Misguided Hope, Questionable Television, and Harry Potter ... So Much Harry Potter
Hi, Friends. Happy Friday to you. As you might have noticed when you saw two messages from me come through, I decided to record an audio version of today’s Question Box. I do an audio version for every essay that goes out to full subscribers, but not normally these free weekly versions. Today’s Q&A, however, required a few more words than normal, and I know for many of you, it’s easier to find time to listen to longer essays than to read them.
So, if you fall into that category, I hope the audio version helps. It just contains the reader Q&A, though, not the ongoing Spe Salvi study or this week’s “Five Things I’m Loving” (one of those things being a new recipe I’m sharing for the first time today). You’ll only find those things here, in the print edition.
Thank you, as always, for spending a little bit of your day reading my words. I’m so grateful I get to do this work. I’m extra grateful to those of you who are full subscribers and make free emails like this possible. If you’re not yet a full subscriber, but would like to support this work, just click the link below. In addition to helping me continue sending out weekly emails (and maybe weekly audio recordings), you’ll also start receiving my monthly essays for full subscribers only, get to join in on the comments, and have full access to the archives of Through a Glass Darkly, all for the cost of one fancy cup of coffee a month. Thank you so much for considering this!
Spe Salvi Study, Week 3
Reading: Sections 13-23
“[Marx] forgot that man always remains man. He forgot man and he forgot man's freedom. He forgot that freedom always remains also freedom for evil. He thought that once the economy had been put right, everything would automatically be put right. His real error is materialism: man, in fact, is not merely the product of economic conditions, and it is not possible to redeem him purely from the outside by creating a favourable economic environment.” (Pope Benedict XVI, 21)
Yesterday, as I got ready for the day, I listened to Bari Weiss’ conversation with Sam Altman, the CEO of Open AI and developer of ChatGPT. The newest version of the AI App has elated some and terrified others, with AI supporters predicting a coming utopia and AI detractors predicting the end of all things. Altman was more circumspect, concluding that while AI will solve some problems for humanity, it will also cause new ones.
I tend to skepticism about AI. Every time someone waxes poetic about its possibilities, I think, “Didn’t you watch Battlestar Gallactica?” But I appreciated Altman’s circumspection just the same. It echoes Benedict’s thoughts in today’s reading from Spe Salvi. Science, technology, and politics solve some problems, but cause others. What we call progress makes some parts of life easier and some harder. The world somehow manages to become more just and more unjust all at the same time. But very rarely does what the world calls progress change the condition of human hearts.
The deepest struggles, the most profound yearnings, the grief we carry—that stays the same from age to age. Or grows worse. Yet we soldier on, looking for the next piece of technology, politician, or home organization tool which we hope will take all the hurt away.
Which, of course, is the problem. If the state of the human heart is worse today than it was a century ago or a millennium ago, it’s because we’ve placed our hope in the wrong gods. We keep looking to the things of the world to solve problems of the soul. But it doesn’t work that way.
In the beginning, our souls broke first. They lost the life of God that was meant to keep them alive and full of joy. Then, from there, everything else broke, our bodies and our world. The breaking of the world was from the inside out. And that’s how the healing of this world will have to happen, too. From the inside out. Souls first. Then lives. Then families, communities, and entire cultures.
Only God can bring that healing, though. Until we look to Him and not ourselves, we’ll just keep breaking the world more. For this side of heaven, “man remains man.” And we can’t save ourselves. No matter how smart we are.
How have you seen your life improved by what the world calls progress? How have you seen it suffer because of the same?
What makes it so tempting to look to technology or politics or stuff to create a better world? Why we do it so often?
What in you still most needs to healed? If that healing came, how do you think it would affect the world around you, starting with those closest to you? What, if anything, is holding you back from seeking that healing?
Next Week: Read Sections 24-31
As a Catholic, are there certain television shows that I just shouldn’t watch?
Like so many parts of life, this is one of those areas where the Church doesn’t micromanage us. She gives us principles and wisdom, then leaves it to us to apply that in the context of our own circumstances.
