The War For our Children's Souls
by Michael D. O'Brien
"A great sign appeared in the sky, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. Because she was with child, she cried aloud in pain as she labored to give birth. Then another sign appeared in the sky: it was a huge dragon, flaming red, with seven heads and ten horns; on his head were seven crowns. His tail swept a third of the stars from the sky and hurled them down to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman about to give birth, ready to devour her child as soon as it was born."
The early Church Fathers taught that this passage has manifold meanings. On one level it refers to Mary of Nazareth and the birth of Christ; on another it refers to the Church as she labors to bear salvation into the world. This child is, in a sense, every child, and is the offspring of the Church. She is to carry this child as the image of God, transfigured in Christ, and to bring him forth into eternal life. She groans in agony, and the primeval serpent hates her, for he knows that her offspring, protected and grown in her womb, will crush his head. On still another level, the Woman of Revelation is Our Lady the Mother of the Church, mother of all peoples and all individual souls. As such, she exercises a particularly urgent mission to preserve the young from the deceptions of the ancient enemy of mankind.
In our times a phenomenon is occurring that is unprecedented in human history. A complex and very powerful social revolution is reshaping human consciousness with great speed and force. It tells us at every turn who we are, what we are worth, what is good and evil, and does so with all the genius and power of modern media. Though it retains vestiges of a once-Christian civilization, it weaves truths and untruths into a strong delusion to which large numbers of people, including many believing Christians, have succumbed. By and large this redefinition of man has taken place through the vehicle of culture.
Within the larger context of the cultural revolution one of the most significant phenomena is the astounding success of the Harry Potter novels and their spin-off films. The books’ sales record has no equal in the Western world, with the exception of the Bible. They have been translated into more than fifty languages; hundreds of millions of copies have been sold. Wildly enthusiastic reviews have been unceasing on every level of social communications. The near universal acclaim that has greeted the series, however, is not without its dissenters. A controversy has arisen in some Catholic and Evangelical circles where a minority have grave misgivings about Potter-world. These critics have been almost uniformly dismissed as either hysterical alarmists or “fundamentalists,” the controversy infested with rash judgment and disinformation, making discernment of the issue more difficult for many parents.
In early February of 2003 a storm of banner headlines raged in the world’s media: “Pope Approves Potter” declared the Toronto Star. “Harry Potter Is Ok With The Pontiff” declared the Chicago Sun Times. Throughout North America, England, Australia, France, Spain, Germany, Italy, and points beyond, the press and e-media proclaimed “Vatican okays Harry Potter” (News 24, South Africa), “Vatican gives blessing to Harry Potter” (Scotsman), “Pope Sticks Up for Potter Books” (the BBC); “Vatican: Harry Potter’s OK with Us” (CNN Asia), and so forth.
Little attention was paid to the fact that this “news” was not in any way representative of positions held on the matter by the Pope or by his congregations in the Curia. Indeed, it is highly unlikely that the Holy Father has been spending his free time reading the ongoing adventures of the world’s favorite boy sorcerer. The media event was based on an off-the-cuff remark made by Monsignor Peter Fleetwood during a press conference for the release of a Vatican document on the New Age Movement. Responding to a reporter’s question about the Harry Potter series, Fleetwood replied, “If I have understood well the intentions of Harry Potter’s author, they help children to see the difference between good and evil.” He went on to say that J. K. Rowling is “Christian by conviction, is Christian in her mode of living, even in her way of writing.” In short, it was the personal opinion of a man who may or may not have read the books.
The world media failed to give equal coverage to a more impressive statement on the Potter series. In December, 2001, Fr. Gabriele Amorth, an exorcist of the diocese of Rome, warned parents against the books in an interview with the Italian ANSA news agency. Fr. Amorth, who is also the president of the International Association of Exorcists, said bluntly, “Behind Harry Potter hides the signature of the king of the darkness, the devil.” He did not say that Rowling was possessed, nor did he imply that the devil held her pen-hand as the books were composed, only that many of the ideas expressed in them were from the realm of darkness. He explained that the books contain innumerable positive references to magic, “the satanic art”, and attempt to make a false distinction between black and white magic, when in fact the distinction “does not exist, because magic is always a recourse to the devil.” He also criticized the disordered morality presented in Rowling’s works, which he believes strongly reinforce moral relativism.
It is interesting to note that the scattered North American coverage of Amorth’s statement significantly downplayed the core content of his warnings. The New York Times report by Melinda Henneberger, for example, deleted his strongest comments and retained a mild cautionary note, out of context, in which Amorth said, “If children can see the movie with their parents, it’s not all bad.” The Times report also neglected to mention that the movie version had cleaned up Harry’s image, making the film less controversial than the books.
The controversy in Catholic academic circles
Controversial these books certainly are. Yet it is precisely the controversy, more than the books themselves, that has much to tell us about the state of culture in general and the state of Catholic consciousness in these times. To this I would like to return later. Part of the problem we now face in discerning the rightness or wrongness of Potter-world is the fog created by media-disinformation, but it is further complicated by a flood of over-reaction both for and against the books. There are websites on the internet, for example, that flagrantly reject the books as overt works of Satanism, condemn the author as a practicing witch, and forecast all manner of dire corruption in the lives of any who crack the pages. Such inflammatory suppositions have fueled a counter-overreaction in which many an orthodox academic has risen to the defense of the author and her boy wizard.
