The following three interviews were broadcast by the Rome-based Zenit daily news on December 6, December 18, and December 20, 2001.
Author Michael D. O’Brien Critiques a Literary Phenomenon
COMBERMERE, Ontario, DEC. 6, 2001 (Zenit.org).— As the film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” opened to record box-office receipts, ZENIT turned to renowned Canadian author Michael D. O’Brien to comment on the phenomenon. O’Brien’s works include the novel Father Elijah and a critique of the paganization of children’s culture, A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child’s Mind, both by Ignatius Press.
Q: Many are critical of the Harry Potter books because they claim it is dangerous to expose children to witchcraft and the occult. What is your reaction to this?
O’Brien: I have read the four volumes of the Harry Potter series three times, and with each reading the serious defects of the novels appear in clearer light.
The most obvious problem, of course, is the author’s use of the symbol-world of the occult as her primary metaphor, and occultic activities as the dramatic engine of the plots. It presents these to the child reader through attractive role models, such as Harry and Hermione, who are students of witchcraft and sorcery. This has the potential of lowering a child’s guard—both subconscious and spiritual—to actual occult activity, which is everywhere and growing.
Rationally, children know that the fantasy element in the books is not “real.” But emotionally and subconsciously the young reader absorbs it as real. This is further complicated by the fact that in the world around us there are many opportunities for young people to enter the occult subcultures, where some of Harry’s powers are indeed offered as real.
Q: Critics of Harry Potter see a big difference between authors such as Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, who, they argue, use magical elements in a Christian way, and the books of J.K. Rowling, where magic is presented in a Gnostic and pagan fashion.
O’Brien: The differences are great, I would say absolute. The resemblance between the works of Christian fantasy writers and Rowling is only superficial. Yes, there is “magic” in both. Yet Tolkien and Lewis repeatedly warn about the danger of magic throughout their novels.
Tolkien is especially clear on this. In his great epic The Lord of the Rings, and in his foundational work, The Silmarillion, he shows that powers that do not rightly belong to man always have a corrupting influence on man. Only higher ranks of creatures in his imaginary world exercise supernatural powers, and then only as a gift from God.
The evil characters in the tale have corrupted these gifts, or else—in the case of humans—they have tried to seize them as personal possessions, only to be deceived and finally destroyed by them. Moreover, the “magic” in Tolkien’s subcreation does not really resemble magic practices in the real world. He makes efforts to explain this in his collected letters, where he expresses some concern that his intention might be misinterpreted by readers.
In his fantasy series for children, The Chronicles of Narnia, and in his cosmic trilogy for adults, C.S. Lewis also repeatedly demonstrates the seductiveness of powers that are not rightly man’s, especially when they are seized as a form of Gnostic quest for power.
Both of these Christian writers firmly underline the fact that defeat of radical evil depends on humility, courage, love, self-sacrifice—in short, our natural human virtues.
Q: How does this differ from Rowling’s approach in the Potter series?
O’Brien: Rowling’s Potter-world is fundamentally Gnostic. Magic is presented as an inherent faculty of human nature that only needs awakening and formation through the pursuit of esoteric knowledge and power.
There is not even a whiff of divine presence, whereas Tolkien’s and Lewis’ worlds are radiant with this unspoken presence. In Potter-world, magic is portrayed as a morally neutral power, which in the hands of “nice” characters serves the good, and in the hands of negative characters serves evil.
When the war between good and evil is portrayed as thrilling and highly rewarding emotionally, a child reader will be imprinted deeply with messages about the way in which the “good” characters defeat the evil.
Tolkien’s central character, Frodo, defeats evil by fidelity to truth, by rejecting unlawful power, and persevering in a state of weakness. Rowling’s central character defeats evil by amassing enough power to overcome his archenemy, yet this power is the same as that of his opponent.
Simply saying that the Potter books show good as better than evil, is not sufficient defense of the series. Rowling has radically blurred the lines between good and evil, redefining some of both. The real question is, what is the nature of good and evil as she has presented it, and as it is presented in the film.
