Harry Potter: Good for Everyone (Even Christians)

God, save us from stupid Christians. Groups of "imagination challenged" believers have, over the years, decried thebooks as dangerous to believers.
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God, save us from stupid Christians. Groups of "imagination challenged" believers have, over the years, decried the Harry Potter books as dangerous to believers. Too many people of faith (who I suspect have never read the books) libel J.K. Rowling's imagination as a work of the devil. Not true.

First, the Harry Potter books do not teach children to practice magic. In very British style, one is born magical. We muggles cannot be or become magical. Muggle kids reading the books can no more practice wizarding like Hermione, Ron and Harry, than I can cast a spell and apply for Prince William's job. The children at Hogwarts are able to practice magic. Children not born with magical abilities can't play Quidditch, just as I cannot divine next week's lottery numbers.

Second, Harry Potter's very existence is due to the self sacrificing love of his mother. Nancy Carpentier Brown in her article "Can Catholics Read Harry?" (Our Sunday Visitor, July 8, 2007) writes: "The deepest, most powerful expression of good in the Harry Potter books is the self-sacrificing love which Lily Potter, Harry's mother, showed in protecting her infant son from Voldemort, offering herself as a substitute for her only son's life, and ultimately giving up her life. Her loving sacrifice is a charm powerful enough to prevent Harry's death as an infant, and this love also saves him in his encounters with Voldemort in school." Brown goes on to point out that the children leave for Hogwarts wizarding school at King's Cross station intimating that the cross changes the direction of our lives. She goes into greater detail about these matters in her book The Mystery of Harry Potter: A Catholic Family Guide (2007). You can read Brown's article online at the Our Sunday Visitor website .

Actually, the Potter books are filled with very good moral prescriptions for children (and adults). The basic themes and story lines all teach that we must develop and hone our talents and abilities, and place them in the service of good rather than evil. Most importantly, for today's overly individualistic kids stuck in their own little iPod worlds, Harry has to reach out to others, form friendships, follow the advice of mentors, and generally grow as a person in relation with others in order to fulfill his role in the community. And a great vocation that role is: confronting the power of evil by guarding the magical world from "the one who shall not be named," Voldemort, the wizard who has turned from the path of good and right, using his powers to spread evil.

The stories' basic plot lines are as old as humanity. Rowling's books tell the tales of a flawed and imperfect hero who is called upon to save us all from powers malevolent. Harry's adventures fill our imaginations and call us to struggle to be our better selves. Kids reading about Harry learn they must work hard to become the persons we need them to be, self-sacrificing persons, doing what needs to be done in order to make the world a place wherein all can grow happy and healthy and holy and free. There is certainly a connection between today's young adults willingness to engage in significant service work and their having been raised in the glow of the Harry Potter stories.

J.K. Rowling's (rhymes with "bowling") books have sold some 325 million copies, and this Friday evening, parties at book stores across earth will be more magical than anything she ever dreamed up as a young mother on the dole in the U.K., as she began to pen the Potter books in a coffee shop. Even more unearthly was her decision to package the books as big 700-page reads. The publisher of The Lord of the Rings insisted the books be put out as a trilogy, fearing no one would tackle a 1,000 page tome. Publishing seven fat books, rather than dozens of slimmer 100 -150 page "kids' books" means Rowling actually lost money (hard to believe when one notes she's now richer than the Queen of England!). Instead of seven $20 - $35 volumes, imagine being a parent and having to shell out $12.95, 25 or 30 times, for each successive Potter adventure.

The real magic, or miracle, of Rowling's Harry and crew is that they actually got kids to read. The astonishing achievement is that Rowling persuaded people to read in a land where we watch TV on average four hours and thirty five minutes daily (accessed Sept 21, 2006). Morris Berman reports in his The Twilight of American Culture, "Roughly 60 percent of the adult population [of the USA] has never read a book of any kind, and only 6 percent reads as much as one book a year" (Berman, 2000, p. 36). According to Berman, 120 million Americans (of the 272 million in the USA circa the year 2000) are illiterate, or read no better than 5th grade level (Berman, 2000, p. 36). In 2004, a National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) survey, "Reading at Risk: A Survey of Literary Reading in America," reported that reading was down in all groups studied. The worst rate of decline - 28 percent - occurred in the youngest age groups. The head of the NEA, Dana Gioa, stated: "This report documents a national crisis. Reading develops a capacity for focused attention and imaginative growth that enriches both private and public life. The decline in reading among every segment of the adult population reflects a general collapse in advanced literacy. To lose this human capacity - and all the diverse benefits it fosters - impoverishes both cultural and civic life."

This is the cultural situation in which Rowling has gotten millions of kids to crack 700-plus page books. I clearly remember my nephew Christopher curled up with the second Harry Potter book. I asked what he was reading. He said, "It's Harry Potter." I asked, "Who's Harry Potter?" Chris looked at me, as if I'd just emerged from a coma, and said, "Harry Potter? You haven't heard of Harry Potter? He's way cool." This came from a kid who, at the time, didn't like to read. Chris is now in college. Thank you Harry and J.K. Rowling

Time magazine's Lev Grossman opines that the missing character in the Potter series is God (Time, July 23, 2007, p. 15). I disagree. The God I believe in transcends this world, and must be listened for in silence and sacrament, community and challenge. The God who is love wants us to freely choose to love one another, and make a peaceful and just world for one another. This God is mysteriously present whenever good stories are told. In the same way that God is not directly mentioned in that other great storyteller's parables, e.g., "The Prodigal Son" or "The Good Samaritan," God is not directly mentioned in Rowling's stories of Harry and Dumbledore. The real God of life and love comes to us mediated in all that is beautiful, good and true, as are the stories of the child wizards and their teachers at Hogwarts. That presence of God is the real miracle to which Rowling's opus points.

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