Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide

The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide, by Nancy Carpentier Brown, 2007, Our Sunday Visitor, 176 pages, paperback

Nancy C. Brown's The Mystery of Harry Potter, a Catholic Family Guide is a book I've been waiting for. Weary of defending the fact that I've allowed Harry into our home, I longed for some good Catholic mom to write down all the reasons why Harry can be perfectly compatible with a faithful, orthodox Catholic family.

I've mentioned on my own blog a couple of times that I wanted to write a series of posts about how I came to be a fan, came to allow the books for my older children, and about the ways in which I believe the books are misinterpreted or misrepresented by some outspoken Catholic critics. I haven't gotten that series done because other things have simply taken priority in life and writing, putting Harry on the back burner. And, being a stickler, I didn't want to write about the books until I could devote the time necessary to do them justice.

I still don't have that series of posts written, but now it doesn't seem nearly as important. My own experience of initial reluctance, followed by treading slowly and carefully into Harry Territory, and then not only allowing the series, but enjoying it along with my kids, is very similar to Nancy Brown's experience.

And, my overall take is the same as Nancy's, and it's simple:

Read ... Guide ... Discuss.

But, then, that's my take on everything with my kids. We read a lot of stuff together. Their dad and I guide them. There's discussion, often fun and lively, sometimes critical and dissecting. Isn't that what we parents are supposed to do?

I really enjoyed the opening of Nancy's book, because it all sounded so familiar. Like Nancy, I was initially reluctant to jump on the Harry bandwagon. Like Nancy, I'd read a number of critical reviews from writers I respected. Like Nancy, I'd concluded that there were good reasons to stay away. My kids weren't interested anyway, so there was no conflict. But then, my kids started to ask about the books. I began quizzing friends who were simultaneously HP fans and orthodox Catholics. Then I decided to do the most common-sensical thing:

It was time to read the books for myself. (Hmmm ... just like Nancy.)

I previewed Book One about four years ago. I found it delightful. Not perfect, but delightful. A "rattlin' good story," as C.S. Lewis liked to call such yarns. And by the time I reached the last page, I was surprised by the overarching themes: sacrificial love, friendship and doing "what is right over what is easy."

I decided to share the book with the kids as a read-aloud. From the get-go, we talked about the difference between "magic" as it is forbidden in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to "unveil" the future.48 Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.

2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one's service and have a supernatural power over others - even if this were for the sake of restoring their health - are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another's credulity.
and "magic" as it is portrayed in Harry Potter:

the magic of an imaginary fantasy world. J.K. Rowling's creation is an imagined, alternate universe in which "wizards" and "witches" are people who are born with the ability to do magical things. They do not call upon Satan or demons and they do not try to tame occult powers. There are no "occult" powers, because there is not a "source" for their kind of magic. "Magical" in Harry's world, is simply the way some people are born. There's an entire alternate wizarding world, unseen by "Muggles" (that would be us -- non-magical people) in which the fantastic is normal: unicorns exist, giants dwell in the forest, invisible creatures pull carriages and folks fly on broomsticks for a fast-paced game called Quidditch. Wizards can travel through fireplaces and wave a wand to get dinner going or to knit a cap for an elf.

This is all quite different from the case of a Catholic child sitting in her bedroom and attempting to call upon spirits, summon the dead, read tarot cards, use a Ouija board or rely on a horoscope. We know and understand these differences and we take them seriously. (It would take more than one blog post to address all the reading I've done on the HP issue, both pro and con. Suffice to say for the time being that it's been extensive, and over the past few years I've read a great deal of the resources Nancy lists on her bibliography page at Our Sunday Visitor.)

Back to the HP books. We kept reading. I previewed, then we did them as read-alouds together. We made it through the first three and I was hooked. I quickly read Books 4 and 5 just before Book 6 came out two years ago. The kids and I were sharing the adventure, and we talked about everything: from Harry and his friends' mistakes, to their courageous choices, from the ways in which they were growing up to the ways in which they stayed the same, from the Christian symbolism and the theme of free will to the delightful imagination of the author.

And this is exactly the sort of thing that Nancy Brown recommends in The Mystery of Harry Potter, which is why I'm so grateful to have this book to share with friends. Nancy says, and I agree, that we need to know what our kids are reading. We need to talk to them, help them figure it out and, most importantly, place it in the context of their faith. My goal as a Catholic mother is to do this with everything my kids encounter. This is how we teach them to be in the world but not of it.

The Mystery of Harry Potter addresses the concerns that Catholic parents may have about J.K. Rowling's books. Nancy Brown answers the objections with clarity and common sense, as well as literary and theological support. She doesn't give the books her unconditional approval, and rightly so. She doesn't brush off concerns and counter that the books are harmless fun for all ages. No -- Nancy Brown is a responsible mom who gave the series a critical read and moved forward from there. She encourages other parents to do the same.

My only quibble with the book is a selfish one: I would have loved to see more explication of specific examples from the books that illustrate the Christian themes. But Nancy, an avid reader who is considerate of other readers, didn't want to create a book full of spoilers, and I have to admire that consideration and restraint.

The Mystery of Harry Potter doesn't try to convert anyone to Potterism. But, if you've wondered what all the fuss is about, if you've had doubts or concerns, if you've read things that convince you your children will be drawn into the occult as a result of reading the series, then Nancy Brown's book can help you. It offers a concise guide to the objections that have been floating around for years, as well as reassurance that not only is Harry not going to harm your well-guided children, but you and your family just might even find joy and unexpected delight in Harry's extraordinary, imaginary life.

Reviewed by Karen Edmisten, 8-5-07

Available from Our Sunday Visitor

1 comment:

mamazee said...

thanks for this review, and for sharing your experience. i'm in the same boat, when HP came out my children were all too little, and my other (protestant) Christian friends were all up in arms. but i hate saying "no" just because "everybody else is doing it" - and so i did get the movie out of the library, cautiously allowed the first book, discussed etc... and i agree with you - i haven't read the whole series yet, but i haven't managed to find what people find so offensive in these books...