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Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Harry Potter Blotter--What's A Catholic To Do?

©2011, Randall A. Beeler

Will the real Christ stand up? Whom do you pick from this line-up?

Since L'Osservatore Romano published kudos for the last Harry Potter film, the response has read like a police blotter, with criminal accusations a-fly. Decriers of Rowling's wizardry series have quoted Michael D. O'Brien, Pope Benedict (who commented on the Potter series when he was Cardinal Ratzinger), and the Vatican's Chief Exorcist, Father Gabrielle Amorth to demonstrate that the Harry Potter series represents an inroad for witchcraft and demonic influence, or at least the paganization of Western Civilization.

However, many faithful Catholics have read the series and wonder why the to-do? Some even go so far as to posit the Harry Potter of the Seventh Book (The Deathly Hallows) as a Christ figure, which scandalizes others who are trying to publish the implicit dangers of the Potter series.

What to do? If you're like me, you probably wondered what all the hoopla was about when the series caught fire more than ten years ago and actually picked up the books to see what it was about. I read them and, as a then-evangelical-United-Methodist pastor, I at first proclaimed the many problems with the book, most notably what Michael D. O'Brien points out:
All too often, when cultural material arrives in intense pleasure-inducing forms, and contains some positive ‘values’ mixed with highly toxic messages in its role modeling and its anti-values, we are easily seduced. To believe that the Potter message is about fighting evil is superficial. On practically every page of the series, and in its spin-off films, evil is presented as ‘bad’, and yet the evil means by which the evil is resisted are presented as good.
But, as I read all the books in the series--even as I converted to Catholicism in 2005--I allowed my children to read the series and to share with me about it. Nonetheless, I always qualified any enthusiasm for the books with what seem to me to be two major difficulties with Rowling's works:
  1. What O'Brien notes in the quotation above--namely, that the fight against evil in the series seems hopelessly riddled (yes, the play-on-words is intended) with the evil power Voldemort himself wields; and

  2. The writing itself, which, although employing all the techniques of the fantasy genré invented by MacDonald, Tolkien, and Lewis, falls far, far short in literary merit of the great works of these authors.
Both these problems still gnaw at me, making me sympathize with then Cardinal Ratzinger's and Michael D. O'Brien's well-seated criticisms of the series.

And yet … and yet …

… that seventh book, The Deathly Hallows, is by far, the most admirable of the series, and, although it never rises to the level of great literature, it does make me understand why some, like L'Osservatore Romano gush over it and why others, even Catholics, see Harry as a Christ figure …

… and yet … Harry is not the Christ of this story. No one is. For Rowling's tale springs from an implicitly pagan worldview.

Before anyone out there writes off this blog as merely a summation of Harry Potter as neo-pagan, new-age Hogwarts hogwash, you ought first read what I mean by pagan.

Paganism persists because it is remains the only historical alternative to faith in Christ--that Faith which proclaims reliance on God's grace and mercy, dependent on no gesture, action, effort, or offering we can render.

Underneath the Zeuses, Zoroasters, Odin's, and Baal's is a mercantile relationship--namely, that we can appease the uncontrollable powers of the cosmos by rendering a fitting offering from our own wherewithal. In it's worst form, this tit-for-tat, I-can-buy-my-own-security-with-right-sacrifice mindset devolves into demonism, wherein our power-rendering sacrifice entails making ourselves fit to be fodder for demonic powers. Witness the Azteca and Maya of Central America, or the Carthaginians and Phoenicians of the Mediterranean who made human sacrifice, especially of children, the coinage of power.

In it's least malignant form--the paganism of Greco-Roman culture--represents an almost playful, imaginative encounter with the magic springs of the universe. Indeed, that is why the ancient world admitted no reconciliation between its great mythologies and its great philosophies. Even when a virtuous pagan would put some stock in Aristotle's "First Cause/Prime Mover" or Plato's realm of ideals, he couldn't speak to those abstractions. Simply put, there could be no imaginative encounter with the conclusion of a philosophic argument. How then to explain the magic of the universe? The fact that, despite its setting, the sun does come back again? The joyous realization that, though Autumn wends its way to Winter's ever-longer, colder nights, the light waxes with a finality revelled in during the Summer Solstice?