Alan Jacobs, a professor of English at Wheaton College, authored one of the first laudatory reviews. “I adore the Harry Potter books,” he wrote in a highly articulate essay in First Things. Flagship of American neo-conservatism, this magazine enjoys a near magisterial authority among thinking Catholics. From then on, a proliferation of articles appeared in various Catholic journals. A “symposium” on Potter in The Chesterton Review was heavily stacked in favor of the series, with six impressive names weighing in “pro” against a single short “contra.” One writer went so far as to say that “The Harry Potter books are salutary forces advancing the divine order of things.” In Crisis magazine, Terry Teachout, normally an insightful film critic, departed from his customary objectivity and simply ranted against critics in an article titled “Harry Potter and the Joyless Prigs.” The writer Sandra Miesel, in a letter to the National Catholic Register, blasted the author of a reasoned critique of the books, calling him the kind of critic C. S. Lewis warned us against, “the sort of watchdog who’s forever ‘finding in every turn of expression the symptoms of attitudes which it is a matter of life and death to resist’.” In an interview with the Rome-based Zenit news agency, Massimo Introvigne, a sociologist of new religious movements, said that Catholic critics of the Potter series represent a new and “dangerous form of fundamentalism,” and inferred that their approach could lead to a “Catholic version of the Taliban regime.” The situation early on became heated, the atmosphere poisoned with denunciations and ad hominem attacks from many quarters. In the process, a good deal of opportunity for sober reflection on the real issues was lost.
The real issues
What, then, are the real issues? First of all we should consider the fact that the human imagination is a God-given gift, a faculty of the mind that is intended for the expansion of our understanding by enabling us to visualize invisible truths. In the modern era this zone of man’s interior life has moved to the forefront of his experience. With the advent of film, television, and now the near-virtual reality of special effects videos and other electronic entertainment, the imagination is inflamed to a degree (both in quantity and kind) more than at any other period in history. We have grown accustomed to powerful sensory stimuli overriding the mind’s normal screening mechanisms, and consequently our ways of perceiving reality itself are becoming distorted.
It has been argued that the popularity of the Potter books heralds a return to a more literate culture, their success demonstrating that the human imagination can never be fully satisfied by electronic media. At first glance, it would seem so. But a book is not necessarily always better than a video simply because it is a book. While it is true that media-technology tends to overwhelm the viewer, and books usually respect the reader’s integrity (awakening the imagination but not inflaming it), the Potter stories are actually closer in style to film than to literature. They use in print form the visceral stimuli and pace of the electronic media, flooding the imagination with sensory rewards while leaving it malnourished at the core. In a word, thrills have swept aside wonder—the wonder that is the source of both philosophy and love and all great literature; the wonder, moreover, which is the traditional source of the “enchantment” that is to be found in reality itself.
Nourishment of the imagination
A discerning literacy — the true literacy — is of very great importance in a child’s formation. But literacy alone can never be enough. Is an appetite for reading fiction a higher value than a child’s moral formation? Is any book better than no book? Would we give our children a meal in which there was a dose of poison, simply because there were also good ingredients mixed into the recipe? Discernment is always needed in deciding what we give our children. Why, then, are we discarding this basic understanding when it comes to unhealthy cultural material?
Urgently needed at this point in history is a careful examination of what constitutes healthy nourishment of the imagination and what degrades it. Pro-Potter commentators say that Rowling’s Potter series is essentially healthy. It is witty, thought-provoking, entertaining, and, they believe, even promotes a certain morality. The stories are packed with surprises, delights of the imagination that few readers will fail to be charmed by. The plots are lavish and full of twists and turns, there are numerous ingenious toys and devices, mythological beasts run in and out of scenes, owls deliver mail, a lovable giant hatches dragon eggs and breeds new species of creatures, elves serve dutifully, wise-cracking ghosts play tricks, and of course there is Quidditch—a combination of rugby, basketball, and polo played on flying broomsticks.
But the charming details are mixed with the not so charming at every turn: Repulsive details abound; one of the “good” characters seeks to cast a spell on another student that backfires on himself, making him vomit slimy slugs; students eat candy that comes in a variety of odious flavors; the ghost of a little girl lives in a toilet; excremental references are not uncommon; urination is no longer an off-limits subject; rudeness between students is routine behavior. In volume four especially these trends are in evidence, along with the added spice of sexuality inferred in references such as “private parts” and students pairing off and “going into the bushes.”
The most serious problem is the author’s use of the symbol-world of the occult as her primary metaphor, and occultic activities as the dramatic engine of the plots. It presents these to the child reader through attractive role models, such as Harry and Hermione, who are students of witchcraft and sorcery. The students at Hogwarts Academy for Witches and Wizards are taught to cast hexes and spells to alter their environments, punish small foes, and defend themselves against more sinister enemies. Transfiguration lessons show them how to change objects and people into other kinds of creatures—sometimes against their will. In Potions class they make brews that can be used to control others. In Herbology they grow plants that are used in the potions—the roots of the mandrake plant, for example, are small human babies who scream when they are uprooted for transplanting, and are grown for the purpose of being cut into pieces and boiled in a magical potion.
A Gnostic worldview
Rowling’s wizard world is about the pursuit of power and esoteric knowledge, and in this sense it is a modern representation of ancient Gnosticism, the archipelago of cults that came close to undermining Christianity at its birth. Though most of the cults were dualistic, some were pantheistic, and all of them, including the so-called “Christian Gnostics”, believed that man saves himself by obtaining secret knowledge and power. St. Irenaeus and other early Church Fathers attribute the founding of Gnosticism to Simon Magus, the magician rebuked by Peter and John in Acts 8 who apparently repented then returned to his former practices. The “Christian Gnostics” of the 2nd century are especially interesting in this regard, for they have counterparts in our times, and offer a sobering warning about the dangers of misidentifying as Christian those who espouse only a portion of the Faith.
At Hogwarts, holidays such as Christmas and Easter are stripped of Christ, rendered down to no more than social customs and absorbed into the “broader” context of the occult symbol-cosmology. Halloween is the great feast of the year. One of the friendly ghosts sings a mocking parody of a Christmas carol. This wizard world, gnostic in essence and practice, neutralizes the sacred and displaces it by normalizing what is profoundly abnormal and destructive in the real world.
