Friday, December 26, 2008

Twilight, Harry Potter, and Christianity

The recent film Twilight, based on the popular book (which is part of a best-selling series of books) by Mormon author Stephenie Meyer, aimed at teen-age and pre-teen girls has caused quite a stir.

Twilight is a teenage love story between a mortal girl and a vampire. Christians debate one another, sometimes harshly so, about whether this story is a virtuous pro-life tale of chivalry and chastity, or whether it is a destructive ode to seduction, unhealthy obsession, and the occult.

Similarly, the Harry Potter books caused a ruckus in the Christian world when they became a cultural phenomenon, with one camp arguing that the book series lauded dishonest, selfish behavior and normalized the occult and encouraged youngsters to dabble in spells and witchcraft, while others countered that the books, written by a Christian author, simply used magic as an innocent literary device in order to teach a moral of good and evil and to make reading fun and popular again among young people.

So, what are Christian parents to do? Is there anything to the argument that such pop-culture expressions of storytelling have to do with the demonic, or is this rather just fundamentalist raving?

A book that I found both helpful and eye-opening was written neither by a Protestant fundamentalist nor by a confessional Lutheran, but rather by a conservative traditionalist Roman Catholic named Michael D. O'Brien. O'Brien is a self-educated Canadian artist, novelist, and literary and social critic from Ottawa, Canada. He is also good friends with our own Rev. Dr. John R. Stephenson, a Lutheran Church - Canada (LCC) seminary professor and editor of the Confessional Lutheran Dogmatics series (the LCC is a spin-off of the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod, and our two communions are in fellowship). Though O'Brien has no formal academic credentials, Stephenson (who has degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham) holds O'Brien in high intellectual esteem as a churchman and thinker.

O'Brien's book, A Landscape With Dragons, was written in 1998 and published by Ignatius Press. It is a gripping read which is basically 166 pages of analysis of the symbolism of traditional western storytelling - especially the realm of children's stories - and how that tradition has been impacted by postmodernism. The latter third of the book is actually a suggested reading list for Christian families, grouped by age.

Mr. O'Brien's website has a good bit of his essays and lit-crit in addition to displaying his artwork. Incidentally, he also designed the cover art for the recent book of poetry by another LCC pastor, the Rev. Kurt E. Reinhardt called My Light and My Salvation - which I'm hoping to read and review soon.

On page 20 of Landscape, O'Brien tells of an incident at the Natural History Museum in Ottawa, involving the visceral reaction of his one-year old to the museum's T. Rex on display. When Lion Boy was the same age, the Hollywoods were in Ottawa (Mrs. H.'s home town) and we visited the same T. Rex in the same museum (Mrs. H. was a frequent visitor in her childhood). Leo's reaction was exactly the same. O'Brien uses the anecdote to introduce the reader to the ubiquitous symbolism of the dragon in literature - as well as his own theory of the dragon's literary origin.

Fascinating stuff, and truly helpful for Christian literary enthusiasts and parents.

Anyway, the book is a bargain, and though it would be nice to have a new edition, it is still an eye-opener that is even more relevant today a decade after its publication.


Christopher Gillespie said...

Thanks for the heads up (as I enjoy a fresh pot of Bean's Christmas blend).

Father Hollywood said...

Dear Christopher:

Good for you! I hope you're enjoying your beans from Beans as much as the Beanes. A blessed new year to you!

George said...

Bit of a late comment here. Only 9 years on & all. As one involved in Harry Potter fandom, the main issue I kept seeing over & over again was not anyone being led into witchcraft by Harry Potter but many being led into progressive liberalism. I know several people who used to be fairly reasonable people & mostly orthodox Christians who are now raving liberal loonies. Several have even jettisoned the Christian faith.

Granted, I don't think the stories themselves can necessarily be blamed for that. I think there was a lot of projection onto them by younger progressives. Unfortunately in recent years the author has shown herself to also be a liberal loon.

But for all that, there is deeper beauty & meaning in the Harry Potter stories than even the author herself perhaps realized. If Harry Potter truly stands the test of time, it won't be because many take it to be a social progressive manifesto. Instead it will be because of the deeper themes: Friendship, self sacrificial love, and the question of how one faces death.