What do men do, in lieu of the revealed final truth, but personify such things in the form of mythic encounters with the gods? Though much mischief and demonic trickery comes of such mythos, the demons themselves are not capable of myths--only of gross parodies of the True Good that only God creates. Thus, even in the most lie-riddled myth of, say, Zeus forcing himself upon Leta lies a tiny truth that springs out of man's own goodness: his encounter with the supernatural--a goodness and an encounter authored only by the One True God. Demons can't do that; they can only lie about and warp our vision of God's authorship of our story.

Truly, in the Christ, we become men who put away the childish things of myths. When the True God arrives in the creche at Bethlehem, the half-gods (and their demonic puppeteers) are put in rout. We now have a personal, societal, civilizational, natural, supernatural encounter with God in the Eucharistic that blows away all myths--not because it is solely true and they wholly false, but because it is the Real Presence that they can only dimly, awkwardly, and mischievously pantomime, like a four-year-old's stick-figure points to the Mona Lisa. If it never occurs to us to immediately conclude to the Mona Lisa after viewing a child's stick figure, it is not because the stick figure is flat-out evil but because DaVinci gives us the real thing.

So even the most benign of the myths seem in comparison to the revelation of Christ. And so vain and fruitless might it seem to us that some Catholics would gush over the Christ-figurine of Harry Potter. Indeed, we might as well praise Orpheus as a figure of the Christ--but only if we strain our eyes and grant a lot of leeway and suspension of disbelief to our hearing of the myth. Harry's world is one in which the coinage of power is the "magical" use of magic--something Voldemort fails at and Harry succeeds in, primarily because Harry is willing to offer himself to death and Voldemort not.

All well and good … sounds Christ-like, doesn't it? … until … until …

… until we look at Harry's mug-shot a little more closely. I admit that the Harry Potter series appeals to me, and I can therefore understand why it appeals to so many others … it fits the characteristically pagan and characteristically human view of the cosmos--one in which we finally, with the right gesture, the right mixture of virtue, effort, luck, and the self-defeating nature of the evil powers of the universe, make everything right and still get to do it our way.

None of this is to belittle Harry, any more than it would be to belittle Odysseus for finally making it back to Ithaca the pagan way. For those old pagan ways were the faint shadows, distant echoes, and hand-shaped-cloud forerunners of the Truth that was to come. When Odysseus does return home, Homer makes sure it is due to the intervention of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Now that Christ is at home with us in the Eucharist, we can see that even the folly of man's old pagan myths was all along the wisdom of God.

In this way, the Harry Potter series is not evil in itself nor do its characteristics and story necessarily breed demonism or lead children to witchcraft. It does represent a throwback to an outmoded worldview--the idea that we must find the right magic to unlock the trapdoors of the universe. And to that extent, it is deceptive. But what about generations of Christians who have read the classic myths and epics as a way to marvel over the mysterious footprints in the sand and fingerprints of God in history?

Should we be horrified over Catholics who might see in Harry's use of the Resurrection Stone a sketchy footprinted path to the Communion of Saints or in his "first death" at the hands of Voldemort an evaporating fingerprint of the Passion?

Why even note such things when we do have the Communion of Saints with us (without the conjuring of the Resurrection Stone) and when we do have more than a mere fingerprint but all of Christ in the Precious Body and Blood?

The answer has something to do with what Michael D. O'Brien and others have astutely called "the twilight of the west." We are living in a time in which many of us have already slipped back into a pagan worldview without the backdrop of Christendom … for many have already abandoned the Christ.

