Correction to This Article
This article incorrectly said that Christian parenting guru James Dobson has praised the Harry Potter book series. Dobson believes their focus is on the occult and therefore potentially dangerous, said a spokesman.
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Christian Fantasy Genre Builds Niche Without Hogwarts, Muggles or Spells

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."

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