LIFESITENEWS: How did you become involved in critiquing Harry Potter in the first place? What sparked that interest?
O’BRIEN: As the editor of a Catholic family magazine in the early 1990s I began to receive letters from parents asking my opinion on a new phenomenon that was appearing in children’s literature, with greater frequency.
I really had no opinion on it, and then well meaning people began to give such books to our children for birthday presents, or urged them upon our family, and I thought, “Well, thank you but I think I’ll take a closer look at the material first.” The more I read, and the more I researched, the more I realized there was a radical change happening in the literature, and culture in general, and especially in material aimed at young people. Certainly, the themes were increasingly violent, although to some degree children’s literature has always had an element of violence. More worrisome was the corrupting of Western civilization’s traditional symbols of good and evil, and also the growing presentation of occult powers as the way to defeat evil, as though occult activities were morally neutral.
LIFESITENEWS: So this is more than just about Harry Potter. There were a number of other book series as well.
O’BRIEN: Yes, this has been going on for quite a long time. Some influential writers have promoted these themes, beginning in the 1950s and accelerating, until with the appearance of Harry Potter we have a worldwide phenomenon of unprecedented power and grip on the imagination of a generation. Potter is unique in the history of literature; nothing like it has ever happened before.
LIFESITENEWS: How do you account for it? What has made it so popular?
O’BRIEN: Part of it is due to the fact that J.K. Rowling is a talented storyteller, but she has also used the style and technique of modern television and cinema media, which seizes the imagination by pummelling it, bombarding it with powerful stimuli, in a rapid pace, with plenty of emotional rewards. So, in the matter of style alone she has made a major change in the way stories are told, and how they are read.
Most important, she has taken the paganization of children’s culture to the next step, in which sorcery and witchcraft—traditionally allied with supernatural evil—is now presented as morally neutral. In the hands of “nice” people it’s an instrument for good. In the hands of not-nice people it’s an instrument for evil. She has shifted the battle lines between good and evil, which can have a disorienting effect, especially on the young who are in the stage of formation.
Regardless of how wildly imaginative it may be, good fantasy points us towards ultimate reality, “the moral order of the universe” as J.R.R. Tolkien called it. Corrupt fantasy points us, or forms us, in a consciousness that can lead to thinking that evil is good and good is evil. In the worst case, this may have long range effects, prompting the reader intuitively, subconsciously, to do evil while thinking they’re doing good.
All my critique is about the potential. Nobody whom I know is saying that those who read Potter are destined to plunge into actual witchcraft or sorcery. However, studies conducted by the Barna research group revealed a twelve percent increase in occult activities among Christian students in the U.S.A. after reading the Potter series, which the students themselves attributed to the books. This was at a time before the marketing hype and the added power of the films were at full strength. Serious critics also raise concerns about other effects of saturating the mind in symbols of evil and adventures in which evil and good are redefined.
LIFESITENEWS: Regarding the various types of children’s literature that you’ve critiqued, I gather the strongest reaction by far that you have received has been in response to your writings and comments on the Potter series. Is that correct?
LIFESITENEWS: Tell us something about that.
O’BRIEN: I’ve been writing critiques of the Potter series for more than ten years. They were based on my earlier research on what happens in the heart and mind and imagination of a child when they read good literature, in contrast to corruptive literature.
I knew there would be some controversy over the Potter series between religious people and secular-minded people — that was inevitable — what astonished me and continues to astonish me is the intense controversy that erupted very early on among Christians themselves, in all the churches. It cuts across every denominational line. There is practically a universal characteristic in the way people defend Potter, and that is vehement anger.
I know about eight different critics of the Potter series who either write books or magazine articles on the subject. All are sober people — we’re not talking about book burners here (nor witch burners) — all of these people experience the same phenomenon among Christian circles, in their own congregations, among their friends and family. They suffer from personal attacks against them that are at times quite irrational, a kind of knee-jerk outrage against any criticism of Harry Potter.
The critics whom I know are reasonable, calm people who have merely raised questions about what appears to be a disordered and enormously influential piece of cultural material. We have learned that to even question it is to incite not only outrage but false judgement against us. We’re “book-burners,” “radical fundamentalists,” “suppressors of freedom,” and so forth. If I listed what I’ve been called during the past ten years you’d laugh. It’s quite amazing, and I think it points to deeper problems.
