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Along the Way
Harry Potter and grace
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My reading interests tend to cycle through fairly serious works relating to philosophy, psychology, theology and science, then to lighter reading such as novels. Eventually, I reach the point of science fiction and fantasy, when the cycle repeats itself. The cycle repeats itself once I reach fantasy because good works of fantasy are imaginative and have a core that is rooted in the same mythic and conceptual ground as the best philosophy, theology, and psychology.

Currently, I am swinging through the tail-end of the fantasy stage of my reading cycle. I've completed the fourth Harry Potter book and am two-thirds of the way through a trilogy by Philip Pullman entitled His Dark Materials. Both are excellent reads.

The Harry Potter series is a coming-of-age tale targeted for the junior high school crowd. However, it is very well written and is an enjoyable investment of reading time for anyone who is young at heart. The series begins with an infant Harry Potter being left at the door of his only living relatives, a boorish, middle class British family called the Dursleys. Harry's mom was the younger sister of Mrs. Dursley and the uptight Mr. Dursley always considered his sister-in-law to be something of a fool especially for marrying James Potter, Harry's dad. Harry parents have just been killed. The Dursleys raise Harry for the next ten years, though they sorely resent the obligation that has been thrust upon.

Having completed their elementary school education Harry and his cousin, Dudley, are scheduled to begin secondary school in the fall. Secondary school in Britain refers to a combination junior and senior high school. At this point Harry discovers that his father had arranged for his secondary school education while the boy was still an infant. He has been accepted into an exclusive private school in the distant north called Hogwarts School of Magic for Witches and Wizards. An inheritance has been provided to pay for the boy's education at the exclusive school. A friendly giant shows up and informs Harry that his parents had been great wizards, that they had been killed in battle with an evil wizard. The only person to have survived that battle was Harry. In fact, the evil wizard had been defeated when he tried to kill Harry. The curse he was using to kill the baby rebounded destroying the evil wizard. Among the witches and wizards of the world, the young Harry is considered a true celebrity.

With this fanciful beginning, we follow Harry through the normal challenges and terrors of junior high school, as well as a few that are only possible in a school for wizards. He discovers the joy of school friends. He finds talents he never realized he possessed. He enjoys exploring aspects of the world around him that he never imagined could exist. The better part of each book is devoted as well to real world challenges, such as dealing with school gossips, hostile teachers and school yard bullies.

There is a more serious undercurrent in each of the books. Evil and danger lurks just beyond our clear perception. It will not go away by simply concentrating on the joys of school life or the more mundane tasks of passing exams and doing your homework. At some point in each story Harry must face this evil moving in the shadows and defeat it or foil its plans. Each time he faces the evil he discovers that it is some manifestation of the evil wizard that killed his parents. Each time he faces that evil he discovers something more of his own powers and the degree of his courage.

Nothing is ever what it seems to be at first. The obviously wicked turns out to be nobel and heroic. The apparently good are revealed to have failings that allow them to compromise with evil. Such compromise brings disastrous results. What causes Harry to be fearful at first soon becomes the means of his salvation later in the story. An insignificant kindness done for another is returned later in the story a hundred times over.

The books in the series each cover one year of Harry's secondary education. The most recent book covers his fourth year at school. This would be the equivalent of freshman year in an American senior high school. there are seven years in the British secondary school system, so the current books serves as the pivotal point in the series.

Each book in the series is a bit darker than the previous. The challenges that Harry faces are more demanding and dangerous. The stakes are greater if Harry fails to meet the challenge. The scope of the stage upon which the challenge is undertaken becomes wider. The first book deals with keeping a powerful magical ingredient from the clutches of the evil wizard who needs it to make his comeback. By the end of the fourth book Harry barely escapes the clutches of the evil wizard with his life. His fellow student is killed in the process. War among the witches and wizards looms on the horizon.

What are the evils against which Harry fights? Class prejudice, revenge, fear, control over others, self-seeking, treating others as objects, and ignorance are but a few of the more obvious challenges found in the books.

How is Harry able to overcome the evils he must face? He has many resources. His best friends are always willing to help. The lessons he absorbs from his classes are essential resources, as well as what he obtains from the fruit of careful library research. His teachers, especially the more demanding ones, are a constant support, even when he doesn't realize it at first. The school headmaster is a reliable source of guidance in the face of danger. There is always the memory of his parents and the heritage they left for him to draw upon, as well as his own newly discovered talents, which have gotten him through every challenge Harry has faced to date.

