O’Brien on Potter & Entertainment

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LifesiteNews has posted an extensive interview with Michael O’Brien about his views on Harry Potter. Michael O’Brien is himself a Catholic author, most known for his novel “Father Elijah.”

Much of the interview is about the particularities of Harry Potter. I agree and disagree with him. While I would concede that there are several instances where the Potter books don’t live up to Christian values, I think he misinterprets many of his examples to skew the books, particular in his discussions about the final scenes. However, I’m more interested in how his views would apply to a subject I rarely see discuss but which is very important: how Catholics ought to approach art and make the decision of whether or not to read/view a particular work. O’brien indirectly touches on this issue through the Potter debate, and it’s those areas I’d like to focus on.

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.

This is the crux of O’Brien’s argument against Potter: witchcraft is a traditional symbol of evil, and by presenting it as possibly morally neutral Rowling’s world ought to be rejected. His attempts to simultaneously defend Tolkien’s fantasy and the inconsistencies of this are well argued by many others. Howver, I think this claim is wrong even if he did condemn Tolkien.

What an author should do if they wish to use a traditional evil in a different way is to contemplate why that symbol was evil. Wizardry was a symbol of a desire for power and control; vampires for lust and immortality; werewolves for an animalistic view of humans, etc. O’Brien’s argument would corner us into using these motifs always as evil. But I think an author could genuinely write a story about a werewolf fighting his own tendencies in an effort to overcome his weakness. Indeed, Tolkien’s portrayal of dwarves fits into the tendency. The dwarves are tempted by greed and close-mindedness but throughout LOTR Gimli’s experiences change him so that he becomes a veritable hero. So while I think that authors would be wise to deal with the weaknesses inherent in their symbols rather than gloss over them, I don’t think authors are cornered the way O’Brien suggests. While O’Brien is right to suggest that authors need to pay careful attention to the traditional uses, I don’t think they are bound by them. Indeed, O’Brien’s book involves an attempt to convert the Anti-Christ; if that’s not using an evil symbol in an unorthodox way I don’t know what is.

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 affected by it?

Part of this argument is contingent on his claims that Potter contains more evil than good. Now read this quote with it:

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.

I would agree with O’Brien that commentators who say the Potter series presents NO problems are mistaken. But O’Brien’s problem with potter’s “scrambled moral universe” could apply to almost anything. The fundamental problem Christians have with approaching art is that the authors are sinful human beings. Even the best of authors are going to allow their sinfulness to creep undetected into their works so that their work contains mixed moral messages. While some works are clearly better than others at containing far more positive messages then evil (LOTR for example), no work is perfect. There is no work in the world in which the reader ought to be sitting and fully accepting.

The question for the Christian reader is how to deal with this. Part of this relies on literary interpretation. If you read Potter as offering an example of sacrificial love, you are more likely to believe it to ultimately be a useful work of art. If you read Potter as endorsing the end justifies the means, then you’re not. There are times when you can clearly say “x is unacceptable for Christians” but oftentimes this is difficult. Art speaks to different people in different ways so that some people make take more from the good parts than others. This is particularly true in the modern entertainment context, in which everything is very mixed and Christians who wish to stay engaged with the culture find themselves facing very difficult choices.

Even though there are works of art that label themselves as Christian, either they are Protestant, contain mixed moral messages anyway, or are just plain terrible works of art (think “Fireproof,” if you managed to get past the first five minutes of the dialogue). Many of the Catholic writers of the last century wrote stories with very flawed characters who seek truth in a postmodern world (Greene’s Power and the Glory, Percy’s the Moviegoer, Flannery O’Conner).

There’s no easy out, nor should their be. Good art is reflective of the world, and as that world is fallen and the author is fallen Catholics are going to have to balance the good and the bad. Good art ought to point more towards God than point away.

I have no problem if O’Brien or anyone else thinks Harry Potter does more ill than good. I disagree with them, but they are entitled to their opinion. But pretending that it is all evil avoids the difficult decisions that a consumer needs to make; and Catholics who trying to live out the New Evangelization and meet the culture need to be more aware of that decision.

