Michael O’Brien responds to his critics regarding Harry Potter

July 27, 2011 by  
Filed under Patrick's Blog

Among the odd things I’ve seen in the Catholic world, one of the oddest is the capacity of some Catholic Harry Potter fans to go zero-to-60 on the manic meter instantaneously at the mere suggestion that there might be something spiritually deleterious about HP. Someone who’s done more than suggest this is Canadian Catholic author and artist, Michael O’Brien, earning himself some, at times raucous, push-back from those who disagree with him.

I’ve known Michael personally for about 16 years now and know him to be astute, prudent, humble, deeply intellectual and, to be frank, a sage in the area of Catholic spirituality. In my estimation, his critique of HP, while unpopular with most HP-lovers, is bang-on-the-bullseye accurate. (Some years ago, he and I recorded a two-hour discussion of the problems involved with the HP phenomenon that showcases his lucid and compelling reasoning on this issue.)

My guess is that because Michael’s critique of HP is more sophisticated and substantive than many of the arguments I have seen mounted in defense of it, he gets under some people’s skin when they realize they can’t invalidate his analysis. One also notices at times a sharp contrast between the calm restraint which characterizes Michael’s presentation and the asperity of some who attempt to rebut him.  In any case, as reported the other day by Lifesitenews.com, Michael O’Brien has recently taken the occasion to rebut the rebutters.

The July 18 LifeSiteNews story, Harry Potter expert criticizes Vatican newspaper’s glowing review of Deathly Hallows 2, was widely read and elicited many comments both pro and con, especially regarding the statements of Potter critic Michael O’Brien. In response to this, LifeSiteNews conducted an additional, in-depth interview with O’Brien to allow him to expand on his views and respond to some of the many comments readers posted beneath the story.

In the interview O’Brien explains why he became involved in critiquing the Harry Potter series, his views on why the series has become so popular and the astonishing and at times hateful criticism that Potter critics have received, such as O’Brien himself being called “the anti-Christ” by a Potter fan. O’Brien also answers the question of what he means by “the evil means” used by Harry to defeat Voldemort, why Harry Potter is not just “entertainment”, why it is appropriate for LifeSiteNews to cover the Harry Potter issue, how Rowling’s pro-homosexual views may be reflected in the novels, and more . . . (continue reading)

UPDATE: See also Lifesitenews.com’s July, 2005, article: Pope Opposes Harry Potter Novels – Signed Letters from Cardinal Ratzinger Now Online

 

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29 Responses to “Michael O’Brien responds to his critics regarding Harry Potter”
  1. Stephanie says:

    I think the main problem here (and obviously people are open to disagree) is that “magic” in the HP series is not Wicca or any other pagan religion.
    There are just certain people who are born with these “magic superpowers,” and they are not normal humans dabbling in the occult. They’re a completely different “species” if you can call them that.
    Sure, Catholics believe in witchcraft and sorcery, and we believe it is evil. And it is.
    However, if magic in HP were simply to be rewritten as “superpowers” or “special abilities” would we really be having such a problem?
    I understand if parents don’t want their children to read these books, and they are more than welcome to forbid them to their children.
    However, I find O’Brien’s argument focuses too much on HP fans being addicted to the series (which is true in many cases, but not all), and that we defend the series solely on the basis of “well it makes me happy” which is also not always true. Many of us HP fans DO see the flaws and the immoral behaviour depicted in the books, and sometimes we wish the author had made better decisions. We understand that Rowling tried, to the best of her ability, to create a world where good is praised and evil is condemned (as far as she knew). She is not a perfect human, therefore she does not create perfect literature.

  2. TDJ says:

    Greetings from Afghanistan, Pat:

    I’ve just finished Mr. O’Brien’s book and I find it sobering and right on the mark. He really makes one think and see new things from his perspective. I am partial to Mr. O’Brien and his books, and avid fan.

    I’m also happy to know that I’m once-removed from Mr. O’Brien. I mean, I’ve met you (by phone and e-posts) and you know him, so I’m once removed from him!

