Preface to Harry Potter and the Paganization of Culture
by Michael D. O'Brien
[published May, 2010]
This book grew out of a series of articles which were written over a ten-year period for various Christian periodicals. At first, I had no interest in reading the Harry Potter novels, and indeed felt that I had already expended considerable time researching the field of fantasy literature when writing a book on the subject in the mid-1990’s. Moreover, the constant reviews of the Potter series had given me a general sense about the stories and the popular opinions. Oceans of spilled ink and electronic text seemed to cover the pros and cons well enough. No need for me to add my opinion.
However, the first volumes were often recommended to our family by well-meaning people, and seemed to be read in so many homes we knew, that I could hardly ignore the phenomenon. Then came letters and phone calls from friends wanting to know what I thought about the series, all describing their initial uneasiness about it. I replied that I really couldn’t offer an opinion without reading the books for myself, and besides, there was such a tsunami of neo-pagan fantasy novels, films, and e-games pouring into young people’s lives it would be a lifetime’s work just to keep abreast of it all, let alone thoughtfully discern each one. They agreed, but suggested that since this particular series was fast becoming the biggest best-selling publishing phenomenon of all time, it might be worth reading. They added that some writers whom they admired said that these books were seductive and potentially damaging; other opinion-shapers said they were harmless and got children reading, in fact were getting a whole generation of young people burying their noses in books!
Nevertheless, I still declined to read them. But then came a curious 24 hour period in which I spoke with three different people (in two telephone calls that came out of the blue and one chance meeting face-to-face). All three described a personal experience in very much the same words. I did not initiate the subject, nor did I prompt their thoughts on the matter. None of them knew each other. All were parents of healthy, happy families, and as far as I knew were emotionally and mentally well-balanced. These were people I respected for their mature stability as well as their gifts of wisdom and goodness. They had strong faith in Christ, were neither superstitious nor suspicious by nature, were not alarmists, and did not tend to hysteria or paranoia. They had provided a thriving cultural life for their families, books were treasured in each of their homes, and among their collections were many fantasy novels for the young. Yet, that day each of them said something like the following:
“I heard so much about the Harry Potter books, and very good people told me they’re great. So we bought one [or were given one] and I started to read it. At first I had no problems with it. Then something strange happened. In the middle of a chapter I was suddenly overwhelmed by nausea.”
“Nausea?” I asked.
“Yes, a kind of spiritual nausea. I didn’t see it coming because I wanted to like these books. The whole world’s in love with them, even a lot of good Christians, so I felt they were probably healthy enough to give to our kids. I just wanted to check it out first. I’m glad I did.”
Unknown to each other, these three spiritually awake parents were speaking about a “spiritual nausea.” All three encouraged me to read the books and write an assessment. Was it a coincidence, or was it one of those moments when the Holy Spirit was speaking, sending a nudge in triplicate?
Even so, I hesitated taking part in any kind of public response to the series. I simply had no time or energy for it. Yet I had learned to pay attention to such “coincidences,” and so took it to our Lord in prayer.
I prayed and listened and prayed—and didn’t like what I was “hearing.”
So I prayed more and listened more, hoping to hear something else, but to no avail.
“Please, not me,” I protested. “The battle is endless. I did my part. Please ask someone else to write about the Potter books. Lord, there already are plenty of people doing just that!”
Followed by silence. Then, again the familiar insistence that I was being called to this task. I argued that it was a futile exercise destined to defeat.
“Lord, I don’t mind being a fool for your sake. And I don’t mind doing my part in a hopeless cause, but really….”
Hopeless? Why did it seem hopeless?
“But, Lord, why should I waste my time, which could be spent on positive work that helps build a healthy culture?”
Then came the response in the form of a realization: Had I really said waste my time? If I really had given Him my whole life, wasn’t my time in fact His time?
“Uh, yes, that’s true, Lord. But you see, I don’t have any of the books and I really don’t want to buy them.”
A suitable silence greeted this lame excuse. Obviously, I could go to the library, borrow copies from people in the church, ask for copies from the nauseated parents, no need to send money to help fund the tsunami.
The interesting thing about wrestling with God is that He seems, mysteriously, to permit it for a purpose. For one thing, he is showing us that we are free to accept his will or not. For another, as we exercise and exhaust our rather limited bag of reasoning and rationalizations we quickly come up against our human limitations. Then comes the understanding that, of course we can’t do it; of course, we can’t do anything on our own, and especially when it’s a case of resistance to evil. Everything depends on grace, on our cooperation with grace. Thus a deeper message is written in the heart of the soul, a kind of illumination of conscience. In the end I came to the decision to write about the Potter series simply through obedience. My rational mind also provided some reinforcement, which could be expressed like this:
If you were walking along a busy street and saw a child dart into traffic, would you not drop everything and leap to save him, even though you knew it would endanger your own life? By the same principle, if you were to see a child lured into a realm where the activities of demons and the arch-demon Satan have a very long track-record of seducing souls into bondage, and potentially into eternal death, would you not drop everything and do what you could to warn him?
