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George Barna, meet Samuel Coleridge.

Barna is a Christian researcher whose Web site generally is my first stop when I’m looking for statistics dealing with faith and how it impacts lives.

Coleridge was a British poet and literary critic of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, perhaps best known for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as well as the observation he made in his autobiography about the “willing suspension of disbelief.” The phrase describes a reader’s willingness to accept — for the sake of enjoying a story — that certain things can happen in fiction that don’t happen in real life.

Coleridge came to mind when I read a recent Barna report focusing on Christians and the Harry Potter series of books by J.K. Rowling. The books, and the movies that sprang from them, focus on a teen’s adventures at a school where he is learning wizardry.

The Barna report says that while three-quarters of all church-going teens and born-again Christian teens have read or seen “Potter,” only 4 percent of them say they have experienced any teaching or discussions in church about the spiritual themes the books/films contain. Thus, Barna laments, “a majority of teens — Christian or other — ... are feeling their way through the spiritual themes either on their own or with the influence of peers.”

That’s where Coleridge comes in.



WELL PREPARED

Isn’t it just possible that teens who are regular church-goers and/or born again have already had the teaching that simultaneously allows them to reject the possibility of good results coming from dark arts and to willingly suspend that disbelief in order to enjoy a good tale?

Barna himself admits that “the vast majority of teens explain that they did not find much spiritual stimulation in Potter beyond experiencing a ‘fun-to-read’ story.” He does add that “one out of every eight teenagers (12 percent) said that the Potter chronicles increased their interest in witchcraft,” but also goes points out that “it appears many of the teens who where most likely to be misdirected spiritually by Harry Potter were already struggling in other ways.”

These teens, Barna says, “were already isolated from others or were already dabbling in witchcraft-related activities.”

Such teens, then, aren’t likely to be in church anyway to benefit from the in-depth biblical discussions of the occult that Barna suggests are sorely lacking there.



JUST IN CASE

All this is not to say that talking about the dangers of the occult aren’t in order at church or in the home.

My soon-to-be 7-year-old daughter and I enjoy watching the CBS-TV show “Ghost Whisperer” together. But as soon as the first episode we watched jointly was over, I talked with her about what the Bible says happens after a person dies — that not everyone gets to “cross over into the light,” nor do their spirits have the choice to remain “earthbound.” I am confident she understands, and thus we are able to willingly suspend our disbelief of the show’s premise in order to enjoy its stories.

So, yes, younger readers might indeed benefit from an age-appropriate discussion of Christian fundamentals before being handed a Potter book. And older, church-going kids — teens who already have received the teaching that enables them to guard their hearts — might be well served by a series of lessons that shows them how to explain the dangers of dabbling in the occult to their unchurched friends.

Moreover, with the final book in the Potter series due out next year, now might be a good time to start planning and implementing such interaction.

And yet, when nearly 69 percent of all abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, are done on women claiming to be either Protestant or Catholic; when, according to Christianity today.com, “there is little difference between (Christian teens’) sexual behavior and that of non-Christian youths;” and when “94 percent of clergy members ... recognize substance abuse as an important issue among family members in their congregations,” yet almost a quarter of them (22.4 percent) never preach on the subject (www.media campaign.org/faith/kids) — well, let’s just say I find it difficult to believe that Harry Potter is the biggest boat that the church is missing.

I stand, though, ever ready to suspend that disbelief.

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