Another week, another story about how Harry Potter books are being publicly burned by Christians. This time, the group in question included African tribal masks as well as some other objects in their bonfire. So at least it wasn’t only books. Never mind that it was in Poland, and the Polish, more than most, should remember how much the Nazis liked to burn books.
I’m actually not trying to start an angry discussion in the comment section. (Even if that’s what it looks like). Many of you will know that plenty of Orthodox would applaud the Catholic priest mentioned above. Rather than get into the question of whether or not your children should be allowed to read Harry Potter, I’m taking a different approach. What if there was an accessible Patristic approach to secular culture that could work in a variety of situations?
Actually, there is. And it provides us who wish to help create Christian culture with some useful ground rules for both consumption and creation of non-religious culture.
Saint Augustine’s On Christian Teaching
One of St. Augustine’s lesser-known works is a wonderful short book titled On Christian Teaching. It is a handbook for Christians who would like to become saints. Most of it is focused on how to read the Scriptures productively and throughout one’s life. But St. Augustine, being an erudite man, considers many aspects of a Christian’s life, including, thankfully, how a Christian should engage with pagan culture.
You might be surprised at how “liberal” he sounds:
We should not avoid music because of the associated pagan superstitions if there is a possibility of gleaning from it something of value for understanding holy scripture…We were not wrong to learn the alphabet just because they say the the god Mercury was its patron, nor should we avoid justice and virtue just because they dedicated temples to justice and virtue…A true Christian should realize that truth belongs to the Lord, wherever it is found, gathering and acknowledging it even in pagan literature.
This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who pays attention to how the Holy Fathers relate to pagan culture. After all, in some churches even on Mount Athos, you can find frescoes of Plato (without a nimbus, naturally) in the narthex. It’s a position of respect given to a philosopher who recognized much of Christ’s truth, even before Christ’s coming.
Mentioning vs Teaching
St. Augustine gets even more specific and useful in his assessment:
To analyze the matter more closely–and it is something of the greatest importance–there are two kinds of learning pursed even in pagan society. One consists of things which have been instituted by humans, the other consists of things already developed, or divinely instituted, which have been observed by them.
He then goes on to talk about how superstitions are dangerous, because their entire purpose is to incline a person to either worship demons or worship nature. But one sentence in this long passage against the evils of superstition is interesting: “Something instituted by humans is superstitious if … it involves certain kinds of consultations or contracts about meaning arranged and ratified with demons, such as the enterprises involved in the art of magic, which poets tend to mention rather than to teach.”
This is important in the Harry Potter case, because it is clear that St. Augustine (as indeed any cultured, intelligent person) recognizes that to mention something is not the same as to actively teach it. In other words, even if the magic that is described in Hogwarts were possible in the real world (hint: it’s not, it’s fantasy), the mere fact of describing it, and reading that description, does not actually mean that the author is a Satanist, nor does it mean that if you read it you are subjecting yourself to demonic influence.
But wait, there’s more…
We must in turn consider those human institutions which are not superstitious…All things which are meaningful to humans just because humans have decided that they should be so are human institutions. Some of them are superfluous and self-indulgent, others are useful and necessary.
So, without further ado, I present:
St. Augustine’s Rules on How to Engage with Secular Culture
St. Augustine writes on this at length, so I will summarize his main points and use the Harry Potter example for reference.
1. Make sure there is no actual contract with the devil involved
Here he speaks explicitly of interacting with objects and texts that are supposed to give the practitioner power of the world around him. Things like amulets and books of spells. Harry Potter doesn’t fit, because it’s fiction, not a handbook of magic. And the magic described doesn’t actually involve invocation of demons.
2. Distinguish between what is superfluous and self-indulgent and what is useful and necessary
This is extremely important, and also very difficult. Many might say that Harry Potter and fantasy fiction at large are self-indulgent by their very nature. But insofar as they are a kind of fairy tale, Tolkien certainly would argue for their importance. As would I.
3. If a pagan or secular writer says something true, its truth is not invalidated by the fact that he or she is pagan/secular.
Another good rule, except in the Harry Potter example it doesn’t really fit, because Rowlings is a professed Christian, although of a somewhat liberal and haphazard stripe, it is true. But she’s not a pagan, Satanist, or militant atheist. Still, this rule is generally a very important one, and one that some people tend to forget.
4. Mine the gold in secular culture, but put it back to the service of Christ
Can fantasy be used in the service of Christ? I believe so, and I argue for it in on my author website. I won’t add to it here, except to say that there have been very conservative and pious Orthodox people who have tried (somewhat successfully) to do this with Harry Potter.
5. “In all these subjects, the watchword must be ‘nothing in excess’ “
This is one that all of us forget far too often. And it can be applied to both sides of the Harry Potter debate.
6. Never forget that no matter how useful pagan/secular knowledge is, it pales when compared to the knowledge contained in divine scripture
That is something that I believe none of us consider enough. Everything we culture creators do should ultimately help lead others to the study of scripture. If we believe in that Light that is so Lovely, we should never forget that the clearest source of it already exists. It’s called Scripture. St. Augustine, no matter how much he valued the beauty found in some pagan culture, always calls himself and his readers back to the one thing needful.
I hope that the conversations that come about as a result of this blog will go a long way to make this step easier when considering cultural and pop-cultural phenomena, both in specific manifestations and at large.