"U.S. church grabs spotlight with book burning"
(Reuters, March 27, 2001)
PITTSBURGH - The Rev. George Bender says he never thought a little book burning would get so much publicity.
But reporters have not stopped calling his tiny Harvest Assembly of God Church in rural western Pennsylvania since word got out that church members held a ceremonial burning of "ungodly" videotapes, music CDs and books, including some of Harry Potter's fantasy tales.
"We got a lot more attention than we were planning on. I've been getting calls all morning from all around the country," Bender told Reuters Tuesday. "We were only out to make a little noise in the local community."
The Pentecostal church, located about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, sponsored a book burning at the edge of its gravel parking lot Sunday evening. Among the 30 church members and guests in attendance were teen-agers who led hymns including "Amazing Grace" and "Father of Creation."
Into the fire went 1970s albums by Joe Walsh and the rock group Foreigner; CDs by Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam and AC/DC; and Walt Disney Co. videos of "Pinocchio" and "Hercules."
Titles by actress Shirley MacLaine and psychic Edgar Cayce, whose work touched on supernatural or paranormal themes, also went up in smoke.
"SAME OLD DEVIL"
"It's the same old devil with a new face," explained Bender, 60, whose congregation has about 95 members.
The American Library Association, which tracks challenges to controversial books in the United States, said book burnings are relatively rare partly because local authorities seldom grant legal permits for such fiery spectacles.
"We haven't had any burnings that I'm aware of since ... I believe it was back in the '80s," said Judith Krug, director of the ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom. "This is not because people have not wanted to burn books. But book burnings are really very extreme."
She also noted that the wildly popular Harry Potter series has attracted more formal challenges in public school libraries than any other book or book collection for two straight years.
In 2000, ALA statistics show, 41 of 646 challenges were directed at Harry Potter books. In a handful of cases, the books were actually removed from the shelves.
"The prevalent reason for challenges is the notion that if children read these materials, they will become believers in (witchcraft), and that evil pervades the material," Krug said.
Only a few Harry Potter books were among the trunkload of articles fed to the flames outside the Harvest Assembly of God Church on Sunday.
But Bender said British author J.K. Rowling's "supernatural" novels hold special status because local schools distribute workbooks that feature the boy magician but will not allow church members to hand out Bibles.
"Harry Potter is a big flashpoint," the clergyman said.
The church modeled the book burning on a biblical passage from the New Testament's Book of Acts, which describes how former practitioners of magic burned their books in public.
Bender said the church had never held a book burning before but might try it again if doing so would "accomplish something positive toward expressing our love for God."
Meanwhile, publicity has not hurt. "We got some people mad at us. But it's good to have publicity. It's good," he said.