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Fantasy & spiritual

Fantasy & spiritual

Children's literature and religion have a close but contentious relationship. The stories of Narnia, penned by the Belfast-born writer C.S. Lewis, have a Christian subtext which the author did not hide. Jesus Christ is represented by the character of Aslan, a powerful, generous lion who could compel human beings to be honest. In the seaside village of Rostrevor on Ireland's east coast, tourists are encouraged to explore the nearby forests to see where the writer got his spiritual and literary inspiration: it is the nearest they will ever get to Narnia.

The creator of the Lord of the Rings stories was a lifelong Roman Catholic, while Lewis switched from atheism to Anglicanism. Tolkien agreed that mythology, whether ancient or newly devised, could contain multiple layers of truth, but felt these truths should be kept well hidden. It seems that the two scribes had robust, enjoyable debates about this matter in pubs of Oxford where they both lived. What about a more contemporary children's craze, the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling? Religious people have argued passionately about whether their influence is healthy or otherwise. On the American religious right, some have discouraged children from reading the stories by citing passages in the Hebrew Scriptures which forbid any recourse to witchcraft.

In interviews, Rowling has described herself as a Christian who wrestles with doubt; she was brought up Anglican and later attended the Church of Scotland. Asked by a Canadian interviewer whether she was a Christian, she replied: "Yes, I am, which seems to offend the religious right far worse than if I thought there was no God." In any case, whatever her own intentions, there are plenty of people who feel that her stories contain spiritual messages, at least in a broad sense, all ready to be asserted and propagated, among grown-ups as well as children.

The young hero feels buoyed up on this journey by four spirit-like people who walk beside him: his dead parents, his godfather and his Professor at Hogwarts. This may reinforce people's sense of a divine presence in their own lives, says Vanessa Zoltan, who has worked as a humanist chaplain at Harvard University. Her podcasts about Harry Potter have become one of the most successful religious messages now circulating in America. It is far from accumulating the collective historical memory or shared culture which the world's great belief systems can claim.

But she says there are underlying themes and lessons in every chapter, and in her view, they come in a more easily digestible and less divisive format than is offered by some of the more "mainstream" religious texts. Very few evil acts have been done in the name of Harry Potter, and that can't be said for other religions, she argues. It is a commonplace among writers about religion to say that mankind's spiritual quest is not so much a search for true-or-false propositions as a search for meaning. The range of places where people can find meaning is broad indeed.

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