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Aerial sports and Harry’s magic around every corner


Just when you think you know someone, you discover she has run off with a myopic teenager named Harry Potter. Harry is a struggling student of wizardry at the unrenowned Hogwarts School of Sorcery (school motto: “Never tickle a sleeping dragon”) somewhere in the English countryside. One cannot be jealous of Harry. His folks, after all, had been killed by the evil Voldemort, a maladjusted wizard. Harry is forced to live with the Dorsey’s -- his aunt, Petunia, and uncle, Vernon, and their wormy son, Dudley, muggles (non-wizards) all. Indeed, for 11 years, Harry’s room was a tiny closet at the foot of the stairs -- and he never had a birthday party. He couldn’t play a sport but he was the Tiger Woods of broomstick riding and the star of his Quiddich (a broomstick game) team.

I can’t really blame my wife Jean for going over the edge. She has been living on oatmeal for decades. With Harry, she has found new friends, aerial sports and magic around every corner.

I followed her around the house, dressed as Jesus, the muscled, sword-wielding Pant-ocrater who took over after Jesus the Good Shepherd got benched during Constantine’s reign. With my holy water bucket and aspergillum in hand, I read paragraph 2117 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church to her over and over again. “All practices of magic or sorcery,” the First Commandment chapter said, “by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others ... are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion.”

“Shut your gob,” she said as she mounted her mop handle, with Volumes I through IV of Harry Potter’s adventures tucked under her bathrobe.

“Repent, you blasphemous egit,” I said. And I gave her a dose of Galatians. “Now, the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery ... and the like. And I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the Kingdom of God.”

“Oh, shove off, dung brain,” she said, sounding just like Harry Potter’s friends who now had her soul in bondage. Then she took another bite out of her purée of stoat sandwich and flew off.

The local super-Catholic radio station waived its copyright in the hope that its earnest listeners would copy its Harry Potter broadcast and distribute it to any soon-to-be-lost soul. Orphaned Harry and his disordered friends were destroying family life and virtually everything else under the sun, including the Republican Party platform.

A distinguished professor at the University of Chicago, where Hittite is the language of choice, called J.K. Rowling’s prose “garbage” -- a sure endorsement of good writing. Fundamentalist ministers on television sprayed warm spittle on their Rolex watches as they fulminated over the diabolical books. Catholic News Service gave the simple, uncomplicated, fun books a gentle review, focusing on the author and her Presbyterian faith. Most diocesan papers didn’t pick it up.

“Divination!” I screamed at Jean.

“Constipation!” she yelled back as she delved into Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire -- 734 pages of wizardry and lessons from Hermione (Harry’s girlfriend) on how to remove frog guts from under one’s fingernails.

It all brought me back to my youth, circa 1938, when the fabulously successful movie “The Wizard of Oz” was released. It was based on Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which sold about 5.6 million copies before 1956 when the copyright expired and other publishers picked it up. Baum wrote 13 sequels to Wizard -- all fantasies for children -- and the world did not collapse. J.K. Rowling is only a little different from J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings), C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia), Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland) or J.M. Barrie (Peter Pan). Children learn to sort things out.

J.K. Rowling has three more episodes planned that will take Harry through puberty. Churchmen are already shaking and practicing how to pronounce “Gomorrah” with a good hissing background.

Somehow, the reaction to Harry Potter has become symbolic of many sides of Christianity closing in upon itself. Branches of the ancient tree of Christian belief are petrifying. Some Protestant sects are denying ordination to women just as we Catholics have done. Recently, the church has reaffirmed its denial of the Eucharist to divorced people who remarry without an annulment. Homosexuals just got another rebuke from John Paul II who seems to prefer absolving guys who tried to kill him. Diocesan papers are filled with the third promise of Fatima, a dark and hell-centered prophecy.

Gradually, the open windows through which John XXIII hoped would waft a healing breeze are closing. Slowly but surely, Catholic discipline is echoing a tub-thumping, fundamentalist discipline that still measures skirt length at parish dances. (Are there any parish dances anymore? Heck, we’re lucky to have spaghetti suppers.) Now, even Harry Potter is suspect.

A pity. Sadly, if, through some bit of spiritism, Harry Potter and his friends were drawn to the church, it looks as if they would all be rejected unless they put their vivid imaginations in a parish that is under interdict for allowing kids to trick-or-treat on Halloween.

As for Jean, she’s in the kitchen, rolling pin upraised. She has turned into a pillar of salt.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is taking lessons in the dark arts. He’s at unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000