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Winston Churchill once said that in war, truth is so precious, it should always be attended by "a bodyguard of lies."

That's how Connie Neal explains the actions of Severus Snape, a wickedly complex character in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books. He's a spy for the good guys, she believes.

Not everyone agrees.

"It would be much more interesting if Snape turned out to be evil, at least on his own [dark] side," said college student Nick Rhein, a forum administrator at fan site The Leaky Cauldron, in May during a lively panel discussion on "The Great Snape Debate" at a Potter convention in New Orleans. "I don't think it would be interesting to a reader to see someone so calculating turn into someone who's good. It's a much better lesson to see that not everybody gets redeemed."

For months, corporate offices, schoolrooms, backyards and the Internet have been abuzz with similar discussions about Snape's character, each side amassing evidence for its position. He seems to despise and pick on Harry, yet ultimately protects the young student at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Snape says he's renounced Voldemort, the Dark Lord, but ends up killing the benevolent schoolmaster, Dumbledore. Was he serving the dark side, or was it part of Dumbledore's plan all along?

The question of Snape's nature will be resolved when Rowling's final volume, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, is released a week from today.

It goes to the heart of the seven-part saga and what kind of moral universe Rowling has created.

Is this a classic tale of alchemy, modeled after ancient Egyptian lore? Is it a subtle Christian narrative? Is it just a fun frolic through a well-developed fantasy world, or is it a jumbled mix of all three?

Brigham Young University English professor Jesse Crisler, who has read all the Potter books with his children, doesn't find spirituality in them - "I don't believe in magic per se" - but he does see universal themes.

"The conflict between good and evil is unavoidable in literature," Crisler says. "It is central to all fantasy literature, especially Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Before that, it was a theme in fairy tales. That's why those books remain popular. Children see the world as black and white until they have enough maturity to see the gray areas."

As the books progress, Harry matures in just that way. In childhood, he assumes the people around him can be understood in clearly defined categories. The older he gets, the more he realizes how wrong his assessments often are.

Withholding judgments, exploding presumptions and seeing a person's true character are among the essential elements of Christianity, says Neal, youth director at Fair Oaks Presbyterian Church in northern California. Rowling weaves other spiritual themes such as forgiving those who hurt you, redeeming hatred through love and sacrificing yourself for others into Harry's journey.

"What you have here is a book with real, flawed human beings who have to choose between good and evil," says Neal, who is expanding her 2002 book, The Gospel According to Harry Potter: Spirituality in the Stories of the World's Most Famous Seeker, to include the final three volumes. "As Dumbledore tells Harry, it's our choices that make us who we are."

Characters may have conflicting qualities but that doesn't mean Rowling's message is morally ambivalent.

Voldemort and his Death Eaters consistently bully, intimidate, terrorize and eventually kill anyone who thwarts them. The only way Harry can vanquish them is through love.

f=interstate-black s=10 w=9.7 Open enrollment: r In Harry's world, those on the dark side clearly hate people who don't have pure bloodlines. Echoing Nazism, they constantly attack people of mixed parentage or those they consider unworthy to enter the wizard ranks.

As headmaster of Hogwarts, Dumbledore is the opposite. He embraces any and all magic students who want to enroll - whether they be "muggle-born" (human), a werewolf, giants or transfers from another school that teaches the "dark arts."

Snape is one of those who are welcomed at Hogwarts, despite his past life under the influence of Voldemort. He still carries the Dark Mark upon his left forearm.

It is not clear how or why Dumbledore would let someone with that history be numbered on the side of good, Neal writes in her book. "Yet Snape's sanctification can be seen in the way Dumbledore works with him, sometimes correcting him, sometimes calling him to serve him, sometimes calling him to make peace with old enemies. He has accepted him, but does not always accept the way he behaves."

The way Dumbledore treats Snape could be a sign of how God treats repentant sinners, Neal writes, while transforming them into useful servants for his kingdom.

Or it could be foolish and naive.

"You really can't tell if he's on Voldemort's side, working against Dumbledore, or the best spy for the good we've ever seen," she says. "In re-reading the books, I specifically watched what Snape does as opposed to what he says. . . . It is possible that as part of working for Dumbledore, he's been commanded to kill him."

Even if we don't fully understand those motivations, Rowling's message is that our assumptions about people can often be wrong. And that God looks on the heart, not the family tree.

"People who have read all the Harry Potter books will think twice," Neal says, "before they condemn someone for their bloodline, their appearance or the color of their skin."

f=interstate-black s=10 w=9.7 Harry as Christ figure? r Some, including Neal, see a Christian narrative in the boy wizard's story. It begins with a battle between the evil Voldemort and Harry's parents. The Dark Lord hurls a death curse at James, Harry's father, and kills him. Then he aims at baby Harry, but the boy's mother, Lily, jumps out to take the blow. She dies protecting Harry, while the curse boomerangs back to Voldemort. To keep from dying himself, Voldemort earlier had split his soul into pieces, which he implanted in various objects significant to him.

Neal believes Harry will die in the last book. Though not a sinless or perfect human, Harry will sacrifice himself for his friends and rid the world of evil, but will be reborn - like Jesus or a phoenix, a recurring image in the books.

Other religious readers reject that parallel.

"The basic premise of the Potter books is that magic, when used competently by 'good' witches and wizards, is both fun and exciting and can be beneficial. When used by 'bad' practitioners, it's scary and detrimental to others," argued Patrick Madrid, editor of the Catholic magazine Envoy, in a 2003 discussion of the books on Beliefnet. "However clever and entertaining the adventures Harry and his pals get into, however vivid the imagery, these are still basic tales of fun and adventure."

Unlike Christ, Madrid said, Harry does not have "a moral innocence and authority that is illuminated and proved through his actions and by his suffering unjustly at the hands of others."

For her part, Rowling has hinted at a Christian connection to Harry's tale.

In an October 2000 interview with the Vancouver Sun, Rowling said she is a Christian and that if she said more about her own faith, "the intelligent reader - whether 10 or 60 - will be able to guess what is coming in the books."

- Peggy Fletcher Stack can be contacted at" Target="_BLANK"> or 801-257-8725. Send comments about this story to" Target="_BLANK">