Q: Others see in the stories a classical children’s tale, albeit with magical elements, of good against evil. What positive elements are there in the books for readers?
O’Brien: I can think of few works of culture, regardless of how flawed, that do not contain some positive elements. But this is no argument for giving gravely disordered material to our children.
In the Potter series there is an attempt to portray courage and loyalty in the “good” characters. But courage and loyalty can be found in all peoples, even those involved in the worst forms of paganism.
It is important to note that children read fiction with a different consciousness than adults. This is something that has been overlooked by those Christian leaders who have written pro-Potter commentaries. They forget that children are in a state of formation, that their understanding of reality is being forged at every turn.
Wholesome fantasy, regardless of how wildly imaginative it may be, reinforces the moral order of the universe in a child’s mind. Corrupt fantasy undermines it. The Potter world is corrupt fantasy with a little cosmetics. The cosmetics are the “values” woven into the tale by the author.
In modern culture we have all become accustomed to eating a certain amount of poison in our diet; indeed most of us no longer even recognize the poison. I believe that’s why many educators and parents simply don’t recognize the scope of the problem with the Potter books.
Q: Would you say that the witchcraft and sorcery element is the only defect in the Potter series?
O’Brien: There are other serious problems in these books, notably the question of authority and obedience.
Harry’s faults are rarely punished, and usually by the negative authority figures in the tale. The positive authority figures actually reward Harry for his disobedience when it brings about some perceived good. His lies, his acts of vengeance, and his misuse of his powers are frequently ignored. The message of “the end justifies the means” is dominant throughout.
Lip service is paid to a code of ethics—never really spelled out—but in fact the undermining of those ethics is reinforced at every turn. Another problem is the consistent use of repulsive details, lowering the child’s instinctive aversion to the horrible and grotesque.
For example, in one class the students are taught to cut up mandrake roots, which are living human babies, for use in a potion. At the least, this can cause a subconscious desensitization to abortion.
Q: In recent years there has been a surge of interest in themes related to the occult. Why is this happening?
O’Brien: The phenomenal resurgence of interest in occult “spiritualities” is a symptom of the bankruptcy of secularism. There is an innate hunger in human nature for the sacred transcendent, for the holy, wherein man finds his true identity and worth. When it is denied, a void opens up within him.
If our particular churches are not offering the fullness of the Catholic faith to the coming generation, if we are not giving the young an authentic and vital spiritual life, they will go searching elsewhere—and the realm of the pseudo-mystical, which is so often connected to the diabolical, will be waiting for them.
The Potter books open a doorway into that world. Articles have been appearing for more than a year now, in secular and religious periodicals, providing evidence that this series of books bridges the gap between normal children and the world of darkness.
With the appearance of the film version of the first volume—and this film promises to be one of the biggest box office hits of all time—an added dimension of psychological influence is at work.
Any serious student of modern media recognizes the power of film to reshape consciousness. By using both overt and subliminal techniques, it can override the mind’s natural critical faculty. It is also interesting to note that, even in the books, Rowling’s use of imagery and pace is actually derived from the techniques of visual media.
Q: Is the interest in the occult among the young a sign of the lack of Christian influence in modern culture?
O’Brien: Certainly the lack of truly Christian culture is part of the problem. It is never enough simply to keep unhealthy influences from our children. The primary task is to give them good food for the imagination, providing opportunities to fall in love with the great adventure of existence.
By and large, modern culture has replaced the splendor and wonder of existence with cheap thrills. The Potter series is a full-blown orgy of cheap thrills, dipped in a little pseudo-morality. The morality is thin; the corrupt messages, both overt and subliminal, are overwhelming.
But the Potter phenomenon must be seen within a larger context—not only the ideological confusions of the present sociohistorical era, and the unprecedented power of the new media culture to reshape our understanding of reality.
Most urgently, we must recognize that the nature of the spiritual war in which we are all immersed is changing rapidly, entering a new phase of intensity.
Q: What should parents do to guide their children through the hazards of modern culture?
O’Brien: First of all, parents need to recognize that there is a problem. A majority of our Catholic parents are not yet awake to the spiritual assault that is waged primarily through culture.
