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Harry Potter's Wizardry Like the Magis'

A CHARMED LIFE: The Spirituality of Potterworld, by Francis Bridger. Image Books/Doubleday. 159 pp. $10.95.

Reviewed by CAROL ANN MORROW, assistant managing editor of St. Anthony Messenger, and a Muggle listener to the unabridged audio editions of the four Harry Potter books in print, as well as a viewer of Book One on the big screen.

MY YEARS as a second-grade teacher confirmed my intuition that children learn much in the world of fantasy that helps them in the “real” world. That’s why I welcome J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.

What a surprise to learn that many parents, critics and readers of this magazine found danger lurking at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry Potter is enrolled! Twice last year, St. Anthony Messenger gave a thumbs-up to Potterworld. Both times, readers weighed in with mixed reviews, weighted, to be honest, toward vigorous critiques of promoting witchcraft, sorcery, magic spells, misusing the sacred notion of transfiguration and misrepresenting witches as “nice.”

Into this history comes the present small volume, A Charmed Life, purporting to analyze the spirituality of Potterworld.

Francis Bridger’s credentials as a longtime analyst of children’s faith development and as an Anglican pastor in England (close to Harry’s own origins), plus his experience as a father, grandfather and theologian lend great credibility to his arguments. He pokes some holes in Potterworld’s consistency but generally favors Rowling and her good intentions.

Does the author succeed in dispelling criticisms? As Bridger admits, subjectivity reigns in this realm. Allowing that, his calm, Scripture-rich, Christian reasoning merits careful reading. Bridger’s text is brief, but packed with references to Potter (useless to those who have dismissed the texts unread). Speaking from a faith tradition we can recognize and claim, he is balanced in his enthusiasm.

Bridger writes that the desire to protect children from demonic forces is praiseworthy, but what is feared is often found, even when it isn’t there.

Bridger further asserts that for Joanne Rowling (he consistently calls her “Joanne” rather than by her pen name, “J.K.”), witchcraft and wizardry simply provide a fictional plot device, as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

“Wizard” doesn’t necessarily carry occult overtones. “Financial wizards” and “technical wizards” do things that look like magic, but no one thinks them members of an evil coven. That’s the kind of wizardry that reigns at Hogwarts.

Potterworld’s wizardry is more like that of Joseph interpreting dreams or Magi following a star. Potter’s wizardry is not opposed to godly forces; it’s a fictional (and fun) plot device, which, in general terms, equals human power.

This power is not supernatural. Harry, Hermione, Ron and the whole fictional gang are flawed and vulnerable, yet gifted in various ways. “Magic is there, but it is actually the humanity of the characters that proves to be the decisive factor in enabling good to defeat the purposes of evil,” writes Bridger. This magic is playful, even humorous, but well short of omnipotent.

So what about nice wizards practicing their craft, which includes spells, to be sure?

Bridger writes, “Not taking things at face value is one of the cardinal virtues of Potterworld.” For readers, that also holds. Harry and his cohorts aren’t really all that great at magic, on a consistent basis. Professor Sybil Trelawney, writes Bridger, is Rowling’s idea of an astrologer or crystal-ball gazer or palm-reader. The fact that Trelawney is taken so lightly indicates how these skills are regarded at Hogwarts.

Beyond Professor Trelawney’s brand, there’s more respected but “unglamorous” magic, to use Bridger’s adjective. “The nature of magic in Potterworld,” says Bridger, “would seem to be that it is accepted as normal only to be subverted.”

In the end, this leads perhaps to one of the most important conclusions of Potterworld: that Hogwarts is a place of education, and education is not fundamentally about feeding children information but about using information to develop their characters. “For Christians wishing to mount a challenge to the closed-mindedness of modernity, Rowling has proved an unexpected—yet welcome—ally,” says Bridger.

Harry Potter and his friends have profound theological ideas teased into their curriculum—and extracurricular adventures. Free will, moral decisionmaking, self-defense, racism, spiritual warfare, love’s power: This is no infant formula, but the stuff of moral complexity, the stuff of growing up in a morally ambiguous world.

Bridger isn’t in Rowling’s pocket, and Rowling has not approved or authorized his work. I suspect Harry Potter’s harshest critics may not approve or support Bridger’s book either. This simply means they’re missing a good read in Harry Potter—and a worthy analysis in A Charmed Life.

You can order A CHARMED LIFE: The Spirituality of Potterworld from St. Francis Bookshop.

