Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Michael O'Brien vs. D. G. D. Davidson



I am now beginning the process of preparing the essay for which this blog was created. I decided to write a blog in the first place because I wanted to write a counterpoint to Michael O'Brien's atrociously researched essay, "The Problem of Harry Potter: Harry Potter and the Paganization of Children's Literature" and present mythology from an angle both more positive and, I think, ultimately more Catholic.

For the most part, I've scrupulously avoided discussing Harry Potter on this blog. I think the novels may prove ephemeral in the long run; nonetheless, they are a hot topic in Christian circles. I believe this is because there are essentially two views within Christianity on the subject of myth and fantasy. As I hope to demonstrate, the two views are not as different from each other as they at first appear. Rather than choose one view and oppose the other, it is my intent to reconcile them.

I don't consider myself a Harry Potter fan, much as I enjoy the novels while reading them, but they are now the axis on which this debate within Christianity turns, and so when I take to discussing the subject directly in the near future, I will do so by discussing the Harry Potter novels and O'Brien's writing, specifically.

I wish my discussion to be thoughtful, gracious, and well researched. For that reason, I'm now collecting books on Christian views of Harry Potter as well as related works of prime importance, though it is now impossible that my reading on the subject could be exhaustive. I cannot put a date on the upcoming essay.

For now, I will leave you with the following hypotheses, which will show you the angle from which I intend to approach the subject:

There are within Christianity two views of mythology and closely related modern speculative literature. On the one hand is a point of view inherited primarily from J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Many Christians who take the view of these authors read Tolkien's "On Fairy-Stories" and a smattering of Lewis's writings and come away satisfied that they have the Christian view of mythology. It is unfortunate that popular Christian thinking on the subject has essentially fossilized with these authors. Their view can be summarized as follows: pagan mythology, which contains many elements similar to Christianity, resulted from the myth-makers' divinely influenced ability to perceive ultimate reality. I strongly suspect this viewpoint is heavily influenced by the writing of psychologist Carl Gustav Jung.

The recognition that Christianity has parallels in world mythology and non-Christian religions is not new. The Church Fathers knew of it, and most, though not all of them, Lewis tells us in his Reflections on the Psalms, believed it resulted from the influence of demons who revealed forbidden truths before the time allotted by God. This view is more-or-less similar to that of those Christians who regard mythology as something evil to be avoided.

I say these two views are not as different as they appear. Both see myths as the result of spiritual influence. Both see myths as containing truths. And most importantly, both see Christ as the fulfillment of the myths.

G. K. Chesterton became Christian partly because of what he, in his book Orthodoxy, calls "the ethics of fairyland." C. S. Lewis became Christian largely because of his love of Norse Mythology. Lewis's brother Warren became Christian after gazing at a statue of Buddha. My own trip to Catholicism also followed the road to the Church that leads through Faërie. As Tolkien warns in "On Fairy-Stories," this is a hazardous road with many traps and pitfalls, but it is also a road with many special boons.

The debate within Christianity is not over whether or not parallels between Christianity and pagan religions and pagan myths exist. That debate is closed for anyone with eyes to see. The debate is over whether the world is primarily full of darkness or primarily full of light. The debate is over whether Christian parallels and the myths that contain them are good or sinister. On the one hand, Lewis and Tolkien hold them to be good, and sometimes they may have taken this view too far; Lewis, for example, wrote that he was tempted to worship Apollo in Greece, and in Perelandra he suggests (facetiously or otherwise) that sacrificing to pagan gods is acceptable in some circumstances.

On the other hand, today's enemies of Harry Potter see demons (and worse, neo-Gnostics) around every corner. Were they consistent with their own views, they would have to attack Lewis and Tolkien on the same grounds they attack Rowling, for Rowling is only repeating what her masters did before her. In fact, if they were really consistent with their own views, many of them would have to cease being Christians, for many of the arguments against Harry Potter are based on the error that the division between Christianity and myth is so sharp that no commonality exists between them.

It is the opinion of The Sci Fi Catholic that the two views must be wedded. There are in the universe both good and evil, light and dark. Myth should be approached neither naïvely nor unintelligently. Whether the truths contained in myth actually derive from a spiritual source or derive only from the myth-makers' close examination of the world, they contain--and we should expect them to contain--the bright elements of goodness in humanity that reflect the imago dei as well as the dark elements of evil that reflect the distortion of that image. The reader who drinks from the well of myth drinks from a very deep well containing all of human experience, thought, wisdom, folly, and choices of every kind.

Scripture is replete with mythology. Hagiographies are replete with mythology. The Christian who denies myth denies his religion. Even the Protestants who sought and still seek to strip myth from Christianity have not and never will succeed. The key is not to avoid myth but to approach it with fear and trembling, by which I mean approrpiate respect and appropriate discernment. If we do so, we can both avoid the excesses of the Inklings and the abysmal deathtrap worldview of the Harry Potter critics.
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