Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Age old debate

Or so it seems. I have largely avoided the Harry Potter debate, focusing rather on the H. Potter debate and whether China is good for you. (sorry, inside joke. H. Potter was around before Harry and is a owned by a friend.)

A few years and several books ago, I got thick into it, coming down on the anti-Potter side. But people I know and respect have read the books and can give solid arguments for fitting the books into a Catholic worldview. So not having read the books and avoiding fads like a bad plague, I let the matter rest. But every once in a while, a great article will stir the pot and make us rethink our positions.

This is such an article, Harry Potter and “the Death of God” by Michael O'Brien. It is long, but won't consume one's life like the books have on the release date.
Rowling has tapped into the human drama, the story that is as old as the Iliad, but without Homer’s deep insights into human motivation; as old as Beowulf, but with the roles confused and the lessons lost; as contemporary as The Lord of the Rings, but without Tolkien’s depiction of humility, genuine virtue, and wisdom. She has taken pains to make her tale more complicated than a simplistic bad guy versus good guy scenario, more complicated even that a scenario with the frontier lines of good and evil merely shifted. Clever and inventive, she has scrambled all the frontiers, interior and exterior, vertical and horizontal, and the only orienting factor is the fate of the dynamic ego of the central character.

Many of the arguments resound with my feeling towards the series. Not having read them, I can't personally critique them, but they set off the intuition as wrong. Wrong because of the focus, wrong because of the popularity, wrong because of the attention they get (stealing time from what other areas of our lives.)
Narcissism doesn't lead people to God, it doesn't make us strive to become better Christians. Good wholesome literature should do that at some level. Reading isn't a 'good' in and of itself. It can be an addiction like any other if it supplants what is good in our life.
As Tolkien once pointed out in his essay on fantasy literature, the writer who hopes to feed the imagination in a healthy way must remain faithful to the moral order of the real universe, regardless of how fantastic the details of the fictional world may be. The Natural Law which God has written into our beings cannot be entirely eradicated, but it can be gravely deformed, leading to distortion of consciousness and conscience, and hence our actions. Healthy fiction, no matter how wildly it may depart from the material order, teaches us to love ourselves in a wholesome manner, by loving our neighbor. Indeed, even by loving our enemies—at least by trying to learn to love them, and by believing that it is right to do so. With grace this is possible. But selective love (coupled with selective hatred) does not lead to freedom. It is the feelings of love without the substance of love, the feelings of freedom without the foundations of freedom. If God is the absent father—or the father who perhaps never existed—the hero and his readers are left only with such emotions, their hooked loyalties, their love of the self’s insatiable appetites, which they feel cannot be denied without a killing curse of self-annihilation. That is why so many people cling fiercely to the “values” in the Potter books while ignoring the interwoven undermining of those very values.[emphasis added]


Bear-i-tone said...


I understand your reasons for not wanting to read the books. But you should always be careful when you quote someone reviewing a book you yourself have not read. You seem to like Tolkien; remember the words of Gandalf: "A wise man speaks only what he knows."

KaleJ said...

I must disagree bear-i-tone. I qualified my remarks clearly. And I refrained from long pontification about the books. (I say 'long' because I did spout a few opinions, but hey, it is a blog.)

But there is reason to read reviews. And I thought O'Brien made some points that are worth considering.

Bear-i-tone said...

Yes, you have your point. For myself, I no longer read reviews, neither for books nor movies nor any other thing. They are far too often out to lunch.

I applaud you- make no mistake- for taking a concern over your children and the formation of their minds. Your efforts to keep from them that which is harmful is laudable.

For myself, I did read the books. I have permitted my elder to read them. I do not recommend them, I don't not recommend them. The Church has not come out on a position with this. I may have to read the entire review. The parts you have cited make no specific refefrence to the books, neither in chapter, incident, nor character. It speaks in vague and general terms which- I speak from my experience- is wide of any and all marks. His general truths do not apply to anything specific in the books.

At any rate, we got worse problems coming. Philip Pullman's books are huge and are set to get bigger. If the news I've heard about them is true, these books are truly evil. I'll have to look into myself, before my kids get anywhere near them.

KaleJ said...

The entire review is worth the read. I tried to grab snippets that might interest my readers. And yes much of it is generalities, but as I said, I don't weigh into this lightly, I think O'Brien has done his work and it is a good read.

KaleJ said...

And I guess it is more my search for what bugs me about the books. It isn't the witchcraft so much, I am not that sensitive to that. But just the wild popularity and faddishness gives me the feeling of a cultural pitfall.

Kinda like the Beetles maybe, people putting that much emphasis on something worldly gives me the impression something is wrong.

Bear-i-tone said...

I agree with you that its faddishness is a bit offputting. I myself would have preferred to have a smaller group reading the books. But "popularity" does not necessarily mean "bad." LOTR was wildly popular, much to Tolkien's chagrin. He referred to his fans as "my deplorable cultists."

I'll take a look at the whole review next chance I get, and won't comment any further until I have done so.

Bear-i-tone said...

Just read it.

Speaking as a former university English lit teacher, I would not hesitate to give this man a 'D'. The piece is full of vague generalities. He writes truism after truism, but fails to convincingly connect them to the books. Does he make good points? Yes. Do they apply? er...

Further, the few times he does connect he is blurring multiple issues, figures and incidents together without acknowledging he has done so.

His claim that Harry was previously vindictive had me scratching my chin. I must have missed that part.

This is a reading done by someone with an agenda. I used to get it all the time at university. He is not working towards a comprehending viewpoint, but from one which already tells him what he is to find and understand. He is bending the books to his will to prove his points- whether they do or not.

The writing sounds good, and he is fond of throwing catchy sounding truth after another, but I would be very wary of this man's opinion on this, or any other, subject.