Friday, February 19, 2010

To Potter or Not To Potter

I have written about Harry Potter before:

Today I came across this post on Mark Shea's blog:

…wherein he and his readers get all bent out of shape over this latest article by Michael O'Brien:

I honestly don't understand why those who like Harry Potter are so bothered by those who don't. Doesn't every parent have a right to discern these things for their own family? This is especially surprising coming from a fellow home schooler. Aren't we supposed to be the most respectful of other parents' decisions. Don't we face enough criticism from the world for being "too protective", "too religious", etc.?

As I understand it, O'Brien was asked by friends for his opinion, so he is giving it. His writings on this topic (not just Potter, but fantasy in general) happen to resonate with a lot of people, myself included.

His mention of certain spiritual phenomena are not the meat of his argument against the Potter series. He notes them as signals, but then forms his arguments in light of scripture and Church teaching. We have to be objective and think clearly and do some research. But I know I have definitely learned to trust my wife's intuition in matters pertaining to faith and family

Don't the rest of you experience this? Do you ever see a movie trailer and think, "I'll pass..."? And if someone later tells you, "Oh don't worry about it, Horton Hears A Who was actually a really cute movie!", do you owe Walt Disney an apology for not seeing it?

I am often told by Potter lovers (and DaVinci Code lovers, and plenty of other examples), it's "just a book". To which I respond, the library's full of them, why do you care if I pass on this one? Why so sensitive?

Someone please point me to an article that explains how Harry Potter is good, or at least morally neutral and not even slightly dangerous. If you disagree with O'Brien, write a charitable rebuttal, and I'll consider it. At this time, I find the anti- arguments far more compelling.


nicole said...

I can't point to any articles at the moment, although it seems I read a few when I was reading the books the first time. It is hard for me to say how "dangerous" the books might be to children, since I have only read them as an adult, relatively well-formed. I will let my kids read them, with me, when they are older. As with so many things that are not matters of doctrine, each family must and should choose what is right for them, and not feel that they have a place to judge others. But, that is what happens in the world, even in the (hopefully) more charitable and forgiving Christian, homeschooling world.

I will say that I would be very hesitant to outright forbid my kids from reading such easily accessible books, only because then they would be more likely to read them behind my back and we would not get to discuss what is real and not real and objectionable and so on. You and Momma Llama will make the right choice for your family and stand firm, as you have had to do in so many other circumstances.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Come on Daddio! I know you aren't as naive as this post seems, right?
: )

You know that this is not simply a case of Pro-Potters forcing the books down the throats of Anti-Potters who are just choosing to nonchalantly pass by the F ROW shelf of the library. Some pretty vocal and well known Catholics have made it their mission to prove how these books are dangerous to our childrens' souls. There's the rub!

Michael O'Brien, someone whose opinions I take with a huge grain of salt, did not just sit and jot down his thoughts on the subject at the friendly request of some friends. The article that Mark linked to is actually the preface of a book O'Brien has written that will be published this spring (right before the last movies are released thereby still capitalizing on the hype of the series). O'Brien states that the book was pulled together from 10 years worth of articles he has been writing for various periodicals. OK. So obviously, he has made this his business for a while, not just this once.

If someone wants to offer their opinion on the literary quality of the writing, underlying themes along with character and plot development, then great! But as soon as they start telling me that I am jeopardizing the well being of my child's soul and possibly opening them up to demonic possession (both actual arguments I have heard first hand)...they cross a line unless they are a person of high theological training and offer specific evidence from the text not just their opinions.

People like O'Brien don't know me. They don't know my children and they also aren't placing a lot of trust in the reception of the sacraments and the gift of faith and grace. Even Fr. Amorth the exorcist, whose opinion is frequently leaned on by those trying to prove the supposed subversive nature of these books, will tell you that frequent reception of the sacraments is the best protection against the works of the devil in the world. So 7 books written by a member of the Church of Scotland have more power than the Holy Eucharist or the Sacrament of Confession?

We can easily agree to disagree on the literary merits of this book series just like any other book series out there: Percy Jackson (blech), Sisters Grimm (eh), Lemony Snicket (gross) or even comic book stories of superheroes and super villains. There really was only one Super Man (Christ, right?) so any other attempt to undermine a child's thinking on that in the context of a fantastical story written by two Jewish men who did not accept Christ as the Savior might be putting their soul in danger. You'd get more than a little annoyed if someone's very public conversation turned in that direction, wouldn't you?