HOME FOR CHRISTMAS: Stories for Young and Old, compiled by Miriam LeBlanc. Plough Publishing. 346 pp. $15.

CHRISTMAS IN MY SOUL: A Third Collection, compiled by Joe Wheeler. Doubleday. 160 pp. $14.95.

WATCH FOR THE LIGHT: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Plough Publishing. 344 pp. $19.

Reviewed by MARIA KEMPER, a theology and literature undergraduate at Franciscan University and an editorial intern last summer with St. Anthony Messenger.

THE PINE FIRE crackles as Dad reaches for a worn volume on the bookshelf and begins reading to his children, “Long, long ago, on a snowy Christmas Eve....” Who hasn’t grown up with stories read to them at Christmas? The book Home for Christmas can help relive those days of family togetherness.

In these pages, 20 classic stories are presented in a “read aloud”-friendly format. With nary a mention of reindeer on rooftops, these are not tinsel-swept tales, but more humble ones of families, shepherds and burros.

I read about the compassion of Sister Egg to a cynical Scrooge in the story “Transfiguration” and three Cuban boys’ generosity to the village poor in “Three Young Kings.” I especially enjoyed the legends from Denmark, Italy and Germany.

When reading this collection to children, I might suggest first taking down the Bible and reading the Nativity from Luke’s Gospel. It is the melody from which all these other stories take their harmony. Having that first Christmas in mind helps put the rest in perspective.

This book certainly lives up to its subtitle: “Stories for Young and Old.” Many of the 20 tales date from the 1950s and before. They were written by my grandparents’ generation, but my sisters (aged four, 10 and 13) enjoyed listening to them.

Most of the stories are about 12 pages long—easily read in one sitting. The text is large and legible; full-page woodcuts preface each story. I only wish this was available in hardback, so it could more easily last through decades of children’s loving abuse.

Another collection of old-time stories to be read aloud or silently enjoyed is Christmas in My Soul: A Third Collection, compiled by Joe Wheeler.

Among other stories, a 1920s college girl communicates the true meaning of Christmas to her friends while the gift of a grubby, stuffed kitten from a lovelorn child reminds a teacher of her calling. Yet reciting well-worn plot-lines cannot communicate the essence of the small tales: messages of hope and reminders of home.

At the same time, due to the literary age or the sentimentality of the season, all six selections tend to be overly cute. Reading them in succession leaves the reader with the feeling of stomaching one too many peppermints. These are best appreciated in small doses, when you need a little reminder of the joy of the season.

Even better for harried adults than the candy-coated sweetness of stories is the plain brown-bread nourishment of daily meditations presented in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. In the words of Alfred Delp, “There is perhaps nothing we modern people need more than to be genuinely shaken up.” This book attempts to do that for our sentimental image of Christmas and it succeeds.

These meditations delve into topics such as the stable and the cross, humility and the scandal of the Incarnation. J.B. Phillips says this well when he writes: “What we are in fact celebrating is the awe-inspiring humility of God, and no amount of familiarity with the trappings of Christmas should ever blind us to its quiet and explosive significance.”

Through these meditations, my wakefulness toward Advent turned from simply marking the time before Christmas to hearing in the readings the sound of striking sulfur before the match catches flame. The Light is coming into the world.

I could not read this all at once, but instead paused after each passage. Each day’s meditation is beautiful, convincing and shocking, a cold shower after fuzzy Christmas tales.

This book is laden with insight from classic and contemporary authors. It is not trite, warm or fuzzy. But it is strong and true and altogether good.

You can order HOME FOR CHRISTMAS: Stories for Young and Old, CHRISTMAS IN MY SOUL: A Third Collection and WATCH FOR THE LIGHT: Readings for Advent and Christmas from St. Francis Bookshop.

THE THOMAS MERTON ENCYCLOPEDIA, by William H. Shannon, Christine M. Bochen and Patrick F. O’Connell.  Orbis Books. 556 pp. $50.

THOMAS MERTON: Essential Writings, by Christine M. Bochen. Orbis Books. 191 pp. $14.

Reviewed by JULIE S. DONATI, a Catholic school teacher who lives in Sugar Land, Texas. She is married to Marcello and has three children—ages 11, nine and a newly adopted baby. She is working on her M.A. in theology at St. Mary’s Seminary in Houston.

A 20TH-CENTURY St. Augustine, Thomas Merton could easily be called the most influential spiritual writer of the last century. Although it is over 30 years since the Trappist monk’s untimely death on December 10, 1968, his writings and life hold an abiding interest.