To find her principles and wisdom, two of the best places to start are Pope Saint John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” and the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on the Media of Social Communication, Inter Mirifica. Both primarily address the responsibilities of those who create the books, movies, music, and shows we consume. But they also suggest certain questions the rest of us can ask to help determine the moral value of what we consume. Questions like:
Does this work recognize and uphold the moral order?
Does this work serve the common good?
Does this work respect the human person?
When depicting sin and evil, does this work still show some restraint so that it doesn’t end up glorifying evil or arousing sinful desires (lust, anger, greed, etc.)?
The Church doesn’t expect every movie or television show to be Pollyanna. Sin is real. It’s part of the human experience. Darkness is real. So many of us live in it. And depictions of sin and darkness in art, Inter Mirifica says, “serve to bring about a deeper knowledge and study of humanity and, with the aid of appropriately heightened dramatic effects, can reveal and glorify the grand dimensions of truth and goodness,” (7). John Paul II likewise recognizes that, “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption,” (10).
Just the same, the Church does have concerns about people ordinarily and without thought consuming entertainment that make evil seem good, and good evil. She worries about us consuming art that undermines the essential values of a healthy society—values like love, faith, marriage, friendship, sacrifice, service, generosity, prudence, temperance, courage, and kindness. She likewise worries about us consuming anything that dehumanizes others, that reduces people to objects for us to mock, ridicule, envy, or lust after. And she worries about us depicting evil in such a way that we feel drawn to it or that others are disrespected in the process of depicting it.
The Church worries about all this because she understands the power of art. She knows it can move what policies and politics and preaching can’t, speaking to us on a level that doctrine doesn’t. It touches our hearts and souls, sometimes bypassing our reason entirely. Good art has the potential to make us better people—holier, wiser, more loving, more docile to the movements of the Spirit. And bad art has the potential to make us worse people—more greedy, foolish, lustful, vengeful, and ultimately faithless.
Given all that, in the context of television, like with all art, it’s important to take the Church’s guidance seriously. We need to be discerning about the messages being communicated by what we watch, how those messages are communicated, and what is asked of the people involved in the making of those shows. Just because actors, contestants, or participants in certain shows have consented to sex scenes, dangerous activities, or being made ridiculous doesn’t make it okay. It’s never okay.
Discernment has to go beyond the content of the show, though. Different people will be affected differently by different depictions of sin. So, we also have to discern how we are affected by the shows we watch. How do our favorite shows affect the way we view others or talk about others? Are we objectifying the people on them in some way? Are we becoming desensitized to sin as we watch them? Are they, in some way, leading us into sin?
Just because the Church doesn’t issue an annual list of banned shows doesn’t mean everything on television is okay. It’s not. There is a great deal of morally problematic programming that nobody should be making or watching. Much of what our culture offers up is like food tainted with arsenic—slowly poisoning us without us even realizing it. But there is also a lot of good television programming out there—programming which isn’t perfect, but which can entertain us without harm, instruct us, amuse us, or deepen our understanding of God, man, and the world in some way. It’s up to us to separate the wheat from the chaff. And that’s ultimately what the Church expects of us: to be mature, thoughtful disciples capable of discerning good from evil and right from wrong. She gives us guiding principles to follow, then trusts us to do the rest.
What are your thoughts on the Harry Potter books? Will you let your kids read them?
Talking about Harry Potter online strikes me as a thankless endeavor. People have such strong opinions about the books, and nobody ever seems to change their mind. To make matters worse, many of the people who have those strong opinions never read the books. Their opinions have been formed by others, some who misrepresent what the books contain and others who don’t seem to understand the nature and purpose of fiction. That makes a fruitful discussion difficult.
Nevertheless, I have gotten so many questions just like this one over the past several months, that I am going to take the time this week to answer the question in depth. That way I can just refer back to this answer when the question comes up again.