The only reason we can dimly see, as if in a warped mirror, saintly and Passion-ate glints of truth in a work of juvenile fiction is because we already have received the Truth of the Christ. The Faithful can take comfort in the Truth that, if anyone finds anything good in the Harry Potter series, it comes from the Author of all good--God Himself. For the devil makes no good (and, if history and the Scriptures are any indication, he does a stumblebum job of parodying God's goods--for his parodies always lay the groundwork for grace; indeed, one gets the feeling that, though Satan is horribly earnest in his efforts, he is indeed the only power who does not see that his worst plots are little more than parodies--Milton has caught some wind of this).

That we often fall for such parody says more about original sin than it does about stories, myths, and life itself.

But what of modern pagans? I don't mean that ancient Greeks and Romans are walking among us again today. Oh, would that they were! There were souls, conscious of our fallibility and tragic bent, who flocked to the comic story of the Christ at a time when civilization was crumbling. Only such a myth-glutted and Truth-starved civilization could produce Lawrence, Sebastian, Helen, and hosts of others!

No, in the time of our would-be tragic civilization, we are besieged by a growing population of would-be pagans who might put their ancient counterparts to the blush. For these modern pagans not only reject the Christ but also the old pagan mythologies. To what, then, would they flock but a juvenile literary series that throws off faint, dying embers of the Christ Whom they shun (but still innately need) and the magical cosmos (that they desperately miss), which they have technologized into nothing but dead matter?

I say "they," but I should rightly utter "we." If some Catholics praise Harry Potter as a Christ figure, what are we the Church trading upon that makes a Harry Potter so charismatic in the Real Presence of the Resurrected Christ? L'Osservatore Romano's review seems at best to say that we should embrace Harry because his story is not overly evil. Faint praise? Or a damning admission that we Catholics are very wanting some real good?

And what of fools like me who have read the entire series and allowed his children to do so? Have I been inviting them to sup in a septic tank (as Michael D. O'Brien has coined it) only because I've scented some honey in the cesspool?

Well, I am a fool. I know it. For, in the past, I rebelled against Christ and His Church because I thought I could navigate and negotiate good and evil on my own terms. Now that I am back in the fold, could I not be committing the same error in, well, actually finding the Harry Potter books entertaining even if they are not literary triumphs? Redeeming even if they throw off only faint sparks of the real Christ and the real Passion?

Perhaps. But I take some comfort in this thought: namely, that the ancient mythologies were testimony of God working even in the cesspools of human imagination. We always need to recall that our imaginative capacities are indeed cesspools in comparison to a Beloved who can utter "LIGHT!" and there is light. Nonetheless, our imaginations remain created sparks of that Light which has shone forth in the darkness. Our honey is not transformed into septic water, no matter how choking the filth and fumes of the waste surrounding it.

You and I as Catholics don't need Harry Potter in order to encounter the Light that overcomes the darkness. But is it not magical in the sense of the ancient myths that, even in the midst of what appears a cesspool of culture (and of what appears to be a decaying civilization that can't even parody its pagan forebears) that Harry Potter, amidst the muck, STILL points to, even dimly, the Christ?

God's Truth and Beauty shine forth in all things, no matter how warped they are by evil. Evil is the parody. God is the Truth. And for a parody--unwitting or intended--to be a parody, it has to flash a faint flicker of the thing it parodies.

Harry is no Christ. We--pagans and Catholics--all of us--live and breathe in the same culture, we trod through the same muck. Many, many unChurched souls, yes, are deceived by the Harry-Potter-like parodies that abound in our culture, the false Christs, the anti-Christs that seek to lure our eyes away from our Beloved, the One True Christ. Sadly, many Churched souls willingly trade the Christ in for a Harry Potter or two. I've done it myself.

But just because Harry Potter can be a means of error does not mean that one author's attempt to tell a story and millions of readers adherence to those stories are a damnable thing. Truth be told, I like the Seventh Book of the Harry Potter series. And I have willingly engaged with my now-adult children in their reading of the series. But like the pagan myths of old, this new, diminished pagan myth can't help but point to the Christ, even amidst its confusion. Perhaps its willing use of evil means to triumph over evil is the cause of its less-than-literary-classic quality. Or perhaps the limited imagination of its author's literary ability leads to an ethically, philosophically, and mythologically crippled worldview (namely, that we can fight evil with its own powers).