While it is true that the author tries to show the difference between good and evil, and to say that good is better than evil, the problem lies in what she presents as good and what she presents as evil. When the struggle between the two is portrayed as thrilling and highly rewarding emotionally, a child reader will be imprinted deeply with messages about the way in which the “good” characters defeat the evil. While Rowling posits the “good” use of occult powers against their misuse, thus imparting to her stories an aura of morality, the cumulative effect is to shift our understanding of the battle lines between good and evil. The border is never defined. Of course, the archetype of “misuse” is Voldemort, whose savage cruelty and will to power is blatantly evil, yet the reader is lulled into minimizing or forgetting altogether that Harry himself, and many other of the “good” characters, frequently use the same powers on a lesser scale, supposedly for good ends. The false notion of “the end justifies the means” is the subtext throughout. The author’s characterization and plot continually reinforce the message that if a person is “nice”, if he means well, is brave and loyal to his friends, he can pretty much do as he sees fit to combat horrific evil—magic powers being the ideal weapon. This is consistent with the author’s confused notions of authority. In reality, magic is an attempt to bypass the limitations of human nature and the authority of God, in order to obtain power over material creation and the will of others through manipulation of the supernatural.
Rejection of the Divine order
Magic is about taking control in areas of life where man has no right to take control. It is a rejection of the divine order in creation. In numerous passages of the Old and New Testaments, the warnings remain unwavering, unnuanced. Deuteronomy 18: 9-12, for example: “When you come into the land which the Lord your God gives you, you shall not learn to follow the abominable practices of those nations. There shall not be found among you . . . any one who practices divination, a soothsayer, or an auger, or a sorcerer, or a charmer, or a wizard, or a necromancer. For whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord.” In the first book of Samuel (15:23) divination is equated with the spirit of rebellion. In the Acts of the Apostles, Peter and Paul confront the power of magicians with utmost severity (see Acts 8:9-24 and Acts 13:6-12, also Acts 19:18-20). The Catechism of the Catholic Church calls magic a form of idolatry.
All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others . . . are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. (n.2117. See also n.2110-2116 and n.2138)
In Rowling’s wizard world, children are taught to manipulate undefined forces, and to submit themselves to no higher law than the wizard authorities who will help them exercise their powers “wisely”. However, the authorities themselves are divided, imparting to the impressionable reader the certainty that the best person to decide what is or is not a “proper use of magic” is the young witch or magician himself, guided only by the occasional intervention of a Professor Dumbledore (“Grand Sorcerer and Chief Warlock”) or some similar guru figure. In Hogwarts, although it is organized along a system of rules pretty much like an ordinary boarding school, Harry’s disobedience is frequently overlooked and even rewarded by the school authorities. After all, he is a special boy, gifted, hated by evil incarnate, and destined for greatness. Moreover, his daring and resourcefulness are always pitted against “bad” characters.
But is Harry really all that good? He blackmails his uncle, blows up his aunt, uses trickery and deception, and “breaks a hundred rules” (to quote the mildly censorious but ultimately approving Dumbledore). He frequently tells lies to get himself out of trouble, and lets himself be provoked into revenge against his student enemies. To quote Harry himself, he “hates” his enemies. The reader soon finds himself sympathetic to this because his tormentors are vindictive and mocking. In a consistent display of authorial overkill Rowling depicts such “bad” characters as ugly in appearance. She does a good deal of sneering at the Dursleys for being fat, and ridicules the oafish bodies of the students who oppress Harry. In these details and a plethora of others throughout the series, the child reader is encouraged in his baser instincts while lip service is paid to morality. Nowhere in the series is there any reference to a system of moral absolutes against which actions can be measured. There are “ethics” and “values” aplenty in the tales but in the end they are little more than an ethos, a materialist morality subsumed in the glamour of materialist magic.
Seeing the context of the times
In his book, An Exorcist Tells His Story (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1999), Fr. Amorth warns that modern men are losing their sense of the reality of supernatural evil. As a result, he says, many have made themselves more vulnerable to the influence of evil spirits who seek to corrupt and destroy souls. Amorth does not hesitate to say that cultural influences such as film, television, music, and books play no small part in the lowering of spiritual vigilance. “I was able personally to verify how great is the influence of these tools of Satan on the young. It is unbelievable how widespread are witchcraft and spiritism, in all their forms, in middle and high school. This evil is everywhere, even in small towns.” (pp. 53, 54) He emphasizes that, knowingly or unknowingly, the practitioner of magic always exposes himself to diabolic influence. “Directly or indirectly, witchcraft is a cult of Satan.”
With occult themes now a part of mainstream culture, the Potter series is juxtaposed between a growing amount of blatantly diabolical material for the young on one hand, and on the other a tide of cultural material that redefines good and evil in subtler ways. Thus, it can appear to be a healthier specimen of what has been more or less normalized all around us. This is precisely the time when we need to exercise more careful discernment, because in the confusing array of the extremely disordered ranging to the less disordered, our perceptions can be seriously blurred.
Our society is saturated in false options, especially the lure of the “lesser evil” argument. In comparison to the great evil of Satanism, a lesser evil such as witchcraft (and in Harry’s case, “good sorcery”) can seem preferable by far, a message further reinforced by the Potter books’ condemnation of the extremes of diabolical behavior. What we so often forget is that manipulation of the “lesser evil” concept is a classic adversarial tactic in the great war between good and evil—the real war in which we are all immersed. If the lesser evil is presented with a little window-dressing of values, we can turn to it assuming we are making a choice for a good.
Culture forms consciousness and conscience
Most children don’t get their metaphysics from theologians; they get it from stories. For that reason parents need to consider carefully the kind of metaphysics 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.
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.
Children are dependent on adults to make careful discernments in the area of culture because they do not have the advantage of age and experience. They are in a state of formation, absorbing impressions about the nature of reality at a fundamental level, and few things in life are as powerful as culture for defining reality—for defining good and evil. In the case of the Harry Potter series discernment has been difficult for many people because these novels seem at first glance to reject evil by dissociating magic from the diabolic. Yet in the real world they are always associated.