First, though, I’ll be transparent: there is a reason I paired the first question I answered today with this one. (Thank you, kind person, who asked it a few weeks back.) Whether or not Catholics should read the Harry Potter books is one of those decisions the Church leaves up to individual Catholics. My opinion on the books is not authoritative. Neither is your priest’s opinion, your best friend’s opinion, or a celebrity exorcist’s opinion. None of us are the Magisterium, and the actual Magisterium has said nothing on Harry Potter. So, the decision about whether or not these books are worthy of your family’s time is up to you. To help you make that decision, you have the questions drawn from John Paul II’s “Letter to Artists” and Inter Mirifica: Does this work uphold the moral order? Does this work serve the common good? Does this work respect the human person? Does this work glorify evil?
After asking these questions, it’s possible that two faithful, well educated, spiritually mature disciples could come to different conclusions about the books. It’s equally possible for reading the books to have an overwhelmingly positive effect on one person—leading them to a deeper understanding of goodness, free will, human nature, and the communion of saints—and a bad effect on another person—isolating them from reality, feeding an unhealthy interest in fantasy, and leading them down a dark hole away from truth.
This is true of many books, though; there is no shortage of New Age fanatics who dress up like Gandalf. It’s also true of most things. There is very little in this world that God can’t use to draw us to Himself, just as there is very little in this world that the devil can’t use to draw us away from God. I’ve seen the devil use the Latin Mass and social justice work to twist people’s souls up into knots, so if he can do that with such good and holy things, no one should be surprised by what he can do with a series of children’s books.
Just the same, we need to judge the books on their merits, not on the spiritual lives of the nearly one billion people who’ve read them, some of whom have gone on to become holy priests, faithful apologists, and your favorite Catholic Substack writer 😉; others of whom have gone on to become drug addicts, sex fiends, and unbalanced dudes living in their mother’s basement. Importantly, almost all those people have become those things for reasons that have little to nothing to do with Harry Potter. No series of books, no matter how popular, can match the influence of family, friends, and faith on a person’s moral and spiritual development.
So, let’s assess the books on their merits. Or, at least, let me share with you how I have assessed the books on their merits.
I was a late-ish reader of Harry Potter. I was in college when the first book came out and much more interested in finding a job than reading a children’s book. Those were also the years in which I traveled in evangelical circles, and evangelicals were not what you would call fans of Harry Potter back in the late 90s/early 2000s. For years, based on the opinion of other women who had never read the books, I assumed the series was dark and evil and yet another sign that the world was going to hell in a handbasket.
Then, I started meeting people who thought otherwise: faithful people, intelligent people, literary people. They raved about the books and convinced me I should not have such a strong opinion about them without doing my own reading. I decided they were right and picked up the first book with deep skepticism and concern. Four days later, after I’d somehow finished the first four books in record breaking time, I was as enthusiastic about them as my friends.
Since then, I’ve reread the books many times, always applying whatever new theological knowledge I’d gained to my assessment of them. And I continue to enjoy them. I do plan to share them with my children. Just not for a while. In my judgement, while books one and two are perfectly find for younger kids (maybe ages 8-10), the books that come after those deal with increasingly weighty topics and emotions, so I don’t think the latter five are appropriate for anyone under the age of 11 or 12.
I also don’t think the books are perfect books. At times, especially in the later books, the writing get sloppy, and there are way too many words spelled out in all caps. It seems like the more successful the books became, the less free Rowling’s editors felt to edit. I also wish she had left out religious holidays from our world, like Christmas and Easter. It seemed odd to have magical people celebrating Christmas and Easter, but never referencing Christ or God or any higher power at all as they combat great evil. It was faulty world mixing.
Beyond that, though, I think the books are delightful. The plotting is wonderful, the characters real, the stakes high, the mysteries captivating, and the suspense biting. Rowling is also among the very best authors when it comes to world making. The food her characters eat, the drinks they drink, the games the play, the store where they shop, the banks where they bank—she makes it all seem not only real, but familiar, almost like a home to which you’ve never been, but somehow know just the same. No, the books aren’t Shakespeare or Tolstoy. But they are their own wonderful thing and deserving of appreciation for that.