Despite all that, Harry's triumph over Voldemort is likable and entertaining--somewhat in the same sense that Perseus' triumph over the Medusa and Kraken is likable and entertaining. And in the same way that Gran Torino's Walt Kowalski triumphs over the villainous Hmong gang is entertaining. Despite that, I am not converted to Harryism. Even if some take Perseus, Deepak Chopra, or Clint Eastwood as their saviors, I will have only the Christ.

And I will take Christ as he peeks at me in my muck, even in Harry Potter.

Having read the Harry Potter series, and having allowed my children to do so, I can tell you that I am better equipped to greet Christ--not because Harry is a Christ, but because Christ is Christ:

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
  Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
    With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:        
                  Praise him. (Gerard Manley Hopkins)

So, the next time we walk down an Emmaus Road with a modern-pagan or Catholic fan of Harry Potter, let's none of us worry about which one of us is Cleopas or Christ. Though the two of us might be strange to each other, let our hearts be on fire even if the only thing we have in common is that we've read Harry Potter. Christ will reveal Himself to us in the breaking of that bread (which is all the mug-shot sorting we need.)

And, if you've no intention of reading Harry Potter, then trot with Philip down a desert road and help an Ethiopian or two with Isaiah 53:7-8.

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  1. Nicely done, sir. Nicely done, indeed.

  2. Randy, this is nicely done. The Catholic approach to culture is to approve what is good and correct what is bad, not merely to boycott everything. Because, as you point out, every well-told tale ultimately points to Christ, even the healthy pagan ones.

    That said, I can't agree that Harry's a pagan. He's not Christ, either, but he is a disciple.

    Dumbledore is a pagan. I think JKR intends him as the Magnanimous Man, since every time he appears she has Hagrid say, "Great man. Dumbledore."

    Great as he is, though, his morality fails and Harry has to transcend the morality of Dumbledore and Hogwarts. How? By love alone.

    It turns out the only way to conquer the tie to evil within his own nature is to die to himself.

    I like the books for my kids because besides the really not very hidden Christian imagery, they are about how one seeks, finds and defends truth in an age of ideology. When the bureaucracy, the press and public opinion are filled with falsehood and it's literally forbidden to call evil by its name, how can evil be resisted? That seems to me like the story of our time!

  3. Thank you, Pam, and RC2, your comments are spot-on and make a solid case for the redeeming quality of story. That's a tomato worth growing and making into a really good sauce! Thank you!

  4. RC2 said so eloquently everything I meant to say. For isn't it love that Harry always wields as shield and sword, and that Voldemort is so unable to understand? And what is love but God? I find it hard to object to truth and beauty wherever I may find it because as you've said, it has but one source.

  5. Melissa, I applaud your comments--you put much more succinctly than I have why so many find good in stories that others would avoid. Thank you!

  6. We must also mention that in the same comment by the then Cardinal Ratzinger, he also stated that Harry and his mentors are characters we can emulate as they are the only ones not afraid to call evil by it's true name (Voldemort and Tom Riddle). He also stated that the series is a work of fantasy just as Lord of the Rings and Narnia (which also has magic). As such, the Cardinal stated parents need to be parents by ensuring their children are old enough to understand what is real and what is make believe. Heed the author's recommendation about children reading the later books due to the darker tones and death, and ensuring children have an understanding of the faith.

  7. Dan G, I agree, although by mentioning Lewis and Tolkien in the same breath, I don't think the Holy Father was saying that HP is of equal literary merit (nor am I saying that you implied that!). You correctly point out that HP, like anything else in this world, carries its share of peril … much like an encounter with a god in a Greek myth was rarely without its pitfalls, eh?

    Thank you for comment!


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