Symbols have power
The role of symbology in the formation of consciousness, and hence conscience, is one of the crucial subjects that has been ignored by promoters of the Potter series. The power of symbols, specifically their transmission through children’s literature, has been examined in depth by scholars as varied as the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, the theologian-ethicist Vigen Guroian, and the philologist-fantasy writer J. R. R. Tolkien, all of whom emphasize the remarkable beneficial effects of the right use of symbols. They refer to classic fairy tales as an exemplary literary genre that helps form in a child a genuine sense of virtue. This is so, they believe, because such traditional stories reinforce the “moral order of the universe”, regardless of how fantastic the scenes and plots may be. It is precisely the question of the moral order of the universe that has been largely absent from the controversy over the Potter books. It is assumed that the presence of a few values is moral order.
Pro-Potter Catholics consistently forget that the symbols in our minds exercise a certain power over us (often subconsciously), and this is especially so in the minds of the young. Symbols are keystones in the architecture of thought, indeed in our perceptions of the structure, if you will, of reality itself. If we lose symbolism, we lose your way of knowing things. If we destroy symbols, we destroy concepts. If we corrupt symbols, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose the ability to understand things as they are, rendering us vulnerable to deformation of our perceptions and our actions.
Regardless of how few or many children are prompted to venture into occult activity after reading the Potter series, it will have a strong effect on most, in the sense of what educators call the propaeduetic—preparing the ground for later developments. If the natural and spiritual guard has been lowered in a child’s mind, if his concept of morality has been skewed and authority undermined, what other kinds of disordered interests and activities will follow as he makes his choices later in life? This is no longer an academic question. A search of the internet for Harry Potter references yields hundreds of thousands of “hits” or web pages where the books are being discussed. Selective searches turn up more than a hundred high-profile sites devoted to the series, many of which offer links to advanced occult websites under titles such as “Learn More about the Secrets of the Occult” and “How to Become a Witch.”
An article in the December 17, 2000, issue of Time magazine reported that a pagan organization in Germany deals with an increasing number of inquiries from young people, which it credits to the Potter factor. In an interview with Newsweek, a spokesman for the Pagan Federation in England claimed that he receives an average of 100 inquiries a month from young people who want to become witches—an unprecedented phenomenon which he also attributes in part to the Potter books. Rowling herself has expressed surprise at the volume of mail she receives from young readers writing to her as if Hogwarts were real, wanting to know how they can enter the school in order to become witches and wizards. Librarians in diverse social settings report that children in increasing numbers are requesting material from the occult sections of their collections, including Witchcraft and Satanic manuals.
In a survey conducted in the United States during the summer of 2001, Barna Research Group found that 41 percent of the adolescents polled have either seen the Potter film or have read one or more of the Potter books. As a result of watching the movie or reading the books, 12 percent said they were more interested in actual witchcraft. 86 percent regularly watch films or television programs with occult themes. In order to determine how many of the survey group were involved in psychic-occult experimentation, researchers listed a variety of activities and asked which ones they had participated in. The list included consulting a spiritual medium or psychic, fortune telling, palm reading, playing with a Ouija board, playing a game that featured witchcraft or sorcery elements, participating in a séance, trying to cast a spell, and trying to mix a potion. The survey revealed that 25 percent had experimented with three items on the list, 5 percent had done all the items, and approximately 66 percent had participated in at least one of these activities. Of the teens who had either seen the Harry Potter movie or read the books, 74 percent told researchers they had tried at least one item on the list.
Loss of Christian discernment
There is of course some courage and love in the Harry Potterseries, but it is the mixing of these admirable qualities withloathsome behavior that makes it so deceptive. It must be rememberedthat courage and love can be found in all peoples, even those involvedin the worst forms of paganism. The presence of such virtues does notautomatically justify an error-filled work of fiction. In Potter-worldthe characters are engaged in activities which in real life corruptanyone who practices them, weakening the will, darkening the mind, andpulling him down into spiritual bondage. Rowling’s characters godeeper and deeper into that world without displaying any negative sideeffects, only an increase in “character.” This is a lie. Moreover, itis the Satanic lie which deceived us in Eden: You canhave knowledge of good and evil (you will decide whatis good and what is evil), you can have enhanced life, you can haveGod-like powers. In Potter-world the message is, such powers are abirthright, a natural faculty that needs only to be awakened andinformed in order to be used properly. In essence, it is animmanentized universe—a godless Flatland, relieved from the weight ofits limited materialist dimensions by dazzle and flash. Moreover,Rowling’s dramatization of these powers are very much drawn from therituals and practices of witchcraft and sorcery in the real world, afact that has been proven in detailed assessments of the Potter seriesby former witches.
The Harry Potter series is a fantasy-projection of materialist man imagining himself to have god-like powers without any reference to the source of those powers, nor to any set of moral absolutes against which he can measure the rightness or wrongness of his actions. Whatever morals, virtues, and values are to be found in the books are an inheritance from Christianity, surviving only as a humanistic ethos, a remnant of what they once were. Here too we find another distinction so far absent from the debate: Is there not a qualitative difference in a society (such as ours) that is descending back into the darkness of paganism and a society (such as the peoples of the early Christian era) who were laboriously climbing out of it? A traveler climbing a long road out of a swamp may meet another traveler going back down into the swamp. For a passing moment they may appear to be at the same position, but their destinations are radically different.
Where, then, is the road of modern culture taking us? The real question is not whether there are intriguing, entertaining, and even edifying details along the route, but what is the final destination? Are Christians asking this question as they consume contemporary cultural material? Or are they gradually losing their bearings, the moral compass spinning aimlessly or locked in a fixed position? Again, where is this road leading? What is the dominant terrain, the pitch of the slope? I say it is heading downward, and the occasional bumps in the road that offer a sense of upward mobility (such as the “values” in the Potter books) contribute to an illusion. Those who reject this view can sound eminently reasonable, for they have on their side not only their erudition in selective fields of study, but their audience’s desire to be reassured, the need in human nature for confidence in their world, their instinctive aversion to the threat of “negativity” or “intolerance.”