    +JMJ,
    -Theo

  3. GK Prayer Warrior says:

    Having said that (as for my third comment), where HP departs and LOR (Lord of the Rings) succeeds is precisely illustrated by the Great Eagles (which appear enough in LOR) and the Owls (mainly seen in HP.) If you will for the sake of analogy and metaphor, the Great Eagles seemed to succeed at Moral Theology and Theological virtue. Whereas, the Owls (on the comparitive) seemed to image where the story held on those natural virtues and non-theological moral’s. You can take account of Frodo who called on the name of Elbereth (a god of middle earth) when he was battling with a blackrider (and by calling the name, the blackrider was conquered: listen to Kreeft’s audio presention on LOR: http://www.peterkreeft.com ) As for HP, I didn’t notice (at least from the movie’s standpoint) HP calling on any god of the world in which Hogsworth existed. Another difference is Dumbledor and Gandalf. Gandalf did suffer, die, and came back as Gandalf the White (rather than Gandalf the grey. The passion and resurrection) Dumbeldor, from what I can tell, had died and there wasn’t anything Christological about him. Not to slight the story, but the story’s proportionate and worthwhile good falls more on the lines of a good story and the basic moral truths and naturaly deposited virtues. So, in this case, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong in so far as you can tell LOR is written with the case of moral theology and a truly Christological characterization in comparison to HP which is a good story upon the merit and attention to basic moral principles and virtues (where the Great Eagles and Owls depart.)

  4. GK Prayer Warrior says:

    In comparing HP on the scale of moral’s and virtues, HP has a solid friendship regarded between each character (liken to the fellowship of the dwarves, the hobbits, elves, and men in Lord of the Rings.) Each one works to save Hogsworth (much like saving middle-earth) and to assure the students are not left to the evil’s of slitherin (I’m not sure of the correct spelling.) Because, slitherin has compromised the residence and the good of the faculty to the dark arts (evil. Similar to the temptation in the Garden.) As for the author’s incentives and personal reflections, she may take a good story-line and drive it towards some ideal’s which can be flawed (i.e. an attachment to a character in the story, personal views on same-gender tendencies, and so forth.) You can even see Dumbledor (again I’m only spelling as best as I can pronounce) lose his life because in a sense he has helped HP and his friends as well as falling into the compromises of slitherin (which gets the better of him.)

  5. GK Prayer Warrior says:

    HP has a story-line written by the author herself (what’s in her book.) The movie, which is the elaboration of hollywood and how it affects the audience, will not necessarily follow a word-for-word basis of the actual story. You can see this in Lord of the Rings. For instance, Tom Bombadil doesn’t even appear in the first movie. But, you can beg a question about and compare moral’s (what is moraly right and moraly wrong.) The Lord of the Rings story (as well as the prelude of the Hobbit) are filled with moral’s to which J.R.R Tolkien intended and the catechesis of salvation. In the Hobbit, Gandolf is going to commit the act of the good shepherd when he faces off the whargs and goblins (except the leader of the Great Eagles saves him, the dwarves, and Bilbo because of Gandolf healing the Great Eagle from a life-threating arrow.) Also, (if you listen to Joseph Pierces CD on Lord of the Rings) Gandolf is interstingly similar to the Castle Gandolfo (the pope’s summer resience) and Stryder who is rightful heir of the family of Aragorn has a lastname similarly sounding to Catherine of Aragon (King Henry the VIII’s first and rightful wife.) Thus, you can look at the Lord of the Rings and compare HP.

  6. peppin the short says:

    But now, because Harry has died and resurrected, the Elder Wand obeys him. NO! The reason is because Potter had won the wand from Malfoy, Check your facts before presuming to criticize and show the way…

  7. G.R. Mead says:

    The Pope’s judgment is hardly unequivocal, and there are indeed “subtle seductions” possible. I suspect that may be observed of more than one heresiarch claiming the Bible as authority.

    But both miss the point — and Mr. O’Brien misstates the facts. Harry is not resented as a Christ figure — he like every other character is far too flawed — and he is explicitly NOT resurrected. Dumbledore’s image quite plainly answers Harry’s question “Am I dead? He says, “On the whole, I think not.” He even confirms that it is all happening in Harry’s head, but that does not make it unreal.

    Magic in HArry Potter is a strict allegory for our technology and it uses and abuses — Magic for that Ahrry Potter world is quite along the lines of Clarke’s Law: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

    But more critically, the True Magic requires no wand, witch or wizard to effect its complete protection — it is Love, self-sacrifice for Love of one’s friends is the supreme magic — the deep magic of Lewis– in that world — as it in this one.

    To miss that is to utterly miss the point of the whole tale and each element in it. J.K Rowling has done a better and more subtle job of preaching the “unknown god” to our present heathen young and old — than any catechist Mr. O’Brien may approve of.

    And the sad fact is that until that proto-evangelical message reaches the present and largely godless generation — the real Good News never will.

