Inspired by events in Madrid and the fabulous work of David J. Hughes and the St. Mary Schola, author Kenneth Killiany has updated some reflections on Harry Potter, teens today, and the state of education for our Catholic youth.
Looking back across the last decade, one remembers how young people lined up for two monster hits of 2002, Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. The movies were different: Harry Potter is “serious fun;” The Lord of the Rings is based on one of the monuments of 20th Century Literature.
Yet they had three very important things in common: they reflected the Christian beliefs of their authors, they dealt with the spiritual world, and they were hits with the kids, especially boys. This should tell us something about the kids, and why our youth programs have so much trouble attracting them.
Teenagers were then losing themselves in the journeys of Frodo and Samwise–and Harry, Ron, and Hermione. We did not even know how Harry would make it to adulthood. The series began as a desperate attempt by a single mother on welfare to break free, and this American has to say simple “hats off” to J.K.Rowling’s success on that score. But it was thoroughly innocent writing. She came up with a great plotline, but the early books are merely fun and a highly realistic portrait of “tweens,” however odd the situation.
The magic was never more than a very fun plot device, and she never once fell into the trap of the Zen-like relativism of the frighteningly amoral “Force” in Star Wars. In Harry’s world, good people did good things as best they could and bad people did bad things…as best they could. Rowling is a Christian, of the liberal Protestant variety, but serious in her thinking. She sought to add depth as her craft got better. She clearly knew Tolkien well by the end, and the last two books have the children, in an entirely believable way for their ages, debating every single important moral issue a parent could hope for. She has just one daughter, but Harry ended up being perhaps the most realistic boy in literature since Tom Sawyer, and that inspires more than a little respect. (I am particularly fond of the book where he is furious no one is telling him anything and is treating him like a child. “If we tell you,” Ron says at one point, “you aren’t going to start shouting again, are you?” Sound familiar, anyone?)
But Harry, alas, has passed on to be part of the cultural wallpaper, still there to be found, but not front and center anymore. When the last Harry Potter film hits DVD, that’s it. He has been followed, for girls, by Twilight and now countless imitators, all of which have always struck me as emotional pornography. For boys, what is not actually pornographic is simply violent and degraded: games set in lawless worlds, or blood splattered movies whose “Medieval” themes are just backdrops. None of what enthralls kids these days seems to have any moral content whatsoever, and the spiritual content is the wrong kind. And really, weren’t the Lord of the Rings movies and the whole Harry Potter phenomenon just a welcome respite in a long downhill slide?
At the age when our kids’ heads are filled with the grandest visions and most romantic ideas, when life to them seems like nothing so much as a string of endless possibilities, when they are straining to prove themselves worthy of the high calling that they feel deep within, we offer them lectures on…hygiene.
These are indeed the decisive years for moral instruction: teens are just beginning to understand the full reality of life, and they feel the tension. They are eager to spread their wings, but they want us there during the unavoidable crash landings. Adolescent life is almost nothing but “teachable moments.”
Yet to teach them, we must meet them as they are. Kids live in an eternal present. We cannot convince many youngsters that their actions have consequences because their experience is so limited. All they feel is the power of their growing bodies and minds. Even the best kid is going to feel most strongly the presence of those who are with him at the moment.
Our children often do not have very good company. Kid culture today is not the usual “running around time” that traditional cultures, in their wisdom, grant their children. Think of the ads now run by the once-conservative Coors, or how so many teenaged singers go so quickly from professions of traditional religious values to being just one more raunchy act. A kid party today is not something that can get out of hand. It probably begins out of hand.
The Apostle Paul began his letters with lengthy explications of mystical doctrine. This was not a mistake, nor was it “socially constructed.” The doctrine of the Incarnation was, as St. Paul says, a “scandal” to the ancient mind. It is true enough that no one “talks that way” these days, because no one has ever talked that way without the light of the Gospel.
John Paul II was the most successful youth minister ever. It is worth listening to what he says about moral education, in one of his greatest gifts to us, Veritatis Splendor (The Splendor of Truth.) “This effort (in moral instruction) by the Church finds its support—the secret of its educative power—not so much in doctrinal statements and in pastoral appeals to vigilance, as in constantly looking to the Lord Jesus…In a particular way, it is in the crucified Christ that the Church finds the answer.” (Section 84)
He reiterated this point in his beautiful Apostolic Letter on the Rosary. “Inasmuch as contemporary culture, even amid so many indications to the contrary, has witnessed the flowering of a new call for spirituality, due also to the influence of other religions, it is more urgent than ever that our Christian communities should become “genuine schools of prayer”. (Section 5.)
That powerful teaching was echoed by Cardinal Paul Poulard, in presenting a fascinating Vatican document on “New Age” spirituality. He noted, “People who adhere to New Age (thinking) have authentic spiritual thirst and the Church should ask itself why they are looking elsewhere.”
If you want your child to think about something other than what his friends, the culture, and his body are telling him at this second, show him Jesus. Parents cannot be there at every moment, but Jesus can. Far, far better that your child knows that he or she is accompanied by Jesus, the Lord our God who took the form of sinful flesh, yet without sin. “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.” (St. Matthew 28:20.) That is more comfort and security than even the most diligent parent can offer. Christian morality makes no sense without the person and the real presence of Jesus Christ.
Instead of mumbling embarrassedly about the rites of the Church, confidently fill the youth program with all the mystical stuff you can: Eucharistic adoration with lots of candles and incense, rosary recitations with Scripture readings and songs, frequent confession with serious priests, long evening Masses with beautiful music.
The music is very important. Why give them relentlessly chirpy, upbeat songs when they themselves are experiencing the full range of human emotions on such a grand and immediate scale?
And, most importantly, give them intensive Bible studies that concentrate on the mystical. As a troubled teen, I loved the combination of the heavenly and the practical in St. Paul’s letters. Who has caught the reailty of teenage—of human—life better than the he did in Romans 7 and 8? A child who struggles over the paradoxes in First John or James is a child who has had an introduction to life in Christ.
True enough, successful youth programs depend on dedicated adults who pray, in the words of the Liturgy of the Hours for Christmas Week, “that the mystery of the faith that glows in our spirit would shine forth in our works.” But children and youth workers are part of something larger, that is, the Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. When children are growing into fully formed adults, they should be introduced too all of the great gifts that God has granted to His children.
Or we can give the kids lessons on personal hygiene and wonder why they are all at the multiplex.