Baptists find morality in first 'Rings' movie

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Some conservative Christians have attacked the movie ``Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone'' and related books by J. K. Rowling, claiming they foster occult religion. But two Southern Baptist theologians are hailing J.R.R. Tolkien's ``Lord of the Rings'' fantasies.

``Fellowship of the Ring,'' the first of three movies based on the Tolkien books, is out this week and already being touted as Oscar material.

President R. Albert Mohler Jr. and professor James Parker of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary noted in a radio discussion reported by their denomination's Baptist Press agency that the novels of Rowling and Tolkien both include magic.

But they said Tolkien was an orthodox Christian believer whose theology and values were the opposite of those in Harry Potter.

Tolkien's wizard, Gandalf, is a kind of archangel sent from God who has special abilities to help people, Parker said, while the Potter wizard is a supernaturally empowered human being who performs magic that can be used for selfish or evil purposes.

Tolkien's mythical Middle-earth reflects the Christian understanding of reality, Parker said. That includes accountability to God and a sharp distinction between right and wrong, he said, while there's moral fuzziness in the Potter books.

Other Christians have defended the Potter books as moral, or harmless. Rowling calls the religious complaints ``absurd.''

Bin Laden tops newsmakers

PROVIDENCE, R.I. - A survey of North American religion reporters, issued Wednesday, named Osama bin Laden the year's top religion newsmaker, edging out President George W. Bush.

Bin Laden demonstrated how easily religion ``can be hijacked to serve political ends, substituting hatred and intolerance for the compassion encouraged by all of the world's wisdom traditions,'' one writer commented.

Picks for the top three events in 2001 stemmed from Sept. 11: The resulting upsurges in worship and religious questioning; U.S. Muslims' fears of a backlash giving way to non-Muslims' friendship; and, Bush saying the war is not on Islam but on those who distort it, though many Muslims overseas disagreed.

Other top events, in order: the stem cell debate; increasing Israeli-Palestinian violence; Bush's ``faith-based'' charity plan; Americans' new interest in understanding Islam; Pope John Paul's visits to Syria, Greece and Ukraine; pop books like ``Prayer of Jabez'' and ``Left Behind''; and Christian missionaries freed in Afghanistan.

Unity urged for churches

LONDON - The Church of England and Methodist Church should make a formal pledge to work together toward ``fuller visible unity'' and heal their two-centuries-old split, a joint report said.

The report proposed a covenant declaring the churches' mutual life and ministry, with participation in each other's worship, fellowship and mission.

It likened the step to ``an engagement to be married.''

Unresolved issues include women bishops, not yet accepted by the Church of England; wine in communion, barred by the Methodists; and the Church of England's status as the nation's legally established church.

The recommendation goes to governing bodies of the two churches, which meet separately in 2002.

America's United Methodist Church and Episcopal Church will begin similar unity discussions next year.

D.C. Baptists under pressure

ALPHARETTA, Ga. - The Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board has confirmed reports that it plans to use financial leverage to make programs of the District of Columbia Baptist Convention ``consistent with the direction of our denomination.''

The board wants to appoint a staffer to monitor how the D.C. unit spends its money. It also wants district leaders to stop denigrating the denomination and to support its conservative tenets.

D.C. Executive Director Jeffrey Haggray said the changes, proposed to take effect by 2003, would ``surrender the direction and control'' to the national board and violate Baptists' traditional local autonomy.

Some 140 congregations in the District of Columbia and adjoining Maryland and Virginia belong to the regional unit, the only one in the Southern Baptist Convention that is simultaneously affiliated with two other denominations, the American Baptist Churches and Progressive National Baptist Convention.

The Southern Baptists say they will give the D.C. unit $475,000 next year, a third of its budget.

Wiccan is prison chaplain

MADISON, Wis. - The first Wiccan minister to serve as a Wisconsin prison chaplain says her job is to work with prisoners and volunteers of all faiths, not to convert people to witchcraft.

``The minute I walk through these walls I'm an interfaith minister, not a Wiccan,'' explained the Rev. Jamyi Witch, a mother of two whose original name was Jamyi Welch. Conversion efforts ``would be wrong,'' she said.

Word of her work at maximum security Waupun Correctional Institution puzzled some legislators and brought a flurry of phone calls to the state corrections department, pro and con.

Wiccans celebrate nature and the earth, and follow various gods and goddesses. Followers are sometimes called witches, though many prefer the term Wiccan.