On Critical Reception of Harry Potter and Twilight: “It’s Deja Vu All Over Again” Part 2: Culture War

For Part 1 of this post, click here or just scroll down on the home page.

I’m going to return to the “academic elites” like Harold Bloom and drive-by mavens like Stephen King the day after tomorrow when I hope to detail the literary artistry and levels of meaning they neglect in their dismissal of the Twilight books as Harlequin romances. This morning’s echo of aspects of Pottermania in Ms. Meyer’s critical reception is less academic and aesthetic than cultural, as in ‘Culture War.’ The ever vigilant puritan arbiters of what is acceptable and edifying reading and, more to the point, what is not uplifting for young readers are on the march to link Bella and Edward’s love story with the occult as they did Harry’s Hogwarts Adventures.

This was predictable to the point of seeming inevitable. It remains, nonetheless, a sad confirmation of the pathetic state of critical thinking in our times. The academic mavens cannot get their heads around a book’s genre and popularity because of hoi polloi associations, which is to be expected from folks posturing as certified elites or ‘vigilants’ in matters of taste and literature. Much sadder to me is the inability of many thoughtful Christian readers to read a novel at any level other than its surface meaning and seeming moral message because of their social agendas.

I don’t need to review at any depth the history of ‘The Controversy’ for serious readers of Harry Potter. We all remember too well the years in which carrying Ms. Rowling’s books in public meant the strong possibility that friends and even strangers would feel obliged to ask whether we were aware the novels had an occult message and that faithful Christians avoided them. In many faith communities, it became a touchstone or litmus strip of biblical orthodoxy and orthopraxis to disparage the books as “gateways to the occult.”

The Harry Haters ran the spectrum from risibly frenetic (Berit Kjos of Crossroad Ministries defining this end) to the velvet glove of literacy on the steel hand of the culture warrior (think “Michael O’Brien“). The crown prince and court jester of this crowd was Richard A banes, whose Harry Potter and the Bible: The Menace Behind the Magick was a classic of sophistry, internet research, and guilt by association only possible by straining at gnats and swallowing camels.

Having written that book and two others on the Potter “menace,” however, Mr. A banes refused to read the last book of the series because he had “moved on” to other things (Religion of the Stars!). It was just as well, I’m afraid, because Mrs. Kjos and Mr. O’Brien who did read Deathly Hallows both missed the Passion Gospel narrative within the alchemical drama there. They couldn’t discern what even an MTV reporter and a child asking Ms. Rowling a question were able to see, namely, in Ms. Rowling’s words, that the Christian content and symbolism of the books is “obvious” to readers not wearing Culture War blinders. Dwarves in the stable of Aslan’s Country?

As with most controversies played out in the media, the great variety and depth of Christian opinion about Harry Potter was neglected to highlight the relatively few book burners and culture warriors insisting that Harry was the Anti-Christ or his herald. The squeaky wheel posting on the internet makes the best sound-bite and video clip. I think book sales reflect the fact that relatively few Christians were ever Harry Haters and I know many clearly felt the stories delivered a traditional moral message. A few even recognized their spiritual content and artistry. But the Roundhead Readers with their battles to take Harry out of school and public libraries and shouting in picket lines at the first movie captured the cameras and public imagination.

Criticism of Twilight has picked up where the Pottermania ‘Controversy’ dropped off. Many Christian parents are delighted their children are reading Mrs. Meyer’s books because the teenage lovers don’t have sex until they are married. The novels are a very long celebration, these readers think, of ‘true love waiting,’ of abstinence, and of chastity as a traditional virtue. To many of the ‘Hook-Up’ generation’s nervous moms and dads, the Twilight Saga is a publishing event to welcome and which they encourage their children to read. Edward and Bella seem an edifying example for their adolescent sons and daughters.