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  1. Nicely put. Come to think of it, don’ t the legends of King Arthur (and Merlin), come from medieval, Catholic Europe? This whole “magic makes the book evil” position is ludicrously unsupportable. Should we avoid huge swathes of English literature? What are we going to do about Macbeth? Or Dr Faustus? Or, heaven help us, Procopius’ Secret History?

    I could go on. The list of great works with “immoral” content is endless. But we don’t – or shouldn’t – go to art for moral guidance, and we could do nothing worse than trying to hive ourselves off and read only blandly orthodox things. We cannot retreat from the culture around us, and we certainly shouldn’t try to stop children from discovering that – shock, horror – there are bad things out there, and – perhaps more terrible! – people who believe differently.

    We are called to be in the world but not of it. What Fr O’Brien seems to be arguing is that we shouldn’t be in the world in the first place.

    Finally, I’m reminded of something Chesterton said. I can’t remember the exact quote, but the gist is: fairy-tales don’t tell children that monsters exist: they already know that. Fairy-tales tell children that monsters can be killed.

  2. It sure sounds like you are saying we need to give a little so that the world does not say that we are reactionists and freaks.

    I would like to meet the world halfway to heaven, but not halfway to hell.

  3. Perhaps I ought to have finished by asking:

    Which one of us claims to be knowledgeable enough about the motives and subtleties of such writers and artists or spiritually wealthy enough to not be affected by what the world sells to us as art and creativity?

    We all claim to have a moral compass, but we forget (as men especially) even the slightest hint at some evil masquerading as good is enough to implant imagery in our heads and minds that last a lifetime.

    To be honest, I am not capable of judging for myself what is mere entertainment and what is pushing the envelope. It is for this very reason that I think to the Moral Doctor of the Church, St Alphonsus. It is from there that my conscience is formed. I am certainly at peace, knowing that as Cardinal, Ratzinger was able to point to the dangers of such fantasy books (or evil, masquerading as childish fantasy)

    To swamp in writings like Macbeth, and Frankenstein or any other books containing imagery of evil is not the point of Mr O’Brien. It is the triumph of evil over good and the presentation and characterization of evil as good and harmless is what the essence of his arguments are.

    If all of this is completely ignorant of me, then I do apologize for wasting your time.

  4. There is a difference between what an adult reads – and what a parent would (should) select for his child or allow him or her to read. Where evil is presented as good, and the ends justify the means, children can become confused. Actually, the parents, without a good prayer life, might be as well. Subtle innuendos and nuances can create a false sense of right and wrong for children.

    Recently, I was in a library where they had a cabinet full of books recommended for middle school students. In looking over the books, it hit me that the overwhelmingly vast majority of them were “dark” – from the covers to the content to the way they ended. A trip to the book store confirmed what I had just seen at the library – shelves upon shelves of books for children about witchcraft, vampires, etc. And they did not seem to be offset by the kind of books that showed the other side.

    Children (and parents) have a limited amount of reading time. I would like to think that their selections would be those books that will help them toward a healthy intellectual and spiritual life. Entertainment can be an uplifting experience.

    It cannot be easy for Michael O’Brien to go against the grain as he is doing. I think that his is a “sacrificial love” for God and his people in that he is trying to alert people to the possible negative effects of certain books. He is both an artist and an author who has dedicated his life to his faith. His message, I believe, is that it’s better to err on the side of caution than to leave ourselves open to potential dangers in our spiritual lives. He “proposes”, not “imposes”.

  5. First of all, I’ve got to say that I don’t respect an author who uses the cheap rhetorical tricks that O’Brien does in that interview. He paints himself as a victim, using the nastiest of his critics’ comments. He builds what appear to be strawmen Catholics whose acceptance of Potter is really driven by relativism. When his critics sound rational, well, don’t addicts sound rational when they defend themselves?

    Moving past that, I admit I’ve never read the Harry Potter books. But as I understand it, pure Harry takes sin upon himself and dies for all mankind, destroying death, then rising so that man may live. Can O’Brien really not detect a Christian theme in the story?

    Tolkien does treat corrupted magic as corrupting, but he also treats uncorrupted magic as holy. Gandalf wields good magic; the elven rings do only good; magic swords and an arrow play important parts in the stories, as well. Likewise, Aslan represents an odd mashup of Christian symbology, but it doesn’t diminish the story or its morality. The granddaddy of Catholic religious fiction has pagan gods in his Inferno. There may be good Catholic arguments against the Harry Potter series, but O’Brien is sure using a lot of bad ones.