Harry Potter represents a much larger wave of cultural revolution that we’re all immersed in, and I believe its a spiritual revolution too — a negative spiritual revolution. It’s showing us that we Christians have been so saturated in the shifting of symbols in our thinking, in our imagination, while at the same time we’ve become so addicted to entertainment culture, that we no longer see the problem, let alone know how to resist it. By and large, culture is entertainment now, among Christians no less than non-believers. We are very attached to what gives us pleasure, especially what gives us intense pleasure, and it is extremely difficult to have it questioned if there is a lack of freedom in our own interior life regarding the attachment. That’s the root cause of the anger, and it’s a classic addictive reaction. Regardless of how intelligently it’s articulated, it’s basically an irrational loyalty.
LIFESITENEWS: And yet the reactions are presented as being very rational.
O’BRIEN: Yes, as with all addictions, the addicted person will present — in a calm reasonable tone — many arguments “proving” why he or she should remain a consumer of whatever is enslaving them. Now, “enslavement” and “addiction” is probably over-stating the case, but surely we should ask ourselves why we are consuming, with so little self-examination, cultural material that we have come to feel we can’t do without? Why are we not applying normal, prudential, critical analysis to material that has such a power over us? What’s happening inside of us that we cannot question it?
LIFESITENEWS: So what do you think is happening?
O’BRIEN: The dynamic of cultural erosion and assimilation by paganism happens on a number of levels. Man is a composite being: we are intellect, we are spirit, we are body, we are emotions. We have appetites of all kinds: physical appetites, intellectual appetites, emotional appetites. And if something like Harry Potter, or let’s say Stephanie Meyer’s vampire series, or Philip Pullmans His Dark Materials series has given us a great deal of intellectual satisfaction, pleasure, distraction – we feel that it simply cannot be unhealthy for us. We are capable of maintaining rational faith in a correct set of doctrines while at the same time consuming cultural entertainments that contradict those very doctrines.
On some level we have concluded intuitively, “There’s nothing wrong with this. It makes me happy, it makes me feel good.” However, the price of this kind of feeling good is ingesting a large amount of false messages mixed with true messages. There are indeed “values” in the Harry Potter series, but they’re confused with anti-values. Potterworld is a scrambled moral universe. There are Christian symbols in the series, but the author misappropriates them, mutates them, and integrates them into a supposedly larger and broader system where evil symbols are dominant. Why are our antennae not quivering when that happens? I believe it’s because we have been overwhelmed by habitual dependence on the pleasure. I should add that we have also been overwhelmed by many opinion-shapers who tell us that there’s no problem here — even Christian commentators.
LIFESITENEWS: Well, many of the critics are saying, “It’s just entertainment, it’s just a movie, why are you taking this so seriously?”
O’BRIEN: That argument again points to the deeper problem. Without really knowing how we arrived at this position, we have made an artificial split between entertainment and faith — between culture and faith, in other words. We say, “I am a doctrinally correct Catholic (or Christian), I question nothing of the Church’s teaching. So if I want to watch videos, DVDs, television programs that violate those principles, I’m capable of focusing on the good and overlooking the evil.” It goes without saying that we should try to find the good in everything and shouldn’t always be looking for the evil around us. But when our consumption becomes an insatiable appetite, in which the evil components, the falsehoods and glamorization of evil activities are grave matters — and certainly sorcery and witchcraft is of the utmost gravity in terms of violating divine order — we should pause and say, “Is this worth it?”
Can I really ingest this amount of evil without being effected by it? Well, maybe as an adult you might, but what about your children? Your children’s consciousness is being formed, especially when they’re young. Consciousness, the way one perceives the world, strongly effects how you form your conscience, and of course your conscience effects how you choose between good and evil in the realm of action.
LIFESITENEWS: The intensity of the responses you have been receiving over the years seems to verify what you are saying, that there is something more going on here. Can you give some examples of some of more memorable responses you have received, or the more intense ones that have just thrown you off?
O’BRIEN: I haven’t been thrown off balance by any of it, but have been continually amazed by much of it. I recall that when I gave three lengthy interviews about the Potter series on Zenit news in 2001, there was a huge negative reaction. One sociologist of religion named Massimo Introvigne, who was a great defender of Potter, accused critics such as myself of a very dangerous new form of fundamentalism. He said that we were the kind of people who could usher in a Catholic Taliban regime.