For the time being, most Christians still maintain certain limits, vague lines across which hedonist culture cannot invade their personal lives. Though the limits are constantly probed and pressured, faint alarm bells still ring within us from time to time whenever there is too much violation. Even so, our response is often wavering, and rarely is it consistent. For example, reasonable Christian parents would not permit their children to read a series of enthralling books depicting the rites and adventures of likable young people involved in drug-dealing, or premarital sex, or sadism. We would not give our children fiction in which a group of “good fornicators” struggled against a set of “bad fornicators”, because we know that the power of disordered sexual impulse is an abiding problem in human affairs, the negative effects of which we can see all around us. Why, then, have we accepted a set of books that posit “good witches and sorcerers” against “bad witches and sorcerers”, that glamorize and normalize occult activity, even though it is every bit as deadly to the soul as sexual sin, if not more so? Is it because we have not yet awakened to the fact that occultism is a real and present danger? Is it because we have not yet understood the nature of the swamp, and the road that leads to it?
Unasked questions that need to be asked
We must ask ourselves why evil concepts, if they are wrapped in the aura of “culture”, now enjoy a special exemption from the normal rules of discernment. Why do we presume that a sensually powerful series of children’s books will not affect a young reader’s interests and activities? Why have we come to assume that the experience of plunging the imagination into an alternative, and ultimately false world, will remain sealed in an airtight compartment of the mind? We must ask ourselves how we arrived at a position where we allow our children to absorb for hours on end, in the form of powerful fiction, activities that we would never permit them to observe or to practice in real life.
Books and films which three generations ago would have been instantly recognized as unhealthy for our children, are now considered acceptable. Why is this so? Why are threats (recognized for thousands of years as real threats) to our children’s well-being now interpreted as harmless? Why is an attitude of calm vigilance now considered to be alarmist or “hysterical”? To what degree have our judgments been influenced by the pagan worldview — possibly affected to the core? To what degree have we mistaken the assimilation by paganism for legitimate inculturation? What, precisely, is a legitimate adaptation of non-Christian culture? Can we really “baptize” the symbols and activities of the realm of darkness without negative effects? These are particularly urgent questions, because we are no longer the early Christians cleansing a classical pagan temple and consecrating it as a church. We are “Late Western Man,” to use C. S. Lewis’s term, and we are in the midst of a social revolution that is assaulting the truly sacred and degrading it at every turn.
Implications for the future
This brings us to consideration of what may be the long range implications of the Potter controversy. The acclaim of the Potter series by many orthodox Catholic scholars has been a surprise, to say the least. There is little to distinguish the books other than their unprecedented sales records and their ability to mesmerize a host of readers. The author is a talented story teller, to be sure, but her writing skills are unexceptional. Her view of life, if one could call it that, is in no way profound. Whatever verities she presents in the plot can be found in better forms in the novels of at least half a dozen less well known authors I could name. Her “vision” comes nowhere near the artistry and depth of Tolkien’s. Why, then, all the fuss? Why the straining to find redeeming qualities in her work? Why the anger against critics?
There is a clue, I think, in the concluding paragraph of Alan Jacob’s First Things article, where he writes: “Perhaps the most important question I could ask my Christian friends who mistrust the Harry Potter books is this: is your concern about the portrayal of this imaginary magical technology matched by a concern for the effects of the technology which in our world displaced magic? The technocrats of this world hold in their hands powers almost infinitely greater than those of Albus Dumbledore and Voldemort: how worried are we about them, and their influence over our children? Not worried enough, I would say.”
I would agree, we are not worried enough. But Jacobs has offered us a misleading either/or choice here. Like so many scholars who are concerned about the widespread growth of materialism, and its negative effects, he has diagnosed the illness but has offered a medicine that will not really touch the core of the malady. The loss of metaphysics has indeed fostered the growth of a mechanistic view of the world, reducing man himself to a mechanism, and pitching us all closer to the catastrophic consequences of this stunted cosmology. But the remedy cannot be found by reintroducing to the consciousness of modern man just any metaphysics, for the realm of the supernatural is, if we are to believe Christ and four thousand years of Judeao-Christian wisdom, a war zone.
Are there metaphysics in Potter-world? Yes, there are numerous hints of realms beyond the physical, yet the author’s messages about what is going on there are scrambled. By presenting to the reader a world of mystery, she is engaging an aspect of man’s nature that God created in us for a good purpose. Mystery is the gatekeeper of wonder, and wonder when it is rightly nurtured will draw us upward to transcendence. But if we are fed false mysteries, we can be led downward and away from authentic wonder. The phenomenal resurgence of interest in occult “spiritualities” is a symptom of the bankruptcy of materialist social philosophies and the cultural material they have spawned. There is an abiding hunger in the human soul for the sacred transcendent, for the holy, wherein man finds his true identity and worth. When it is denied, a void opens up within him. If our particular churches are not offering the fullness of the Catholic faith to the coming generation, if we are not giving the young an authentic and vital spiritual life, they will go searching elsewhere — and the realm of the pseudo-mystical, which is so often connected to the diabolical, will be waiting for them. The lack (or more accurately the marginalization) of an authentic and vital Catholic culture is also a crucial factor, for it is never enough simply to keep unhealthy influences from our children. The primary task is to give them good food for the imagination, providing opportunities to fall in love with the Great Adventure of existence.
The controversy revolves, in part, around what is really an old problem in Catholic philosophy well articulated by Jacques Maritain, namely the dialogue between the rights of Art and the rights of Prudence. Catholic wisdom would maintain that the independence of art is a necessary part of natural law, but if art 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. Yet we find in the Potter controversy that public figures who exercise great influence over the opinions of Catholics are exalting the “autonomy of culture” without serious consideration of what this really means. Indeed, whenever they exalt in such a lopsided fashion, they minimize. By reducing the actual significance of culture’s power to influence how we think, how we feel, how we perceive the world—and ultimately the choices we make in the realm of action—they inhibit the restoration of culture. Is a restoration possible? A resounding yes! All the more reason to get our bearings right and to see the whole form of the war for what it is.