Culture defines us to ourselves, tells us what is of value, what is harmless or dangerous, what is the real meaning of existence. We must recognize that the times we live in are unique; the bombardment of our minds by powerful imagery and messages has no parallel in human history.
A constant onslaught of indoctrination pours into our children’s lives through films, videos, books, music and all the other forms of social communication—peer pressure being one of them. Parents need to familiarize themselves with what’s really going on in youth culture.
The sheer volume and complexity of this material, however, makes it impossible to assess it all. For that reason, we need to pray daily for spiritual protection for our families, and to ask God for extraordinary gifts of wisdom and discernment.
We also need to ask the Holy Spirit for the development of an inner barometer, or radar, which triggers a warning bell within us whenever corrupt influences enter the family. Last but not least is the gift of courage—courage to firmly and lovingly resist the invasion.
Q: One consequence of the books has been to spark interest in reading among children. Isn’t that a positive sign?
O’Brien: While it is true that the Potter books are hooking a generation on reading, I must say that this is a superficial defense of the series. Will the 100 million young fans of Harry now turn to Tolkien and Dickens and Twain?
Or will they go searching for more of the thrills Rowling has whetted their appetite for? There is a lot of corrupt literature out there, well-written material that may indeed stimulate a literary habit, as it speeds the degeneration of moral consciousness.
Q: So you believe that literacy is not of utmost importance in the development of a healthy child?
O’Brien: A discerning literacy—the true literacy—is of very great importance in a child’s formation. But literacy alone can never be enough. Is an appetite for reading fiction a higher value than a child’s moral formation? Is any book better than no book? Would we give our children a bowl of stew in which there was a dose of poison, simply because there were also good ingredients mixed into the recipe? Of course we wouldn’t.
Discernment is always needed in deciding what we give our children. So why are we discarding this basic understanding when it comes to unhealthy cultural material?
Reasonable Christian parents would not permit their children to read a series of enthralling books depicting likable young people involved in drug-dealing, or premarital sex, or torture. We would not give our children fiction in which a group of “good fornicators” struggled against a set of “bad fornicators.”
We would not justify giving our children such books by pointing out the characters’ good qualities. Why, then, have we accepted a set of books which glamorize and normalize occult activity, even though it is every bit as deadly to the soul as sexual sin, if not more so?
Q: Some literary critics and scholars say that the Potter series is a valuable contribution to culture. Why are they not concerned about the problems you see in the books?
O’Brien: I’m surprised by the promotion of the Potter series in certain Christian circles, even among some Catholic academics. Perhaps this is due to their naiveté about the power of fantasy. Possibly it’s an overreliance on individual reason, as if to say, “I am so intelligent, and my child is so intelligent, that we can enjoy the irrational and the corrupt without being affected by it, and therefore it’s not really corrupt.”
This non sequitur is based on the mistaken belief that the imagination can be safely contained within an airtight compartment of the mind. I’m guessing here, but I suspect there is also a certain fear at work in their adamant and not always objective reaction to criticism of the Potter series.
Is their overreaction caused by a fear of anti-intellectualism, a fear of “fundamentalism,” perhaps even a fear of loss of credibility among other academics? I’m not certain. At the very least it indicates a lack of understanding about the integral relationship between faith and culture, between imagination and the world of action.
Consistently, the pro-Potter advocates extract details from the books that point to some kind of “morality” in the series, actually more a set of “values”—to use the modern term—than genuine morality. Their approach is, I think, rather revealing. Any serious scholar should know that empirical “evidence” for any theory can be found by dipping selectively into a large body of source material, and that this can be highly misleading.
When a scholar operates from an a priori need to find supportive data for his gut attraction, truth gets lost in the process. And this is the crux of the problem for all of us: Regardless of whether we are impelled by a gut attraction or a gut repulsion to the world of Harry Potter, we must ask ourselves if we are thinking according to principles, or are we articulating impressively as we let ourselves be driven by feelings.
