NEWS STORY: Harry Potter Casts No Spell on Christian Booksellers

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c. 2000 Religion News Service

NEW ORLEANS _ With the biggest publishing event in decades unwinding around them, complete with adoring media and unprecedented customer demand for a hot new book, thousands of Christian booksellers are opting out of the Harry Potter whirlwind for reasons of conscience and faith, leaving secular bookstores to reap the profits.

Not a trace of author J.K. Rowling’s wildly popular fictional boy-wizard is to be found on the floor of the 13,000-member Christian Booksellers Association convention here, a vast trade fair bringing together owners of Christian bookstores with scores of book publishers, musicians, retailing consultants, and distributors of Christian gifts and software.

The once-a-year festival, running July 8-13 this year, features books on every Christian topic and subtopic, from Bibles to Christian humor and how-to, from Christian financial planning to home-schooling.

Gifts include backpacks embroidered with “God First” and music labels promoting emerging Christian teen antidotes to Britney Spears and the Back Street Boys. And not surprisingly, there’s promotional material on the upcoming movie based on the popular “Left Behind” series, the novels by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins that swept out of Christian stores to become crossover best sellers with stories of Christians’ ordeals and triumphs in the world’s last days.

But not a whisper about Harry Potter, the 11-year-old wizard raised by abusive relatives who enrolls in the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns magic and confronts his parents’ killer.

It is the wizard part that is the problem, a deeply serious one in an industry dominated by evangelical Christianity, which holds that sorcery and witchcraft are real, malignant and not to be trifled with.

“Everything in our store is biblically based,” said Althea Brown, who runs two Inspiration House Christian bookstores in South Florida. “I don’t mean everything I sell has to have a Bible verse on it, but I wouldn’t sell anything that’s anti-Bible, and I think that’s what the Harry Potter series is.”

“I wouldn’t carry Harry Potter for anything,” said Clara Sessoms, who manages Living Water Christian Books in Marion, Ind. “I don’t think people fully realize what they’re dealing with, and I think anyone who knows anything about spiritual warfare knows those books can open the door to spiritual bondage.”

“And I think it’s worse that children are the target,” said Jessica Ruemler, a buyer for Living Water. “It opens the doors for young minds. You put sorcery in, what do you expect to get out?”

Ruemler and others said they worried that Rowling’s depiction of sorcery looks harmless and attractive to Harry Potter’s child-fans _ and might draw them into the practice of the occult and ultimately lead them away from Christianity.

Yet the evangelical world is divided on Harry Potter.

Charles Colson, the influential leader and founder of Prison Fellowship, has defended the series. Many have noted similar fantasies in classics like C.S. Lewis’ “Chronicles of Narnia,” J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” and even the tales of King Arthur.

Detecting “almost no resemblance to the I-am-God mumbo jumbo of Wiccan circles,” the influential evangelical magazine Christianity Today called the series a “`Book of Virtues’ with a pre-adolescent funny bone. Amid the laugh-out-loud scenes are wonderful examples of compassion, loyalty, courage, friendship and even self-sacrifice.”

But at the retail level there seemed to be a clear anti-Potter consensus.

“I haven’t run across anyone who feels differently,” said Frank Brown, who with his wife, Rhonda, is preparing to open a Christian bookstore this fall in Valley Springs, Calif.

That consensus is rooted deeply in the industry’s pattern of ownership.

Although the $3.5 billion-a-year Christian retailing industry contains some chains like Baptist Bookstores, Berean Christian Stores and Family Christian Stores, the industry is heavily populated by independents _ in many cases families like the Browns who say they feel called to run the stores as a personal ministry, and who have made up their minds about the Harry Potter series.

“Ninety-five to ninety-seven percent of the people here do this because they want other people to know the Lord,” said Sessoms.

To them profits are necessary to sustain the ministry, but the ministry _ not the profits _ is the point of the work, said Frank Brown.

Indeed, while large retailers carry some of the same goods, especially breakout best sellers like the “Left Behind” series, independent, family-run Christian stores fill another niche.

“You can go to a place like Costco, I guess, but I guarantee the staff there won’t stop what they’re doing to pray with you if you ask,” said Bruce Cardin, whose wife runs Cornerstone Bibles and Gifts in tiny Tillamook, Ore., where dairy cattle outnumber people.

“It’s a labor of love, but I guess it’s where God wants us to be.”


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