What lessons do the books offer to young readers? No matter how insignificant the young person may seem there is tremendous potential within waiting to find expression. School is important. Your lessons give you the tools to overcome the challenges that you will face. Your parents are a source of support and strength for you in ways you never suspect. Don't jump to conclusions, reality may be very different from what you imagine it to be. Evil exists in the world and it can produce disastrous consequences. Evil can not be run from. It must be faced. Only then can it be defeated. You can not compromise with evil without paying a terrible price. The presence of evil is apparent where there is prejudice, ignorance, hate, pleasure in another's suffering, the desire for revenge or to control others.

It is obvious from my mini-review that I find the Harry Potter series to be excellent works of children's literature, with real educational value for youngsters. They are pleasant reading for adults as well.

Yet, some commentators have raised questions about the appropriateness of using magic, witches and wizards as a setting for the series. The series has been attacked as promoting New Age belief, traditional witchcraft, and even satanism. There appears to be nothing particularly Christian about the series. Is it appropriate reading for Christian young people?

All traditional societies have a long heritage of practical wisdom. It is usually a blend of what might be considered science, magic, medicine, folk literature and spirituality. The Second Vatican Council points out that such traditions are not without the blessing of God's wisdom and insight.

The paganism of Europe, before Christianity spread out from the Mediterranean Sea basin, was a mix of ancient myths glorifying the various gods in the local pantheon, along with the cultural traditions and folklore of the communities. There was a healthy streak of animism, or respect for the spiritual character of all living creatures, as well.

Elves, fairies, dragons, sprites and other magical creatures populated the folk tales children learned as both entertainment and moral instruction. The children were familiar with the workings of the witch woman who spoke with the dead or with the wizard who was the local religious leader and a powerful defender of the community. The warriors might go off to fight invading armies but the wizard went into the spirit world and fought with the demons or evil wizards who were intent on destroying the community. This should not be too unfamiliar to island readers, as it was not that long ago that much of this was part of every day life in the Mariana and Caroline islands.

As Christianity moved in paganism and Christianity were in competition for the hearts and minds of the people. Church leaders were of two opinions. One group wanted the eradication of any remnants of pagan belief in favor of Christian practice and belief. The other group argued that it was just the Gospel that was being brought to the pagans, not Roman or Jewish culture. They stressed that the Gospel be preached and moral lives be lived. However, the way in which the people worship and other issues of daily living should reflect the culture of the different peoples. The second group won out. For many hundreds of years Christianity took different shapes in the various communities of Europe.

This is most clear with the celebration of Christmas. The date of the Christmas celebration is the winter solstice, an important feast in pagan Europe, as well as the old Roman Saturnalia feast. The Christmas tree is a German custom that has its origins in the "Tree of Life", which was a central religious symbol from pagan times. Christmas wreaths, mistletoe, yule logs and similar ethnic Christmas traditions all point back to sources in the pagan beliefs and practice of the communities where they began.

The same process is apparent in other ways as well. The characteristics of pagan gods and goddesses became associated with Christian saints. The people may be honoring St. Brigit but the tales and beliefs surrounding the good saint were very similar to those surrounding a Celtic goddess of a few years earlier. Christian Churches were built on the site of pagan temples and holy places. In the minds of the people Christian symbols began to represent spiritual and natural forces that pagan symbols were used to represent before. Names may have changed but the pagan way of thinking had not.

It must also be remembered that it took over a thousand years for Europe to be evangelized. Much of that time Christians and pagans were living side by side as neighbors and friends. Pagan belief wasn't something for storybooks and Halloween pranks. It was an everyday fact of life that you either believed in or knew that your neighbor accepted as fact.

It was also difficult to separate Christian belief and practice from pagan, as very few people were educated and could appreciate the subtleties of doctrinal debate. A person might consider himself a staunch Christian ready to offer his life in defense of true doctrine, yet in his actual beliefs be much closer to his pagan neighbors than the good bishop.

