Blog Template Theology of the Body: In Praise of Potter?

Saturday, July 14, 2007

In Praise of Potter?

I went to see The Order of the Pheonix last week. Loved it. I have not missed a single one of the Harry Potter movies. Naturally, I get excited about the whole trend. It's probably not surprising that I have fallen head over heels in love with a story of a band of earnest children with supernatural powers who (per the last film) band together into an "order" to defend against the dark arts and ward off evil through hand-to-hand combat. More Christians need to understand themselves in this way.

Still, in every Potter film it strikes me how easy it would be for consternation to surface in those Christian sectors who do not approve of Potter. Papa Benedict has expressed his own concerns over a certain moral ambiguity that characterizes many of the Potter characters. Harry himself suffers from anger, vulnerabilities, and weakness, and is a less than perfect hero. The evil Lord Valdemort is suave and well-spoken, and allows Harry to defend himself; the instructors at Hogwart's, with a few exceptions, are authority figures who cannot always be trusted. These ambiguities can be confusing to kids (my thoughts on point from last year are here).

The easy rebuttal is, of course, that such moral ambiguity closely approximates Real Life.

Another protest addresses the valid concern of endorsing the practice of sorcery to young kiddos. It's true; showcasing spells and explicit witchcraft to impressionable minds may indeed be asking for trouble in a world where dangerous forms of spiritual practice are readily available to the curious.
Nancy Carpentier Brown published an interesting endorsement of Harry Potter in last week's edition of Our Sunday Visitor. Brown is a former Potter detractor turned Potter enthusiast. Brown explains the following positive aspects of the Potter films that make Harry a boon to our culture.

First, despite the occasional instances of moral ambiguity, the Dark Lord Valdemort is easily identifiable as really evil; he steals, he kills, and destroys. The child wizards prepare to defend themselves against this clearly discernible evil; they are never in league with it.

Secondly, Brown argues that while Scripture and the Catechism do unequivocally forbid any practice of sorcery whatsoever, the "sorcery" of the Potter saga is always purely fictional; in short, Scripture and the Catechism have nothing real to counter in Potter. It is not as though the potion recipes or spells referred to in the film could actually work- if anyone tried anything from the movies at home, nothing would happen. Furthermore, unlike real-world sorcery, spirits are never invoked in the children's spell-making. Rather, the children's use of Latinate commands is more similar to the effective, direct prayers used by clergy and laity for their own real defense against the dark arts. Lastly, the real virtue of justice is never superseded by the character's magical powers; the future is not predicted, nor can the past be undone. The young wizards are accountable for their actions.

Thirdly, Brown defends the Potter films as uniquely wholesome modern dramas. The children must perfect their battle skills through the virtues of hard work, practice, and discipline. As Brown adds in her own words, "it's amazing that a children's story published in our times has no smoking or drug usage, no homosexuality or mixed up sexual feelings; ...there is very little swearing, very little kissing, and not even a single token parent fact all of the main characters have two parents, one male and one female. In the world of today's children books, this is unusual."

Finally, Brown describes how the Potter films offer a beautiful modern parable that is relevant to an explication of the Gospel. The boy wizard only has his very life- and magical powers- on account of his mother's self-sacrificing love, which she demonstrated by offering her own life as a substitute in order to protect her infant son. Her loving sacrifice is a charm powerful enough to prevent Harry's death as an infant, and this love also saves him from his future encounters with the Dark Lord. Her inoculation of love is also sufficient to protect Harry from the unloving and uncaring atmosphere of his foster home. In short, this is a story in which blood saves. Hmmmm... does this sound familiar to anyone?

And then there is my own observation, if you will permit me: the new character introduced in The Order of the Pheonix, Dolores Umbridge, is, in a manner of speaking, a pretty vivid incarnation of our contemporary theological culture. She insistently denies the presence of evil in the person of the Dark Lord. She is a woman who overthrows men. She always wears the softest shades, but she does not love children. She desexualizes Hogwarts School. She forbids the Old Ways in favor of intolerant scruples. Whereas faults at Hogwarts used to be a matter of personal confession and restoration vis' a vis the kindly and authoritative Dumbledore, personal guilt is now retained unconfessed, and inscribed in the person of the perpetrator. And worst of all, she replaces the children's education in defenses against the dark arts with useless coloring books.

In short: I, MM, think that the Potter films are an inspiring depiction of the real life of human beings, and of Christians in particular. We live in a world in which there are witches and warlocks and a Dark Lord, and in which mere children are called to be mighty spiritual secret agents and fighters. It has been frequently suggested that the Potter films' most positive function for Christian purposes is that they can effectively wake children up to the realities of the spiritual world, while inoculating them against our culture's jaded materialism and denial of spiritual realities. It's not as if we lived in a world without demons and active spiritual forces. The fact remains that the Potter films will indeed awaken spiritual curiosities, which must be honed and guided. If children become (rightly) curious about our world's very real witches and demons and spells, they should be quickly equipped with holiness and angels and prayers. The Church has a magic of its own, and thankfully, modern Potter fans may be better attuned to it.

So it seems to me that the real question seems to be not "should the Church praise Potter?" but rather, is the Church ready to channel the powerful inclinations of the Potter generation...?