Some mothers aren’t just relieved the books have a restraint message; they use Twilight as a point of entry to discuss sexuality with their daughters. As reported in Newsweek last summer:

The young adult series by Stephenie Meyer chronicles the seductive relationship between mousy Bella Swan and dangerously dashing Edward Cullen, who just happens to be a vampire. But Meyer’s books have proved seductive in another way, and we don’t mean as publishing’s 7.5 million-copy selling Next Big Thing. The “Twilight” books—”Breaking Dawn,” the fourth and final volume in the series, which is due out on Aug. 2—have also turned into a remarkable mother-daughter bonding exercise.

One reason for that is the way they deal with sexual issues. Meyer, who is Mormon, has said that she doesn’t want Bella and Edward to have sex before marriage. For most romance novels, the “no sex, please,” notion would be blasphemous. But Meyer’s fans have embraced it like a couple of teenagers just cuddling on the couch. Many mothers say they’ve used the books as a way to begin that awkward birds-and-bees talk with their teenage daughters. “I can discuss sex without being preachy because, well, we’re just talking about Twilight,” says Mary Ann Hill, mother to Tara, 13. “It’s non-threatening and I see the book as extra support for what I want to teach anyway.”

With roughly 50 percent of teenagers having sex before leaving high school, it’s a starting point many parents are thankful for.

“Many parents,” not all of them. Just as there are teen readers who are disappointed to the point of anger and disgust that Edward and Bella don’t jump between the sheets as soon as he is a friend with privileges, there are adults not real excited about their children reading stories where the boy in this boy-meets-girl romance is more than one hundred years old, spends the night in girl’s bedroom every night, and girl’s dad is clueless. And, oh, yeah, boy Edward is a blood sucking vampire, albeit a ‘vegetarian’ one.

These objections and concerns, though, remind me of the many folks who have written me since 2002 to ask about Harry’s breaking rules seemingly right and left at Hogwarts and the disregard for many authorities in his life. Those night time adventures after curfew and unkind comments about sadistic or ridiculous teachers are a staple of the schoolboy novel, from Tom Brown’s Schooldays to For the Sake of the School. They’re a genre convention that is all but a requirement. Lamenting schoolboy hijinks (even those with evident moral lessons and sacrificial heroism) is something like being disappointed that comic books feature fights and fisticuffs between super heroes and villains.

I certainly understand and appreciate parental reservations about their children reading Harlequin romances, aka “bodice rippers,” especially those featuring a paranormal protagonist with a taste for blood. But vampire books have always been about sublimated sexual desires, and romance novels, especially those written in the last twenty years, not so sublimated (to say the least). I won’t let my 13 year old daughter read Twilight, Roundhead and prudent daddy that I am, though her older sisters have — and the ban will stay in effect until she’s finished all of Jane Austen’s novels and Stoker’s Dracula. With those books under her belt (forgive me that phrase), I think she’ll understand the books aren’t a template for her to follow but a book written on a template or two itself.

As if her using Twilight as a relationship pattern were a possibility! I confess sometimes to rolling my eyeballs at “Christian reservations” about Harry and Bella, though I have a few myself. After all, do we really think the adventures of a boy wizard will make our children occultists capable of contranatural magic or that a girl’s romance with a vampire will open the door for our sons and daughters into a universe where other-worldly romance with monsters is a real possibility? They are much more likely to be jihadists, pornographers, or Cadet First Captains at West Point, right? Taking our responsibilities as parents seriously is one thing; exaggerating the magical influence of books to the point where young boys cannot read Treasure Island lest they enlist in the Navy on a whim or Gulliver’s Travels so they won’t imagine public urination is a virtue is crossing the line separating prudence from daffiness.

But there are those, again just as with Harry Potter, who take legitimate concerns about the occult, pre-marriage teen sexuality, and what young people are reading and insist on making Twilight the latest battle line in the Culture War. Once again we are told that wonderful books are the slippery slope to the abyss of postmodern nihilism and perversion that young readers will inevitably roll down into and meet their spiritual ruin and death.

