Years ago, after I first read The Screwtape Letters, I liked to quote often the two epigraphs Lewis included before his preface. The first, taken from the "table talk" of Martin Luther, ran thus:
The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.
The second, from St. Thomas More, is in very much the same vein.
The devil… the proud spirite… cannot endure to be mocked.
There is, of course, a certain amount of great wisdom contained in these quotations—although, for a young man just setting out on a path of growth in the spiritual life, there may have been a bit of what Freud called Verleugnung (sort of a species of denial) involved in my attraction to these adages. Indeed, the second quotation, given as it is in truncated form and contextualized by the Luther bit, might be mistaken to mean something quite different from what Saint Thomas More intended. In its original context, the Saint was speaking about the perseverance with which a virtuous man rebukes temptation: how the devil will eventually give up tempting him rather than risk being "mocked" by his continual refusal—or worse, cause the virtuous man to attain even higher merit in warding off stronger diabolical assaults.
Apart from that potential misreading, thought, there is another manner in which the wisdom of these quotations must be taken with a grain of salt, and balanced by broader perspective: because it seems there are at least some times when the devil delights in being mocked, and we have all seen evidence of this recently...
I'm talking about Harry Potter. Or, rather, I'm talking about the recent news stories that have been picked up all over the secular as well as the religious press about a Catholic school in Tennessee which has pulled the fiction of J. K. Rowling's Wizarding World from its library shelves at the insistence of the priest responsible for spiritual care of the school who himself was acting on advice from exorcists he consulted.
As quoted by FOX 17 News in Nashville, the priest explained his reasoning in this way in an email [emphasis added]:
The curses and spells used in the books are actual curses and spells; which when read by a human being risk conjuring evil spirits into the presence of the person reading the text. The books also glorify acts of divination; of conjuring the dead, of casting spells among other acts that are an offense to the virtue of religion – to the love and respect we owe to God alone. Many reading these books could be persuaded to believe these acts are perfectly fine, even good or spiritually healthy.
Now, forgive me, but this is—to quote Hagrid—"codswallop, in my opinion."
For starters, let's go back to our quotations from Luther and More. This reading of Harry Potter gives the devil far more credit than he deserves. The sphere of influence that demons are allowed by God is not quite so broad as that waving a stick around while in a game of pretend and uttering Latin gibberish might unwittingly summon Pandemonium to break loose. As to the potential counterargument about darker examples of magic portrayed in the text—the necromantical resurrection of the Dark Lord Voldemort, for example—saying that a reader might be dangerously allured to try such things is like arguing against Crime and Punishment that it is liable to turn an unwary reader into a nihilistic ax-murderer.
There has always been a temptation (ironically) in some strains of spirituality to over-emphasize the role of the diabolical. Yet Scripture and Tradition identify three sources of temptation to sin, namely the world, the flesh, and the devil. We do believe (at least, those of us who aren't the Jesuit Superior General) in the reality of (a) personal devil(s), whose goal it is to tempt us into sin and draw us away from God. But we also know very well that the allure of the flesh and inordinate worldly desires are ever-present dangers to our spiritual welfare.
Saint Peter reminds us to "be sober and watch: because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, goeth about seeking whom he may devour" [1 Pet. 5:8]. But nota bene: the first temptation here is to become lazy and drunk, which makes us easy prey for the devil. Even in this warning about spiritual warfare the paradigm is set out that the world and the flesh present a primary danger before we begin worrying about the devil.
So, that's the positive wisdom contained in the quotations we began with: don't give the devil more than his due. But I mentioned an ancillary bit of wisdom against which this must be balanced, the insight that there are some circumstances in which the devil properly likes being mocked. The simple way of putting this is as the corollary: there are times when the devil is given less than his due, and this must be avoided as well. Remarkably, the instant situation about Harry Potter hysteria manages to error on both sides of this carefully balanced view!
It was Baudelaire—or maybe Keyser Soze—who famously quipped that "the devil's finest trick is to persuade you that he does not exist." All the foregoing demonstrates sufficiently that I don't quite agree with this estimate, but I will allow at least that this is one of the devil's tricks. And as far as I can tell, a great strategy the devil deploys for accomplishing this trick is when he inspires religious over-zeal about things demonic and occult among some believers in a way that becomes a kind of scandal or stumbling block to the world at large.
This isn't a new phenomenon. The "goth" fashion fads of the '90s, the Satanism-is-in-your-own-back-yard hysteria of the '80s, Kool-aid and Jonestown in the '70s, Charles Manson in the '60s... all the way back to actual burning at the stake and crushing between stone slabs of not-really-witches in the 1690s. This isn't to say that there weren't some "goths" who were genuinely diabolical, much less that Jim Jones and the Manson Family weren't clearly evil; it is only to say that when reasonable caution or even fear spill over into frenzy and hysteria, it runs the risk of a worthy concern becoming an easily-dismissed laughing stock. To put it more simply and directly, the bottom line is this: insofar as we really are worried about people falling prey to Satan, we should probably focus on much more obvious ways that people open themselves up to diabolical influence—like pornography or New Age religion—rather than the reading of kids books about magic.
Finally, and lest this post be taken simply as some kind of endorsement or even praise of Harry Potter, a word on what I think is the value—and what are the dangers—of that particular imaginative work.
Having read the entire Potter series more than once, I find a lot to be admired in it. For one thing, it's simply fun to read: it's charming and fun fuel for the imagination, and that's something I think modern kids glued to screens and devices are sorely wanting. I also think there are aspects of Harry's (and other characters') heroism and self-giving love that are edifying and inspiring.
That having been said, I don't recommend parents simply hand these books to their kids and have them read without any supervision, conversation, or instruction. I think reading along with the kids and discussing some of the themes that come up, and providing criticism where need be, is the way to go. For example, Harry and his friends have a tendency to always be into something they shouldn't be and not to seek adults' help, sometimes even evading grown-ups' "interference." This is not an admirable quality, and this can be pointed out to kids. For that matter, the adults in the series are woefully irresponsible toward Harry at times—and I'm talking about Wizarding adults, not just the Dursleys—and this is the flip side of the coin of the theme of distrust between adults and kids that arises throughout the narrative.
There are other (at least potential) weaknesses and problems to the text that wary parents will want to talk about with their kids; here are just a few off the top of my head:
So, to summarize: I think Harry Potter needs to be approached with reasonable caution and critical scrutiny, but not with fear and hysteria. The devil, that prowling lion, has plenty of ways to get into our homes without riding in on the dust-cover of a children's paperback. And the sad irony is that when we worry over-much about the devil in the details, we miss him in the larger and more amorphous structures he inhabits in our daily lives. On the whole, Baudelaire's fear about the devil making himself seem non-existent seems a less worthy paradigm to adopt than the recommended mocking of Satan by refusing him too much sway in our lives and in our thoughts and fears: because if we fear the devil in every little detail, not only do we not mock him, we end up mocking instead the sovereign power of God and the graced invitation to "be not afraid" He gives to those who believe in Him.
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