And so it began. My earlier articles were based on a reading of the first four volumes, a kind of catch-up on what had been published by that point. I read the succeeding three volumes as the years went on. Interestingly, from the moment I began to read volume one, I too was hit by an unexpected spiritual disgust, along with the sense of an oppressive presence that I had come to recognize over the years as the proximity of adverse spirits. Oftentimes in my life, while doing research, I have read books containing clearly evil elements. In terms of contents alone, Harry Potter is rather tame in comparison. So I can say that I approached the series with no strong emotional bias, no irrational fear. However, from the day I opened the first page and began to read, a cloud of darkness and dread descended, which was held at bay only by increased prayer. I also experienced nightmares of a kind I had never before experienced in my life. This is totally out of character for me since I am not prone to bad dreams, and usually years go by without me having one. I have had some frightening experiences in my life (far worse than reading a few questionable books) and never suffered a bad dream from it. But from the moment I began my little part in the resistance, I suffered from nightmares of unprecedented power.
Three stand out in memory. I will spare you much of the detail, but in one, which occurred immediately following the publication of my first critique of the Potter series in a major newspaper, I was being cursed by three witches (perhaps symbolically countering the blessings and prayers of the three holy women who had launched me on this labor). The witches’ spells against me were utterly terrifying, nearly paralyzing, and only when I cried out the name of Jesus were the spells broken and pushed back. I had to keep repeating His name to preserve the defense, and woke up in a state of terror that did not dissipate in the manner of bad dreams. My wife woke up too and prayed with me, and finally we were able to go back to sleep in peace. In a similar dream the following night, the three witches returned, now accompanied by a sorcerer, and once more they cast a hideous spell against me. Again it was repelled by the holy name of Jesus and also by the prayers of the saints, especially St. Joseph.
A third dream that occurred not long after was the most frightening of all. In it, I had been captured and taken to an isolated house deep in a forest. The building was filled with men and women involved in witchcraft and sorcery. They were waiting for a man who was their chief sorcerer to arrive, and I was to be the human sacrifice in the night’s ritual. When he entered the room I felt that all hope had been lost, a black dismay filled me, along with terror of a kind I had never before felt. Even then, I was able to whisper the name of Jesus. Instantly the walls fell backward onto the ground outside the house, the cords that had bound me fell from my wrists and ankles, and I ran for my life. Leaping out of the house, I was astonished to find the entire building surrounded by mighty angels, who by their holy authority had immobilized all of the sorcerers within. I leaped and danced with joy, and realized that I had been transformed into a child. Jesus appeared in the sky above and began to descend. I continued to dance in jubilation and relief, crying out greetings to him as he arrived. At which point I woke up, filled with utter joy. And that was the last of the bad dreams.
Throughout the initial dark period of research and writing, however, an amazing array of breakdowns and catastrophes occurred in the external details of our family life. These were more serious and frequent than the usual ups and downs of car problems, financial crises, sickness, and leaking roofs. It was these and much more—and all at once. I might add that I know seven other Christian writers who have publicly critiqued the Potter series, and all but one of them experienced the same phenomenon. Two had dreams like mine, and most of them had struggled to resist the cloud of oppression combined with an uncanny convergence of external trials. None of these writers strike me as flighty or hyper-sensitive people given to neurotic imaginings.
Lest my personal experience become unnecessarily spooky, let me assure you that it was a blessing, a confirmation of the fact that the issues involved in culture are not mere academic quibbles. They are ideas that have consequences in human lives. The ancient adversary of mankind has a vested interest in promoting ideas that further his cause and in afflicting those who impede his plans. The oppression I sometimes felt during those early years has not returned, mainly because I have learned to pray as I should, as every Christian should, for the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6: 10-20), for myself and for my family. That early battle heightened my awareness that we are living, as the entire Scripture and Tradition of Christianity tell us, in a vast multi-dimensional war zone, a good deal of which is invisible to our eyes. Each of us must play his part, each must learn to ask God for increased graces of protection and spiritual discernment. We must understand that the nature of this war is changing, and that the radical developments in culture, notably in cultural material directed at the young, are not merely random happenstance or purely socio-cultural evolution. New strategies are being brought to bear against mankind, and new strategies (rather, old and time-tested strategies) must be awakened in us if we would defend our children.
Having said this, it is important to underline that J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, is almost certainly unaware of her work’s significance in the darkening of the times. She seems to be a sincere person who has great affection for children, and for young people’s literature, and simply writes about what excites her imagination. Her own childhood was “bookish”, influenced by C. S. Lewis’s Narnia series and T. H. White’s The Once and Future King (the legend of Arthur and Merlin). However, Rowling has stated that she did not write the Potter series from a special love of fantasy: “In fact, I am not a great fan of fantasy books in general, and never read them.”  She has been consistent in her statements that she does not believe the world of witchcraft and sorcery is real: “Magic has a universal appeal. I don’t believe in magic in the way that I describe in my books. But I’d love it to be real…. The starting point for the whole of Harry’s world is, What if it was real? And I work from there.” 