But what about the Church’s criteria? How do they measure up there? In my estimation, they do all the things the Church says good art should do. They uphold the moral order: murder, vengeance, lust, pride, and greed are bad; bravery, fidelity, service, sacrifice, and humility are good. They also promote values and institutions that serve the common good—values and institutions like loyalty, courage, selflessness, forgiveness, kindness, family, friendship, and marriage. They treat the human person with great reverence, never objectifying even the bad characters. And they never glorify evil. Evil is clearly ugly and repulsive. Good is clearly compelling and attractive. The books never have you rooting for the bad guys to win…only to change their minds and choose the good.
Beyond that, Rowling possesses keen insight into human nature, and I appreciate her understanding of how complex people are. We’re not storybook characters, all good or all evil. We’re fallen creatures, with conflicting desires which often lead us to do good things and bad things simultaneously. Snape can be jealous, suspicious, and prejudiced…but he also is capable of great love and sacrifice. Dumbledore can possess great kindness and wisdom…but he also makes terrible errors in judgement. For all the fairytale like enchantment in the books, they are still deeply human, shedding light on who we are as human persons—fallen, but still made in the image of God.
I also appreciate how Rowling highlights the importance of free will. God has given each of us the power to choose who we will become. Our end is not predetermined. Our character is not fixed from birth. It’s formed by the choices we make—choices for God or against God. Each of us ultimately gets to choose Heaven or Hell, and you see that idea play out over the course of all seven books, as Voldemort, Harry and all the characters make choice after choice for and against the good. It’s those choices—not some vague mystical idea of fate—which lead one man to become the story’s villain and another to become the story’s hero.
The books are not Christian allegories. Yet they are still shaped by a Christian worldview. The story begins with salvific sacrifice of a mother giving her life for her son. It ends with another Christ-like sacrifice, as one character offers his life for others. The call to communion, the power of free will, the importance of discernment, and the transforming power of friendship and family life are all central components of the books. Because of that, I think they can be rich and wonderful tools in the hands of parents who want to form their children for a life of virtue.
Two Kinds of Magic
But what about the magic, right? How do we reconcile that with the Church’s criteria. Isn’t the use of magic a rejection of the moral order, a blow to the common good, a denigration of the human person, and a glorification of evil?
It would be if the Harry Potter books were based on a true story. But they’re not. They’re fiction.
Magic in real life is always evil. It violates clear prohibitions in both the Old Testament and New. Magic in fiction, however, is different. Depending on the type of magic it is and the role it plays in the story, it can be just as bad as magic in real life … or it can be a morally positive storytelling device that allows the writer to weave both a world and tale that couldn’t be told nearly so well without it. That’s why fiction writers have been including magic in their stories for as long as there have been fiction writers.
The wonderful Alan Jacobs wrote an essay in First Things about this question way back in 2000, and his insights still hold true. The magic of Harry Potter is not the magic of Wicca; no one is worshipping the elements and Mother Earth. Nor is it the magic of those who worship Satan; no one is offering tribute to any supernatural powers of any kind. There are no real spells, just Latin words. Magical powers can never be acquired, only mastered. The dragons are not friendly, and there is not a demonic power to be found on any of the thousands of pages Rowling wrote.
Instead, Harry Potter is a series of fantasy books, and the magic in the stories is fantasy magic. Fantasy magic serves as a storytelling device. It’s often used as a metaphor for growth, virtue, maturity, or control. In Harry Potter specifically, it’s connected to the importance of free will. Jacobs explains:
In this sense the strong tendency of magic to become a dream of power—on the importance of this point Lynn Thorndike, Keith Thomas, and C. S. Lewis all agree—makes it a wonderful means by which to focus the theme of … the choices that gradually but inexorably shape us into certain distinct kinds of persons.