All I had done was outline problematic elements in the Potter series, condemning no one, certainly not the author, nor people who allow their children to read the books. I don’t condemn people. But it’s fairly consistent tactic to characterize reasonable critics as condemners, Pharisees, hysterical alarmists, prigs, Taliban Catholics, book burners, Nazis, suppressors of freedom, et cetera. These kinds of labels used against critics of Potter have been fairly common in Christian media.
LIFESITENEWS: Have you received mail at your home, or e-mails to yourself, or telephone calls?
O’BRIEN: Well, my home address isn’t visible but I get e-mails all the time, especially whenever an article of mine appears. Some of it is hate mail.
LIFESITENEWS: When you say hate mail, can you describe that? What does that mean? What is said?
O’BRIEN: Only a few curses and some venting of wrath, such as a message I recently received: “Harry Potter is not the anti-Christ, you are the anti-Christ!” On some level people have taken Harry into their hearts as a hero and defender of the good, and they’ve identified deeply with him. Moreover, crucial symbolic and dramatic elements in the series present him as a Christ-figure. But I would guess that the root cause of irrational hatred of critics is readers personally identifying with Harry. That is why anyone who critiques this abused orphan who is hated by evil incarnate is considered to be on the side of Voldemort, or Voldemortish forces in the world. Immature readers would put it that way; mature readers would put it in a more articulate, sophisticated way, but it amounts to the same thing. There’s a ferocious gut loyalty at work in the issue, provoking intense reactions when it’s threatened. What does that say about us as a Catholic people? Have we become slowly boiled, as in the “boiled frog” metaphor? Are we now incapable of self-examination and self-criticism? Are God’s people now so easily manipulated, charmed I might say, that we can no longer resist the spirit of the world? Have we mistaken assimilation by paganism as authentic inculturation?
LIFESITENEWS: In one of your comments from our story this past Tuesday, you said, in the current Potter movie, “Evil is presented as bad, and yet the evil means by which the evil is resisted is presented as good.” There was a reader comment posted – what is an example of the “evil means” that you referred to?
O’BRIEN: Numerous examples abound throughout the seven volumes in the series. The ultimate example is to be found in the seventh and final novel. Here, Harry is involved in a search for what are called “horcruxes.” The horcruxes contain a portion of Voldemort’s soul, since this archenemy has divided his soul into these mystical objects spread throughout the world. Harry and his friend Hermione seek to find the horcruxes and destroy them one-by-one, and they succeed in destroying some, which means they destroy part of Voldemort’s soul.
The final battle occurs after Voldemort kills Harry. Harry goes to a mysterious state beyond the grave where he meets with the deceased Dumbledore, his old mentor, who tells Harry that he can “go on” (he never defines what that means), or he can go back to earth. Harry chooses to go back to earth. He has literally died but he can choose to resurrect himself. He is “the Chosen One” but now he also becomes the “Master Over Death.”
Thus ensues the final battle. The Elder Wand is a wand of ultimate power that totally destroys any opponent — it is like the ring in The Lord of the Rings. But now, because Harry has died and resurrected, the Elder Wand obeys him. The Wand is in Voldemort’s hand and he points it at Harry to absolutely annihilate him a second time, but because Harry is the Master Over Death, the wand obeys only Harry and the curse rebounds upon Voldemort, utterly destroying him.
LIFESITENEWS: So using the powerful sorcery or evil power of the wand was the “evil means” by which he resisted Voldemort in that last situation?
O’BRIEN: It is the uttermost climax of the battle between perceived good and evil in the series. But there are hundreds of other incidents where Harry uses immoral means to destroy his enemies. For example, in an earlier scene one of Voldemort’s servants insults a professor at Hogwarts whom Harry is very fond of. Harry curses him with what is called a “cruciatus” curse — a crucifying curse. It is unspeakable torture; there is no pain like it in the world. Harry just simply decides to crucify him. This is the same Harry who throughout the whole series has lied, has committed violence against others — human enemies, fellow students — sometimes in retaliation for their attacks on him, sometimes to further his cause. Lying is a very big thing all the way through, as well as other kinds of deceiving, uttering hundreds of curses and spells, along with contempt and sneering, violence, bloodshed, death — it goes on and on.
LIFESITENEWS: But this is all presented as good as you say.
