Harry Potter and the Two Standards
No, that's not the title of the latest book about Hogwarts. A hearty H/T to Celia Wren at Dotcommonweal for pointing out this terrific piece by Michael Paulson (who got unfairly lambasted for using the word--gasp!--"wafer" instead of "host" in a fine article on Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament in The Boston Globe.) Here's Paulson is on the curious phenomenon of how Harry Potter (who had been previously condemned by a few Catholic hierarchs and other religious leaders) has won over the Christian world:
For several years, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series topped the American Library Association’s lists of the most-challenged books (reasons cited in 2001: “anti-family, occult/Satanism, religious viewpoint, and violence”). Evangelical Protestants were skeptical: would the positive depiction of wizardry mislead children? And some Catholics were worried too, ranging from Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), who warned that “subtle seductions” in the text could “corrupt the Christian faith,” to the Rev. Ronald A. Barker, a Wakefield priest who yanked the books from his parish school library.
But over the last several years, religion writers and thinkers have warmed to Harry - both Christianity Today, the evangelical magazine, and L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, have praised the latest film. The Christian Broadcasting Network, home of Pat Robertson, now features on its website a special section on “The Harry Potter Controversy,” with the acknowledgment, “Leading Christian thinkers have disparate views on the Harry Potter products, and how Christians should respond to them.”
At the same time, scholars of religion have begun developing a more nuanced take on the Potter phenomenon, with some arguing that the wildly popular series of books and films contains positive ethical messages and a narrative arc that is worthy of serious scholarly examination and even theological reflection. The scholars are primarily interested in what the books have to say about the two big issues that always preoccupy people of faith - morality and mortality - but some are also interested in what the series has to say about tolerance (Harry and friends are notably open to people and creatures who differ from them) and bullying, the nature and presence of evil in society, and the existence of the supernatural.
Well, thank heavens is all I can say. As a big fan of the books and the movies (though the last movie was looooong and daaaark) I could never fathom how otherwise intelligent Christians could miss that the stories are about, um, good and evil. To use some Ignatian language, it is the perfect fictional representation (or at least as good as you can get outside "The Lord of the Rings") of the "Two Standards," meditation from the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius--with Harry and his loyal pals on one side and Voldemort and all his pomps on the other. In the Exercises, St. Ignatius invites the retreatant to consider "how Christ calls and wants all under His standard; and Lucifer, on the contrary, under his." The Two Standards is primarily a meditation on how those two "sides" work in our lives. The "Harry Potter" series enables us to contemplate the same, using the now-familiar characters of Harry, Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore and Hagrid; not to mention Voldemort, Malfoy and Snape: how evil and good work, how they look, how they seem, how they feel, how to recognize them. (Just look at that last grouping of names, for Pete's sakes, if you have any doubt of the underlying themes of moral good and evil: I mean, Malfoy?) Plus, the Potter books they have Quidditch and the Pensieve, which the Spiritual Exercises do not (at least in my translation.) On the other hand, the Spiritual Exercises only takes four weeks, and those Potter books take, well, an eternity to read.
James Martin, SJ