(continued below...)

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Regarding the literary merits of HP, I don't think there are many aside from the fact that it is an interesting tale. There are things I don't agree with like some of the language used in the later books, the hormones that kick-in in the later books and some of the issues dealt with in the final volume which I think is the weakest of the 7. For that reason, we have decided which ones our kids can read and have discussed with them our concerns about the later ones. They understand those concerns and because they take our opinions and thoughts to heart, theyt accept our decision to not allow them to read them until such a time as they are mature enough and well formed enough in their consciences.

Books like the Da Vinci Code and the Golden Compass are in a completely different category. My biggest gripe against the HP series is that it gives into secularism the way most science fiction/fantasy stories do whether they are stories about superheroes or stories about wizards at boarding school. Most fantasy stories like their science fiction counterparts tend to be more pagan friendly than even Rowling's imaginary world. In HP, they celebrate Christmas, but don't talk about why. They recognize the nature of true sacrifice without mentioning Christ's perfect sacrifice. They know what is good and what is evil without discussing the nature of True Good and true evil. But there is not anything explicitly anti-Catholic or anti-deist in these books and I have read them all multiple times. If there is anything there that you have to dig down deep to find then the author definitely failed in her attempt to be subversive. And frankly, I don't think Rowling is morally introspective enough to be subversive. She is simply a product of the modern secular world like most other modern authors out there.

For me...both my Husband and I who received very thorough educations at respected Catholic universities with decent theology departments and who have continued to educate ourselves in the faith, have read the books for ourselves and have determined which ones we are comfortable allowing our children access to at what ages, just like we do with every other book series that comes through the door and just like we hope every other parent does for their child. In discussing these difficult and very personal subjects, the attitude SHOULD be "this is what I think is best for my family but I allow the possibility that another family could make an equally valid different decision". Sadly, O'Brien and others have made an industry out of criticizing this particular series which isn't very intellectually honest, in my opinion.

Every parent should try to make the best decision for their family and should be at peace with that decision especially if it is made prayerfully and thoughtfully. But if someone, anyone starts getting their feathers ruffled about that and starts insinuating that I am not protecting my children from a serious mortal danger to their immortal souls and risking their damnation... we're gonna have words! : )

Daddio said...

Ooh, controversy. ;) You're not the lurkers I was hoping to draw out, but I'll take it.

First, to Nicole, nothing is "easily accessible" in this house. We are talking about children who have not been formed. Of course they will grow up one day and make their own decisions. I don't believe it is my job to slowly build their tolerance to poison so that they aren't shocked when they leave my home. It is my job to help build their armor and form their consciences, so that they ARE sensitive to, even horrified by evil, and are strong enough to resist its temptations.

Charlotte, I really want to know. What part of O'Brien's article(s) do you disagree with? What does he misrepresent? Where does he reach the wrong conclusion?

I know it's more than one little note to his friends, I shouldn't have put it that way (that is how it started, but not what it is now). He believes there's an audience and is clearly getting a lot of attention for it, why shouldn't he put it all together in a book? Isn't that why every book is written? They think they're right, they think you're wrong.

If you disagree, then disregard it. I routinely ignore bad parenting advice from crazy people.

Here's my thought. I've done some research, and O'Brien's ideas in particular resonate with me and my wife. (Well honestly, I don't know if her spiritual antenna are up on this one, she just gets turned off by anything that becomes popular and develops a cult following of nerds.)

How is magic different than Superman and other harmless stories? Because comic book fans and Trekkies are just nerds in costumes. A kid who idolizes Superman will jump off the roof and discover that he can't fly, and that'll be the end of it. A kid/tween/adolescent who is fascinated with magic will find himself welcomed into a dark and devoted subculture that will show him something that is real, and really evil.

I see my kids, with their personalities and inclinations, as particularly vulnerable to these type of things.

We were just watching a really cool R-rated action movie yesterday afternoon, and I was thinking how cool it will be when I can take the boys with me to see some entertaining action/explosion/bad-guy-killing movies. I'm sure they will be huge Bond fans with me.