O’BRIEN: It’s presented as good because it is defending “good” characters from the ultimate evil, which is Voldemort. This is what Rome’s exorcist Fr. Amorth was referring to in his major warning that the Harry Potter series is imbued with moral relativism — teaching on practically every page that the end justifies the means.
LIFESITENEWS: How should Harry have defeated Voldemort, or tried to have defeated, Voldemort morally?
O’BRIEN: If you’re going to create a scrambled moral universe in a piece of fiction, there’s no way you can unscramble it and present a truly justifiable means of defeating evil with evil. The fundamental premise of Potter world is that the only way to defeat Voldemort is to use the same tools of death that he uses. Activities absolutely prohibited by God and by the Church are presented as saving powers. Rowling’s underlying position is: “Let’s pretend that God’s rules don’t apply to us. This is permissible because we’re the good people, the nice people, and look how very bad Voldemort is.”
LIFESITENEWS: So as Christians trying to defeat Satan, we cannot defeat him at all, we can only do that through Christ, then?
O’BRIEN: That is the basic truth of our Faith. And the entire series and the films posit a contrary reality, that one can defeat absolute evil by taking up the weapons of evil — as long as evil instruments, methodologies, gnostic knowledge and curses are presented as morally neutral.
LIFESITENEWS: There’s another reader comment that was made: “Nothing is black and white, you have to be extremely flat-minded to shun any reference to magic.”
O’BRIEN: I’m not shunning any reference to magic whatsoever. No, I think magic is real, insofar as evil spirits can assist in the exercise of witchcraft and sorcery and other occult activities, and can sometimes seem to give the practitioner higher powers. Potter world succeeds very much in conveying an enormous dramatic impact to this effect, with plenty of dazzle and flash and emotional rewards. Despite this, it offers readers a very flat universe, cloaking it by supercharging the redefinitions of what is black and what is white, what is up and what is down.
The real war in the heavens and on earth is a far greater drama. One of the problems with the Potter series is that it gives us false messages about what the war is really about. People who fall in love with the Potter world are actually seeking in a sadly limited way a kind of pseudo-transcendence. There are preternatural powers, sometimes astounding powers, being exercised in the stories, but these are powers that all Christian fantasists, for example Tolkien and Lewis, have shown are destructive in human hands. In the real universe, in the midst of the immense drama in which we are living, the powers that rightly belong to man are in the realm of his virtues and character, and these when exercised in humility lead on to salvation. In Potter world, the saving of the world comes through acquiring secret knowledge and perfecting supernatural powers, while never really developing significant character or virtues such as those we can so clearly see in Tolkien’s and Lewis’s heroes.
LIFESITENEWS: We are too weakened to handle such power without great pride I presume?
O’BRIEN: Yes, pride is very much at the root. We are simultaneously deceived and self-deceived by it.
LIFESITENEWS: There was an article written by John Granger this month in Christianity Today, “Harry Potter Is Here To Stay.” Have you seen that?
O’BRIEN: I haven’t, though I’ve debated Mr. Granger on radio and television a couple of times so I’m familiar with the kind of things he says.
LIFESITENEWS: Just very quickly, can you summarize what might be the flaws in his arguments, as you see them?
O’BRIEN: I’m not sure what he said in the article. However, in his book and other articles he sees the Harry Potter series as a Christian metaphor. This is an entirely superficial understanding of the stories, a very selective reading of certain details in them, and an ignoring of an overwhelming amount of detail that contradicts the positive values and the occasional use of Christian symbols.
Granger, like a number of pro-Potter Christians, is straining to find redeeming qualities in these profoundly disordered books, and of course in a series with over 4200 pages there will be details that can reinforce his arguments, though it demands a certain blindness to the other dimensions in the book.
All of us are immersed in a cultural revolution, one that is unprecedented in influence due to the new media’s power over the mind and emotions. If we hope to rightly assess the coming waves of cultural assimilation we will need to develop gifts of discernment that have been dormant within us for too long. We need to begin asking ourselves what kind of messages contemporary culture is giving us about the nature of good and evil, and how to resist evil? If these messages are false, why are we consuming them so avidly and with such fierce loyalty? These are questions that we ignore at our own risk.
LIFESITENEWS: Last question, some of our readers have been wondering why a life and family issues news service, that focuses on abortion and other moral issues, is reporting on the Harry Potter phenomenon. What are your thoughts on that?