  8. sam says:

    I might suggest to Mr. O’Brien that he check w/Cardinal Ratzinger who as Prefect of the Doctrine of Faith carried on a correspondence w/the author of the Harry Potter series himself having read them. It could be very interesting to discover just what the conclusions of PBXVI aka Ratzinger can to regarding this series of Harry Potter as to the faith.

    • Interesting that you should say that, Sam. As it happens, I updated this post yesterday with an additional link to the documentation of the Cardinal Ratzinger’s correspondence with someone about HP. You’ll see it above.

  9. Joe says:

    An issue I take with saying that the magical elements of HP are bad because it is presented as fun (or some similar statement) is that it doesn’t seem to have any bearing on reality. In the book the characters wave a wand and say a magic word, which is not anything like how real people unfortunately involved in the occult actually attempt to perform “magic”. I remember when I started reading the first HP book ten years ago and the extent of my attempt at “magic” was picking up a stick and saying one of the words. It obviously didn’t work, so even at the age of 9 it was clearly possible to see that HP’s magic isn’t real. Without the natural ability to discern between fact and fiction we would all be dead.

  10. Chris says:

    Patrick,

    As a pseudo-fan of the books (I think the message is generally good and the stories well told but the writing mediocre), my biggest problems with Michael O’Brien’s critiques are not their nuance (John O’Callahan’s defense of the books is far more naunced, as is, to some extent, Steven Greydanus’) but their apparent willingness to misrepresent what actually happens in the books. Virtually every problematic element that O’Brien notes — with the exception of magic as such, which I think is a failure on his part to understand the nature of imagination — is simply not there on a fair reading.

    I realize that he is a friend of yours. But please don’t misrepresent the reasons he draws the ire of fans of the series. It isn’t because he is too nuanced and so we have no response. It is that he does not appear to approach the table in good faith. An honest debate about the books’ merit is warranted, and I will gladly engage anyone who wants to have that debate. But it has to start from an accurate depiction of what actually happens in the books, something O’Brien is unwilling to do.

  11. Andy says:

    Good Morning
    Having read the HP books, Lewis’ series, both of them, LOTR and fantasies beyond count I find the uproar about HP disturbing. I find far more problem with the Lewis Silent Planet Trilogy which speaks to “gods” of various planets, combines sorcery, and has violence much more problematic from a Catholic and Christian point of view. The Narnia series which is praised has equal parts magic and redemption built in. If any person can have his or her faith or morals corrupted by fiction than is it the fault of the author/book or does it lie within the person.
    A comment on Mr. O’Brien’s review – I did not find it that sophisticated or substantive that it got under my skin or confused me in the least. He is expressing his opinion, a well-written opinion, but an opinion none-the-less. I found the comment made saying it was overly sophisticated to be demeaning of those who responded. I might also add that eh comment about the vehemence of the HP defenders is matched by the vehemence of the HP attackers. Neither side is blameless in that regard. To be honest we should all think before we type – should I want to hear that about myself? That is where the potential for damage comes from. Since he says his critique is about potential – an interesting word – why has Mr. O’Brien not said anything about the potential damage of LOTR, Mr. Lewis’ Silent Planet Trilogy or Narnia or the Left Behind series or the list is most likely endless. .
    I am not defending the HP series, or any series – I enjoy fantasy and know that it is fantasy. My daughters enjoy fantasy and know that it is fantasy. My son disdains fantasy. because he knows it is fantasy. In this case the conscience of the reader must come into play. By the way the person who started me reading fantasy was a marvelous and blessed priest who gave me my first G. MacDonald book.

    • Kathleen says:

      Andy,

      It’s quite true that Lewis’ Silent Planet series has far more dubious points than HP. The idea of soul or god of each planet has always troubled me. The Narnia books are heavily evangelical, with a couple of doubtful areas, but more orthodox and more engaging.

      The idea that the attack on HP is “overly sophisticated” for the (apparently stupid) HP fans is at best tactless. I teach college English.

      HP is in a very good moral tradition, including LOTR, Narnia, Alcott, Stevenson, Kipling, and Burnett. It isn’t magic that rewards the characters, but loyalty, truth, honor, and love. The Sorting Hat produces the sword of Gryffindor twice, not by the waving of wands, but by the power of love and loyalty, first Harry’s defence of Dumbledore, then Neville’s defence of Harry’s memory and ideals.

