The Next Stage in De-Christianization of Fairy Tales?

Michael D. O´Brien´s Continued Critique of Harry Potter

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COMBERMERE, Ontario, DEC. 20, 2001 (Zenit.org).- Could Harry Potter´s world of wizardry entice its young audience into the occult?



Maybe, says Michael D. O´Brien, the author of "A Landscape With Dragons: The Battle for Your Child´s Mind" (Ignatius Press, 1998) and a pointed critic of the Potter phenomenon.

Here, the Canadian writer and Catholic father of six continues his second ZENIT interview (see first part in Dec. 18 archives) on the enormously popular J.K. Rowling novels.

Q: It has been argued that the cults are in decline, and therefore it is untrue to say that children are in greater danger these days of falling under their influence.

O´Brien: Even if they are in decline, the issue does not change. Statistics can be quite misleading. How much real decline is hard to assess. A priest friend of mine who a few years ago worked in a Catholic information office in the Archdiocese of Paris, told me there were approximately 500 known pagan cults operating in the city at the time, and that a larger number were active underground.

In fact, actual occult practice is soaring, usually not associated with public cults or organizations. It is now mainstreaming, especially among the young, who are getting into witchcraft and sorcery in growing numbers through internet, occult shops, libraries, peer pressure, etc. -- through private and semi-private avenues.

Father Gabriel Amorth´s book "An Exorcist Tells His Story" [Ignatius Press, 1999] examines this phenomenon. He is the chief exorcist of the Diocese of Rome, and has a lot to say about the rise of witchcraft and sorcery, and the resulting damage to the young generation through diabolic influence. He cites as a major cause the proliferation of occult lures through books, film, videos and Internet.

Q: In your articles on the subject you have referred to the Potter series as Gnostic. Isn´t this inaccurate, because the Gnostics were dualists? They saw material creation as evil, and only spiritual things as good. The world of Harry Potter is full of fun and its characters delight in adventures and parties and food and friendship. It sounds positive, full of life.

O´Brien: There was a wide variety of Gnostic sects in the first and second centuries, declining in the third century. But Gnosticism never entirely disappeared, emerging throughout the following centuries in a variety of forms, notably medieval alchemy and in the later occult movements of our own era.

It is significant that the late corruptions of traditional fairy tales -- by which I mean the taming of timeless symbols of evil, and sometimes the inversion of the metaphors of good and evil -- were brought about by writers who were involved in the esoteric religious movements of the 19th and 20th centuries.

A number of modern film adaptations of classic fairy tales are actually de-Christianized versions of literature that once reinforced the moral order of the universe, and no longer does so. Harry Potter represents the next stage in that process.

When I say that the Potter series is Gnostic, I am referring to the essence of Gnosticism. It is true that a majority of the early sects were dualist, that is, they despised material creation and exalted the spiritual -- definitely an anti-incarnational cosmology. But some sects were pantheistic, believing that what they called the "divine emanations" could be found within nature.

There was even a so-called Christian Gnosticism that tried to incorporate elements of Christian faith into their pagan worldview. They saw Christianity as a myth that contained some truths, and that Gnosticism was the full truth. Common to all of them, pantheist and dualist alike, was the belief that obtaining secret gnosis or knowledge was salvation. I would refer your readers to the studies of modern Gnosticism by Eric Voegelin, Thomas Molnar and Wolfgang Smith.

Q: There is no reference in the Potter series to anything spiritual. There are no religious practices described. So how can you really say that magic in Potter-world is anything like witchcraft in the real world?

O´Brien: There is no formal religion of witchcraft as such in the books. But how does secular culture understand and define "spiritual"? The immaterial, an unseen force, a power that interfaces with human existence? By this definition, Potter world is filled with religion. Furthermore, it must be seen in the context of the modern world, where materialism has blurred the lines between formal religion and spiritualities.

In the Potter books there are rituals, for example the Sorting Hat scene, in which an undefined power determines which of the four houses of Hogwarts the student witches and wizards will go into, to some extent reading each student´s character and influencing his or her destiny. There is an inference of supernatural gnosis here, a hint of some "higher" power. There is also divination in various forms ranging from silly to deadly earnest. There are ghosts attached to each house, again implying access to spiritual dimensions.

Then there´s the matter of curriculum: Some of the book titles in Harry´s training are lifted straight out of the world of real witchcraft. Children can type those titles into a search engine on the Internet and be instantly connected to a variety of sites offering them portals into the real world of witchcraft, sorcery and even overt Satanism.

Many of the practices developed in the books are the same as the real thing -- though they are sanitized, made to appear scary but fun, and without long-term consequences. They do show that some activities can be physically dangerous, but the message in this is, as long as you have enough knowledge and skill, you can get through the dangers quite fine.