If Catholic intellectual life becomes dominated by visceral likes and dislikes, we may very well find ourselves contributing to a dark future for Western civilization. We may even help form a race of super-impressionists incapable of right discernment. This is a profoundly disturbing trend. The fruits of it will be even more disturbing.
Author Michael D. O’Brien Defends Discretion with Rowling Books
COMBERMERE, Ontario, DEC. 18, 2001 (Zenit.org).- The Dec. 6 ZENIT Forum on the Harry Potter phenomenon brought a record number of e-mails from readers. To continue the discussion, ZENIT turned again to Canadian author Michael D. O’Brien to elaborate on his criticisms of the books by J.K. Rowling.
Arguments by the author of Father Elijah and Plague Journal (both Ignatius Press) will continue in the ZENIT Forum this Thursday.
Q: Some say that anti-Harry Potter sentiment reflects an unhealthy separation between secular culture and the Catholic faith. Could it be seen as an example of Catholics retreating from the world?
O’Brien: I believe the controversy that has developed over the Potter series represents just the opposite. In this issue and others like it, many Catholics are engaging the secular culture in a thoughtful manner, refusing to consume with unquestioning passivity whatever it sends in our direction.
I do not believe that a ghetto mentality is healthy, nor do any other Catholics whom I know, think so, including serious scholars who have reservations about the Potter series. We are not advocating that parents quarantine their children. As the first teachers of our children, we see the need to discern carefully as we explore modern culture.
The vital elements needed in the controversy over the Potter books and film are spiritual discernment and intellectual distinctions. Unfortunately, there has been so much hasty rhetoric on the subject that clearheaded assessment is being eclipsed by false either-or mental constructs.
It now seems to many people that one is either a rational, culture-affirming pro-Potterite or an irrational, paranoid anti-Potterite. Are these our only options? I don’t believe so.
Q: It has been said that Catholics critical of the Potter series represent a new and dangerous form of fundamentalism. Do you think this is accurate?
O’Brien: There is a lot of name-calling going on in the Potter controversy, and that’s a sign that real thinking has taken a back seat. It appears that so-called fundamentalists are being lumped together these days—such as bomb-throwing Islamic militants, gentle grandmothers doing sidewalk counseling outside abortuaries, orthodox Catholic scholars who teach the fullness of the Catholic faith. Sadly, they’re all being branded as one thing. Thus, many modern people have been led to think that anyone who holds firmly to a conviction, especially for religious or moral reasons, is a dangerous fanatic.
None of the thoughtful critiques of the Potter series that I’ve read are advocating bombing Hollywood or burning Potter books in the streets of New York or London as we goose-step around the pile.
Reflective Catholics and other Christians of strong faith are simply raising some serious concerns about a set of children’s books that have as their central dynamic the world of magic and sorcery—activities that God calls “an abomination” in sacred Scripture, and which the Church condemns absolutely.
They are saying, “We should think twice before giving these to our children.” We would do the same with toys that glorify cruelty and violence, or magazines that display sexuality in a graphic manner. So why should we not raise the same cautions about books that advocate something equally dangerous to a child’s well-being? Is that fundamentalism?
Q: Then you are not suggesting that such books be banned or burned?
O’Brien: I would maintain the civil rights of anyone to write and publish such works. But I also maintain the right of parents to keep them out of the home, and to discuss their defects in public.
Critics of the Potter series have been characterized as book-burners by some writers, who even go so far as to say that a kind of Taliban mentality is rising within Catholicism. This accusation is so wildly inaccurate it would be merely humorous if it were not so inflammatory.
Any sane Christian knows that a theocratic society would be self-destructive, and that one of its negative effects would be to undermine the personal freedom which is essential to a healthy society, to the dignity of the human person and the spread of the Gospel.
Moreover, any objective observer of the Western world knows full well that the most destructive tyrannies of our time have arisen from the ideologies of secular states and materialist philosophies. Its most recent manifestation is the social revolution fostered by the media culture.
Christians must be discerning in matters of culture, indeed in any field of interaction with the world. We should be selective to the degree that we do not give our children material that is intrinsically anti-Christian, especially during their formative years, and most especially if a book or film is overwhelming to the child’s imagination.
