O’Brien on Potter & Entertainment
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.