I have considered the possibility that maybe I'm just making excuses for things that do appeal to me, and ruling out Harry Potter because the whole magic/fantasy genre just doesn't interest me in the least. Maybe Potter lovers are doing the same thing (it's not "bad magic", it's "good magic" - I missed that distinction in the Catechism).

Maybe none of us is causing any real harm by enjoying a little worldly entertainment.

Note about comic books - I'm thinking of classic superhero stuff as harmless. Never really ready any. I know a lot of new stuff is pretty dark and intense and spiritual and sexual, I do have issues with that.

nicole said...

By easily accessible I suppose I was thinking more of my own children, who go to public school and can check the books out eventually. I just think that part of formation will eventually include exploring some questionable things together, so that my children can develop an understanding of the dangers and answer their friends (and not friends, but challengers) when questioned on the choices our family may make. I am NOT saying that we will also experiment with drugs so that they can see why they are bad, or encourage casual s@x so they can see how damaging that is, so let's not assume that from the previous statement. Just saying that I can see us reading the books together in the future.

I agree that the Potter books are different from traditional superhero stuff, since there is a real and active occult out there. But--how different from Lord of the Rings or Chronicles of Narnia that also have some elements of magic? Yes, they seem to have very clear parallels to Christianity, but neither series overtly declares a Christian allegory.

Like I said, my kids are not reading them now, although some peers are doing so. I'm kind of thinking that if they are interested, we will read them at the same age as the characters in the books, so starting at 11 and going forward. There are definite relationship elements that I don't want them reading about right now, in addition to the increasing dark tones throughout the series.

I didn't read them for a long time because I was sure they were just junk, popular for no good reason. I still don't think they'll go down as great works of literature. They were/are fun to read though.

We can always find reasons to not do something or to justify something in our lives. As you have said, and I have said, and countless others, a lot of these things come down to each family making informed decisions for themselves and being confident in that. We can share those reasons with others without condemning them and then let them decides for themselves. We're not arguing doctrine here. ;)

Daddio said...

I agree, Nicole. These are matters of "prudential judgment" that are left to parents.

Daddio said...

For an analysis of the difference between the use of magic and symbolism in Harry Potter versus Tolkien and Lewis, see here:

Red Cardigan said...

Hi, Daddio. I hope you don’t mind if I jump in here!

I’m coming at this a bit differently from many. I’ve read six of the seven Potters, but don’t plan on letting my girls read them anytime soon. This is not because I think they are occult, evil, productive of “spiritual nausea” (as O’Brien put it), or any such thing--but simply because they include some typical bratty-teen behavior, gross humor (in the later books) and similar issues, while lacking the literary chops to make those flaws easy to overlook. I fully respect those who decide otherwise, though.

To me, Rowling is a highly talented but extremely frustrating writer. Her flashes of brilliance are too often followed by pages of repetition and mediocrity; her unevenness as a writer makes slogging through her books much more of a chore than it ought to be. I do not believe at all that Rowling needs an exorcism; I do, however, wish that someone had made sure she had an editor.

That said, though, I can’t really respect Michael O’Brien’s way of writing about Rowling. Just the link provided here, to the preface to Mr. O’Brien’s upcoming book, is rather appalling, frankly. First, we have the highly self-centered portrait of the artist as a reluctant critic, not willing to wade into the Potter battle, crying out, “Why me, O Lord?” like a psalmist or prophet; then we have his description of three friends (conveniently meaningful number, that!) who all innocently began previewing the books thinking they’d be fine, and then magically--there’s no other word for it--experiencing a supernatural revelation of spiritual nausea; and then we have Mr. O’Brien’s terrifying nightmares in which he divines (and I thought dream-divination was forbidden!) that he is indeed facing a diabolical enemy in Ms. Rowling’s works, but that he will prevail as the Christian hero ought. Do I really have to point out the huge red blinking signals which indicate rather strongly that there is something terribly wrong with this way of looking at things?

