PHILADELPHIA — The large banner on the lawn of Leverington Church in Roxborough has been raising eyebrows as if it were a Wingardium Leviosa spell.
"If I read 'Harry Potter meets Jesus,' I'd probably think it was cheesy, too," Pastor Langdon Palmer said. "But I didn't know how else to put it."
Palmer's unconventional eight-week sermon series at the Presbyterian church, which started May 12, has raised something else, as well: attendance. He said weekly attendance has risen 10% to 20%.
"People are literally saying, 'I came because of Harry Potter,' " he said. "It's a little bit of pressure because hard-core Harry Potter fans know everything."
Palmer, who has been pastor at Leverington Church for five years, almost didn't do the series. He was afraid religious people who are skeptical of Harry Potter would think he was trivializing the Gospel. And he was worried that Harry Potter fans who are skeptical of the Bible would believe he was distorting the books to fit his own ends.
But as a man who loves both and as a pastor who sees a generation of people more familiar with the stories of Harry Potter than those in the Bible, he decided to go for it.
"I think if we're going to be good teachers, we start with what people are familiar with to teach them about what they're not familiar with," said Palmer, 60.
In his sermons, which are available as podcasts on the church's website, Palmer uses audio and visual clips from the "Harry Potter" films to illustrate his points. He equates the unexpected and mysterious letters Harry receives to join Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry to unexpected and mysterious messages people might be receiving from God.
And he likens the relationship between Harry and Professor Albus Dumbledore, the wise but often inscrutable head wizard at Hogwarts, to his own relationship with God.
"It's so parallel," he said. "God is so good and so kind, but there are times he seems arbitrary, where he leaves, where he doesn't explain himself—just like Dumbledore."
Palmer said he's encountered "both Christians and Harry Potter fans who are definitely not happy that I'm doing this," but on the whole, the reaction has been positive.
Despite his passion today, Palmer hasn't always been a fan—of Harry Potter or of God. For much of his adult life, Palmer was an electrical engineer and a self-proclaimed atheist, though looking back now he thinks he was probably "more of a hard-core agnostic, calling myself an atheist to be cool."
"I'm a born skeptic, and I've had many conversations with God about this: 'Why would you have me be a pastor? I question everything all the time,' " Palmer said. "I came to the conclusion that if this is the way that God wired me, maybe I could relate to other people who struggle with doubt." As for Harry Potter, Palmer had heard the stories of religious leaders who denounced—and in some cases, even burned—the books because they believe the series promotes the occult and satanism. "When it first came out, I was not impressed. I was not a fan," he said. "I assumed it was kid stories or promoting dark magic and stuff."
But when Palmer read the books with his children at their urging, he found they offered opportunities to talk with his kids about right and wrong and good and evil.
"I went from someone who was very skeptical to thinking it's really a significant piece of literature," he said. Harry Potter isn't the only pop-culture touchstone that Palmer has invoked in his sermons. He once did a series on the science-fiction movie "The Fifth Element," and you'll hear him referencing Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons," "Star Trek," "The Lord of the Rings," and "The Matrix" in his sermons.
He even dreams of doing a sermon series on "Nacho Libre," the Jack Black movie about a monk who follows his dream to become a Mexican wrestler.
For those who question why he mixes pop culture and religion, Palmer pointed out that even Jesus used cultural artifacts and current events to explain ideas.
"I think it can really help the church, but if you try to be hip, if you're trying to be relevant to the kids, it's all over. People can smell fake right away," Palmer said. "But if there's something that moves a pastor deeply in culture, he or she should be free to use that."