My wife and I often give our children secular cultural material that is not intrinsically anti-Christian. We have thousands of books in our home, and many of them are fantasy fiction. However, we take care to be discriminating in what we choose. Perhaps it is a semantic problem—the word “discrimination” has come to be confused with unjust prejudice. This distinction seems to have been lost in the debate.
The issue revolves, at least in part, around what is really an old problem, well articulated in Catholic philosophy by Jacques Maritain and Etienne Gilson, namely the dialogue between the rights of Art and the rights of Prudence. The Catholic mind would say that the independence of art is a necessary part of natural law, but if it is not to degenerate into an instrument of corruption, it must find its proper role within the divine order. It can never become an absolute unto itself; it should always strive to foster the final good of man—in other words, salvation.
I am not saying that art must be simplistic morality plays. Great art can surely be created without overt Christian messages. Tolkien, for example, succeeds in this beautifully. I am simply asking, do the Harry Potter books make it easier for children to reach Paradise, or more difficult?
Q: Are you saying that the Harry Potter books and film will inevitably lead its 100 million readers into Satanic cults or witchcraft covens?
O’Brien: Of course not. The numbers of children who step from Potter-world into the actual world of magic may be relatively small. I emphasize the word relatively. But considering the massive marketing hype and the unprecedented popularity of the books and the film, even a small minority of young readers hooked into the occult subcultures can add up to a lot of souls, a lot of damage. Isn’t a single lost child a tragedy?
It goes without saying that the Potter books contain some good elements. Friends of mine who have begun to read the series to their families usually point to these factors. They have based their decision to do so on the first volume, which despite its problems is the tamest of the four published to date.
As Rowling herself has stated, each successive volume gets progressively darker. My objective is not to dismiss out-of-hand a series that has obviously given a lot of pleasure to young readers. My purpose is to examine a phenomenon that is representative of a much bigger issue—our need as Catholics to discern more carefully the merits of all cultural influences.
Most children don’t get their metaphysics from theologians; they get it from stories. For that reason we need to think about what kind of metaphysics are being taught in any work of fiction. The unique grace of parental discernment should never be relinquished to opinion-shapers, whether the “experts” give a blanket endorsement or unthinking condemnation. Parents are called by the Church to be proactive, that is, to be actively engaged in fostering vital culture for our children, forming virtue, developing their moral compass.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church—see 1804-1811—describes the human virtues as firm attitudes, stable dispositions, the habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith, and thus make it possible to lead a morally good life.
In the centuries leading up to the 20th, it was widely understood that the cultivation of personal virtues such as prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance was the necessary foundation for living a truly happy and fruitful life. The displacement of this understanding by the ambiguous concept of “values” has contributed to the moral illiteracy and confusion that now dominate so much of society.
In the case of the Potter series, parents and educators need to ask some urgent questions: Even if the books contain some values, do they promote virtue, or undermine it? And even if the majority of readers are not prompted to enter the occult subcultures, what other effects can there be?
If the natural and spiritual guard has been lowered in a child’s mind, if his concept of morality has been skewed and wise authority undermined, what other kinds of disordered interests and activities will follow as he makes his choices later in life? I believe the Potter books must be examined according to such principles, because the violation of principles strongly suggests long-term negative effects in society. All too often, post-vigilance is laced with regret.
THE NEXT STAGE IN DE-CHRISTIANIZATION OF FAIRY TALES?
Michael D. O’Brien’s Continued Critique of Harry Potter, DEC. 20, 2001 (Zenit.org).
Q: It has been argued that the cults are in decline, and therefore it is untrue to say that children are in greater danger these days of falling under their influence.
O’Brien: Even if they are in decline, the issue does not change. Statistics can be quite misleading. How much real decline is hard to assess. A priest friend of mine who a few years ago worked in a Catholic information office in the Archdiocese of Paris, told me there were approximately 500 known pagan cults operating in the city at the time, and that a larger number were active underground.