His prodigious works covered a wide spectrum of subjects and genres including over a hundred books, countless essays and articles, poetry and photography, and volumes of published letters and personal journals. Since his death, there have been numerous books written on Merton describing his life, writings and spiritual themes.

Who was Merton? He was a man of deep contemplative prayer. He was a strident voice for peace and nonviolence. He was one of the first Catholic writers to initiate a dialogue with the Eastern religious traditions.

Two new books have graced the Thomas Merton collection this year alone, both from Orbis Books: The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia and Thomas Merton: Essential Writings.

In his earlier book on Merton, Something of a Rebel, William Shannon repeatedly lamented the lack of any Merton concordance or encyclopedia. As founding president of the International Thomas Merton Society and a Merton scholar, Shannon is well qualified to undertake this collegial project with fellow Merton scholars Christine Bochen and Patrick O’Connell in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia.

In this large volume, replete with 350 entries and enhanced by 50 illustrations, Shannon has undertaken to “organize it [Merton’s literary output] into some workable, user-friendly form.”

The bulk of the encyclopedia, which starts with a chronology of Merton’s life and works, is dedicated to descriptions of Merton’s writings and the essential themes that emerge, such as love, peace and racism. Also included are brief biographies of influential persons he knew and brief descriptions of the places where he lived.

It’s a veritable treasure trove for Merton aficionados. I have found it particularly useful cross-referencing texts, themes or people.

Not only a must-have for any Merton scholar, it is also a valuable resource for those new to Merton. Given Merton’s prolific writing, a neophyte can easily become confused or overwhelmed. Referring to this immense literary output, Shannon observes, “The number of items is staggering.” The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia will fill gaps and answer questions quickly and easily.

The Modern Spiritual Masters Series, by Orbis Books, is designed to introduce “the writing and vision of some of the great spiritual masters of the 20th century whose spiritual journeys were shaped by the concerns of our age.” The latest in this series is Thomas Merton: Essential Writings.

Christine Bochen, co-author of The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia and editor of two of Merton’s journals, has brought together an assortment of writings to offer an overview of three central themes in Merton’s spirituality: contemplation, compassion and unity. While Bochen acknowledges that any anthology is a daunting task, she stresses that her book is not meant to be a comprehensive collection of Merton’s writings. In her Preface, she details three recent major anthologies and explains their particular emphases and their differences from her work.

In only 191 pages, Bochen’s book fulfills its primary objective: to “offer a taste of Merton to lure readers to read more of Merton for themselves.”

The book opens with a brief overview of Merton’s life and spiritual quest. The bulk of the volume is then dedicated to exploring the three themes. Most excerpts have a small explanatory preface situating the work in the context of Merton’s life. Underscoring her thorough knowledge of Merton, Bochen offers some less familiar selections from Merton’s personal letters, prefaces to particular editions or obscure talks.

Before Merton, few people had any accurate understanding of what it was to be a monk or a contemplative. The popularity of Merton’s writing did much to overcome this obstacle. Bochen reflects on this in some excerpts such as, “In the silence of the countryside and the forest, in the cloistered solitude of my monastery, I have discovered the whole Western Hemisphere. Here I have been explore the New World, without traveling from city to city, without flying over the Andes or the Amazon.”

Bochen’s book is well suited for those interested in delving deeper into Merton and unsure where to start. By selecting just three essential themes, Bochen serves as a helpful guide in leading the reader into Merton’s writing without overwhelming the reader with either a comprehensive overview or a detailed theological dissection.

Both The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia and Essential Writings are unique contributions to the growing body of Merton literature, and would benefit all readers and serve as a guide for today’s Merton seekers.

You can order THE THOMAS MERTON ENCYCLOPEDIA and THOMAS MERTON: Essential Writings from St. Francis Bookshop.

CHRISTMAS PRESENCE: Twelve Gifts That Were More Than They Seemed, edited by Gregory F. Augustine Pierce. ACTA Publications. 157 pp. $17.95.

Reviewed by BARBARA BECKWITH, managing editor of this publication. She is a graduate of Marquette University’s College of Journalism.

SOMEHOW GIFTS have been at the heart of Christmas long before consumerism dictated that Christmas shopping begin the day after Halloween. The gifts in these stories are the kinds brought by the Magi, tangible expressions of the heart with far-reaching effects. The publisher, who is also the book’s editor, Greg Pierce, has gotten 12 spiritual writers to recall a special Christmas gift they received and “reveal how it evoked emotions and feelings that are both priceless and unforgettable.”

