Fundamentalism Afoot in Anti-Potter Camp, Says New-Religions Expert

Popular Culture Enjoys an Autonomy, Explains Massimo Introvigne

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TURIN, Italy, DEC. 6, 2001 (Zenit.org).- What does one of Europe´s leading experts on new religious movements and sects think about Harry Potter?



ZENIT approached Massimo Introvigne to find out. He is the director of CESNUR, the Center for Studies on New Religions, an international network of associations of scholars working in the field of new religious movements. He has just published a book on Osama bin Laden.

Q: Many are critical of the Harry Potter books because they claim it is dangerous to expose children to witchcraft and the occult. What do you think?

Introvigne: As both a Roman Catholic and a social scientist, I regard this as an extremely interesting, yet dangerous, form of fundamentalism, a subject matter I have considerable interest in.

Fundamentalism, in general, consists in denying the autonomy of culture --and of the secular sphere in general, including politics -- claiming that there should be no distinction between religion and culture.

Fundamentalists, from a Catholic point of view, are not wrong in their diagnosis of a modern illness, that is, separation or divorce between religion and culture. It´s their cure that is wrong.

Vatican II -- and Thomas Aquinas several centuries before -- teaches that religion and culture should not be separated; at the same time they should not be confused, because they are not one and the same. When Vatican II mentions the autonomy of the secular sphere, its operative word is "distinction," something different from both secularist separation and fundamentalist confusion.

Fundamentalism is rare among Catholics, but the anti-Potter crusade is an example of how Protestant fundamentalist ideas are getting disseminated in certain Catholic milieus as well.

There is little doubt that the Harry Potter books and movie are prime examples of a social production of popular culture that -- unlike, say, in the 17th century -- is not controlled, nor determined, by the Church or the Christian community.

Secularists would say not only that this is always good and positive, but that we should judge contemporary cultural products leaving entirely aside Christian moral values.

Fundamentalists reject, or even burn, all products of contemporary popular culture, because their modes of production, languages and styles are not intrinsically Christian. If we honor the Catholic teaching on the autonomy of the culture, yet retain the right to judge its products based on our own values, we cannot dismiss contemporary popular culture as a whole and should judge on a case-by-case basis.

It is an obvious fact that modern popular culture often uses the language of magic. This goes back to classics such as "Lord of the Rings," "The Wizard of Oz," "Mary Poppins" and "Peter Pan," not to mention much older stories such as Cinderella, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty.

The authors of what we call "supernatural fiction" do not necessarily believe in magic. Most of them don´t. For instance, Bram Stoker, the creator of one of the ultimate novels of supernatural fiction, "Dracula," also wrote a book called "Famous Imposters" against all sort of superstitious and magical beliefs. Stoker was an Irish Protestant, married to a pious Catholic wife.

Most children understand that magic is used in fairy tales and juvenile supernatural fiction as a century-old language, and that this is fiction, not reality. If we dismiss the use of magic as a language, we should at least be fundamentalist to the bitter end, and go against "Mary Poppins," "Peter Pan" and "Sleeping Beauty," and insist that Cinderella puts a burkha on.

By the way, this is what not only the Taliban but even ruling Wahhabite puritans in Saudi Arabia do: All the titles and stories I have quoted were forbidden in Taliban Afghanistan, and most are in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, regarding magic as an acceptable language does not mean that we should not go on and examine what stories are told with this language. "Harry Potter," just as "Sleeping Beauty" or "Cinderella," pass this examination in my opinion with full flag, because the human values they teach are good natural values.

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.

Introvigne: It seems to me that there is a big confusion here between the author and the text.

It is not necessary to read modern secular theory of interpretation -- such, as say, Umberto Eco -- in order to realize that they are two very different things. It is enough to read classic philosophy in to distinguish between "intentio auctoris" and "intentio operas."

We all know that Tolkien was a good Church of England Christian. But I challenge anybody who would know nothing of Tolkien´s biography to find explicit references to Christianity in "Lord of the Rings." This is a typical alternative universe, where the rules of the game are simply not the same with respect to human history.

There have even been some idiots trying to create a religion out of Tolkien´s books. This is, of course, silly: Tolkien´s world is fictional, and should remain as such.

On the other hand, Pamela Travers, who wrote "Mary Poppins," was a loyal disciple of occult master George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, but this does not means that "Mary Poppins" is occult propaganda. Quite simply, the private beliefs of the authors do have a certain influence on their work but do not often translate into explicit references.

If anything, Tolkien´s world is much bleaker and problematic than "Harry Potter." But again, it´s fictional, and what really counts is the lesson we learn from the characters and their moral struggles.

Q: Others see in the Potter stories a classical children´s tale, albeit with magical elements, of good against evil. What positive elements are there in the books for readers?

Introvigne: Just as in Tolkien´s "Lord of the Rings" -- which I would however recommend for children a bit older than the average juvenile reader of "Harry Potter" -- there are precious values for the postmodern world we live in.

First, there is a clear distinction between good and evil. Second, this distinction is not black-and-white -- a trademark of both cheap popular culture and fundamentalism; rather, the good characters are continuously in danger of being overcome by an evil within themselves.

This is what makes these characters both believable and educational. By the way, I believe that not including specific references to Christianity in a fictional universe, even by an obviously Christian author such as Tolkien, is the right thing to do. Young readers should not be confused between fictional worlds and Christianity, the latter being very much part of reality.

Q: In recent years there has been a surge of interest in themes related to the occult. Is the interest in this area a sign of the lack of Christian influence in modern culture?

Introvigne: This is partially true, but many simply repeat that "the occult is on the rise" based on press cuttings, without any real familiarity with the existing large body of social scientific literature on this subject.

While it is true that some occult groups are growing, but remain small, they are still very small if compared to Christian denominations. In the European Union, members of occult or esoteric movements are less than 0.1% of the populations. This is also true in the U.S.

The fact that the media offer a large coverage of these groups does not mean that they are, in fact, large. Some beliefs are on the rise, particularly reincarnation, but this is not a pure "occult " belief -- it is found in some contemporary fiction, but rarely.

On the other hand, concluding that the occult is on the rise because of the popularity of TV serials such as "Charmed," "The X-Files" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" is, again, a confusion between fiction and reality.

These shows have a large following in Europe, yet occult movements are actually experiencing a decline here. There is, thus, some empirical evidence that a decade of heavy fictional magic on TV did not translate in increased membership for occult movements -- if one ignores, as he or she should rightly do, the propaganda utterances of the leaders of these movements themselves, some of whom try to exploit "Harry Potter" or the TV serials for their own ends, and relies on social scientific literature rather than on anecdotal evidence.

Q: One consequence of the Potter books has been to spark interest in reading among children. On the other hand, some worry about the creation of imaginary worlds and the difficulties this can create for children in distinguishing reality and fiction. What should parents do to guide their children?

Introvigne: I believe that "Harry Potter" worked its real magic in winning back children to books from TV. Only "Harry Potter" induced my 8-year-old daughter to say that she preferred to read than to watch TV -- we were very surprised. This is surely good.

On the other hand, we did not leave the situation unchecked and constantly discussed "Harry Potter" with our daughter, making sure she understood that magic there is fictional, whilst good moral values are real and should prevail also in the real world.

Parents should ideally do this -- and we know it´s difficult -- with most products of contemporary popular culture, graduating them according to their children´s age, rather than enclosing their kids in a fundamentalist ghetto.

I wouldn´t like a Catholic version of the Taliban regime, and quite frankly prefer my Cinderella to go to her party without a burkha.