HARRY POTTER, PAPIST?
Nancy Carpentier Brown, The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide (Huntington, IN: Our Sunday Visitor, 2007) $12.95, 175 pp., Softcover.
Reviewed by James G. Bruen, Jr.
Are the Harry Potter books Catholic?
J.K. Rowling, who wrote the books, attends the Church of Scotland, a Presbyterian church. That, however, doesn’t answer the question. “The Catholic novelist doesn’t have to be a saint; he doesn’t even have to be a Catholic; he does, unfortunately, have to be a novelist,” says Flannery O’Connor in Mystery and Manners. “If I had to say what a ‘Catholic novel’ is,” she continues,
I could only say that it is one that represents reality adequately as we see it manifested in this world of things and human relationships. … To be concerned with these things means not only to be concerned with the good in them, but with the evil, and not only with the evil, but also with that aspect which appears neither good nor evil, which is not yet Christianized. … This all means that what we roughly call the Catholic novel is not necessarily about a Christianized or Catholicized world, but simply that it is one in which the truth as Christians know it has been used as a light to see the world by. This may or may not be a Catholic world, and it may or may not have been seen by a Catholic.
Without mentioning O’Connor, Nancy Carpentier Brown adopts a similar approach in The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide in discussing whether the Harry Potter books are Catholic. In arguing that the series is indeed Catholic, she stresses its themes of good and evil, free will, sacrificial love, death and immortality, friendship, chivalry, morality, and heroism, as well as its repeated use of Christian symbolism.
Brown argues Rowling uses magic and witchcraft as a literary device, with the books’ magic “best described as a talent some have, and others don’t.”
Rowling has packaged a Christian story with a wrapping of witchcraft and magic attractive to most children today, and through this disguise has encouraged millions of children to read a redemptive, moral story that can perhaps teach more than a religion class ever could. Jesus told parables for a reason. Rowling is a genius to tell a Christian story in the unexpected disguise of a witchcraft tale – people who would never pick up an overtly Christian story are reading Potter by the millions, attracted to it by its modern themed packaging.
What Brown calls Rowling’s “genius” is Rowling’s solution to what O’Connor termed a “well-nigh insurmountable problem:”
The problem of the novelist who wishes to write about a man’s encounter with this God is how he shall make the experience – which is both natural and supernatural – understandable and credible, to his reader. In any age, this would be a problem, but in our own, it is a well-nigh insurmountable one.
Brown strongly recommends that parents review the Harry Potter books before deciding whether they should be read in their family, and, if so, whether they are age-appropriate before allowing a specific child to read them. “The first book is less intense than those following, each book grows more intense, and therefore, the appropriate age for each book goes up, depending on the individual child’s maturity.”
My guess is that most parents let their children read the books if they want to: At least the kids are reading, right? Apparently, though, “in some Catholic circles, some homeschooling and apostolate groups, the rumors have gone around for years that Harry Potter is bad. In fact, whether or not you let your children read Harry Potter is a litmus test to judge how good or bad a Catholic or how orthodox you are, in some circles.” Indeed, then Cardinal Ratzinger, in a brief letter thanking an author who had forwarded her “informative” book criticizing the series, commented on the “subtle seductions,” that she had pointed out in the Harry Potter books, “which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly.” So Brown, a homeschooling mom, didn’t allow her children to read them - until a trusted friend’s endorsement of the books led her to read them herself. Then her hostility became neutrality which eventually changed into support for the series. “I recognized the number of Catholics who opposed the books was small, and often because of misunderstanding the books.”
In The Mystery of Harry Potter, Brown uses her family’s experience reading the books to advise other parents how to approach the Harry Potter series. “I rate the books PG, in need of parental guidance. Your children need your guidance with the series.” She poses and answers a series of questions. Why read the books? Is your child ready to read them? Who should avoid them? Will your kids learn spells from the books? What are good questions to ask and discuss when your kids read the books? Her approach and answers are unabashedly Catholic. Brown does not insist that everyone should read Harry Potter (and believes some should not), but she is an enthusiastic supporter of the series and its Catholicity, recommending it highly both for adults and for those children who are mature enough to read it.
The Mystery of Harry Potter includes interviews with Dale Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society, and Regina Doman, the author of children’s books, which some readers may view as fillers. It also unexpectedly highlights G.K. Chesterton, particularly his poem Lepanto. And, Brown finds “interesting” a statement by author John Granger that I find only confusing: “Man is obviously an image of God in that his soul is three parts … commonly ‘body,’ ‘mind,’ and ‘spirit.’” I am at a loss to explain what it means to say that man’s body is part of his soul.
Brown’s endorsement of the Harry Potter books does not extend to the Harry Potter movies or the spin-off products that have made Harry Potter a commercial phenomenon. Indeed, she suggests that if a child is swept up in Harry Potter mania, then his parents must enforce a break from Harry.
The Mystery of Harry Potter is a valuable aid for parents who are deciding whether and when to let their children read the Harry Potter books. It’s also a valuable guide for parents to use while discussing those books with their children. Grandparents who want insight into the books that their grandchildren are so enthused about should also consider reading The Mystery of Harry Potter.
Are the Harry Potter books Catholic? Nancy Carpentier Brown makes a persuasive case that they are. If they aren’t, she has shown how to baptize them.
James G. Bruen, Jr. writes frequently for Culture Wars.
This review was published in the December 2007 issue of Culture Wars.
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