Jacobs then adds:
Christians are perhaps right to be wary of an overly positive portrayal of magic, but the Harry Potter books don’t do that: in them magic is often fun, often surprising and exciting, but also always potentially dangerous.
Rowling doesn’t include magic in her stories to glamorize evil or promote the occult, and the type of magic she employs does neither. Rather, Rowling uses magic to help build an enchanted world where magic then becomes the an occasion for exploring questions like: “How do we fight injustice without becoming unjust?”; “What roles do education, family, and community play in forming people who use their gifts to serve others?”; “What people or values are worth dying for?”; “How do our individual choices shape who we become?”; and “How are we to face death?” As a tool, used in that way, Rowling’s fantasy magic does uphold the moral order and common good; it doesn’t seek to make gods of men; and it demonstrates that the misuse of power is something to be avoided not embraced.
This doesn’t mean it does all that perfectly. While writers like Lewis and Tolkien went out of their way to distinguish their wizards from ordinary humans and keep magic in mythical realms, Rowling lets hers mix somewhat more into ours. The wizarding world is separate from the Muggle world, but they still co-exist, which means her wizards are working magic in a world governed by Christian moral law and its prohibitions against witchcraft. A good argument can be made that Rowling should have drawn stronger and clearer boundaries between the Wizarding World and the Muggle (non-magical) World, in order to reinforce the idea that magic wielded by non-magical people is a dangerous and evil thing.
Nevertheless, the danger of magic in the wrong (or untrained and unwise) hands is always clear, and boundaries still exist within the book. Muggles can never acquire magic, not by any means; it absolutely cannot be learned by non-magical people. Occultish practices like divination and fortune-telling are depicted as foolish; and astrology is a wisdom most particularly possessed by the centaurs, mythical creatures who exist in the Potter world, but not our own. Beyond that, the magic in the books is so clearly fantasy magic—with broomsticks, wands, and one word Latin spells that mend broken bones—not occult magic, that for the vast majority of sane readers, that boundary is clear.
Final Thoughts (I promise)
But perhaps your child is not most readers. Perhaps your child is lonely and struggling and has an unhealthy interest in the occult. Perhaps, because of their current struggles, reading Harry Potter could draw them deeper into that world. That, again, is why the Church leaves it to you to make the call. Not every book is for every person, and Harry Potter might not be the best book for your child right now.
Ultimately, if you haven’t read the books and are trying to decide if they’re a good fit for your children, just read them yourself. Make up your own mind about them, using the guidelines mentioned above. If you decide they’re not right for your family, you’ll be able to explain your decision to your children with reasons grounded in fact, not in all the ridiculous rumors and untruths so often repeated about the books. And if you decide they are fine for your kids, it’s all the better that you’ve read them, because then you can discuss the books with your children and draw out many of the wonderful lessons they contain.
Demons are real. Spiritual warfare is real. There are real attacks being made on us and our families every day. Occult books and toys, along with all New Age practices and crystals, should never be welcomed into our homes. If we’ve dabbled with those things in the past, we need to confess that as a sin and talk with a trusted priest about how those things might still have some hold on us now.
But we also need to use the brains God gave us and make distinctions between the magic in The Craft and the magic in Narnia, the magic in Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the magic in Harry Potter. We also need to stop spreading unfounded rumors and blatant lies about J.K. Rowling (who did not go to witchcraft school or write the books in partnership with the devil) and about her books (which do not contain real spells or glorify the occult). If we have criticisms of the book, those will best be heard when we make them intelligently and reasonably and avoid sounding like we’re guests on The 700 Club.
Most of all, we need to not invest so much energy in fighting about a 20-year-old series of books, that we end up missing the much more real and direct attacks coming at us every day. To paraphrase my friend Dave VanVickle, who is one of the greatest experts on spiritual warfare I know, if you’re worried about the devil coming after your family, worry more about your cell phones than you worry about Harry Potter.
Five (Quick) Things I’m Loving
My beautiful new copy of In This House of Brede. (I decided I am of an age, where I am only buying hardback books now, if that’s an option).