The best of the Twilight alarmists online is the site created by a Catholic zealot at SpesUnica.com. The website manager is no dummy; s/he graduated from St. Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) in Ojai, California, a bastion of Great Books study with a leaning to the super-correct end of Catholic orthodoxy. TAC is an excellent school, and, for traditional Catholics, it is something like what BYU is for Mormons, i.e., the “only school.” The TAC graduate explains the purpose of the site on the ‘about’ page this way:

Spes Unica is written to help promote genuine Catholic femininity in a confusing world. We are up against tremendous odds, thus our motto is Ave Crux, Spes Unica – Hail, Cross, our only Hope! Our Hope comes from the Cross of Christ.

I am not Roman Catholic, but I don’t feel any special animosity for Catholics. My business partner and four of my best friends, to include the Best Man at my wedding and two who were professors at TAC, are devout Catholics as are many of my long-time Potter correspondents (hello, Perelandra!). This being the case, the devotional quality of the site or its rhetorical style (“Do Not Be Deceived!“) doesn’t jar me especially or set my teeth on edge.

But the zealot has left the rails in the same places that Michael O’Brien and Richard A banes did in the Potter Wars.

To leave the tracks here, you have to start with a legitimate concern. For the Harry Haters, it was their children finding nickel bags of the gateway drug to the occult hidden in the pages of Ms. Rowling’s books. That was nonsensical because the incantational magic of the series has nothing to do with the invocational magic proscribed by scripture, tradition, and common sense, but, not understanding that, the concern was legitimate. For SpesUnica’s scribe, the concern is feminine purity with a dash of occult concerns. As s/he explains on the site’s home page:

On this blog, I am examining the current Twilight phenomenon in the light of Christian principles and also taking the opportunity to explore other related cultural issues. The promotion of genuine Catholic femininity is a goal of mine. I have a bunch of daughters I am trying to raise in a world that has, in many ways, made a point of destroying girls’ innocence. As a professional religious educator I see the impact the culture is having on my students as well. I heard it said recently that the goal of each woman’s life is to strive each day to be less EVE and more AVE. Anyone who can see the value in that will understand why I am writing – especially in opposition to Twilight. (emphasis mine)

As the father of four daughters who has these concerns, I can see the value in this writer’s focus and why s/he is writing. It’s the “especially in opposition to Twilight” where we part company. Just like the culture warriors who denounced Ms. Rowling’s work, this zealot forgets what s/he learned at TAC about reading texts and puts on the Savonarola cloak to wage war against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. The problem comes when this battle against “principalities and powers” distorts any understanding of the books as books or clear perception of even the social phenomenon.

For example, the author accepts as fact that Twilight readers are overwhelmingly female. S/he also believes this pronounced gender gap is Twilight specific:

The Twilight Saga is an international sensation, but unlike other recent blockbusters (for example, the Harry Potter series), this fan base tilts very, very heavily towards females. (One fan site listed a ratio of 31 registered females for every male, and I would venture to say it may be optimistic about the number of males.) (emphasis in original)

I know this is considered indisputable but I have serious doubts. It reminds me of the Harry Potter fandom before Order of the Phoenix was published (2005). Though the books were selling millions of copies, the accepted wisdom was that these were childrens books and, if adults were buying them, they were buying them for their children or to read to them. It turned out that this was just silly. The book has had more adult readers than children readers I’m told since Prisoner was published.

Anyone who went to the first several HPEF conventions and counted out the male to female ratio would have also concluded that Pottermania was overwhelmingly a young woman’s phenomenon. A survey of commentary online at livejournal and fan fiction sites would have reinforced that conclusion. The face of Harry Potter fandom is overwhelmingly female.

Does anyone today think the Potter books are just for kids or that they only appeal to young women?

I am very suspicious that we again are seeing a genre prejudice or conviction creating a “fact.” Yes, there is a clever young man who has become famous as “Twilight Guy,” whose claim to fame is the peculiar, even singular quality of being male and reading the Twilight books. But can four novels nest at the top of the Amazon.com sales charts and the New York Times Bestsellers list because tweenie girls with a taste for oversized books are buying them? That strikes me as very unlikely.

And if the books are read by many more men and boys than the SpesUnica Catholic educator believes, as I think the sales numbers and Pottermania history suggest, then the specificity of the site’s purpose is undermined. The site’s purpose, though, is not made irrelevant. Certainly many young women are reading the books and if the books diminish their innocence or right understanding of male-female relationships they are still bad.