  6. Sherry – A godchild of mine used to watch Star Wars all the time because she loved Darth Vader. I assume that as she got older, her parents showed her that Darth isn’t a good guy.

    Parents can read all kinds of stories to their children and get them to talk about them, and sort out the moral implications of the stories. It’s not hard to get a kid to start talking about Harry Potter. A parent should explain that even Shrek makes mistakes, that even though Hansel and Gretel were saved they shouldn’t have wandered off by themselves.

  7. Philip & Sherry It sure sounds like you are saying we need to give a little so that the world does not say that we are reactionists and freaks.

    I would like to meet the world halfway to heaven, but not halfway to hell.

    I don’t think we should read less than perfect works to seem hip or to avoid being uncool. If a work does more ill than good, then regardless of the flack then put it down and don’t go down that path.

    However, I do think there are benefits to be gained by engaging less than perfect works which still do more good than ill. Not only does one become more aware of the language and the culture around you (which can be used to evangelize and convert the culture, but you gain skills. Entertainment is not the only source of conflicting messages. Our family, friends, coworkers, politicians and almost everyone else bombard us with mixed messages. Being able to recognize that something is not all good or all bad can help Catholics weed out that which leads away from Christ. To do that, like all virtues, require practice and entertainment can be a venue to gain that experience.

    Children (and parents) have a limited amount of reading time. I would like to think that their selections would be those books that will help them toward a healthy intellectual and spiritual life. Entertainment can be an uplifting experience.

    I definitely think you should pursue uplifting books more than others. For example, if you can read either Potter or Lord of the Rings, read LOTR. However, LOTRs are few and far between in either faithfulness and/or quality.

  8. Well, Darth does end up being the “good guy” in the end, doesn’t he? Classic redemption scenario.

    But we don’t – or shouldn’t – go to art for moral guidance

    But the vast majority of humanity does, and has throughout history, from Aesop’s fables to HP. So it is encumbent upon artists (and critics, and others in position of influence) to help sort the wheat from the chaff. Art and morality have a very strong connection and interplay between them. It is unrealistic to say we don’t or shouldn’t go to art for moral guidance.

    Having said that, even flawed works can be useful for moral guidance if nothing else than to show what not to do. IMHO, HP, on balance, is probably positive, and if aware of its pitfalls is essentially harmless. But that is the stickler – how many are aware of its pitfalls and separate themselves from same?

  9. It’s not O’Brien that corners anyone into considering witchcraft evil; that part comes from the Bible.
    It seems (and I admit I only read the first HP book) that in Tolkien, the logic of the argument is set from the beginning and becomes clearer as things go along; in HP it is arbitrary and not obvious. HP apologists spend a lot of time clearing things up for us sceptics.

  10. I read O’Brien’s Landscape With Dragons a while back, in which he lays out his theory of how fantasy and childrens books should be written, and frankly it was such utter rubbish that it turned me off ever reading any of his fiction.

    Much of his problem (with the Harry Potter books as with other things) is that he thinks that various fictional things must always carry some established meaning, and that any use of them in any other way is a subtle attempt to teach people that good is evil and evil is good.

    For instance, he thinks that dragons are a symbol of evil. Thus, any story which involves a good dragon is a story in which we are being taught to think that evil is good. This, I think, is deeply silly. Dragons are mythical beasts, they don’t exist. There is no particular reason why reptilian creatures that breath fire and have wings must always be evil in a fictional story. They could be good, or they could (like real people) be creatures with free will who behave badly sometimes and well others. However, O’Brien wants to see these entirely fictional creatures as somehow being objectively evil, so that having a “good dragon” in a story is like having a “good murder” or a “good rape”.

    The hang up with Harry Potter (one of his several, at any rate) is similar. Sorcery (trying to make a compact with the devil in order to get certain supernatural powers in return) is something which is certainly evil in the real world. However, in fantasy stories an author may imagine worlds in which magic is simply how things work — in which mixing eye of newt and toe of bat creates energy the way that burning coal or pushing together two lumps of reactible uranium does in the real world. This kind of “chemistry set fantasy” is pretty much what goes on in Harry Potter — magic is simply a “way things work” which certain people have the ability to do, it’s not achieved through compacts with the devil. However, O’Brien basically wants to insist that there is only one imaginable form of magic, and that this form is evil, and thus if someone with more imagination than he write a story set in a world in which “magic” is something else (something non evil) then in fact what the story is doing is suggesting that it’s okay to do evil for good reasons.


