What Eyes Can't See
After my sampling, I decided to write a column warning against over-reacting and the fear of anything new, and essentially taking the position that magic and fantasy have more good to offer kids than bad. But before I could begin, I discussed the matter with a few wise and prayerful people who are readers of “the signs of the times.” So here I am, now, finally writing a column about hands-on parenting.
Whether it is the messengers of a transcendent Benevolent on Touched By an Angel and Mysterious Ways, or the legions of evil which are weekly vanquished on the WB network, the supernatural is very much in vogue in entertainment these days. Many people are alarmed by this as some new danger assaulting the culture.
As the Book of Ecclesiastes notes, “There is nothing new under the sun.” It is a sign of our unique dignity in creation that we human beings love to dwell on things we cannot see. It proves we are more than animals driven by merely physiological hungers. Despite the best efforts of the devil to distract us with the flesh and the world, human beings still believe in a spiritual dimension of existence. So, this entertainment trend is not just one more proof of the bad state of our sorry world, but actually a happy proof that we are after all still just God’s special sheep, albeit in post-modern clothing.
Still, the current popularity of witch and warlock entertainment among teens seems to go way beyond the normal human inclination towards religion.
For kids raised in the broken families that too often end up defining them, the most compelling fantasy in Buffy, Harry Potter and the like, is not demons and magic, but community. Buffy never gets through an episode without drawing on the frequently bungling, but always unconditional love and support of her pals Willow, Xander and Riley. Charmed is less about young witches than it is about three siblings whose love and care for one another cannot be prevailed against by the gates of hell. The same is true of Sabrina, Angel, Roswell, and of course, Harry Potter. Harry would have no appeal without faithful Ron and quirky Hermione backing him up through thick and thin. We are as much social beings as we are spiritual ones, and even more than they crave evidence of the supernatural, many kids today crave evidence of relationships that can weather every challenge and still endure.
A Good God
Secondly, as a wise old Franciscan once noted to me, “If we don’t give kids a good God, they’ll make themselves a bad one.” For whatever reason, many kids are not being given the good God. This problem is definitely in our own house in the Church. In twelve years of Catholic school, post Vatican II catechesis, I was not given a good God. My generation was victimized by an anti-intellectual trend that ended up making religion an irrelevant bore. Fortunately, I had parents who picked up the slack, but I was pretty much of a freak among my peers. Kids will not suffer a vacuum of spirituality. They will satiate their need to worship a power outside themselves with our guidance or without it. The attraction of the occult for many kids who don’t know better is largely a failure in catechesis.Part of “giving our kids a good God,” is exposing their imaginations to fantasy. This kind of entertainment has an important role to play in human and spiritual development.
I was raised on Grimm’s enchanted swans and sinister stepmothers, Arabian Nights full of flying floor coverings and Genie-wielding light fixtures, and lots of goodly wizards and witches like Merlin and Gandalf and Samantha of the twitching nose. On a merely human level, these characters enriched my childhood by adding mystery and color and high ideals of heroism and nobility, integrity and self-donation.
In terms of spiritual development, children whose imaginations have been stretched by fantastic worlds like Narnia and Never Never Land, can more easily accept the mysteries of faith.
Believing in the power of unseen fantasies like unicorns and fairy dust prepares little hearts to be comfortable with the power of unseen realities like how God could be in a fragment of bread, and how human souls can be transmitters to the heart of the Divine. The fairy tales I grew up with taught me to read symbols and value rituals, to believe that the impossible is very often probable and nothing is as it first seems. All of these are essential skills and tenets for young Catholics. Kids who are raised as strict materialists will always be scandalized by the unseen forces, like love, hate, fear and desire that drive the universe. As Chesterton noted, “Thoroughly worldly people never understand even the world.”
The Danger is The World
My sense is there is no qualitative difference between the conjuring of a fairy godmother on behalf of Cinderella that I grew up with, and that of Harry Potter for kids today.
What is different is the contemporary world that surrounds the youthful readers of Harry Potter. Beyond just the entertainment world, the West in general is currently wading through a “Paganism is cool” cycle. So, kids who might never have encountered the hair from the snout of a warthog, the standard ingredient of magic spells, now might very well stumble into a blue-light sale of them at the corner New Age bookstore. When I was a kid, witches dwelt exclusively in the realm of fantasy. Kids today are more than likely to have a proud Wiccan dwelling in Apt. 3C down the hall.
This is problematic not only because it may tempt some kids to dabble in magic but perhaps more seriously, because it drives the things of fantasy into the world of the mundane. This is the worst kind of arrogant materialism. Fantasy has a role to play that is completely interior. In What’s Wrong with the World, Chesterton makes a strong case for human life well laced with fantasy. “Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion.”
So parents, know your kids and what they can handle. For some kids, Harry Potter might lead to occultic practices. For most kids, however, Harry Potter can be part of a wonderful, healthy and rich childhood. It is too easy to avoid the near occasions of mystery, just in case they lead into dangerous waters. There’s too much at stake.
Barbara Nicolosi teaches screenwriting to aspiring Catholic writers at the acclaimed Act One: Writing for Hollywood. You may email her at [email protected].
(Originally published in LIGUORIAN Magazine, One Liguori Drive, Liguori, MO, 63057.)