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Coming out of the closet
Posted By Eric Sammons On July 14, 2009 @ 11:11 am In Books | Comments Disabled
After reading this story , I have a confession to make, one that is sure to scandalize many people:
Yes, it’s true – I’ve read all seven books (twice) about the boy-wizard, have seen the first five movies, and plan to see the latest movie installment next week.
It all started like this: a few years ago I was desperate to find books for my bibliophile 10-year-old daughter. My mother-in-law, who is a former middle-school teacher and is now a librarian, couldn’t stop raving about the Harry Potter books. I had heard some negative things about them from people I respected, but my mother-in-law is a good Catholic as well, so I began to think they might not be so bad. I also saw a positive review of the HP books by my friend, Catholic author Regina Doman, so I thought there might be more there than I suspected. But since I had heard so many negative things about them, I wanted to read them for myself before allowing my children to read them.
So when I was at my mother-in-law’s one Christmas, I picked up the first book and read it quickly (I make no claims that the HP books are dense literature – they are children’s books, first and foremost). I wasn’t wowed by the story, but I also found nothing in it objectionable, and much to like. The most controversial part of the books in the Christian world – the use of magic – seemed to me to be so clearly tongue-in-cheek that I had a hard time taking seriously the argument that it could lead children to dabble in real-life magic. To be honest, I think Lord of the Rings is more likely to tempt a child to try magic than Harry Potter (and I consider LOTR the greatest fictional books ever written). Most of the magic in the books is laugh-out-loud funny, not a serious introduction to “black arts” in any way. Furthermore, magic in the Harry Potter books is clearly intended to be fantastical – you are born with it or you are not, and nothing a “Muggle” can do can lead them to be able to perform magic.
So I decided that it would be okay for my daughter to read the books, but didn’t actually get around to picking the books up at the library for her. I then was at my mother-in-law’s again and bored and picked up the second book in the series. At that point, I was hooked: I became immersed in the story and read through the sixth book (the seventh had not yet been released) in quick succession. I put the seventh book on hold at the library as quickly as possible and was able to pick it up the morning of its release and read it in one weekend. I have since then gone back and read them through a second time.
A note at this point to those who do not know me personally: I am quite over-protective of my children. My wife and I are very intentional in what entertainment we allow our children to consume. We don’t own a television, and we restrict what books they are allowed to read (on an age-appropriate basis – for example, my eight-year-old is currently only allowed to read the first three books in the HP series). I take very seriously my responsibility to protect my children from harm, and I have no problem resisting societal pressure to have my children have what other children may have.
So why do I like the series? Number one, I find the characters very interesting. Rowling does a marvelous job of populating the HP universe with a broad diversity of characters, and like real life, none of them are perfect and none of them are pure evil (expect perhaps Voldemort, and even he has a back story that can produce sympathy for him). I have read a good deal of “Christian fiction,” and the biggest criticism I have of the genre is that most of the characters are very one-dimensional: they are either “good” (i.e. born-again Christians) or “bad.” I am not looking for books which represent a reality in which my children do not live – I am looking for books in which “real” (read: flawed) people do their best to make the right choices in their lives.
That brings me to a common criticism of the books: you often hear that Harry Potter himself is not a good role model because he often breaks the rules and doesn’t suffer any bad consequences. In actuality, though, Rowling does a good job of reflecting real life: sometimes Harry – like every teenage boy – breaks the rules, and when that happens, sometimes good things result, and sometimes, very bad things happen (think about what happened to his godfather in the fifth book when Harry didn’t do what the grown-ups wanted him to do). To act like we live in a world where following rules (not moral laws, necessarily, but just rules) always has good consequences is simply not accurate.
Furthermore, Harry clearly is a good role model in a fundamental area of life: he willingly sacrifices himself for those he loves. Yes, at times he acts like a typical teenager in doing that, but to me that makes him all the more powerful; it conveys to youth that one can have faults and problems and still rise above them to perform heroic acts of charity for others.
I am a strong believer that every parent must decide what is best for their own children – I cannot say what someone else’s children should or should not read. But I would say to all Catholic parents who are hesitant to allow their children to read the books based on what they have read (from Michael O’Brien, for instance): read the books yourself and then come to your own conclusion. Like me, you might be surprised to find a quite engaging and positive series of books that your children – and you – will greatly enjoy.
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