Friday, September 7, 2007

Sept. 6, 2007, Catholic Times

Having been out of the office yesterday, I'm late posting the front page of the Sept. 6 Catholic Times. It's a good edition, in my opinion. Given that I'm in school and working less than fulltime, there are a number of pieces written by our free-lancers. Joe O'Brien, once the paper's assistant editor, has excellent front-page coverage of the ongoing flood relief efforts in Gays Mills. Correspondent Vern Borth chimes in with analysis of dangerous proposed legislation that would require pharmacists to provide contraceptives.

One piece of mine that I want to highlight is my review of Nancy Carpentier Brown's "The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide." There are a wide variety of opinions among Catholics regarding Harry Potter. I might as well come out and say I'm a fan, since this probably comes through in the review. I should emphasis, however, that while I don't see the danger other Catholics see in Rowling's books, I also don't agree with Carpentier's thesis that the books are a "Christian morality tale." That should be clear enough in the review, so here it is:

Harry Potter finds a ready Catholic defense in Brown’s book

“THE MYSTERY OF HARRY POTTER: A CATHOLIC FAMILY GUIDE,” by Nancy Carpentier Brown. Our Sunday Visitor (Huntington, 2007). 175 pp., $12.95.

Review by Franz Klein
Staff Writer

It would be hard to deny the success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, completed this summer with the publication of the seventh and final novel, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” (Scholastic, 2007). Since the publication of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” (Scholastic, 1997), Rowling’s books have sold more than 325 million copies in 64 different languages, making her one of the most successful authors of all time.
Yet Rowling has her detractors. Liberals are among her harshest critics, with feminist Christine Schoefer calling the novels “patriarchal” and “chauvinistic,” and writer Anthony Holden stating that “the Potter saga was essentially patronizing, very conservative, highly derivative, dispiritingly nostalgic for a bygone Britain.”
But there have been vocal conservative detractors as well, Catholics prominent among them, who charge Rowling with occultism and blurring the line between good and evil. As Catholic author Michael O’Brien writes, “While Rowling posits the ‘good’ use of occult powers against their misuse, thus imparting to her sub-creation an apparent aura of morality, the cumulative effect is to shift our understanding of the battle lines between good and evil.”
And notably, in response to a German critic of Harry Potter who had sent her book for him to review, then-Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “It is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because those are subtle seductions, which act unnoticed and, by this, deeply distort Christianity in the soul before it can grow properly.”
But Catholics, like everybody else, found themselves reading and loving Harry Potter anyway – even faithful, conscientious Catholics who care deeply about what their children read, says Nancy Carpentier Brown, whose book, “The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide,” was published by Our Sunday Visitor in conjunction with this summer’s release of the final installment of the Harry Potter series.
In her book, Brown suggests that perhaps Catholics – her included – had initially passed judgment on Harry Potter without giving the series a fair read. “I believe J.K. Rowling has pulled off the biggest coup of our age,” she writes. “She’s got millions of readers in the palm of her hand, reading each of her installments. She has handed the world the biggest Christian tale of our times, disguised in a story about witches and wizards. So cleverly disguised, most of the world doesn’t even realize what it’s reading.”
As for the then-future pope, Brown writes that she respected his opinion, “but doubted that he had actually read any of the Harry Potter books. I felt he made his comments as a polite response to a lady who sent him her book.”
Brown’s book is addressed specifically to Catholic parents who are concerned about the elements of occultism, disobedience and death that they believe characterize Rowling’s writing. She seeks to assure them that Rowling, a believing Christian (Presbyterian with three baptized children), uses magic as “window dressings” that allow her to tell a morality tale, much like those of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
Brown denies the charges of occultism, writing, “Magic is Rowling’s fictional name for ‘human ability,’ neither good nor bad, except as to how one chooses to use it.” “Does any child fail to recognize the Harry Potter stories as stories?” she asks. And, “Does any child read ‘Jack and the Beanstalk” and begin to wonder if they can use magic beans to solve their problems?”
Brown does not deny that Harry is disobedient at times. If it were otherwise, she writes, “they would not have room to grow and improve.” “This is a morality tale, and as such, the characters need to learn to behave themselves. … They must be taught, they must grow in virtue, and they must want to succeed at becoming moral human beings.”
Brown also admits that the Harry Potter series contains some very mature themes, but she also points out that the first novels in the series are less dark. She writes that a parent needs to gradually introduce mature themes such as death to their children anyway. She strongly recommends that parents read Harry Potter with their children, and that they establish an age at which their children can read each increasingly mature novel.
Although repetitive in style and with a layout characterized by a confusing interspersion of quotations, Brown hits all the major points when it comes to reassuring Catholic parents about Harry Potter. Her suggestion that parents read together with their children should apply not only to Harry Potter, but to any work of fact, fantasy or fiction that their children pick up. Parents are, remember, the first educators of their children. And books are an important source of knowledge for growing minds.
After all, as Brown points out, Harry Potter doesn’t have to do so much with occultism, disobedience and death as with things any maturing child needs to learn: how to choose the good, how to cooperate with one’s peers and with rightful authority, and how the power of life and love can overcome evil and death.
And readers don’t have to be on board with her thesis that the series is a Christian morality tale to agree with the more tenable statement with which she concludes – that “Even if it is a pagan story, even if it is a fairy tale, even if it is a myth or a fantasy, there are still truths in it to be discovered, and no reason why you can’t discover them.”

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