Because these writers are so good, they can describe the incidents succinctly and convey the emotions vividly as if everything happened no earlier than last Christmas. They are emotional without being maudlin, nostalgic without being sappy, timeless without sacrificing contemporary situations.

I picked up this book because I know Pierce. Two of these authors (James Stephen Behrens and Alice Camille) have written for St. Anthony Messenger. And five others I’ve met in the professional world of Catholic publishing. The book has already been selected as a “Feature Book” by Spiritual Book Associates.

That predisposed me to like the book, but the stories really sold it. I’m a sucker for dog stories, so I headed for “I Had Already Named Him Buddy,” by Patrick Hannon, and ended up teary-eyed. John Shea’s description of his family’s Christmas tree, a gangly fir with one long branch at the top that “stuck out like E.T.’s finger,” a bottom branch that grew straight down and “a waistband of short branches” that gave “the impression that the tree was sucking in its stomach for a Christmas photo,” reminded me of most of the Christmas trees of my childhood. (Upon seeing the tree, Shea’s brother Alex commented, “Now I know why they invented artificial trees.”)

The gifts are only an excuse to talk about family and relationships and what’s most important in life. For Tom McGrath, it’s what he learned from his father by the example of his life. For eight-year-old Carol DeChant, it was her maiden Aunt Harriet’s gift of a camera that opened her eyes to the world. Jeff Behrens remembers how his family continued to put up his twin brother’s Christmas stocking long after he had died.

The stories are not Pollyanna-ish. There is mention of abortion, spiritual malaise, estranged grandparents, alcoholism and homosexuality. But these people have grown through their life experiences, and that is reflected in their thoughts on Christmas. Why can’t there be a frog in the manger?

One of the most touching stories is in Pierce’s Introduction, where he explains how the “gift” of his crying two-year-old daughter allowed him to recognize the sacred in his daily life.

These authors are sharing the stories of the presents that reveal “the essence of Christmas—the divine presence that permeates the world.” This book is just such a gift to us.

You can order CHRISTMAS PRESENCE: Twelve Gifts That Were More Than They Seemed from St. Francis Bookshop.

NUREMBERG: The Reckoning: A Novel, by William F. Buckley, Jr. Harcourt, Inc. 366 pp. $25.

Reviewed by EMILY McCORMACK, an author and adjunct faculty member of the College of DuPage in Illinois. Her brother, Staff Sgt. Walter Sammon, now deceased, was a court reporter at the war crimes trials in Germany. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

NUREMBERG—Die Meistersinger? Wagner? Nein! Nuremberg—war crimes trials.

In studying Nazi Germany, future American historians will no doubt refer to William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, or William Manchester’s The Arms of Krupp, or the many autobiographies and biographies of well-known figures like Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels, Albert Speer, Rudolph Hess and Erwin Rommel. Adolf Hitler’s own Mein Kaempf, obviously, would be a must-read for those historians.

These same students of history, unless they are total intellectual snobs, would do well also to read You Can’t Go Home Again, by Thomas Wolfe. In this, his last autobiographical book, Wolfe captures the brooding and threatening atmosphere of Germany in the 1930s.

Now comes Nuremberg: The Reckoning, a novel by William F. Buckley, Jr.

“A novel?” these historians might cry, abashed.

“Yes,” I say. “And yes again. A novel.”

Not only is Buckley’s new (his 44th) book unapologetically a novel; it is also incredibly readable, fast-paced, a real page-turner, and—most important of all—accurate and believable. Clearly, Buckley has done his homework.

Starting on the first page, the reader becomes caught up in the lives of the Reinhard family. We follow young Sebastian (“Sebby”) from the hour he leaves Germany to go to America and there, with his mother, makes his home. His father is forbidden by Nazi authorities to leave Germany.

Most of the story takes place after World War II, during the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Because Sebastian, now in the United States Army, is fluent in German, his first language, he is assigned as one of the many interpreters at the trials. He had left Germany as a young boy and now returns as a young adult.

Buckley leads us back and forth in time and place, almost casually, to describe the atmosphere and to fill in all necessary details of the war-crimes trials and of the Reinhard family. Obediently, we follow him through to the end.

