Christian Fantasy Genre Builds Niche Without Hogwarts, Muggles or Spells

Washington, USA - Could the next Harry Potter be a devout Christian?

As the days tick down until Saturday, when a breathless world learns the fate of the teenage wizard, a new breed of fantasy fiction, with Potter-style stories, is emerging.

Like the Potter series, it has mystical creatures, macabre events, epic battles and heroic young protagonists.

But, unlike the Potter books, this genre has overt Christian tones: messiah-like kings who return from the dead, fallen satanic characters and young heroes who undergo profound conversions. What you won't generally find: humans waving wands and performing spells.

Christian fantasy, which had been a slow seller, has caught fire recently, industry analysts say, ignited by the success of the Potter series, which has sent some Christian readers looking for alternatives.

Secular and Christian publishers are churning out titles aimed at the lucrative and growing audience of readers, who are snapping up an estimated $2.4 billion in Christian books a year -- about a 30 percent increase in the past four years.

Some Christian religious leaders and Christian parents have expressed unease with the Potter series, believing, among other issues, that humans' use of magic is forbidden by the Bible. The series is on the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books at school libraries.

Tapping into that unease are an increasing number of Christian writers who are producing Potteresque books without the elements that some Christians say violate the Bible.

"For a Christian family who's a little skeptical of some of the messages in the Harry Potter books, then they would find my books safe," said Wayne Batson, a Howard County middle school teacher who has written a popular three-book series called the Door Within. His latest book, "Isle of Swords," part of a new series, is due out next month.

Baton's Door Within series, published by Christian publishing giant Thomas Nelson, features Maryland teenager Aidan Thomas, who is suddenly plunged into an enchanted world. He must choose to join the forces of good or evil. The forces of good are led by a saintly king who has risen from the dead after being slain by an evil knight, who now leads a corrupt kingdom.

The growth in Christian fantasy books is part of the recent escalation in sales of Christian fiction. Stirred by the success of the apocalypse-themed Left Behind series, publishers are producing works of Christian suspense, thrillers, sci-fi, romance, horror (the devil is a prominent figure), mystery and -- the latest trend -- "chick lit."

"Fiction has probably been the strongest category within the Christian book explosion," said Jana Riess, religion reviews editor for Publishers Weekly. "It's definitely leading the way."

Now, secular publishers are jumping in. Random House, Penguin Books and Avon Books have recently started ventures specializing in Christian literature.

Steeple Hill, the Christian fiction imprint of romance publisher Harlequin, will churn out 128 titles this year while hewing to strict standards followed by many Christian book publishers: No swearing (not even "gosh" and "darn"), no dancing or drinking by Christian characters, no gambling, no mention of intimate body parts. And forget sex scenes, even if the characters are married to each other.

More than a dozen Christian fantasy titles are due out this summer from secular publishers and large Christian publishing houses. Yesterday, Random House's Christian imprint, WaterBrook/Multnomah, which publishes several fantasy series, released "Dragon Fire," the fourth book in a series by retired teacher Donita K. Paul.

"This has definitely been a profitable genre for us," WaterBrook spokesman Joel Kneedler said.

One current hot seller is Fablehaven, a series by Mormon writer Brandon Mull that was the first Christian fantasy series to hit the New York Times children's bestseller list. The books feature a sister and brother who set out to save a preserve for enchanted creatures. Unlike the Harry Potter series, it pits people, not wizards, against evil beings.

The use of magical powers by humans is a controversial theme for Christian writers and readers. They cite this biblical verse from the book of Deuteronomy in the Old Testament: "Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead."

"If God says these things are wrong, unless you don't believe in the Bible, you don't want to argue with God," said Marcia Montenegro, an Arlington author and speaker who campaigns against what she calls the use of the occult in the Potter books and elsewhere in popular culture.

Many religious leaders have rejected such objections. They have said that the books have a strong moral message. Some even see Christian symbolism in them.

Christian parenting guru James Dobson has praised the Potter books. Catholic News Service, an entity of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, has put them on its list of recommended children's books.

Nonetheless, critics have said that J.K. Rowling's series gives Harry Potter deity-like powers, although he has no known religion. Critics also say that the books lack a definitive portrayal of good and evil. (Harry does engage in some occasional fibbing, and his skills at deceiving adults are well honed). A few critics have said that the lightning-bolt scar on Harry's forehead represents the mark of the antichrist.

Rowling has dismissed such claims as "absurd."

But Christian fantasy writers avoid those issues. Some deal with Christianity in overt ways, setting their stories in biblical times. Others follow in the footsteps of Christian fantasy writer C.S. Lewis, using allegory and symbolism to illustrate Christian themes.

At a Barnes and Noble bookstore in Alexandria on Sunday, Batson and three other fantasy writers, clad in flowing capes and staging sword fights with medieval-style weapons, signed books for a small crowd of wide-eyed fans.

"The message is excellent," said Marianne Sicilia, whose four daughters are fans of Batson's Door Within series. Sicilia, who won't allow her children to read the Harry Potter series, said she approves of Batson's story lines and underlying Christian messages.

"It's easy to talk about the kingdom of God, but the Door Within series really helps them grasp what that means," said Sicilia, who lives in Mount Vernon and attends a Baptist church.

Although Sicilia keeps the Potter books from her children, Batson said he is grateful to Rowling for opening up the contemporary market in fantasy.

"If you're looking for it, if you know the Bible pretty well, you're going to pick up on the symbolism," Batson said of his series. "I wanted it to be something that anyone could read and enjoy a great fantasy adventure without feeling like they're being preached at."