"No" to Harry Potter Doesn´t Mean "Yes" to Fundamentalism

Author Michael D. O´Brien Defends Discretion with Rowling Books

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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.

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An audio critique of the Harry Potter series by Michael O´Brien and others is available at www.surprisedbytruth.com.