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Harry Potter Is Harmless

Even as our nation mourns the events of September 11, our entertainment industry has been busy. Life continues and, even in troubled times, we need our diversions. Children distant from tragedy have been twitching with anticipation for the November 16 release of the AOL Time Warner blockbuster hopeful Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

The Potter event, which started with the 1997 print publication of J. K. Rowling's children's fantasy, was met with alarm in some Christian circles. As almost everyone knows, the Harry Potter series is a boyhood journey about an orphaned, likable wizard-in-training. His mother died saving his life.

The book series swept as if by magic through the United Kingdom, and then, since 1998, through North America. Harry Potter is 10 years old at the series' outset and preteen readers have fueled the revolution. As word spread, even adults—lots of them—were seen reading the books at beaches, or sneaking a read from a book left lying around the house by a youngster.

The first four of seven expected books have been best-sellers. In both senses of the word, the books are fantastic. That is to say, the books are both well-written and fantasy. The film promises to be the same.

So what's the fuss? As the Potter books grew in popularity, concern grew among fundamentalist Christians that our children are being indoctrinated in witchcraft and Satanism.

To this we say, rubbish!

A 10-year-old's View

At this point we depart a bit from our typical editorial format and introduce the words of another J.B.F., son of this writer. Young J.B.F. has been hopelessly addicted to the Potter series since he was in third grade two years ago.

After reading some of the fundamentalist criticism of the books in a newsweekly, also lying around the house, he wrote: "People, you're scaring me. Why are people making such a huge fuss over Harry Potter? I've read each book seven times and not once have I thought of devil worshiping. Please, do you think J. K. Rowling was trying to draw people to the devil?

"Let's look at the good points. 1) Starts kids reading. Most kids wouldn't even think about reading a book that big. It temporarily keeps kids away from the PC and TV—once they start reading, they can't stop. 2) It's got better quality than other books. Would you rather they read Goosebumps [a violent horror series]? 3) Enjoyable reading no matter what the age—adults are loving them a lot! There are exceptions: I pity those who are trying to do magic and worshiping the devil.

"If some people are worshiping the devil, what makes others so sure it's because of Harry Potter? Are they going to ban C. S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe? It's got magic, but it's a 'classic Christian favorite'!

"These people are looking at this with not-open minds."

As a Catholic parent, this writer put misgivings aside when young J.B.F. passed the litmus test of faith. "If you could use a magical spell to have all the dishes washed, would you use it?" The reply was an easy yes. "Would you renounce Christ if that were necessary in order to use the spell?" Without hesitation, "Of course not!" The books remain poised for the next rainy day and yet another read. We can't wait to see the film.

Nurturing the Catholic Imagination

We Catholics stand out among Christians for our sacramental imagination. It's a belief in an enchanted universe, as Friar Richard Rohr says. Today much of our world is dis-enchanted. If we can't see it, we don't believe it.

The enchanted world that so many older Catholics grew up in was a world where you could pray to unseen saints for intercessory help in all manner of situations, a world where we could believe without seeing, where we could look at things through the "eyes of faith," accepting that much of the cosmos is out of human sight. As we pray in our Creed, "We believe in one God...maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen."

It is this worldview, what Andrew Greeley calls the "Catholic imagination," that allows us to see that "the objects, events, and persons of daily life are revelations of grace." In a sense, you could say that this imaginativeness animates the Church.

Where is our sense of imagination born and nurtured? In the stories and events of childhood, certainly including imaginative fiction. In fact, fiction feeds the healthy imagination, which is one reason this publication devotes space to it. The healthy imagination opens our minds and hearts to the possibilities of faith.

Ingenious fantasies like Harry Potter, besides being plain fun, help develop imaginations. You might say that is more the case with a book than with a film, but that's another editorial.

The struggle between good and evil, difficult moral choices, the surprise of finding out people we were suspicious of are actually on our side—all of these are themes of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.

No, God isn't mentioned in this story. One doesn't look for explicit theology in every story. But goodness and love themes are there. Harry discovering the mystery of his mother's self-sacrifice is one. Call it a type of "pre-evangelization" if you must.

Better yet, as one friar here is fond of saying, "Lighten up!" Let people enjoy the film without reading into it so much that we fail to see it for what it is: an imaginative fantastic adventure about a boy coming of age.—J.B.F. (Sr.)

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