards and witches and magic, but in addition, they inspire the imagination within a Christian framework–and prepare the hearts of readers for the real-life story of Jesus Christ.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.