"The gospel according to J.R.R. Tolkien"
("Boston Globe," January 18, 2002)
Harry Potter is way ahead of Frodo Baggins in the battle of the box office, but in conservative Christian churches, Frodo rules.
The world of Christian conservatives that shuddered at the wizardry and witchcraft of J.K. Rowling's wildly popular fantasy works about boy wizard Harry Potter is now rejoicing at the revival of interest in the sorcery-packed Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Catholic publications have been ecstatic over the new film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, with the archdiocesan newspaper in Boston, the Pilot, saying that the movie highlights "the message of the Gospels" and the U.S. weekly National Catholic Register declaring: "Move over, Harry Potter. The hobbits are coming." Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic weekly, devoted its entire front page to a picture of Frodo Baggins, the hobbit hero of The Lord of the Rings, with a quote from a specialist saying the tale "conveys fundamental Christian truths." The world of evangelical Protestantism, where most of the criticism of Harry Potter originated, is also enthusiastic: One pastor in New York has been reading the 1,000-page Tolkien trilogy several times a year since getting his first copy at the evangelical Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Mass., and has taught himself Elvish, Tolkien's made-up language of elves.
"Tolkien has been much more accepted in the evangelical community," said Robert Crosby, pastor of Mount Hope Christian Church in Burlington, Mass.
Crosby is planning to hold a discussion this winter on how parents should handle Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings.
The two sets of novels-turned-movies have much in common: A small orphan takes on a dark evil, aided by magic and luck and some element of the cosmic.
But the authors are different: Tolkien was a devout convert to Catholicism whose religion informed his writing; Rowling, a member of the Church of Scotland, has not emphasized her religion as a central part of her biography. Tolkien was also a friend and close associate of C. S. Lewis, the well-known Christian writer who wrote The Chronicles of Narnia, a children's fantasy series that is also a Christian allegory.
Critics argue that Tolkien's treatment of issues such as evil, power and heroism is richer than Rowling's and more closely reflects Christian conceptions of the world. And some contrast his celebration of the heroism of an ordinary folk -- hobbits -- with Rowling's elevation of a special class, wizards, over regular folk, whom she calls muggles and tends to describe derisively.
Both works have been popular in print and film.
The film Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which was released in November, had grossed more than US$260-million through last weekend. The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring has grossed US$95.3-million since its Dec. 19 release.
Tolkien's books have sold an estimated 30 million copies in the United States since The Hobbit was released in 1938, and a new paperback edition of the Rings trilogy, first published in 1954, is selling briskly, according to Boston-based publisher Houghton Mifflin. The Harry Potter books have been best-sellers since the first was published in 1997, and publisher Scholastic Books says there are 55 million copies of Harry Potter books in print in the United States.
The popularity of Harry Potter immediately spurred criticism from some evangelical Protestants who argued that the four books (of an anticipated seven-part series) and the movie glorify the occult. That view is not unanimous: Harry Potter has evangelical defenders, including Charles W.
Colson, the former aide to Massachusetts governor Leverett Saltonstall, who went to jail for a Watergate-related crime and is founder of an evangelical prison ministry.
The American Library Association placed the Harry Potter books at the top of its list of the most-often challenged books last year, saying that critics had sought to ban the books for occult, Satanism and anti-family themes.
"Certainly the Harry Potter books are not the most sinister thing, but they have piqued interest in witchcraft and occult themes," says James A.
Herrick, a critic of the books who researches religious controversy as a professor at Hope College in Michigan. "And in the Potter books, you get this sharp division between muggles and magical people, and I think that's something worth being concerned about." The conservative group Focus on the Family, which offers a lengthy analysis of the Rowling and Tolkien debate on its Web site, concludes that the Harry Potter books pose "serious dangers," saying that: "No matter what the essence of Harry's magic, the effect of it is undoubtedly to raise curiosity about magic and wizardry. And any curiosity raised on this front presents a danger that the world will satisfy it with falsehood, before the church or the family can satisfy it with truth." Christians have been wary of sorcery and witchcraft for centuries, viewing them as supernatural powers derived from evil forces. Protestant and Catholic countries persecuted people accused of witchcraft through much of Christian history.
Even today, the Catholic catechism warns that "all practices of magic or sorcery ... are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion." "As a practising Catholic, when the book came out, a red flag came up, and I read the book with a very critical eye looking for stuff that might be offensive or contrary to Catholic teachings," said Anne Navarro, who as the movie critic for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops writes reviews that appear in Catholic newspapers around the country.
Navarro wound up feeling good about Harry Potter, saying: "I didn't think any child who would see this would really be affected and join the occult." But she is raving about The Lord of the Rings, declaring, "Frodo's heroic struggle to resist the temptation to succumb to [the ring's] evil powers is akin to the carrying of the Cross, the supreme act of selflessness." Tim Keller, a conservative Presbyterian minister in Manhattan, first read The Lord of the Rings when the woman who is now his wife gave him a copy at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Both are now Tolkien fanatics: They read the trilogy several times a year, are familiar with everything Tolkien has written, and Tim Keller has learned Elvish.
But Keller stirred up controversy when he tried to praise Harry Potter in a sermon at his church, arguing that the books do a good job portraying evil as a force in the world, portraying the power of the supernatural, and glorifying the importance of sacrificial love as seen when Harry Potter's mother dies saving her infant son.
Keller said he has been criticized by a small but vocal group of people upset that he praised Potter. Keller rejects the criticism, saying it's "somewhat inexplicable." His wife, Kathy, is even more critical, saying: "I learned that anything can be misused when one of our sons picked up a big Bible and clunked his brother on the head with it. But that doesn't mean we banned Bibles."