With the end of the first millennium things began to change in Europe. It was the beginning of serious recovery from the disaster of the Dark Ages. Political leaders were attempting to consolidate power and build empires. Leadership positions in the Church had long been the right of secular monarchs to bestow. Thus, the simplest novice might have a better understanding of theology than the diocesan bishop, who was only a political appointee. Even the papacy fell to this level for over two hundred years, with several madmen and degenerates sitting on the chair of St. Peter. The people were getting fed up with corruption in society and in the Church. This produced a variety of reform movements. Religious and political leaders were not kind to reform movements, as the heart of their message was criticism of those in power. These groups were seen as heretical and persecuted. In this stressful atmosphere there was little tolerance for anything but the most narrow religious practice. Pagan beliefs were driven underground, being practiced only secretly for fear of persecution. The persecution of witches in the late middle ages was the result of these social conditions.

Thus, in writing about witches, wizards, elves, fairies, and similar characters, J.K. Rowling is drawing upon and ancient and abiding vein of Western folklore. Nor is she the first to do so. The Brother's Grimm mined this vein for their popular collection of folktales almost two hundred years ago. At the beginning of the last century, Frank L. Baum drew heavily from this same source to develop his distinctly American version of the ancient folktales in his Wizard of Oz series. We have also learned a great deal about the psychological importance of the archetypical characters found in such folktales and their contemporary off-spring (Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, etc.) by such scholars as C.G. Jung, James Hillman, Bruno Bettleheim, and Joseph Campbell.

Bringing us back to Harry Potter, is J. K. Rowling's use witchcraft and sorcery as the setting for her story a sign of New Age sympathies or promoting the occult? I honestly doubt it. There is nothing to suggest otherwise in her tale of Harry Potter, especially as she consistently argues for what is good, just, noble, and honest in the books, as well as opposes what is clearly evil. There is nothing of the calling upon demonic powers that we see in horror movies. Any magical powers found in the stories seem to be rooted in the native capabilities of the person doing the magic. Magic is presented simply as a way to magnify and direct these capabilities. This is similar to any other native quality, such as intelligence, athletic prowress, musical or artistic talent. Education is meant as a way to develop and direct these inherent talents. These capabilities can be used for good or evil but that is the moral choice of the person. Rowling stresses the importance of our moral choices.

Fr. Andrew Greeley is, among other things, a noted sociologist, who has written extensively on the sociology of religion. He argues that a fundamental characteristic of Catholics in what he refers to as the Catholic imagination.

This is a way of looking at the world in sacramental terms. When someone views the world through a Catholic, or sacramental imagination, what is perceived is only the merest expression of a much deeper reality that is occurring at profound spiritual levels. The person viewing the world through the sacramental imagination is aware of this at some conscious or sub-conscious level. The Eucharist is an obvious example. At the level of surface perception, you receive a piece of bread from the priest and eat it. At deeper levels of reality, you are encountering the risen Christ and consuming Him body and soul in the form of bread and wine. This is in reality a most sacred and intimate encounter with our Creator God.

If you are raised to appreciate this sacramental way of understanding the world. It is not difficult to see the sacred reality that lurks just below the surface in much of life. The sunlight illuminating a flower, an ocean wave, or a majestic tree is not just light reflecting from some natural object. It is the glory of God manifest in our world of matter. It is a sign of His presence among us. It is a token of His grace and love for us.

For something to be sacramental it doesn't have to be overtly religious. Natural beauty is one obvious example. However, some stories can also be sacramental if they are read through the lens of the Catholic imagination.

Some of the best works of fantasy in the English language were written by C. S. Lewis in the middle of the last century. His books are filled with witches, wizards, elves, magical creatures, and every other inhabitant of British folklore. There is no overt mention of Christianity or Christian doctrine in his tales. Yet, Lewis' Narnia Chronicles are some of the most profound, imaginative, and meaningful Christian writing that has been done in many centuries. These tales speak of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They speak of virtue, grace and morality. They speak of heaven and hell, as well as a Christian vision of life's meaning. They do all of this speaking to the sacramental imagination of their readers using metaphor and allegory.

Rowling may be less consciously Christian than C.S. Lewis, as she tells the tale of Harry Potter, but what she has written so far does not stray very far from the example set for her by C.S. Lewis.

Also read A Course in Christian Spirituality by Deacon Shewman that is available through this link.

(c) 1997-2008. Richard Shewman. All stories, articles, reflections and other written material contained in this website are the creative fruit and property of Richard Shewman. All rights are reserved. The written material contained in this website may not be reproduced or published in any form, except for the individual and personal use of the reader, without the express consent of the author.