      Some may prefer childrens’ books dedicated to how Susie arrived at menarch, or Johnnie joined a gang, written with a vocabulary of 25 words, most of them vulgar. I prefer something more imaginative and idealistic.

    • Meredith says:

      “why has Mr. O’Brien not said anything about the potential damage of LOTR, Mr. Lewis’ Silent Planet Trilogy or Narnia or the Left Behind series or the list is most likely endless.”

      As a matter of fact, O’Brien HAS criticized the final book in Lewis’ Silent Planet Trilogy.

  12. Professor L says:

    O’Brien mistates the reason Harry has the Elder Wand. It has nothing to do with his ‘resurrection’ but rather is won in a battle with Draco Malfoy. Mr. O’Brien needs to fact check before he criticizes for such blatant ignorance of a key event in the story will cause any good point he may make to fall on deaf ears, or worse, open him up to the accusation of deliberately misrepresenting the books.

  13. Luke says:

    I think people of good will can and do disagree on this issue. St. Augustine said, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”

    I couldn’t possibly add more to what St. Augustine said than to point out that this anti-potter business is completely rediculous.

    Many electrons have been seriously inconvenienced by the many blog posts on this debate from all sides, but not much else has come from it.

  14. Charles says:

    I have to say that criticism of Harry Potter by us Catholics who do not criticise the Lord of the Rings is rather two-faced. Anything not of reality taken too serious can be a problem. However, the criticism of Harry Potter has more to do with the author’s personal views than the theme of the books themselves.

    • Ismael says:

      Lord of the Rings (LOTR) first of all is an allegory of Catholic faith, as Tolkien intended it that way. This is even more clear if you read the Silmarillion, where Tolkien further explores his fantasy world.

      Second: in LOTR there are no kids teens and dashing wizs “playin’ magic”. In LOTR the ‘Wizards’ are Maiar who have taken human form. Maiar are angels of Eru Iluvatar (God)… which is a parallel to the Old testament where we read several times that angels appear in the form of men (To Abraham or Lot, for example)

      Elves use ‘magic’ (if you can call it that), but Elves are an unfallen race and immortal (since they cannot die of natural death like sickness or old age)

      Grima Wormtongue uses magic (his Leechcraft, probably granted him by Saruman) and indeed he’s one of the ‘bad guys’.
      Or the Nazgul… who are not even longer human, but currupted into ‘undeath’, literally shadows of their former self.

      People can use the magical powers of the One Ring, but they are utterly corrupted by it (like Gollum who used to be an hobbit)

      Hence: your comment is utterly inappropriate.

      Now I am not an anti-Harry Potter person. I never read the books and I have seen only part of the movie, which looked a bit too childish for my taste (but that is only a matter of taste), so I dare not say if HP is good or evil.

      In any case in HP, clearly, young children and adolescents dabble in Magic, making it look like it’s fun, probably (at least in the piece of the movie I have seen).

      This also makes them in a sense ‘magical super heroes’ with ‘magic’ as a super power.

      [Compare this w. LOTR where the true heroes: Frodo and Sam, have no powers, are meek and weak... and they defeat evil by renouncing power (the Ring) not using it]

      Now since magic is so prominent and so much used by young people in HP I can fully understand why some parents and some people are worried.

      Now these worries might be fully exagerated, and it might be true JK Rowling also wanted to tell a ‘allegorical Christian story’, still such worries are understandable.

      • Charles says:

        Thank you for your kind comments. I have read every Tolkien book and even speak a bit of Quenya. Why? Because I am a geek. Thank you for explaining my favorite mythology to me.

        Calm down buddy. Clearly you don’t understand the themes behind Harry Potter. Your entire argument is purely polemical, and lacks understanding. You are part of the problem.

      • Meredith says:

        Marvelously geeky, but not completely accurate. LOTR is not an allegory of any kind–every good Tolkien geek knows that the man “cordially disliked” allegory and prefaced LOTR with “it is neither allegorical nor topical.” He *did* call it a “fundamentally religious and Catholic work” elsewhere, but the catholicity is deep down and never blatant. (There is no Aslan in LoTR.)

        It is true that legitimate magic is mostly confined to non-humans in Tolkien. But honestly, the wizards and elves are human in appearance and behavior, and humans and elves can marry and have children. How is this setup morally different from Rowling’s Muggles and Wizards? Sure, they are all human–but Muggles (ordinary humans, that is, us, the audience) have no capacity for magic, while wizards are simply born with the power to make things fly, disappear, or glow in the dark. They are not Rosacrucians or Wiccans–they are more like the X-Men or Spiderman or Luke Skywalker. Or, you know, the Elves.