As it stands, many academics are applying limited templates in their analysis of various aspects of the modern age. Analysis is sorely needed, but purely sociopolitical or academic categories are woefully inadequate to the task. Cultural phenomena such as the Potter series must be examined in the light of more dimensions than literary or sociological. We need especially to understand the historical causes of the fragmentation that has so weakened our ability to read the signs of the times. We must ponder ways in which intellectual vigor can work together with gifts of spiritual discernment. Furthermore, we must ask how 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?
These are a sampling of 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 and films hot on their heels. Many of these will offer cosmologies that are more corrupt than Potter’s, but they will succeed because Harry helped pave the way. If we do not wake up to the nature of this struggle, we may very well find ourselves contributing to a dark future for Western civilization. We may even help form a race of super-impressionists incapable of right discernment. This is a profoundly disturbing trend. The fruits of it will be even more disturbing. If the trend continues unabated, the resulting collapse will be due in no small part to the failure of Catholic institutions, notably our education systems, to integrate faith and reason and spiritual discernment.
Is the collapse irreversible? Of course not. Is a restoration possible? Again, a resounding yes! But it will not come about until Catholics learn to resist the false romance of the new paganism, until we reclaim our timeless inheritance, which in every generation must include a wise vigilance. This is not pessimism. This is the essence of Christian realism—to look into the depths of a darkening age and see there the approaching victory of Christ. That victory can never be realized by calling darkness light.
Christian fantasy literature and true symbols
The holy scriptures are rich in the true symbols that are absolutely essential to a proper understanding of who we are and where we are situated in the Great War between good and evil—the war that will last until the end of time. Our Lady, for example, is the woman foretold in Genesis 3:15 who will crush the serpent’s head. In her role with Christ on Calvary she is the promise fulfilled, and is further revealed as the Woman of Revelation, “the great sign, the woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars” (Rev. 12:1). Satan is “the huge dragon, the ancient serpent known as the devil . . . the seducer of the whole world” (Rev. 12:9) who “makes war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the Commandments and give witness to Jesus” (Rev. 12:17). In the first and last books of the Scriptures, salvation history is revealed in these symbolic forms—symbols, however, that are no “mere” fantasies, for they represent real persons and forces that affect the eternal destiny of each of us.
For this reason, we must take great care about what kind of symbols we permit into our minds. Children especially need wise parental guidance regarding the kinds of symbols they absorb through books, films, videos and other forms of cultural media. With the Potter series the corruption of symbols has moved to a new level, and on a scale that is unprecedented in the history of children’s literature. It is a grave matter, therefore, that a number of learned Catholic commentators have promoted the books and films within the household of the Faith, and have done so with energy, fierce loyalty to the series, and at times anger against even the mildest critics—the latter reaction a telling symptom of loss of objective discernment. One of their arguments is that because Christian writers have incorporated the theme of magic into their fiction, Rowling’s use of magic is therefore also within the boundaries of healthy fantasy.
Part of right discernment in this regard involves an examination of how Christian writers have used the theme of magic in the past. In the fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, and others we find examples of ways in which fantasy can be effective without loss of authentic moral order, stimulating the reader’s imagination in such a way that he is better able to consider invisible realities, without inflaming his imagination in the wrong directions. I have written extensively on the subject in my book, A Landscape With Dragons: the Battle for your Child’s Mind, and need not restate all of my points here. Yet a shorter examination may help us see the problem more clearly.
Recall that the evidence is now mounting regarding the fruits of neo-pagan fantasy, notably the Potter books and the way they have prompted a growing number of young people to explore the practices of witchcraft, sorcery, and other forms of occultism. No such parallel phenomenon occurred following the publication of two other fantasy epics for children, Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Of course, a contributing factor was the social context in which they were published, an earlier stage of the modern era when access to occult subcultures was minimal. Equally important, these two Christian writers used magic in a way fundamentally different from Rowling’s use.
In The Magician’s Nephew, the first volume of the Narnia series, the corruption of Narnia begins when an elderly Londoner dabbles in occult activity, and opens the doors between worlds. The ensuing disasters are the direct result of the very activities the Potter books portray as morally neutral forces. Lewis depicts them as forces that radically disrupt the moral order. Chaos, bondage, and violation of the dignity of creatures is the inevitable result of that disruption. Throughout the Chronicles witches are portrayed in classic terms, as malevolent, manipulative, and deceiving—not the least of whom is a character called the White Witch. In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, a selfish boy who has no understanding of the supernatural meets a dragon. Entering its lair he seizes its treasure hoard and is changed into a dragon. He is liberated from this condition—“undragoned”—only by the intervention of the Christ figure, Aslan, who alone has the authority, the “deep magic”, to undo what evil has done. Supernatural powers, Lewis repeatedly underlines, belong to God alone, and in human hands they are highly deceptive and can lead to destruction.
J. R. R. Tolkien
In his great fantasy epic, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien also portrays magic as fraught with deception. Supernatural powers that do not rightly belong to man are repeatedly shown as having a corrupting influence on man. While it is true that Gandalf, one of the central characters, is called a “wizard” throughout, he is not in fact a classical sorcerer. There are ranks of beings in Middle-earth, and the Istari lie somewhere between angels and men. The term “wizard” is one which men of Middle-earth have projected onto the Istari, who are only superficially like the wizards in the Potter series. Tolkien maintains that Gandalf is rather a kind of moral guardian, similar to guardian angels but more incarnate. In a number of his letters, he explains his depiction of matter and spirit, and his intentions in using “magic” as a metaphor (see The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, letters 155, 156 and 228). In essence Tolkien’s “good magic” is not what we think of as magic in the real world. Gandalf’s task is primarily to advise, instruct, and arouse to resistance the minds and hearts of those threatened by Sauron, the Dark Lord of this saga. Gandalf does not do the work for them; they must use their natural gifts to resist evil and do good—and in this we see an image of grace building on nature, never overwhelming nature or replacing it. Gandalf’s gifts are used sparingly, and then only so far as they help the other creatures in the exercise of their free will and their moral choices. But it is only an assist, never a replacement.