To look at just one more thing, O’Brien says shudderingly that Rowling wishes that magic were real. Rowling is, of course, not the first adult Christian to have said such a thing; in his “Apologia Pro Vita Sua” Cardinal Newman traces the beginnings of his journey to Catholicism as his boyhood experience of reading the Arabian Nights, and wishing with all his heart that they were real. Rowling’s view of the world is still, I think, rather childish; certainly there is some wish-fulfillment going on in the books, as when the gawky, nerdy Hermione takes everyone’s breath away (no, not literally) at a school dance when she bothers to dress up. But having a somewhat childish wish that one could really point a wand or wave a hand and have, say, a whole roomful of clutter organize itself is not something only Rowling has ever wished for--even Mary Poppins could do that much, all while singing a cheerful tune (and performing a pretty duet with her mirror image, which then gets carried away into a color passage, and gets called cheeky for its pains).

The truth is that Michael O’Brien does not write like a careful literary critic or a cautious spiritual analyst; he writes more like a man with an axe to grind, a vendetta to pursue--or, alas, a book to sell. And while “Harry Potter and the Coattails of Wild Financial Success” is a book quite a few Potter commenters, pro or con, might love to write, presenting oneself as the holder of arcane knowledge, of dreams and omens and waves of spiritual nausea that prove the Potter books to be spiritually deadly, is itself an enterprise fraught with the serious potential of spiritual danger.

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Look, it’s really hard to discuss a third party’s interpretation of some books that I have read and you haven’t when I don’t agree with the third party’s interpretations but you do.

Now, I’m not going to tell you that you have to read the books before you can comment on them because then you would argue “Do you have to read the Da Vinci Code to know that it’s bad? Do I have to read Pl*yb*y to know that it’s bad?” But right now, you are asking about O’Brien’s work and wanting me to refute his points and frankly, I don’t agree with his whole premise or interpretation.

I am not interested in debating Mr. O’Brien or his arguments. I don’t like that he has made an industry out of condemning this series and I think that makes him a little biased. I also haven’t read enough of his arguments against HP to debate his points properly, but again I really have no desire to after having read some of his books many years ago.

Reading other people’s critiques isn’t how I was taught to judge literature. I had a wonderful literature professor (who we still get to visit with every Sunday at the Monk Mass) who taught me to read and evaluate for myself based on specifics from the source material.

(continued below)

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

My evaluation of the material is that the “magic” used in the books simply exists to create the setting of an alternate world, a very medieval world that still uses candles, feather quills and inkpots created by an author who uses her own version of magic as a literary device that stands in as a substitute for the technological advances that this alternate world lacks. That’s all.

Now, that said… if a parent has dabbled in the occult, they would naturally shy away from even the slightest mention of magic of any kind much the same way a recovering alcoholic wouldn’t want their children to read stories that included even minor use of alcohol. And on a personal note, I will confess that my childhood fascination with neo-paganism is what makes me turn away from the Percy Jackson series. But I acknowledge that those issues are my issues with the material, not the fault of the books or the author, nor would I accuse the author of attempting to turn my children into little pagans.

On another point, I will admit that if I saw my children becoming too fascinated with anything whether it was something they read or something they watched, I would very quickly step in and discuss with them that the Church teaches moderation in all things including our imagination and fascinations. With a son who has a tendency to pick a topic and want to study it to death, the moderation conversation has already been well practiced and established in our house.

Regarding James Bond, it’s just as much of a fantasy world as the world of HP. Daring escapes from impossible missions, lightening fast cars and unbelievably stacked blondes. Come on!

You don’t think that watching movies where casual violations of the 5th and 6th commandments occur frequently is just as dangerous, if not more, as introducing your children to a literary device that is used as a substitute for technology in the context of a story about good vs. evil that they might or might not encounter at some point in time in the future real world? Dude. Personally, I think it is more likely that my children will encounter opportunities to casually violate the 6th commandment than they will encounter real witchcraft. Did it ever occur to you that maybe James Bond is just helping you slowly build their tolerance up to those ideas so that they aren't shocked when they are confronted with it in college?

Don’t mistake my argument as giving approval to HP because I don’t think my kids will ever be introduced to witchcraft in real life. That’s not my point. I have judged for myself that these books are not a danger to my children and have made my decisions accordingly. I do not think they should be required reading for all children or even considered tomes of great literature. They are interesting stories with good character development and an ultimate moral code that I don’t disagree with even though I might quibble with some of the bratty behavior and gross humor that Erin mentioned that also shows up in a lot of modern areas of life.

Daddio said...