The problem is we’ll never know what the book is saying if we use the critical filter recommended and used on this website, namely, Hardon’s Catechism of the Catholic Church.

“External sins against chastity are any words, actions or gestures consciously performed to arouse or indulge sexual pleasure except between husband and wife in their legitimate marital relations… Internal sins against chastity are sexual thoughts, desires or feelings deliberately aroused or indulged, except by husband and wife in their mutual relationship… Both external and internal sins against chastity are mortal sins, if the sin is fully deliberate.”

There are two problems here.

First, even by this definition, Bella and Edward’s romance is hardly the Hugh Hefner manual on arousing or indulging in external or internal sins against chastity. Their entire relationship is predicated on control and abstinence. You can make the argument that their physical relationship is an “occasion of sin” which, if young girls and boys took it as their template (sleeping together each night, etc.), would certainly result in a spike in the already remarkable teen pregnancy rate. But the Swan-Cullen relationship is not based on sex or focused on sex per se.

Second and more important, why are we gauging the suitability of these books by this devotional litmus strip rather than reading it as Catholics like Aquinas and Dante said books should be read? The Harry Haters by reading the Hogwarts Adventures through the Leviticus filter missed the layered Christian meaning and traditional symbolism of the books. The allegory of Harry’s transformation as Christian Everyman and the anagogical meaning and experience each reader lived through imaginatively by identifying with him was lost on the Harry Haters.

The same thing, alas, happens at SpesUnica.com. Using the Catechism or a Book of Canon law as a lens through which one appreciates poetry, plays, and prose is something like looking at the moon with a microscope, or, better, studying single-celled creatures with a telescope. If I have the wrong tool for the job, I am going to make a lot of silly misreadings and associations because the only thing I can detect with this set of lenses that is not calibrated for the matter to be examined is what I bring with me as preconception.

Remember when the Potter books were condemned because there was blood drinking in the story? Blood drinking is an abomination and must be condemned. So what that the blood drinking in question, a serpentine figure drinking the blood of the unicorn to his damnation, was a story depiction of Paul’s teaching about the Blood of Christ…

The Twilight Saga equivalent of this kind of gaffe is the SpesUnica author’s inability to see the Edenic allegory in the relationship of Edward and Bella, something right on the Twilight front cover and spelled out in the Genesis quotation at the first book’s first page. I’m confident that this culture warrior, like Michael O’Brien, has the education and savvy to spot and understand allegorical and anagogical meaning when s/he is not determined to overlook it to make a point for tradition against nihilism, relativism, and lascivious lip-locking literature. But miss it s/he does in all confidence and righteousness, so nothing of this postmodern morality play (with an LDS script) makes any sense.

Remember when occult members trolling for young people on the internet in faux Potter sites was offered as evidence of the kinship between the magic in Ms. Rowling’s books and real world witchcraft? The Twilight Saga mirror image can be found on SpesUnica.com on the page detailing that vampires were speakers at the Chicago Twilight Conference last week. So what that Twilight vampires are a deconstruction of Nosferatu/Stoker mythology and metanarrative to make a point about the Divine Family and religious beliefs as they are misunderstood by a secular culture; we have a link with evil and have established guilt by nebulous association.

Remember when Star Chamber Catholics in Canada in cahoots with Michael O’Brien decided to draft Pope Benedict XVI into their battle against Harry Potter? Besides the remarkable ‘Pope Condemns Harry Potter” headlines (over a story that turned out to say he had done no such thing), they found a Vatican Exorcist turned literary critic that confirmed the Potter books were satanic. SpesUnica’s assault on Twilight features an exorcist with the same literary pretenses and tastes.

I am not trying to diminish the importance of exorcism or exorcists by pointing out that nothing in their work qualifies them to read novels with discernment. If I suggested that my efforts as a critic qualified me to work as a plumber, an airplane pilot, or exorcist, you’d hoot — and well you should. The shame of this is that I am confident this Catholic writer is well intentioned, more devout than I have reason to hope I will ever be, and has an education that includes logic and iconological criticism. Choosing the role of culture warrior, sadly, obscures all those qualities and gives him or her the appearance of a Roundhead Savonarola. As the daddy of daughters, I share the concern of the site’s author; as a serious reader, I am obliged to point out that the means to the desired end don’t match up.

