the obligatory Harry Potter post

In case you were wondering, yes I went to the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

And yes, I am suffering from a lack of sleep today, but not so much that I don’t want to share my experience with you. I think this is especially relevant because many of my readers come from friendships I’ve made through Catholic media. I often don’t think of myself as a “real” producer of Catholic media although I am both a practicing Catholic and a blogger and podcaster (perhaps more accurately a commentator on a couple of podcasts).

In spite of my discomfort with the label, I cannot deny that I am both Catholic and a producer of new media, so today I find myself capitalizing on both experiences to delve into the world of apologetics. It’s not what you’re accustomed to hearing about when you see the word apologetics, though. You see, I am about to launch into a defense of Harry Potter.

Yes, I am a Harry Potter Apologist. Let’s put that out there right now so you can either call me a heretic or a hero. In either case, pray for me and my on-going conversion. I can’t have enough people praying for me. That’s a good thing.

But back to Harry and his wizarding world. I love the stories. They are well-written and full of all kinds of interesting and wonderful studies of the human condition, mythological constructs, and yes, supernatural events. It’s not unlike many of the other stories that have become a part of our cultural literacy in the last couple of hundred years.

While I am sometimes hesitant to speak directly on Catholic themes because I feel ill-prepared and poorly trained in that area, I can speak from my training as a professor of literature (in fact, you can here me expound on a lot of this stuff in SQPN’s Secrets of Harry Potter, a podcast that explores the literary, mythological, historical, and religious themes of the series) and join a conversation that resurfaces in Catholic blogs and social media every time a book or movie in the series is released.

I do not believe Harry Potter is intrinsically evil, nor do I think it directly, or even indirectly, makes our children into little pagans. I do believe, however, that it is a parental right to determine what one’s children read, so I would no more label the series evil than I would call it essential reading. That is up to the individual to decide.

However, I have increasingly found myself in the position of having to defend my admiration for the series in relation to my obedience to the teachings of the Catholic Church. I’m not talking about the folks who don’t “get” the stories or who don’t like them for the simple reason that these kinds of fantasy stories are not appealing. That’s a matter of taste. I don’t like detective stories. There are enough genres to satisfy everyone’s tastes.

I’m talking about the people who label me a bad Catholic or even a heretic for enjoying the stories. Turnabout is fair play, as they say, so I automatically label them small-minded and a bunch of unoriginal tunnel-visioned lemmings. See? I can be passionate, too. 🙂

The truth is probably somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. Anton Chekov, a 19th century Russian writer, suggests that we should read a variety of literature. In those cases where the stories challenge our value systems we have the unique opportunity to decide for ourselves what to make of it. In a brief letter to critics titled “On Morality in Fiction,” Chekov explains that it is his job as a writer to create stories and it is “entirely upon the reader to add for himself the subjective elements that are lacking in the story.” I am mature enough in my faith to recognize the elements that are compatible and contribute to thoughtful analysis, and those elements which are conflictive.

Thomas Jefferson, the American statesman best known for his part in writing the Declaration of Independence, is often paired with Chekov for holding the opposing view. Jefferson, in “On the Dangers of Reading Fiction,”  believes that reading fiction that challenges our values leads to “a bloated imagination, sickly judgment, and disgust towards all the real businesses of life.” He’s probably right, too. Certainly, reading anything without any critical thinking turns us into unoriginal thinkers, and has the potential to pick away at our sensibilities until we are desensitized, or worse, apathetic to the values we once held strongly.

I see the merits in both arguments, yet I more comfortably fit in with Chekov’s viewpoint. In defense of the series, I’d like to offer a couple of blog posts about two very important themes: love and redemption. I hope you come back tomorrow to read about the saving power of love, and later this week to read about healing and redemption. In the meantime, I’d like to know where you stand — with Chekov? or Jefferson?

10 thoughts on “the obligatory Harry Potter post

  1. I got to the end of the post, and I’m still waiting for an actual apologia and defense of Harry Potter itself. Perhaps you’re unclear on what (some of) the real arguments against it are?

