On Children's Literature and Pope Benedict XVI

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The post that follows should probably be at least two different posts, but it is what it is. Someday perhaps I'll tease apart these two strands of thoughts that have converged here, but until then--this post. I'm much, much too busy repeating my vacation in my head as I walk around the neighborhood to be bothered with such things as making any sense.

Much cyberink has been spilled over the Holy Father's supposed statements about Harry Potter, and it has given me pause to reflect.

I am exceedingly grateful that the Holy Spirit saw fit to fill the vacancy left by the death of John Paul the Magnificent so rapidly. However, unlike much of St. Blogs, I haven't been overwhelmed with the person who was chosen. I'm sure those who are pleased have good cause to be, but as hard as I have tried, Cardinal Ratzinger's works simply haven't spoken to me the way JPII did. This is a difference of style and certainly not a fault of either the Holy Father or me--one person's style simply means more to me from the get-go than another's. That is a fact of human nature. However, I've never been a rah-rah fan of Benedict XVI. Nevertheless, he is now the Holy Father and due submission of will and intellect when pronouncing infallibly on matters of faith and morals, and due reasonable leeway in considering pronouncements not made infallibly.

However, when the Holy Father speaks outside his realm of expertise, he is due no more deference than any other critic. On the matter of Harry Potter, it is fairly clear to me that the Holy Father made a completely unremarkable statement that could be made apropos of any popular work of literature--to wit--"There are things in popular literature that subtly (and not so subtly) misconstrue and misrepresent things we know in faith to be true. These things can mislead, and the danger of their misleading ability is more severe with those more innocent of things in the world." This is an appropriate evaluation and correct not only for Harry Potter, but for John Grisham, Michael Crichton, Stephen King, and any number of popular writers.

However, I do maintain that I am not required to submit either intellect or taste to the opinions of Benedict XVI in literature. Had he said that Claude Simon was the most sublime author ever to have walked the face of the Earth, with the wisdom of the ages and the intellect to match, I would find Claude Simon no more readable to me than before the pronouncement. I might be inclined to seek him out and see what the Holy Father liked in the work--but I would neither be required to nor feel particularly obligated to. If the Holy Father were to say the Fractal Mathematics were somehow contradictory to the faith, I would not be inclined to take such a comment seriously until he had demonstrated an extensive and incontrovertible understanding of Fractal Math.

Thus, the Holy Father's pronouncements now or before, in the matter of literature are of vanishingly little concern to me. If I agree already, I would likely nod my head, if not, I wouldn't give the matter second thought. If the Holy Father does or does not like Harry Potter, it is of little moment. If he definitively states that reading these books is contrary to doctrine and faith, then I would be required to pay attention. As that has not happened, and I have yet to read anything that informs me of the Holy Father's understanding of the mechanics of literature and in particular children's literature, I find nothing of moment in his cautionary statement. I suspect that he comments on the books only from what he has heard of them, not on first hand knowledge.

That leads me to another little matter, which is the problem of Michael O'Brien. A passably good author in his own right, his opinions and understandings of children's literature are highly suspect. I've read his book and found that most of his points strike me as highly inflammatory and somewhat paranoid. He does a great disservice denouncing nearly everything in children's literature because it leaves undifferentiated things as disparate as A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter and the Prison of Azkaban, and The Golden Compass. To my mind, this does not help prepare the parent already frightened enough of the world of children's literature, but rather puts obstacles in the way of the legitimate enjoyment of what is not truly harmful. He is, of course, entitled to his opinions, but I find them fractious, unsupported, and uneven. Moreover, I have no confidence in his judgment of literature as the list of works that he would approve include things even more problematic than those that he would dismiss. For example, his endorsement of Gene Stratton Porter's A Girl of the Limberlost with its overt and very ugly racism (although despite these elements it is a fine book) leaves one wondering if the only evil in literature is the introduction of any part of the element of magic. So, too, with his listing of Earl Biggers Derr and its stereotypical portrayal of Chinese and the truly deplorable "Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club" with its very ugly racist overtones. I'm getting too close to being polemical here, and I need to back off. But when I see O'Brien sited as a source for anything, my instinct is to immediately ask what his credentials are for making any pronouncements about the good or harm that is done by the working of fantasy in literature. When Peter Pan is approved with its implicit message of the goodness of not maturing and L. Frank Baum is disapproved (one assumes because of the presence of witches and enchantment) one is left to scratch one's head in bemusement. The list of suggested children's literature is so wildly uneven and idiosyncratic that the only unifying factor seems to be an implicit bias against anything that might mention magic, witchcraft, or enchantment.