The fact that after over a year of trying and failing to buy one, a swing set is arriving in my backyard in exactly four days. Please offer up a little prayer that the installation goes smoothly. My sanity this summer depends on it.
A fascinating article called Reactionary Feminism by Mary Harrington. It’s a couple years old, but Chris stumbled upon it this week, and sent it to me. The author and I disagree on some pretty important fundamentals, but there is lots in the essay that I am still chewing on.
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Polenta with Roasted Cauliflower Steaks and Bacon—a recipe I concocted on the fly for dinner this week. It was a huge hit with everyone, including the pickiest Chapman. I grabbed a picture half way through when I decided it was good enough to share with you. Hence the half-eaten state of my plate. But it really was delicious. I’ll share the recipe below.
Polenta with Roasted Cauliflower Steaks and Bacon
Serves 4 adults; Prep Time: 5 minutes; Cook Time: 25 minutes
.75 pound Bacon, thick sliced, cut into bite sized pieces
8 ounces Pancetta, cubed
1 large head of cauliflower
.5 cup slivered almonds
2 Tablespoons chopped sage
1 cup shredded Parmesan
3-4 cloves garlic, crushed
Kosher Salt and Pepper to taste
3 cups chicken broth
1 cup heavy whipping cream
.75 cup instant polenta
.5 cup shredded Parmesan
2 Tablespoons Butter
Kosher salt to taste
Preheat oven to 450 Fahrenheit;
Slice cauliflower in half, then cut off leaves; carefully slice cauliflower into slabs, approximately 1-1.5 inches thick; arrange on a parchment lined baking sheet; drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper; bake for 20 minutes; when the timer goes off, shut off the oven, open the door and scatter .5 cup of Parmesan over califlower; shut the door and allow the parmesan to melt as you finish up dinner.
While cauliflower roasts, cook pancetta in a frying an until it begins to crisp and release its fat; remove pancetta and a small amount of the grease; keep warm in a bowl covered with foil;
In the same pan, fry the bacon until crisp; using a slotted spoon, remove the bacon from the pan to bowl with pancetta and continue to keep warm;
Bring chicken broth and cream to a boil;
While the broth boils, add almonds to the pan with bacon grease; cook over medium heat until they start to brown; throw in sage and cook 1-2 minutes more, making sure the almonds don’t burn; using a slotted spoon, transfer almonds and sage to a plate lined with paper towels;
When broth is boiling, slowly, slowly, slowly add in polenta, stirring continually to avoid lumps. Once the polenta has thickened to the point that it starts pulling away from the side of the pot (about 5 minutes), remove from heat and stir in butter, Parmesan, and salt (I usually start with a teaspoon and add more if needed);
Divide polenta up on plates; top with cauliflower slices; bacon and pancetta mixture; and toasted almonds and sage. Enjoy!
P.S. If you haven’t yet, do listen to “The Witch Trials of J.K. Rowling.”. It’s mostly about the intense opposition Rowling has encountered from transgender activists, but Megan Phelps-Roper’s interviews with Rowling are so illuminative about the character of Rowling herself, and I think quite helpful for dispelling some of the unfounded rumors about her and her books.
P.P.S. If you read all the way to the end of this marathon edition of the newsletter, you must have liked it at least a little bit. If so, I would be so grateful if you could share it with anyone else who you think might enjoy it.
Thank you for this!!!! After listening to a certain podcast a few years back, I rashly followed the advice of a certain priest and pitched all my hardcover Harry Potter books, only to reflect a few months later on that fact that my siblings and I all loved reading them, had discussion groups together before the new books were released and are all 11 of us active, practicing Catholics still…
Thanks for tackling such a touchy topic, another reason why I’m card-carrying member of the Emily Stimpson Chapman fan club ;)
Emily, this is one of your best newsletters yet. Your commitment to Truth is strong, and your logic is clear. I especially appreciate your nuance in recognizing that while Harry Potter may be a worthy book for most, it may be unhealthy for a few. Bravo!