In fact, actual occult practice is soaring, usually not associated with public cults or organizations. It is now mainstreaming, especially among the young, who are getting into witchcraft and sorcery in growing numbers through internet, occult shops, libraries, peer pressure, etc.—through private and semi-private avenues.
Father Gabriel Amorth’s book An Exorcist Tells His Story [Ignatius Press, 1999] examines this phenomenon. He is the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, and has a lot to say about the rise of witchcraft and sorcery, and the resulting damage to the young generation through diabolic influence. He cites as a major cause the proliferation of occult lures through books, film, videos and Internet.
Q: In your articles on the subject you have referred to the Potter series as Gnostic. Isn’t this inaccurate, because the Gnostics were dualists? They saw material creation as evil, and only spiritual things as good. The world of Harry Potter is full of fun and its characters delight in adventures and parties and food and friendship. It sounds positive, full of life.
O’Brien: There was a wide variety of Gnostic sects in the first and second centuries, declining in the third century. But Gnosticism never entirely disappeared, emerging throughout the following centuries in a variety of forms, notably medieval alchemy and in the later occult movements of our own era.
It is significant that the late corruptions of traditional fairy tales—by which I mean the taming of timeless symbols of evil, and sometimes the inversion of the metaphors of good and evil—were brought about by writers who were involved in the esoteric religious movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.
A number of modern film adaptations of classic fairy tales are actually de-Christianized versions of literature that once reinforced the moral order of the universe, and no longer does so. Harry Potter represents the next stage in that process.
When I say that the Potter series is Gnostic, I am referring to the essence of Gnosticism. It is true that a majority of the early sects were dualist, that is, they despised material creation and exalted the spiritual—definitely an anti-incarnational cosmology. But some sects were pantheistic, believing that what they called the “divine emanations” could be found within nature.
There was even a so-called Christian Gnosticism that tried to incorporate elements of Christian faith into their pagan worldview. They saw Christianity as a myth that contained some truths, and that Gnosticism was the full truth. Common to all of them, pantheist and dualist alike, was the belief that obtaining secret gnosis or knowledge was salvation. I would refer your readers to the studies of modern Gnosticism by Eric Voegelin, Thomas Molnar, and Wolfgang Smith.
Q: There is no reference in the Potter series to anything spiritual. There are no religious practices described. So how can you really say that magic in Potter-world is anything like witchcraft in the real world?
O’Brien: There is no formal religion of witchcraft as such in the books. But how does secular culture understand and define “spiritual”? The immaterial, an unseen force, a power that interfaces with human existence? By this definition, Potter world is filled with religion. Furthermore, it must be seen in the context of the modern world, where materialism has blurred the lines between formal religion and spiritualities.
In the Potter books there are rituals, for example the Sorting Hat scene, in which an undefined power determines which of the four houses of Hogwarts the student witches and wizards will go into, to some extent reading each student’s character and influencing his or her destiny. There is an inference of supernatural gnosis here, a hint of some “higher” power. There is also divination in various forms ranging from silly to deadly earnest. There are ghosts attached to each house, again implying access to spiritual dimensions.
Then there’s the matter of curriculum: Some of the book titles in Harry’s training are lifted straight out of the world of real witchcraft. Children can type those titles into a search engine on the Internet and be instantly connected to a variety of sites offering them portals into the real world of witchcraft, sorcery and even overt Satanism.
Many of the practices developed in the books are the same as the real thing—though they are sanitized, made to appear scary but fun, and without long-term consequences. They do show that some activities can be physically dangerous, but the message in this is, as long as you have enough knowledge and skill, you can get through the dangers quite fine.
When people defend the books by saying the stories disconnect witchcraft from spiritual realities, and therefore there is no danger of a child wanting to go from fantasy witchcraft to actual witchcraft, they’re leaping to a big conclusion without empirical evidence.
The books seem at first glance to disconnect witchcraft from the spiritual. They present it as very exciting and in no way spiritually dangerous. But this makes the series potentially more corrupting, because it gives to the child a false sense of what witchcraft is really about.