So in our week long discussion of these books and how each was met by critics at large, that makes two parallels in the critical receptions Ms. Rowling’s Harry Potter and Ms. Meyer’s Twilight Saga received: maven blindness due to genre prejudices and culture war myopia in conservative Christians. Tomorrow, in what will be a much shorter post, I’ll discuss two more similarities before starting to detail the qualities in both Twilight and Harry that critics have missed. Stay tuned!

To be continued.


  1. Believe it or not, I actually had someone say to me that vampires are of the devil. 😛

    Your defense of Twilight against an overinterpretation of injunctions against lust made a lot of sense. As a Catholic who trusts the catechism, I have to admit to not liking the first half of the first book on the first read; the matter of “where to draw the line” in fiction has been an ongoing question for me. I’ve heard romance novels described as “porn for women”, and though I haven’t read enough of that genre to judge for myself, I’m certainly wary of the use of such a term against Twilight.

    Oddly enough, in a moral sense I as a conservative Catholic probably have more in common with the LDS Meyer than the Christian Rowling … for whatever that’s worth!

    Likewise, owing to the culture war, I have people in my life for whom nothing I say will convince them of the value of Harry Potter. Nothing. These are respectable, intelligent people, all of whom I think ought to believe me, especially since they haven’t read the books themselves. Twilight will get the same treatment, if not more of it. I still think all of the books are worth a serious read and have real value to offer.

  2. Again, the only caution I would give is that not everyone who objects to Twilight or who dislikes it is a Culture Warrior. Although you certainly point out quite well & very thoroughly how people who should otherwise know better can fall into this trap. And also the fact that those who have valid objections can also go too far & dismiss the work without considering any of its positive qualities or missing its deeper meanings.

  3. Arabella Figg says

    Excellent post, John!

    LibraryLily, you write: “Likewise, owing to the culture war, I have people in my life for whom nothing I say will convince them of the value of Harry Potter. Nothing. These are respectable, intelligent people, all of whom I think ought to believe me, especially since they haven’t read the books themselves.”

    Amen. Same thing’s happened to me. It’s discrediting of both your faith and intellect. It’s saying “I know you’re a smart, insightful Christian I value and respect…but boy, are you dumb and decieved, which makes me question your spiritual credentials. And, even though I’ve not read them, I know more about the books than you.” Talk about mental knickers in a twist! How do they walk a straight line down the street?

  4. IstariErangua says

    Sorry to jump into this discussion, but I’m new to this site and curious as to what people had to say on this subject. I love Harry Potter and have read and enjoyed them since the beginning, but I have no interest in Twilight, not because of any culture war or anything like that, just because the subject matter doesn’t appeal much to me, I got bored with vampires after Anne Rice. I’ve heard a lot of different opinions on Twilight, from a range of people from girls still in school to adults with literary backgrounds, and it’s interesting to me where everyone lies with regard to the proverbial fence. Many of my friends who liked Twilight liked it for things like an engaging story, even if they admitted it was not necessarily well-written, and said they could see the author’s writing improving as the sequels came out, but were disappointed with the ending. Others read the first one, were disgusted with the writing style (which I’ve learned for myself is a huge factor in how much I enjoy a book; Austen and Dostoyevsky drive me crazy but I love Tolkien) and didn’t finish it or didn’t bother with the rest. Mostly I wanted to comment on my wish that anyone who wants to comment critically on any book should at least read it first and read it unbiasedly, so that they can experience it fully and give a reall judgment, not one colored by preconceived notions. I’ve been guilty of this myself in the past, but I’ve learned to be a more open reader, and I enjoy my reading much more because of this. Maybe I’m too much of an idealist, but those are my thoughts. I just wish people could be more open-minded in general, even if they decide they dislike something for their own reasons having to do with taste.

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