The central character, Frodo Baggins, is asked by Gandalf to bear a ring of magical power to a volcanic mountain in Mordor, a region ruled by Sauron, in order to destroy the ring in the volcano’s fires and thus weaken the grip that Sauron has over the world. Frodo agrees to undertake the journey but soon realizes that the ring has a seductive hold on him. As he carries the very thing that could ruin the world, he is constantly tempted to use it for the good. But he learns that to use its powers for such short-range “goods” increases the probability of long-range disaster, both for the world and for himself. Such powers, Tolkien demonstrates repeatedly, are very much a domain infested by the “deceits of the Enemy,” used for domination of other creatures’ free will. They are metaphors of sin and spiritual bondage. By contrast, Gandalf’s very limited use of preternatural powers is never used to overwhelm, deceive, or defile. Even so, the author mentions more than once in the epic that these powers must pass away from the world as the “Old Age” ends and the “Age of Man” (and by inference the Age of the Incarnation) approaches.
Much of the modern pagan use of magic is the converse of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s approach. In neopagan fantasy literature, magic is frequently used to overwhelm, deceive, and defile. In the Potter series, Harry uses his powers to overwhelm, deceive, and defile his human enemies, and he resists Voldemort with the very powers the Dark Lord himself uses. Harry is essentially a younger more appealing Saruman (the wizard in The Lord of the Rings who seeks the ring in order to use it against the ultimate evil, Sauron). Indeed, Potter-world exalts the very state of mind and spiritual corruption that Tolkien warns us against through his portrait of Saruman.
Tolkien’s Saruman is a man of extraordinary gifts who in the beginning of the tale is introduced as one of the wisest men of his times, the head of the Council of the Istari. Gradually we discover that he has learned to communicate with Sauron in the “language of Mordor.” His motives in the beginning appear to be good, the defense of the world from ultimate evil, but in time he is seduced by Sauron and overcome. Harry, too, is a gifted boy, aware that he has special powers that enable him to resist the ultimate evil of Voldemort. He is a “Parsel-tongue” one who is able to speak the language of serpents—and the intelligent serpents in the series are helpful to his cause (with one exception, a not very bright basilisk). Harry is never overcome in any way other than the physical blows he suffers in combat. At one point he appears to have been killed, then returns to life “on the third day.”
Rowling has not denied our symbology. No, she has done something more corruptive, which is to appropriate it and mutate it. She is telling us through her symbology that because there are good serpents and bad serpents, therefore there are good witches and bad witches, good sorcerers and bad sorcerers. The point I wish to make here is that the cumulative effect of the series is to dissolve the parameters of our traditional symbol world. If I may return to the analogy I used earlier: What would we think of a series of captivating novels for young people that posited a set of good fornicators against a set of bad fornicators, and used fornication itself as the means to attain the good end? The answer is obvious. Yet countless Christian readers have not felt any repugnance to the Potter series because, for many of them, occult activity does not appear at first glance to be a vice of the lower appetites—the more obvious sins, the ones that have such clearly negative consequences. What we forget is that occultism is far more dangerous than sexual sin because it is a vice of the higher faculties of man, involving spiritual pride.
Hero and anti-hero
In some elements of his personality Harry is a classic hero, a courageous underdog whose innate qualities are gradually developed and who resists evil through much adversity. The problem lies not in these traditional heroic elements but in the modern elements of the anti-hero (the character who overcomes evil through evil means) which the author has integrated into Harry’s personality. Harry is both hero and anti-hero. He is the reverse image of Frodo, who is a genuine hero. This is not to say that Frodo is a cardboard cut-out “good-guy.” He has flaws and temptations, and he sometimes stumbles. But he never calls good evil, nor evil good. His failures are due to human weakness; they do not derive from malice and pride. By contrast, Rowling portrays Harry’s victory over evil as the fruit of acquiring esoteric knowledge and power. This is Gnosticism. Tolkien portrays Frodo’s victory over evil as the rejection of unlawful knowledge and power, and the fruit of his humility, obedience, and perseverance in a state of radical suffering. This is Christianity. Harry’s world is about pride, Frodo’s about sacrificial love.
Yes, there is “magic” in both Rowling’s Potter-world and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, but here the similarity ends. Unlike Harry’s powers, Gandalf's powers are bestowed on him as a gift from Iluvatar, “the Father of All,” Tolkien’s mythological representation of God. This is a crucial point, the crucial distinction between Middle-earth and Potter-world. Tolkien’s sub-creation is fundamentally hierarchical, representing a moral order that ascends from the incarnate all the way up to the throne of God Himself. Tolkien has employed the sub-creator’s liberty to envision a world that might have been. Yet he takes pains to state, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” that no matter how fabulous the sub-created world may be, no matter how wildly it departs from the details of material existence, it must remain faithful to the moral order of the real universe.
In another letter he wrote about his trilogy, Tolkien expressed some concern about the danger of readers misinterpreting his intentions: “I have been far too casual about ‘magic’ and especially the use of the word . . . .” He goes on to state that his fictional use of “magic” is not what we think of as magic in this world, which is obtained by lore or spells (the Gnostic seizing of secret knowledge). Rather, in Middle-earth it is “an inherent power not possessed or attainable by Men as such.” A small word, this “not”, one easily overlooked by those who would use Tolkien to justify Rowling. On this seemingly minute distinction a great deal depends, indeed the good of many souls.
It is my guess that if Tolkien had written the ring trilogy in our times, not half a century ago, he would have been less casual, would have been careful to make the distinctions more clear. Even so, the ring trilogy is sufficiently clear when understood according to its author’s intention, especially in the light of his foundational work The Silmarillion. With some leeway for imaginative expansion on his themes, Tolkien has given us the “theological” foundation of Middle-earth, one that corresponds in essence to the book of Genesis. It’s all there: the Creator, the creation of the universe, the revolt of the fallen angels, Satan, the corruption of Man, the seizure of unlawful powers, the ensuing battle between good and evil in the incarnate world. The names have been changed and the details of the battles enlarged, but this is a dramatic portrayal of reality itself.