When people defend the books by saying the stories disconnect witchcraft from spiritual realities, and therefore there is no danger of a child wanting to go from fantasy witchcraft to actual witchcraft, they´re leaping to a big conclusion without empirical evidence.

The books seem at first glance to disconnect witchcraft from the spiritual. They present it as very exciting and in no way spiritually dangerous. But this makes the series potentially more corrupting, because it gives to the child a false sense of what witchcraft is really about.

I urge your readers to visit the CANA Web site, where Marcia Montenegro, a former occult practitioner, outlines in great detail the close relationship between the "fantasy" magic of Harry Potter´s world and the world of real witchcraft and sorcery. Montenegro has done painstaking and well-documented research on this aspect of the series.

I am also intrigued by the way Rowling consistently portrays those characters who are critical or afraid of magic as vicious abusers or utterly ignorant. I wonder if this is an authorial pre-emptive strike against critics, or perhaps an attempt to soften a child reader´s instinctive aversion to the horrible, or to override whatever cautions against witchcraft and sorcery a child may have learned from parents or the Church.

The Dursleys, for example, are utterly despicable characters, very against magic. In Volume 4 we learn that Voldemort, the archetype of radical evil, began life as a student named Riddle, whom the author tells us was abandoned by his father as a child, and that this father was against magic. In short, the greatest evils, according to the narrative, have their root cause in anti-magic people.

Q: By saying that witchcraft is evil, aren´t you promoting a witch hunt mentality? Isn´t there a danger of more Salem witch trials?

O´Brien: I for one do not want more Salem witch trials. I think the danger of this is so small as to be almost nonexistent. No, the real danger lies in the opposite direction. The modern witch will be left free to do pretty much as she pleases -- perhaps have an interview on a talk show, write a best-selling book, make a presentation to a grade-school class doing a project on witchcraft, or found a Women´s Spirituality department at a Catholic university.

Q: Some academic figures have stated that anti-Potter critics deny the autonomy of culture.

O´Brien: Such commentators, even as they exalt the "autonomy of culture," are minimizing the significance of culture´s power to influence how we think, how we feel, how we perceive the world. In this sense they unwittingly reduce the importance of culture.

They are overlooking the fact that children and adolescents are highly impressionable. Children read fiction with a different consciousness than, say, a university professor. Children are in a state of formation, their understanding of reality is being formed at every turn. And a powerful work of fantasy that is packed full of emotional stimuli can be a major force in planting concepts and symbols deep in a child´s imagination -- one could even say in the architecture of their minds.

Look at your children watching a video, or reading an engrossing book. Their faces are open, innocent, reflecting a deep and unfiltered vulnerability to the content of the author´s message.

Many academics are applying limited sociopolitical templates to cultural phenomena such as the Potter series without serious consideration of other dimensions. Key factors are being neglected: For example the question of how, precisely, faith and culture can interrelate in a way that fosters the best possible fruit for souls, and for societies.

Much of Vatican II and the pontificate of John Paul II has focused on this crucial symbiotic relationship. How does a faulty understanding of that relationship contribute to bad fruit? Can autonomous social forces really be divorced from the whole configuration of life in the human community -- the relationship between freedom and responsibility?

In the Potter debate there has not been enough examination of the pagan assimilation of Christians through the vehicle of culture. Nor has there been much discussion of symbology, the power of symbols to distort or to nourish consciousness.

Q: But some of the pro-Potter writers in Catholic circles are considered to be orthodox Catholics.

O´Brien: They may very well be orthodox in terms of Church doctrine. Part of the problem is that for them the Potter issue does not appear to be a doctrinal issue. The cloak of "literature" or "culture" or "inculturation" has protected the books from an examination of how these stories may violate the teachings of the Church, or can lead the next generation closer to violation of those teachings.

Q: Would you say the Catholic world is divided on the Potter issue?

O´Brien: To a certain extent, yes. But differences of opinion can be a catalyst for deeper thought.

I would like to emphasize that the rightness or wrongness of the Potter series cannot be determined by weighing the ratio of pro-Potter and anti-Potter votes, as if to say that if there are 10 pros and 9 contras, or vice versa, then the jury has delivered a reliable verdict. Juries are often wrong. Again, the issue must be discerned according to first principles.

But I think the debate is useful, because it is helping to raise the questions that should be asked, and will be asked again and again in the coming years. There will be more Harry Potter books and films, and there will be a new generation of clone-books hot on their heels. This is only the beginning. We need to wake up now to the nature of this struggle, and we need to do some clear thinking about the issues involved.