    (I haven’t seen the last movie yet, so these items are more about the earlier ones)

    1) HP series affirms that there are two kinds of people: the special people – this is a cypher for celebrities in our culture – who can do magic, and muggles, the bland and boring, those who “don’t get it”. HP himself is a special celebrity among celebrities. He’s predestined (in the protestant sense). Contrast this with LoTR: the central character is a normal, flawed, weak person who becomes heroic while remaining normal, flawed and weak.
    2) HP doesn’t have particular moral quandries: it’s assumed he doesn’t do particularly bad things because he isn’t a particularly bad person. This is a denial of the effects of original sin.
    3) Harry relies on himself and his friends to “save” himself, and his friends. Harry Potter needs no higher power.
    4) There’s very little in the way of authentic self-sacrificial love here – although I’ll almost grant Sirius Black.
    5) Dumbledore is a cypher for a much more deist-style God father-figure. Hands off, let the kids break the rules and reward them for it. Show up to give just the right amount of help to keep the story moving. Dumbledore dies while attempting to make up for his mistakes, not those of others.
    6) Rules of behavior? What rules of behavior? There is no intrinisic positive moral schema to HP’s acts, it is always responsive to some kind of evil. This isn’t the way the world works.
    7) Temptation and struggle? Not that I’ve seen in any legitimate sense. Contrast with the One Ring in LoTR again. The will-to-power for some good cause is taken as a good end in itself.
    8) Failure, redemption, and forgiveness? Again, maybe in a local sense of making a mistake and making up for it, but not in the sense of a legitimate betrayal and return. It implies that ‘bad people do bad things’ and ‘good people do good things’ and that’s it.
    9) The desire for super-powers masks the human, innate, desire for God. You can waste a lot of time trying to fill yourself with fantasy before you realize what you’re really missing is real reality – God Himself.

    How about those for a start? I can come up with others.

    1. Those are pretty awesome, actually, although I tend to disagree. I’ll get to some in the next post, and others in the one after that.

      I’d say that in #7 temptation is abundant in all the books, starting with the resurrection stone and controlling one’s mortality, to Voldemort’s hubris that he needs no one, no power beyond himself, and thus fails.

      As far as apologias, you’re right — not very academic in this post…mostly just trying to gauge where the readers are coming from. Based on item #9 I’d guess you’d prefer Jefferson’s approach to read only those things that unequivocally edify. I can respect that.

  2. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were the people who don’t like fiction themselves who agree with Mr. Jefferson, and those who do like a variety of literature who agree with Chekov.

    I am a huge HP fan as well; they provide plenty of fodder for discussion (you should have been here the past couple of weeks!). I can’t wait to read the rest of what you have to say!

  3. I am still very early in the Harry Potter series (I ordered the hardcover British box-set from just before I developed rapid-growing cataracts and have never gotten back to it). But what I’ve heard and read inclines me to Chekov’s view generally, and your view in this particular case.

    Sometimes the anti-fantasy folks (to paint with a broad brush) remind me of the villain in the movie Galaxy Quest. He taunts the Galaxy Quest crew to reveal that they are, in fact, liars; that the “historical documents” the trusting aliens have recreated are LIES. There IS a difference between Story and Lie.

    Likewise, there is a difference between literary magic and spells and hexes as they exist in our real world (though there are fuzzy area ’round the borderlands).

    But you know, some alcoholics are so sensitive to alcohol (or so fearful of it) that they avoid vanilla and soy sauce as well as vodka and beer. And I suppose some people who are sensitive to (or fearful of) the darker spiritual forces that even wishing on birthday candles seems like toxic occultism. So I guess I respect the more sensitive ones, as long as they don’t impugn me as a bad Catholic.

    How’s that for arguing both sides of the question?

    1. Actually quite a nice balancing act. I can agree to disagree as long as I’m not judged 🙂

      But isn’t that true about any number of topics, from pants to Latin Masses. Thanks for your insightful response.

  4. Some Christians have VERY strong opinions about the apparent evils of Harry Potter, Twilight, etc. When I was on Catholic radio, a donor complained to the station and threatened to withdraw funds because I got on the air and said I liked the latest Twilight movie.

    Personally, I don’t find anything particularly “evil” about those movies. And I agree with you. It’s a parent’s right to decide what’s appropriate for their children.

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