A Priestly Perspective on Fears of Harry Potter
"Why Is It That One Book Will Lead Their Children to the Occult?"
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CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia, DEC. 20, 2001 (Zenit.org).- At the university founded by Thomas Jefferson, a raging question of the times is ... Harry Potter.
"I am at a university parish and have been asked about the Harry series many times by parents -- those who are pro-Harry and those con-Harry,´" says Dominican Father Thomas J. Blau, who is also involved with campus ministry at the University of Virginia.
ZENIT interviewed Father Blau to get a pastoral sense of how he deals with questions about the appropriateness of the Harry Potter books for children.
Q: How did you get interested in the issue of Harry Potter?
Father Blau: I had no more interest in Harry Potter than I had in "Narnia" or "Lord of the Rings" at first, and that was not much. But people kept asking me about the morality of the Harry books, and there are some very emotional articles on the Internet about it.
Q: Why does the character of Harry Potter trouble some parents so much?
Father Blau: I believe a couple of things are at work. First, I think that there is definitely the influence of U.S. fundamentalism here. U.S. fundamentalists have condemned the book, and Catholics are following their lead.
Yet often their theology is not well developed in the area of the occult, so they throw the word around much too easily. This worries Catholic parents who have seen some good things in U.S. [Protestant] Christianity, particularly in the area of family life. Therefore if a Christian family organization targets Harry, the Catholics accept their view.
Second, I see a definite "ignorance of genre" as is also found in U.S. fundamentalism. To ignore the distinction between "fiction" and "textbook" is intellectual blindness. Harry is not a textbook.
Third, parents have seen Catholic families in which the children have decided not to follow the faith. For parents it may be their own brothers and sisters. They are on the lookout for anything that may lead to that loss of faith. And after Harry was targeted by fundamentalists, Catholics began to suspect it as a danger.
Q: Are these fears well founded?
Father Blau: A story from my past may help. I was teaching in an inner-city Catholic school in Ohio. A parent once complained that I was allowing their children to "read a book by 1) an atheist, 2) whose Nietzschean philosophy is present in the book, and 3) who committed suicide."
My response was that 1) the children were actually reading on the playground and at lunch -- they were coming to love to read; that 2) the story was not a biography of the author but rather fiction about the adventures of a big fluffy dog named Buck; and that 3) the students probably didn´t even know the name of the author, Jack London.
Knowledge misused is a dangerous thing. I think that this is the same error -- the children are reading a fictional book, nothing more. One day, if they learn to love to read now, it may be Theresa´s "Story of a Soul," or "The Dialogues" of Catherine of Siena, or papal encyclicals or great classical works of literature, poetry, etc.
Q: What do the Potter fears tell you about the state of the American family?
Father Blau: First, when I hear people calling the Potter books "textbooks" or "manuals" I hear echoes of the fundamentalist error of ignoring literary genres.
Fundamentalists do it all the time with the Bible, and now Catholics are making the same error in regard to fictional reading. That concerns me, for our Church has always loved good literature. Most naysayers have never even read the text -- and that rash judgment is not Catholic.
Second, is what is implied in what I am hearing. What is going on in U.S. Catholic family life that one book would make a child a Satanist? What is going on in the home that they could so easily switch?
Is the Catholic Church and our life being presented to these children in such a repugnant way that a child would "jump ship" from living in the love and mercy of God, to seeking after evil? Parents who say that Harry is going to influence their children to the occult are making a statement about their own family life!
These parents have a real problem: Why is it that this one book will lead their children to seek the occult? It tells me that the faith of that family must be so fragile, so much a veneer that one book, one fictional book will convince their child to abandon Christianity. That is amazing! And I actually think it is an overreaction, not a reasoned response as Catholics should have.
Q: The use of magic in Harry Potter -- does it hold real dangers for children? Would it be a problem for young children but not older children?
Father Blau: It is no more of a problem than the use of magic in Tolkien´s "Lord of the Rings," which has wizards both good and bad, beasties galore, magic elves, good people and very bad people. In the end of "Lord of the Rings," justice prevails, good triumphs and evil is vanquished -- just as with Harry.
I read all of Shakespeare, and he has many witches and ghosties. When I was dumb and young I watched "The Exorcist" -- no temptation to do Satanism there either. When I was a youngster, Lewis´ "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" and "Perelandra" did not inspire occult practices in me. Nor have they inspired such practices in my nieces and nephews.
Lewis´ "Till We Have Faces" -- based on the pagan Cupid-Psyche myth -- didn´t inspire paganism either. And "King Arthur"/"Merlin" did not influence me, nor anyone I have ever met, to begin the "occult" practices of that famous wizard.
And more to the point, these books do not even mention the classical signs of occult practices -- Tarot cards, pentagrams, desecration of religious objects, and Ouija boards. Only a poor understanding of occult practices could make this error -- this is why I suspect U.S. fundamentalism.
As far as the age level, I think it depends on the individual child. I know parents who skip over the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary because they are too graphic for a young sensitive child. So, as always, parents should screen all books and movies that any of their children would read.
Let Harry be one of many books that the child will read this year -- of all genres: history, fiction, biography, etc. I also think that the misplaced zeal against Harry Potter should be redirected to the real enemy of a child´s soul: unmonitored TV and unrestricted Internet access. Those "one-eyed monsters" are the real dangers.
Q: When you read Harry what do you, as an uncle to little ones and a Catholic priest, see in it?
Father Blau: I see an orphan, picked on, not loved, and wondering who he is in the world. Then I see his mother´s love protecting him from evil his whole life -- even after she has died. A mother´s love protecting a child throughout life -- what a beautiful image! He was not left an orphan! What a consoling thought! Harry has a protective godfather also.
He is adopted by a poor family -- the Weasleys -- who already have many children, yet who love him so much that they make sure he receives an "ugly sweater" on Christmas just like the others! Wonderful!
Do I see pranksters? No doubt, and St. Philip Neri, Rome´s practical joker, will have some goodhearted jokers like himself to pray for! I read in these books about a youngster who chooses to use his skill not for evil but for good -- at the service of others. He chose Gryffindor -- the good side, not Slytherin -- the evil side. The same decision made us applaud Luke Skywalker.
That shows a sense of honor, chivalry and justice. He works to conquer wrongdoing and evil, and he triumphs. Not bad for a fictional book.
Q: What do you recommend to parents concerned about Harry Potter?
Father Blau: First, I think that parents should read the books. Know why this story is so attractive to young people. Then parents might encourage "make-believe." Let them simply try to ride a broomstick! It immediately teaches fiction from real life for the child, and definitely will give the family a laugh. Do not thwart the development of imagination.
Second, if Harry gets the youngsters reading -- wonderful! Keep the books flowing. It should merely be one book in a long list of books that we hope children will read.
Third, Catholic parents should not misread this genre as so many have. It is excellent fiction; it is a lousy "manual" because it was not written to be a manual. Be Catholic in one´s approach, not fundamentalist. The same kind of material is found in C.S. Lewis´ "Narnia Chronicles" -- talking lions, unicorns; and Tolkien´s "Hobbit"/"Lord of the Rings" -- dragons, wizards and evil galore; "King Arthur"-- more wizardry and ghosties; Shakespeare; and the "Wizard of Oz."
Lastly, if the family has a vibrant, joy-filled, loving home, then the parents should not be afraid. The nonverbal homily of a Christian life will help the child love the faith. And let the books give them images which can help teach virtue and truth.
Children wanting to read -- a teacher´s dream come true! With that desire the wonders of God´s world and the Church can open up before them. Don´t snuff it out.