  15. Jane says:

    I am sorry Mr. O’Brien, whose novels I love, has been the object of ad hominem attacks. I don’t think he’s wicked or the anti-Christ or the Christian Taliban.

    I do, however, think he is obtuse when it comes to the HP books. It is for example, simply untrue that the HP ethos is that Voldemort must be fought by Voldemort’s methods.

    On the contrary, in a parallel w/ Lewis’ concept of “deep magic,” Harry’s “magic” transcends Voldemort’s because Voldemort is a utilitarian and Harry, through a series of personal purgations from book to book, has to learn to live by Love alone –and indeed Love is what redeems any character in the books who is saved. This is not wishfully “reading in,” this is explicitly stated again and again.

    Harry does not kill Voldemort at all. Voldemort hurls a death-curse at Harry which rebounds and kills him. Voldemort doesn’t see that coming –even though Harry explains it and urges him to open himself to Love just a little bit– because he does not understand the “deep magic” of Love and rejects it utterly. Evil comes back to destroy its perpetrator, who, by rejecting Love, has missed the meaning of existence.

    Dumbledore’s youthful relationship with a male sorcerer is not a tragedy because it was unfulfilled, but because it led him to neglect his sister, leading to her tragic death. Dumbledore profoundly regrets the entire relationship, not it’s lack of fulfillment.

    One could go on and on with examples where O’Brien seems almost deliberately to misread things. This rebuttal doesn’t address the specific points of disagreement, it simply asserts anyone who defends Harry must be in the thrall of “entertainment” and unable to make penetrating moral judgments. Bollux! I just don’t find O’Brien’s analysis true to the actual content of the books, nor particularly penetrating.

    • Elisa says:

      Thank you Jane! I couldn’t agree more.

    • Meredith says:

      Thanks for the wonderful post, Jane! Another objection from O’Brien that really had me speechless was the idea that there are no decent father figures in the series. This is why he makes people angry. I started reading HP when I was 13, and as the books continued to come out and the series grew with me I was greatly moved by Arthur Weasley, the strong and loving father of a large family who takes in the orphaned Harry… by Remus Lupin, the professor who teaches Harry how to fight the Dementors and deal with his suffering… by Harry’s father James, who dies defending his wife and infant son from Voldemort, and whose memory is constantly before Harry, inspiring him and filling him with longing. Some of the most powerful scenes in the books involve Harry’s father. In Book 1, when 11 year-old Harry looks into the Mirror of Erised and sees his heart’s desire: his parents. In Book 3, when the Dementors are closing in and his Patronus miraculously appears and drives them away, having assumed the shape of a silver stag–the symbol of his father. And then a critic who has decided from the beginning that HP is going to represent the mainstreaming of paganism in children’s lit. flips through the books and says that fatherhood is somehow being subverted.

      The scene with Harry’s patronus has always struck me because it is so similar to a scene that Michael O’Brien put in “Plague Journal.” In that novel, a numinous white elk watches over the fleeing family as they are sleeping. And in another book (can’t remember now), O’Brien writes a vision of a white stag fighting a dragon and shedding its blood across the kosmos. So… if you pick up on the Christian symbolism of the white stag in O’Brien, you have ears to hear and are a good Christian reader. But if you find Rowling’s white stag to be a numinous, suggestively Christian symbol, you are being “superficial.” This makes me terribly sad, and I hope that one day Mr. O’Brien will recover from his spiritual allergy. Because that is how it strikes me: just as the body’s immune response can overreact and attack bits of dust and pollen, thinking they are harmful pathogens, our spiritual sensors can detect the queasy incense of the occult in an innocent fantasy novel. I’m not sure what the cure is…

  16. Jim says:

    Mr Patrick:
    Have you noticed in recent years there is a trend to redefine evil? They call sorcery and witchcraft good or bad in HP, Abortion (Killing Children) is now called Pro-Choice, Sodomy is called equal rights. There are white witches around who claim to do only good things. The list goes on and on but I won’t you get the idea.
    The more of this “redefinition” that happens the more thankful I am Catholic and belong to this “Old Fashion” Church that knows truth and faithfully passes it on.
    Thank you Jesus for starting this Church and hanks to the Holy Spirit for guiding her through time!

  17. Cesar says:

    Hi Patrick!

    What do you think of Steven Greydanus (from decentfilms.com) and his take on this?

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