Minister sees devil in 'Harry Potter'

LEWISTON, Maine - The Flagship Cinemas, where decorative wizards dangle from the ceiling on cardboard broomsticks, are ready for box office magic. The fantasy film ''Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets'' opens nationwide today with enough cinematic witchcraft to fill three screens here, 10 times a day, until the Warner Brothers spell wears off.

But in a small ministry across this mid-Maine city, the mood is not of devilish good humor. There, in the headquarters of the Oneness Pentecostal Church, the Rev. Douglas Taylor sees the hand of the devil in the appeal of the Harry Potter books and films. A public ''book-cutting'' took place at which Taylor and five other pastors tore a copy of the J. K. Rowling book, on which the film is based, to shreds last night before a clapping audience of 100 people at a local hotel.

''It's no secret I enjoy what I'm doing now,'' said Taylor, who added that he would have preferred to burn the book.

A handful of protesters sat silently in the rear of the function room as the book was destroyed. Wanda Griffin, 28, who described herself as a witch, said her Wicca religion is centered on a belief in the healing powers of nature, not black magic.

''I wonder if he believes we should be burning people at the stake,'' Griffin said.

To Taylor, ''Chamber of Secrets'' is nothing more than an instructional manual for the dark arts that can ensnare children in a destructive obsession with the occult. Satan is the inspiration for the Potter series, Taylor says, and this particular preacher is ready to do battle.

''`Harry Potter' is repackaged witchcraft,'' Taylor says. ''Our ministry is not going to remain quiet. Our heads are not buried in a smoking caldron, and we're going to be doing something about it.''

Taylor cut up the first book in the series, ''Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone,'' at a public park last year on the eve of that film's debut. The pastor had asked Lewiston officials if he could burn the book, but the request was rejected as a ''toxic emission,'' Taylor says.

That event attracted dozens of Goth protesters, replete with dog collars and spiked hair, who howled in protest. Last night's book-slicing attracted few Goths.

''Controversy! I love it, and I'm on the cutting edge of it. Amen!'' Taylor says. ''This is a beautiful opportunity that J.K. Rowling has provided for me. It's so sad that so many ministers are missing this opportunity.''

The thread of the book series seems harmless enough: Harry Potter, a young pupil at the Hogwarts school of wizardry, uses his magical powers against evil adversaries.

But although the series has engaged millions of young readers across the globe, nearly all of whom delight in its capacity to stoke the imagination and kindle age-old fantasies of witches and warlocks and good versus evil, a small group of conservative Christian clergy has joined Taylor in denouncing the phenomenon as a glorification of sorcery.

In Alamogordo, N.M., last year, members of the Christ Community Church sang ''Amazing Grace'' as they tossed Harry Potter and other books into an outdoors fire. Jack Brock, the church's pastor, branded the books as ''a masterpiece of satanic deception.''

Warner Brothers officials declined to comment, but local reaction to Taylor's book-cutting ranges from politely mixed to head-shaking incredulous.

Melissa Sparks, the administrative assistant at Trinity Episcopal Church, is an unabashed fan of Rowling's work. ''There are very strong, positive, moral messages in these books,'' said Sparks, a former bookseller who said she has given each of the Potter books a critical, serious read. ''She's just chosen a delivery method that invites young people to enter this world of magic and fantasy.''

When told of Sparks's analysis, Taylor quickly replied: ''I think she should repent.'' Thrusting a Bible forward on his desk, Taylor asks: ''Has she ever read this book, and does she know what's at the core of it?''

The preacher argues that the ''book-cutting'' is not censorship because he is destroying his own property. What constitutes censorship, he contends, is the fact that Bible studies are not allowed in public schools.

To the pastor's wife, Susan Taylor, the world is a black and white division between good and evil. ''If you do not have the spirit of God in you, you have the spirit of the devil in you,'' she says.

That's a philosophy that has guided the couple since they became born-again Christians nine years ago. Douglas Taylor, 33, was a ''chronic, seven-day-a-week alcoholic'' before then, his wife says. Now, their youth-oriented church hosts the Jesus Party, which ministers to about 60 children in a neighborhood where substance abuse, family dysfunction, and familiarity with jail are common.

To Wendy Deemer, a mother of two from Litchfield, concerns about Hogwarts-inspired sorcery are nothing but hogwash. As Deemer bought four movie tickets for a weekend show, she shook her head at Taylor's plans.

''I'm a good mother, and I think Harry Potter is great,'' she said. If the book-cutting ''makes him happy, it makes him happy. I think it'd be like burning `Huckleberry Finn.'''

Taylor, however, is unswayed by his critics. His zeal, however, does allow room for a smattering of humor. Yesterday morning, as he saw a neighbor sweeping her porch, Taylor exclaimed: ''I hope you're not going to try to fly on that thing!''