O’BRIEN: Why has LifesiteNews so frequently reported on a fantasy book phenomenon? I think, first of all, that in the Potter series and its spin-off films and subsidiary marketing industry, we have the promotion of a mental environment of death — one might say a culture of death. Harry Potter’s world is death’s realm, one in which death is defeated only by death. This is a message pounded home to readers continuously throughout all seven volumes, and the final volume is a veritable orgy of death. Most importantly, death is presented again and again as the solution to evil, not only to the ultimate problem of evil as embodied in Voldemort but to many lesser evils.
Readers are imprinted numerous times over with both overt and subliminal messages that violent death solves problems. There is no natural death throughout the stories, while hundreds of characters young and old, “good” and “evil”, are killed by violence of various sorts, mostly magical violence. The core message: Death is the way we can solve problems. In this sense the series has great bearing on the future of the pro-life movement and its resistance to the culture of death.
LIFESITENEWS: And that’s reflective of our current culture already?
O’BRIEN: I would say it is symptomatic of the author’s preoccupations and I would guess that it represents the fears inherent in her immense audience. It embodies in a fictional form a fundamental fear of death, and behind it a fundamental fear of life — a lack of hope. If a person feels absolutely alone, abandoned, orphaned (and such is the consciousness of those without a sense of the Fatherhood of God), then what is left but the seizing of unlawful knowledge and power and the demolition of all authority except one’s own will. In this way, the fictional hero and the readers who identify with him are reinforced in the tragic sense that power alone saves.
LIFESITENEWS: So the international abortion, euthanasia, depopulation movements seem to all have those characteristics in common?
O’BRIEN: Yes, I would say so. They believe that death solves our social, familial, economic, ecological, political and psychological problems. On every level of society we are told — and told most powerfully through cultural vehicles — that the unjust taking of human life is a saving act.
LIFESITENEWS: How does homosexuality fit in with this? That is something that Rowling is known to be very supportive of.
O’BRIEN: After the final book in the series was published, in an interview at Carnegie Hall in New York, Rowling told a packed audience that the great guru of the series, Professor Dumbledore, who is the chief warlock and headmaster of Hogwarts, was gay. This after-the-fact detail is not present in the stories themselves, but it shows that Rowling desires to put herself firmly in the camp of those who would reject the Judeo-Christian moral order. She calls Dumbledore’s unresolved love for another male sorcerer the great tragedy of his life — a tragedy because it was unfulfilled.
Throughout the entire series there is a constant degrading of authority in any form. Most importantly, the image of the father and father figures is weakened at every turn. Vernon Dursley, the uncle who is Harry’s early guardian, is a grossly insensitive, abusive man. His “godfather”, Sirius Black, is a highly unreliable image of manhood. Dumbledore, his surrogate father, guru, we’re told, is gay, and in the novels he chooses to be euthanized in order to avoid the kind of suffering Voldemort is about to inflict on him.
There is not a single consistently moral father figure in the entire epic. Harry’s own father, a sorcerer, was killed by magic violence at Harry’s birth. I suppose a case could be made that James Potter was remotely a good father figure, though he was entirely absent throughout the boy’s life. This undeviating lack of positive paternal role models may indicate something unresolved in the author’s own life, or it may not. However, there is no doubt that it taps into the major wound in late Western man, that is, the devastating effects of fatherlessness.
It is now known that the sense of fatherlessness, due to either absent or abusive fathers, is an element in the lives of many people who struggle with same-sex attractions. Militant homosexual activists (as distinguished from people with same-sex attractions who strive to live according to God’s plan of salvation) are often allied with aggressive pro-abortion and pro-euthanasia movements. The people involved in these movements also suffer from a sense of loss of spiritual fatherhood. Cultural works that negate family life and true motherhood and fatherhood will play a role in spreading the agenda to the coming generations, not so much through political indoctrination as through creation of endearing role models who enflesh the moral relativism. All three forms of social revolution reflect the lack of faith in the fatherhood of God, which in the real universe, in the hierarchical universe, is incarnated through spiritual authority, in various vocations, including the fathers of families.
The Harry Potter series, I believe, reveals to us that it is time for we men to rediscover authentic spiritual fatherhood, and to defend our families — one might call it defence against the dark arts.
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