Marcia Montenegro, a former occult practitioner, has done painstaking and well-documented research on this aspect of the series. She has outlined in great detail the close relationship between the “fantasy” magic of Harry Potter’s world and the world of real witchcraft and sorcery.
I am also intrigued by the way Rowling consistently portrays those characters who are critical or afraid of magic as vicious abusers or utterly ignorant. I wonder if this is an authorial pre-emptive strike against critics, or perhaps an attempt to soften a child reader’s instinctive aversion to the horrible, or to override whatever cautions against witchcraft and sorcery a child may have learned from parents or the Church.
The Dursleys, for example, are utterly despicable characters, very against magic. In Volume 4 we learn that Voldemort, the archetype of radical evil, began life as a student named Riddle, whom the author tells us was abandoned by his father as a child, and that this father was against magic. In short, the greatest evils, according to the narrative, have their root cause in anti-magic people.
Q: By saying that witchcraft is evil, aren’t you promoting a witch hunt mentality? Isn’t there a danger of more Salem witch trials?
O’Brien: I for one do not want more Salem witch trials. I think the danger of this is so small as to be almost nonexistent. No, the real danger lies in the opposite direction. The modern witch will be left free to do pretty much as she pleases—perhaps have an interview on a talk show, write a best-selling book, make a presentation to a grade-school class doing a project on witchcraft, or found a Women’s Spirituality department at a Catholic university.
Q: Some academic figures have stated that anti-Potter critics deny the autonomy of culture.
O’Brien: Such commentators, even as they exalt the “autonomy of culture,” are minimizing the significance of culture’s power to influence how we think, how we feel, how we perceive the world. In this sense they unwittingly reduce the importance of culture.
They are overlooking the fact that children and adolescents are highly impressionable. Children read fiction with a different consciousness than, say, a university professor. Children are in a state of formation, their understanding of reality is being formed at every turn. And a powerful work of fantasy that is packed full of emotional stimuli can be a major force in planting concepts and symbols deep in a child’s imagination—one could even say in the architecture of their minds.
Look at your children watching a video, or reading an engrossing book. Their faces are open, innocent, reflecting a deep and unfiltered vulnerability to the content of the author’s message.
Many academics are applying limited sociopolitical templates to cultural phenomena such as the Potter series without serious consideration of other dimensions. Key factors are being neglected: For example the question of how, precisely, faith and culture can interrelate in a way that fosters the best possible fruit for souls, and for societies.
Much of Vatican II and the pontificate of John Paul II has focused on this crucial symbiotic relationship. How does a faulty understanding of that relationship contribute to bad fruit? Can autonomous social forces really be divorced from the whole configuration of life in the human community—the relationship between freedom and responsibility?
In the Potter debate there has not been enough examination of the pagan assimilation of Christians through the vehicle of culture. Nor has there been much discussion of symbology, the power of symbols to distort or to nourish consciousness.
Q: But some of the pro-Potter writers in Catholic circles are considered to be orthodox Catholics.
O’Brien: They may very well be orthodox in terms of Church doctrine. Part of the problem is that for them the Potter issue does not appear to be a doctrinal issue. The cloak of “literature” or “culture” or “inculturation” has protected the books from an examination of how these stories may violate the teachings of the Church, or can lead the next generation closer to violation of those teachings.
Q: Would you say the Catholic world is divided on the Potter issue?
O’Brien: To a certain extent, yes. But differences of opinion can be a catalyst for deeper thought.
I would like to emphasize that the rightness or wrongness of the Potter series cannot be determined by weighing the ratio of pro-Potter and anti-Potter votes, as if to say that if there are 10 pros and 9 contras, or vice versa, then the jury has delivered a reliable verdict. Juries are often wrong. Again, the issue must be discerned according to first principles.
But I think the debate is useful, because it is helping to raise the questions that should be asked, and will be asked again and again in the coming years. There will be more Harry Potter books and films, and there will be a new generation of clone-books hot on their heels. This is only the beginning. We need to wake up now to the nature of this struggle, and we need to do some clear thinking about the issues involved.
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