But enough of that matter. I have said, and will continue to say, that children exposed to literature with appropriate adult intervention will likely come to no harm because of it. How many of us went on to blow up cars or leave horse's heads in beds because of reading The Godfather at an early age? Children should be protected against a great many things, but I'm not certain that Mr. O'Brien always chooses the best things to ward off. I'd far rather Samuel read Harry Potter and learn about working for the oppressed than read the racial slurs present in many books of the past. I'd far rather he read Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn than other similar literature.

I guess my point is that we need not be so afraid of these things in literature. Objecting to Harry Potter on the basis of magic is less good than objecting to it on the basis of it being substandard writing and literature. And given what most adults read, this is hardly a valid objection at all, because nearly every adult author is worse than Ms. Rowling in any number of ways. The harm in Harry Potter comes from the fear of the things it discusses. Samuel knows at his age that he does not live in the world of Harry Potter and no number of spells or charms will do anything at all. But the thought engages his imagination and makes him think about things beyond human capacity--it directs his attention to the supernatural--to the realm of God and the Angels and it helps him to engage those concepts as well. He may not see God and the Angels in this world, but they are, in some way, real, just as Harry Potter is, in some way real. God is more real and there is greater evidence for Him, but Harry Potter can be an introduction to belief and understanding of things one cannot see or hold.

An attentive, engaged adult is a child's best protection against any possible harm in children's literature. It is the prerogative of any parent to choose what a child will be allowed to read while that adult is paying attention. But the reality is that when your head is turned, your children will be exposed to these things, and it were better that they were well prepared for it. For example, I see greater potential harm in the movie Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with its apparent implicit endorsement of "alternative lifestyles" (note the end conversation with Lupin) than with the book. But it is entirely possible that one's child might encounter this at a friend's house during a slumber party or just a day out. Give your child the weapons for understanding and interpreting--because attempting to shield him or her will most probably not be completely effective and you want him or her to be able to give good reason for what he or she believes. It is important that a child understand where Harry is convergent with faith and where what it says and teaches is divergent from our values. (Although honestly most Catholic Children I've encountered who have read the work already know this quite clearly.) Every film they encounter, every television show, every work of popular culture will be to some degree at variance with the teachings of the faith. It is our job to use those things that engage them most to teach them how to recognize these subversive threads. We disarm the harm when we teach the children what we value--I think we extend the harm when we do not teach them how to deal with these things they will encounter. I think about a statement made by a friend of a friend, "The problem with Orthodox Judaism is that they value education just enough to teach the children to doubt the faith." Good education teaches a child to engage ideas in a way that allows them to consider the points and retain the truth. This must be done at the appropriate time, but shielding will often fail--if not in the home or at any early age, possibly later, with entirely more devastating effects.

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Good day at the plate, Steve. 3 for 3 with 2 doubles and a homer. Yep, double down the left field line on the pope vs Harry kerfluffle, and another screamer down the right field line on children and literature. I'm sure some would say the long ball to center just bounced over the wall, but I've tried to read O'Brien, and even if he jumped, your hit was way over his head. They may have to consider hitting around you ... .

How many of us went on to blow up cars or leave horse's heads in beds because of reading The Godfather at an early age?

Horse head in an enemies bed, definitely, although I have recently been thinking about our neighbors' pit bull rather than a horse. Other than owning said monster, these people really have not done anything to deserve the horse head in bed.

Blowing up cars always seemed a bit tacky, even as a kid.



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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on July 24, 2005 6:36 PM.

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