What is the context of J. K. Rowling’s Potter-world? What are its “theological foundations”, if you will? In a word, there are none. The Harry Potter series is a fantasy-projection of materialist man imagining himself to have god-like powers without any reference to the source of those powers, nor to any set of moral absolutes against which he can measure the rightness or wrongness of his actions. He is, in a sense, “beyond good and evil,” and as such is the offspring of Nietzsche’s “super-man.” There is also something of Albert Camus’ “stranger” in him, the unhappy outsider adrift in a cosmos without fixed moral reference points, who can find himself only through the force of his autonomous will. Indeed, the dominant themes in Rowling’s Potter-world are the search for identity and the willful exercise of power as the means to discovering that identity. These are its primary “values” (a term coined by Nietzsche). But where Camus reveals this condition for what it is—a destructive and tragic aberration, Rowling offers it to the young generation as normal and redemptive.
Of course, the search for identity is not wrong in itself, for it is a universal human need which, when properly directed, assists us in leading happy, fruitful lives. Rather, the problem lies in how the central character of the Potter series discovers his identity. It can be difficult for the modern reader to see this at first, surrounded as we are by the spirit of the super-man and the outsider. Discernment is further complicated by the presence in the stories of positive secondary values, some of which appear at first glance to reinforce good as understood by the Christian Faith. However, the series must be assessed as a whole in order to be seen for what it is: good and evil are redefined in these books, and whatever survives of Christian morality in them is a remnant of what it once was. Full of internal contradictions, the few positive values are dominated by subjectivity and impulse. The commentators who emphasize these values, while ignoring the repeated violation of absolute principles, run the risk of straining out gnats and swallowing camels. That so many Christian commentators have succumbed to its enchantment is a symptom that the Western world is fast losing its bearings, its sense of the actual moral order in the universe. The loss of that sense began with the loss of our understanding of the meaning and power of symbols.
Allow me to conclude by saying once again: If we lose symbolism, we lose at a basic level of consciousness our way of knowing things as they are. If symbols are corrupted, concepts are corrupted, and then we lose our ability to understand the human condition, rendering us more vulnerable to deformation of our perceptions and our actions. Symbols are not items in some storage room or attic of the psyche, that we can take up and discard at will, or rearrange without consequences. To tamper with them is to destabilize the very foundations of the house. While most Christians would never knowingly exchange symbols of evil for symbols of good, (to do so they would cease to be Christians), many have accepted a new realm of eclectic symbology that allows a mixture of good and evil symbols to influence their thoughts and feelings. But two contradictory symbol worlds cannot long remain in a state of peaceful co-existence within us. Either one or the other will come to dominate and will eventually demand the expulsion of the other.
The Woman and the Great Dragon
Mary the Mother of God is a real person, and symbols of her help us to know her better. Satan too is a real person, and the symbols we have of him help us to recognize his devices and deceptions. More than any other creature, Mary is hated by our ancient adversary the devil. Put another way: More than any other creature, the Woman Clothed with the Sun is hated by the Great Dragon. If in our minds this Woman is no more than a pleasant image representing a purely historical figure, or the principle of the feminine or some other abstraction, then we will hardly be disposed to turn to her as the personal mother of our souls, still less as God’s valiant warrior, the New Eve who with her son will bring about the ultimate triumph over Satan. By the same token, if in our minds the symbol of the Dragon, the ancient deceiver of mankind, is no more than a cosmic bogeyman, a character in an outmoded tale, or a metaphor of irrational psychological elements in human nature, we will hardly be able to engage him in battle. This would surely please him. Furthermore, if we neutralize in our children’s minds the truth about the urgency of the battle, the necessity of resisting the enemy with the weapons of prayer, he will be very pleased indeed.
It is very much in the interests of the Great Dragon that we would think he does not exist, that we would reduce him to a metaphor. Alternatively, those who do have a vague sense that he exists may fall into the trap of thinking he can be easily appeased, tamed by redefinition, or negotiated with. Either of these two deceptions are productive for his purposes. It is a common assumption these days that conflict is always bad, that peace can always be obtained by conciliation. A parallel fallacy would have us believe that loving non-violent children are produced by stripping their cultural diet of traditional conflicts and traditional heroes. This is to ignore the fact that struggle and conflict are inescapable in this life. If we mutate the symbols of that struggle, we may for a time avoid a dragon at the front door only to find him creeping in the back door—and worse, find that he has become master of the household without our knowing it.
It goes without saying that efforts at mutual understanding between people are desirable. But we are incredibly naïve if we project our human nature upon a being whose unrelenting purpose is the destruction and damnation of mankind as the master-stroke in his revolt against the divine order. He will wage total war against us until the end of time, regardless of how idealistic our attempts to make a separate peace with him. The proliferation in young people’s culture of friendly dragons and of “heroes” who use dragonish techniques to bring about some perceived good is a futile attempt to make such a false peace.
In the end, the darkness cannot overcome the light. Satan’s head will be crushed. Until that time, however, the war for souls continues, and children will be the most vulnerable of souls in the cosmic struggle that ranges across the temporal and supernatural realms. In the Great War that will last until the end of time there will be many casualties. Souls will be lost—perhaps in great numbers. As members of the Body of Christ, we are called with utmost urgency to defend these little ones from the serpent who seeks to devour them.
Our defense will be effective to the degree that we understand the limitations of our human faculties. We must use our intelligence and reason in promoting the truth, while recognizing that an over-reliance on intelligence or reason actually undermines the fullness of the truth. Spiritual gifts are neither irrational nor anti-rational. They are, rather, supra-rational, containing reason but illuminated by all the other gifts of God in proper proportion. If this controversy over culture has proved anything, it is that human qualities avail us little in the struggle between good and evil unless they are irradiated by grace.