Welcome, welcome to another guest this week. Sayf Bowlin is a Catholic seminarian and fan of the science fiction / fantasy genre who enjoys the interplay between faith, reason and pop culture. He has graciously sent along his insights on the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series for our conversation. Thanks for helping me with this subbing gig, Sayf!–Elizabeth
Percy Jackson and the Olympians:
My Two Drachmas: Some thoughts on the Series from a Catholic Perspective
by Sayf Bowlin, KCHS
When I was in middle school, I read ravenously, so much so that my bus driver used to call me “the Professor.” One of the subjects which I liked to read was Greek mythology. In my reading, I remember coming across a book in the school library which had an interesting conclusion. It said that at some point in the history of Greece, the Christians came with their crucifixes and drove the Greek gods away – but they were waiting until the day they could return. At the time, I thought this was very clever and liked the fact that it took Christianity seriously (so I thought), acknowledging that true worship of God banishes all idolatry (or so I thought). Another book I saw recently in a book store concluded with the proclamation that the gods “are still with us.” It would appear that this is the case, at least per Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series.
The basic premise of the series is simple: The gods of ancient Greek myth exist and have existed since the time their stories were first told. The events of “mythology” all happened and continue to happen in one way or other. The gods and goddesses can and still do have children with mortals. Poseidon, the god of the sea, sired Percy Jackson, a demigod hero who trains under Chiron the centaur at Camp Half-Blood because monsters are constantly drawn to the scent of half-bloods and so they need to learn to defend themselves. Oh, and Kronos, the father of the gods, is re-assembling himself after having been sliced into a thousand pieces by his own scythe and scattered in the depths of Tartarus. He is planning to throw down Olympus and the gods to establish a new age of the Titans. All in all, a good story to (re)tell.
Despite a recent motion picture release of a…creative interpretation of Percy Jackson and the Olympians: the Lightning Thief, this series does not seem to be nearly as popular as Harry Potter or Twilight. I could not help, however, putting pen to paper to express some thoughts on the series.
I picked up the books after watching The Lightning Thief and enjoyed them immensely. Firstly, they are very well done. The plot is good (although most characters or events are taken from the ancient myths). Riordan has done an excellent job of establishing the fictional premise “what if the gods existed today,” and his answer is quite entertaining. Secondly, although I have not heard any interviews or speculation to confirm this, I laud the fact that Riordan creates a reasonably flawed hero who must deal with real issues. I think that although his attributing dyslexia to the demigod mind being wired for Ancient Greek and ADHD to innate battle reflexes is a bit hokey, it works in the series and is, if nothing else, encouragement to those children who suffer these things. Lastly (and for entertainment purposes, most importantly) the books are witty. Riordan has a great sense of humor, which is especially well-presented in the first-person perspective of Percy as narrator. For example, the opening line of The Titan’s Curse is “The Friday before winter break, my mom packed me an overnight bag and a few deadly weapons and took me to a new boarding school.” Beyond the chapter titles (almost all of which are great jokes or word plays), an example of one line I especially like comes after Percy, having slain Medusa, is packaging the head to send to Olympus but is warned by his friend Grover, “They’re not going to like that […] They’ll think you’re impertinent,” to which Percy responds, “I am impertinent.”
But just as I now look back with horror on the conclusion to the mythology book from my middle school library, I am concerned about the Percy Jackson books. Before elucidating my specific concerns, I need to address the matter of the science-fiction/fantasy genre in general, and Percy Jackson’s place in it.
For those of us alive today, the piece of fantasy literature par excellance has been J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Although not “original” per se, it comes as a masterful culmination of millennia of story-telling. Its popularity speaks to the fact that something about The Lord of the Rings is really good, really true and really beautiful. Similarly, The Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis, has been an immensely popular series. Neither of these contain true religion (although Tolkien’s posthumously-published Silmarillion comes close to providing some theology/cosmogeny). Since The Lord of the Rings and Narnia, there have been numerous fantasy books which have their roots in Tolkien’s and Lewis’. With the publication of the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling, the genre has gained popularity again, with both young and old. While a fan of the Harry Potter books, I recognize that Rowling includes many pagan practices which are still around today. While religion is not practiced openly (neither paganism nor Christianity) there are also positive or neutral references to Christianity. The Harry Potter books are only a real danger for those who have nothing else to anchor their faith to.
The Percy Jackson books are different. There are almost no references to Christianity, not even passing cultural references. There are, however, many pagan aspects – after all, the books suppose the reality of the Greek gods. This follows in a disturbing trend: The Lord of the Rings/Narnia contain next to no worship or religious practices; Harry Potter and the like contain some, but are different enough that they should not be confused with reality by a halfway intelligent reader; Percy Jackson assumes the existence of worshipable deities and the hero makes these acts of worship. Without being an alarmist who thinks that these books signal the progressive damnation of everyone who reads them, I am still concerned that the general trend in fantasy literature, which a hundred years ago was practically innocuous or even laudable, has slowly begun to form the thoughts of readers in the wrong direction. It is one thing to be amoral or so empty that the reader is left no worse than when he started; it is quite another to direct the reader towards the idea that there are multiple gods. The following are some of the specific concerns I have.