Buckley lays the scene before us. Like the rest of Germany, Nuremberg, where the trials are to take place, is still reeling from the war. Enter dramatis personae: American Justice Robert Jackson and other judges, high-ranking Nazi prisoners on trial, lawyers, interpreters, stenographers, each with a special role to play. Expert technicians prepare the earphones, recorders, amplifiers, toggle switches and other paraphernalia necessary to make the trial run smoothly.

Finally, the Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg who are found guilty are sentenced to be hanged. Goering, who committed suicide, has the last laugh on the executioner.

The story of Sebastian Reinhard and his parents runs parallel to the trials. The last poignant truth about this family lingers in the reader’s mind after the final chapter.

Nuremberg: The Reckoning recounts a time in history that should never be forgotten. Buckley’s fine book helps us to remember.

You can order NUREMBERG: The Reckoning: A Novel from St. Francis Bookshop.

FATHER MYCHAL JUDGE: An Authentic American Hero, by Michael Ford. Paulist Press. 176 pp. $19.95.

Reviewed by JOHN BOOKSER FEISTER, an assistant editor of this publication, who co-wrote an award-winning article about Mychal Judge for our December 2001 issue.

IN THE RUSH OF EVENTS surrounding September 11, 2001, the image of Franciscan Father Mychal Judge, O.F.M., emerged as one of heroic self-sacrifice.

The media-savvy FDNY chaplain was well known in New York City. Within a day of the terrorist attacks, a fantastic, mournful photograph of his corpse being carried from the rubble of the World Trade Center was showing up everywhere in the world via newspapers, TV and Internet.

His closeness to high-ranking public officials, including then New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, along with the powerful righteousness of his dying act, cemented his celebrity.

The magazine stories came, each written under extreme deadline, each homing in on some aspect of the man’s life that could be grabbed and rushed into print. Now, a year after his death, Michael Ford and Paulist Press have provided us a more complete and satisfying picture of this complex hero.

Journalist Michael Ford calls the biography an “impressionistic portrait,” based on interviews with friends of Father Judge. He was unaware of the friar before the terrorist attack. Ford is the author of a recent biography of Henri Nouwen, Wounded Prophet, also by Paulist Press.

The strength of Ford’s work is the breadth with which he approaches his subject. Here we learn, in separate chapters, about Mychal the Franciscan, the Irishman, the homosexual, the alcoholic, the firefighter chaplain, the New York celebrity. Ford perceptively uses deep Catholic, Franciscan imagery to help us understand what made Mychal Judge tick.

We learn that Judge struggled with alcoholism early in his priesthood, and was 17 years sober at his death, with the constant help of Alcoholics Anonymous. We read about the search for Irish identity in this immigrant son, who ultimately achieved dual citizenship in Ireland and the United States. We learn that, on sabbatical in England some years back, Father Judge came to grips with his homosexuality and made a conscious decision to become more open about it. (He was selective with this information, however.)

Not only do we hear that Mychal Judge worked with AIDS victims, but we are also reminded that he did so during the earliest years of the epidemic in the 1980s, when no one knew why people were dying or what the risks of care were. Like St. Francis with the leper, Mychal was moved to compassion by the isolation of the AIDS sufferers. He came to those whom no one would touch and offered comforting massages along with prayerful concern.

Ford entitles one section of his book “Charism of the Wounds,” another “Seraphic Wounds,” indicating his familiarity with the Franciscan themes around which Mychal Judge lived his life.

Most helpful, perhaps, is Ford’s nuanced treatment of Judge’s homosexual orientation, in a chapter with a Nouwenesque title, “Courage to Be.” He leaves us with a solid sense that Judge was committed to living a chaste, celibate life. “Out of his incompletion flowed a fruitful longing,” writes Ford. He continues, “Always aware that public knowledge of his sexual identity could undermine his work, he invariably kept quiet because he did not want homophobia to compromise his ministry.”

Of all the people Ford interviewed, one wonders why there is no evident interview with Judge’s close friend and eulogist Father Michael Duffy.

This book is a very good start at appreciating someone who defies easy categorization. Writes Ford, “What marked out his holiness was precisely his refusal to inhabit any niche of conventional sanctity....Here was a friar who dared to be himself.”

You can order FATHER MYCHAL JUDGE: An Authentic American Hero from St. Francis Bookshop.


Books can be obtained through St. Francis Bookshop on the Web or at 1618 Vine Street, Cincinnati, OH 45202-6498, phone 1-800-241-6392. All orders must be prepaid. Add $4 for postage and handling. Ohio residents should also add 6.0 percent for sales tax. The Bookshop offers a free catalog.

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