Thanks for the input. I apologize to my wife for hijacking your lovely, happy blog and bothering your friends.

Stirred but not shaken,

MommaLlama said...

Thanks Daddio... I don't mind you hacking :-)

I will throw my hat into the ring, though... why the heck not, right ;-)!

First, I am in no way a talented writer... so my answers will not be very inspiring in that department (and very likely won't make much sense... I'm sort of known for that :-)!

Second... any series that stirs up this much controversy always raises a red flag for me.

Look (grand pause while checking teleprompter- I mean scanning the audience like Obama), it is fluff. Fantasy fluff at that. People on both sides are doing anything and everything they can to prove that it is evil, or that it's a great read filled with blah blah blah.

I'm hearing the same blah blah blah about those ridiculous vampire books/movies!

If that's how grown-ups want to spend their time, well, that's their deal. Personally I'll pass.

I personally don't like fantasy reading. I have no interest in reading about bratty teens who are escaping their crappy lives to be fake wizards/witches, or vampires, or aliens, or dragons, or whatever the next thing is to come out.

At this point, I'm much more interested in reading something that will teach me something, make me a better person, illuminate my faith, and expound on my vocation as a mother. For my children... well, these books just seem way too TRENDY! Hopefully in a few years the noise will die down and every where we look HP won't be shoved down my throat...

On a side note, I remember in AP English being forced to read a few new and trendy books that were truly inappropriate to force us to read. These books were supposedly cutting edge, and looking back I wish I had a voice (or had parents who would have stuck up for my immortal soul)... in that hindsight I think I am maybe more critical of books that seem to catch such a spotlight!

Daddio said...

Trouble maker...

MommaLlama said...

Well, you're the pot in this relationship... and I'm the kettle :-)!

Charlotte (Matilda) said...

Well, if we are called to give up all things trendy I guess my Mac and my iPod should be the first things to go! : ) I'll keep my Tempurpedic mattress because it really does make me a better person in the morning!

I agree with you that trendy and popular doesn't automatically mean it will work in my house. But the flags I see are more of caution, not danger. I don't let the world's impressions of something make up my mind for me, it just means that I need to explore it and decide for myself whether it's a book for my children or a new social networking thing for me. I also recognize that catching the spotlight and being trendy also means an excellent marketing campaign and that can't really be blamed on the author. Once an author has written their story and the editors have done their thing, the marketing department steps in and lets fly.

Regarding this series, the only hype that is left is over the last two movies coming out and a new theme park. JK Rowling has nothing to do with those other than collecting on the rights to the name, I'm sure, and frankly, neither do the books themselves. The series is done and finished. The hype has died down and in a matter of what came first, the chicken or the egg, people like me only start discussing them again when we are told by others that they are a danger to our immortal souls. Frankly, that's giving an awful lot of power to an inanimate object.

You are certainly entitled to believe that any stories or these alone are just fantasy fluff, but I know a certain Cistercian priest who would be happy to explain why he has spent the better part of his life examining and teaching others to examine the truths found in all kinds of writing and how they can lead us to the ultimate Truth. It may not suit your particular taste but I would be really cautious about judging the way in which others choose to use the intellect and reason that God has given them. I don't really see the point or spiritual efficacy of watching an entire basketball game that ends in triple digit point totals. Obviously it's not that hard to do if they can do it 50+ times in one game. What's the big deal? Right? But it doesn't have to always be about spiritual efficacy.

Our intellect and reason are there for a reason and those reasons are not all the same. We are all made in the image and likeness of God, but that doesn't mean that we are all made the same. Some people like to delve deeply into subjects like this as an exercise for that intellect. Some people like to grapple with other subjects that they find interesting. Some people like to sit and just watch the beautiful sunset without thinking at all. It's all good!

Chesterton said, "Truth is stranger than fiction because we create fiction to suit our fancy." But by studying that fiction we come to understand the human condition better and studying the human condition is studying God's creation. You don't have to do it, but we should all try to allow for the fact that someone else might find it worthwhile.

This has been fun y'all. Have a great day!

MommaLlama said...

I think this is just one of those topics where every side can come up with some sort of justification on the matter... and no matter what someone else will disagree with it. That's the nature of something that is subjective (especially when it comes to forms of entertainment)... right?

It certainly makes for interesting comments.