The most glaring issue with the Percy Jackson books is the premise. In order to have demigods, there must be some form of adultery or fornication. Riordan thankfully does not overly stress this point, but it is impossible to avoid because it drives the plot of the series. The hero would not even exist if Poseidon had not become enamored with Percy’s mother. Most of the gods are “married,” therefore making their relations adulterous. While this is standard fare for the Greek myths, this does not make it good in any way. In fact, bringing the story into a contemporary society which has so many difficulties with marital fidelity and sexual promiscuity is not healthy.
And then there are the gods themselves. Even the ones who are not constantly fornicating/adulterating are either ill-tempered, selfish, moody or callous. Not one of them is worthy of imitation as a character – and mortals worship them – but they do so out of fear. Percy minds himself (sometimes) merely because he does not want to be reduced to a pile of ash. In fact, the plot of these books is driven by the fact that some demigods are supporting Kronos because their “divine” parents are neglectful of or cruel to them. There are gods who never once claim their children, much less parent them. What kind of image of divinity are young readers getting by reading these books? Certainly nothing that should be associated with the true God.
There is definitely not a developed theology in these books. From the start, when Percy first arrives at Camp Half-Blood and begins to learn what is really going on in his life, he has an exchange with Chiron (the three-thousand year-old centaur who trained the greatest heroes), about the gods:
“Wait,” I told Chiron. “You’re telling me there’s such a thing as God.”
“Well, now,” Chiron said. “God – capital G, God. That’s a different matter altogether. We shan’t deal with the metaphysical.”
“Metaphysical? But you were just talking about – ”
“Ah, gods, plural, as in, great beings that control the forces of nature and human endeavors: the immortal gods of Olympus. That’s a smaller matter.”
I do not know what Riordan’s intention is, but if he is trying to say that his stories are not supposed to be a commentary on the God, then I can excuse his intention but not what he actually does. Making an academic (even somewhat accurate) distinction at the beginning of the series does not negate all of the theology which will be absorbed by reading the rest of the story. Some examples will be helpful:
v The worst line of the entire series in terms of teaching the reader bad theology, is the assertion that gods can “lose faith.”
v Gods can apparently fade out of existence, as evidenced by the “death” of Pan, the Nature god. This is somehow tied with the belief in them by the mortals, which is the exact opposite of the reality. God keeps us in existence. If He were to stop thinking of us, we would cease to exist.
v The gods are incapable of saving mortals. Salvation of mortals is to be found in themselves. This is the most disconcerting part of the series, because readers who ought to be sent looking outside themselves for salvation in a transcendental being are being told to look back at themselves where, left to themselves, they will not find salvation. And if one does not find salvation, one will find the only alternative: damnation.
It would be easy to write an extensive commentary nit-picking the series. Both irritating and positive elements abound, such as Hera being described as “Queen of Heaven” (one of the titles of the Blessed Mother) or the fact that the daughter of Athena is generated by the goddess’ thoughts (an accurate description of how, within the Trinity, the Son is begotten by the Father). Such an analysis would be annoying to both write and read, and so I will refrain.
While I whole-heartedly encourage those interested in this genre who are looking for an entertaining read which will not tax them to read the Percy Jackson stories, I would recommend caution to parents who, unlike the gods, are concerned with the upbringing of their children. Everything we read will have an effect on us for better or for worse. It is never “just a book.”
 The Titan’s Curse, p. 1
 The Lightning Thief, pp. 186-187
 even though, in her defense, they are different enough from the real practices that a Christian reader with some maturity should not be led astray by them
 for example: Hogwarts has a Christmas and Easter break and Deathly Hallows is full of references, not the least of which are two quotes from scripture on wizard gravestones
 in fact, only two times do I recall seeing anything that even acknowledged the existence of Christianity: 1) one of the chapter headings describes Percy getting a Christmas present (without actually celebrating Christmas) and 2) a Televangelist goes to the worst part of the Underworld because of his hypocrisy; cf. the quote from The Titan’s Curse on how it is “winter” break and not “Christmas” break
 the most common example is the offering of the best portion of a meal to their parent (Lightning Thief, pp. 104-105 and numerous others)
 cf. The Last Olympian, p. 358
 “That God is changeless follows upon His infinity and His absolute actuality. What is changeable is, to that extent, perfectible, and God is absolutely perfect. What is changeable is finite, for change means loss or gain, increase or diminishment, and God is infinite. What is changeable is in the state of potentiality (the state of ‘can be’) and in God there is no potentiality at all; God is not in the state of ‘can be’; God IS. Therefore God is immutable or changeless. This does not mean that God is in a kind of frozen fixity. Changelessness in God is sheer perfection. It means that God is without any lack which a change could fill up, and that God is pure actuality which can suffer no loss by change.” A Tour of the Summa by Msgr. Paul J. Glenn, p. 11, summarizing St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae, I, question 9, article 1
 The Battle of the Labyrinth, p. 105
 The Battle of the Labyrinth, p. 314
 The Battle of the Labyrinth, p. 315