This brings us to an important consideration that should be kept in mind throughout all discussion of the books and films. Despite everything we might find objectionable in them, we cannot presume to judge the author’s motives. The world she has created has come from her imagination, amply informed by her research into the history and symbolism of witchcraft and sorcery. The imagination is a phenomenally powerful faculty of the interior life of human beings. How it functions, and how it assimilates and recreates images and concepts into new forms, remains to some degree a mystery. It is like an empty stage, and whatever comes to habitually take place on that stage depends largely on what we choose through the will and the intellect to put there—or to allow to remain there. The imagination’s dramas can be generated by the literal events in the environment around us, by powerful emotional and sensory stimuli, and by painful and joyful experiences. It is also the arena where the subconscious mind dramatizes desires and conflicts (either in dreams or waking fantasies), where the lower appetites throw up images, sometimes exalted, sometimes sinful, sometimes a mixture of these. The imagination also tends to reflect the preoccupations and the spiritual condition of the society around us.
In addition, the imagination is a screen onto which the evil spirits can “project” images, temptations presented as stimulating entertainments, offering us pleasurable rewards if we give in to the temptation. The more we give in, the more this dimension of the imagination grows, the more it becomes a vehicle of enchantment of the will, then obsession, and if not wholly repented of, ending in some degree of bondage to evil. If we want to become whole and healthy, the imagination must be trained, just as the body, the rational intellect, and the will must be trained. Any one of these aspects of our personhood, if not brought under discipline and self-mastery with the help of grace, can lead to the domination of the part over the whole. The development of a moral imagination, therefore, demands as much self-restraint and proper direction as an athlete exercises over his body.
From my own experience as a writer of novels, I have learned that the imagination contains depths and heights and potential riches that we can hardly measure, let alone completely master. That is why those who are involved in the making of culture have a special need for our prayers. At this point it is helpful to remember that when we speak of “culture,” we are referring to far more than just the “high-brow” culture of art museums and symphony orchestras, or to the “low-brow” culture of pop music and comic books. There is no standard definition of culture, but it is generally agreed that the word encompasses all the forms through which a society expresses itself, and defines itself: its arts, its crafts, its jokes, songs and stories, its manners and myths, and so much more. Each of these begins to develop its external form deep in the imagination of a human being.
In my own work, I have often been astonished by the intense realism of characters and scenes that suddenly appear in my mind’s eye, out of nowhere it would seem. I lose all sense of time and enter inside that sub-created world, which I hope to bring forth from my interior life onto paper, and from there into the imaginations of my readers. Often I simply sit back and watch the plot unfold, letting my fingers do the typing that records it all. I can “hear” the dialogue, and then wonder how I came to know these things, when in fact I haven’t heard or seen or read about them before.
In the old days it was called the “muse,” a kind of disembodied spirit of inspiration. In our times, the belief in help from invisible external sources is much in decline. Exalted in its place is the image of the solitary artist-genius extracting masterpieces from his autonomous self. Neither of these two understandings of the creative life is accurate, but of the two, I would say the latter is more vulnerable to unhealthy influence because this kind of writer does not believe that he is subject to any forces outside of himself. And thus he lacks certain necessary tools of discernment. In the worst cases, a kind of anti-inspiration can occur without the writer realizing what is happening.
The Christian writer is not immune to the distractions and temptations. When I neglect to pray as I ought, the technical side of writing becomes more difficult for me, and the creation of scenes and dialogues a slower, foggier process. Moreover, certain elements can creep into plot, characterization, and style that have no place in the story and could lead it elsewhere than where it should go. By contrast, when I am fervently beseeching God each day for the grace of the particular work I’m creating, the writing flows clearly. Then, whenever something wanders onto the stage of my inner theater from a source that may be unhealthy (my own fallen nature or perhaps a prompting from an evil spirit) my soul’s inner radar sounds an alert. I stop, pray, think about it, then move on, either discarding an idea, scene, image, bit of dialogue, or bringing it more closely on the track of beauty and truth. This is a co-creative process: God the Creator and man his creature, made in his image and likeness, working together to bring something new into the world that brings life and hope to others.
God never discards or overwhelms our natural gifts. He desires only to sanctify them and to make them ever more fruitful. He never forces; he always invites. He absolutely respects our freedom. If a person chooses, either through naïveté or willfulness, to ignore the co-creative graces and to claim for himself a kind of higher authority that can rewrite the principles God has established in the universe, even then God will neither overwhelm that person nor displace his natural imagination. He will permit the natural imagination to continue to create on its own terms, even to the point of running rampant, until it has run its course.
I cannot offer you, dear reader, an encyclopedic or scientific presentation of the merits and dangers of the Harry Potter series and its films. Instead, it is my hope that this general survey of the phenomenon and some consequent reflections will stimulate serious questions and thinking on the issues involved.
Michael D. O’Brien
 An online interview, Scholastic.com, October 16, 2000.
 Reader’s Digest, February, 2001, “The Wizard Behind Harry Potter,” by Tim Bouquet.
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