  11. Thanks, Darwin. I was really scratching my head over some of the things written about HP. I can’t recall a single instance in the books where a character did something evil that wasn’t called out as such. HP is one of the more clearly good v.s. evil series in the contemporary children’s fantasy world. If you really want to see some moral ambiguity try the Rick Riordan series. (Not to mention the downwright immoral Phillip Pullman books.) I take it as a good sign that HP is as popular as it is compared with some of its contemporaries. LOTR is on another level and is written for a more sophisticated reader. It also doesn’t deal with the travails of growing up. HP has a lot of great lessons for children. But to each his own.

  12. I was concerned about Harry Potter back way back when–about the mixing up of so-called black and white magic–and some of our Catholic homeschooling friends either didn’t want their children reading it at all, or were required to do extensive in-depth book reports. Then the movie came out, and I ran across an article somewhere that reported the Vatican Exorcist saying something to the effect that the movie wasn’t quite as bad as the book and if one just had to wade into HP land, the movie was the less destructive bet. We watched the first movie, and I was pleasantly charmed by the usage of Latin.

    Then I came across the following article on http://catholicexchange.com/2007/07/11/96743/ It’s about contraception and abortion and the words used by the Church to describe and/or understand it: Witchcraft. For me, that changed the map a bit. I gather there is not much contraception and abortion mentioned in Harry Potter.

    Eventually, I “let” my oldest read the first book, the word let in scare quotes because my oldest has dyslexia and reading is not a favored activity. He made his way through the book, and I made my way through the first chapter. I couldn’t get any further because the book seemed very poorly written to me. My son never did ask for the second book, and we have yet to see the last two movies.

    If we are going to be concerned about Witchcraft, should we not be concerned about the real stuff under our noses? It would appear that we have forgotten that Hocus Pocus is at least partially about attempting to destroy God’s creative genius in the marriage bed, but people don’t see that. There may have been a time where an Eye of Newt and a Horn of a Toad were used to kill a child (perhaps at the embryonic stage). Now we call it The Pill and we say it is medicine.

  13. Thanks, Darwin/s. I have enjoyed some of O’Brien’s books but just the overview I saw of “Landscape with Dragons” when it first came out made me decide not to read it. I’m glad to hear I was correct in what I understood him to be saying.

    The Harry Potter books are very well written and are great stories. There are so many terrible things out there for kids that this obsession about one of the best kids (and anyone’s) series of fantasy books ever written really puzzles me. I think that many of the people who are so self-righteous about how they don’t read them probably don’t read or watch much of anything, and are just glomming onto these because they are so famous and popular that you can’t miss them. Other book series that are very influential with kids but not quite as ubiquitous are FAR worse for your soul, but they aren’t aware of them.

    I apologize if I offend anyone here but, of the people I know who will not read them, most seem to fit that description. Others, however, just take the whole “magic” thing too literally. I know one family who will not let their kids read the books or see the movies, but whose children practically have all the Star Wars movies memorized. And if you ask me, they are MUCH more problematic! My favorite scene (not) is when Padme decides she really loves Anakin — right after he tells her that he went into the Sand People village and killed every one in it, including the women and children. Now THERE’S an attractive guy! Why don’t you marry him? And for Christians, the whole dualism of “the force” and the quasi-Eastern philosophy thing is out and out wrong, theologically speaking. But where is the Christian outrage against all the little kids running around playing Jedi? NOWHERE. And rightly so. I don’t think the Star Wars mythology, wrong-headed though it is, is a danger to kids. They know it is not real, same as the “magic” in Harry Potter.

  14. I read O’Brien’s Landscape With Dragons a while back, in which he lays out his theory of how fantasy and childrens books should be written, and frankly it was such utter rubbish that it turned me off ever reading any of his fiction.

    My reaction exactly. Well put.

  15. I simply adore how LifesiteNews says O’Brien is “regarded around the world as an expert on children’s fantasy literature.” Regarded by whom?

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