Thursday, July 26, 2007

Harry Potter and Orthodox Piety

This letter from Douglas Cramer, Managing Editor of AGAIN Magazine, appears on the Conciliar Press website. It refers to the fact that many faithful Orthodox Christians differ markedly on their perceptions of JK Rowling's Harry Potter series. I just finished the seventh installment, having now read the entire series along with our oldest daughter (now age 10). While I certainly understand the reservations some may have about the series, I heartily concur with Douglas' observations. - MC

Dear Reader,

Thank you for taking the time to write and express your concerns. I'd be happy to address any specific critiques you have of the interview we published with John Granger. The interview originally appeared in our quarterly magazine, AGAIN, in December 2005, at which time other articles in the issue on the general topic of Faith, Fantasy and the Christian Imagination were reproduced on our web site and the web site of the Antiochian Archdiocese. We reproduced the interview this past week because of all the attention countless Americans, including our Orthodox brethren, will be giving the series with the release of the final book.

Certainly there are differences of opinion amongst sincere and dedicated Orthodox Christians regarding the stance that believers should take towards literature in general, and the works of JK Rowling in particular. We at Conciliar Press believe that a crucial part of our mission is to "equip the saints for ministry". One way in which we strive to accomplish this is by presenting to our readers a range of respected Orthodox Christian teachers and writers and their thoughts on how we can take advantage of teachable moments in our society to witness to the truth of the Gospel. It was in this spirit that we originally published the interview that Matushka Donna Farley, wife of theologian and Conciliar Press author Fr. Lawrence Farley, conducted with John Granger.

As a father myself of three sons who have enjoyed the Harry Potter books immensely, I believe that they can provide wonderful opportunities to speak to deep Christian truths of loyalty, love, forgiveness and sacrifice. I have not found the use of magic to be any more troubling than the magic of the Ghosts in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. JK Rowling herself has publicly professed her Christian faith, and her admiration for the works of other British Christian authors of mythical literature, like CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien. I personally do think that she is sincere. I find myself even more convinced of this having read the conclusion to the series, where Harry Potter gives up his life without a fight for the sake of all his friends, goes beyond death to King's Cross, and returns to literally disarm and overthrow the evil one who thanks to the sacrifice Harry has made can no longer harm the good people he is attacking. The book is more packed even then its predecessors with Christian imagery, going even so far this time to include direct Scripture quotations at several critical points in the story.

It can certainly be a wonderful and godly choice for a Christian to avoid literature like that of JK Rowling, or Charles Dickens, or the King Arthur myths, or anything similar. But countless Orthodox Christians do choose to embrace such stories, and if they do it is important that they know of other Orthodox Christians who have wrestled with the kinds of questions they themselves may have as well.

In closing, let me share this passage from the lead article of the issue of AGAIN Magazine in which the interview originally appeared. The full article is available online.


We may think of the tradition of heroic epics as a tradition of “men of the west,” Tolkien’s evocative image for the good guardians of civilized society. While legendary tales are found in the folklore of all ages and places, the epic fiction of the traditional lands of Orthodoxy is little known to us in America today. Most of us have read about King Arthur and at least heard of Beowulf, but how many know The Lay of Igor or Ruslan and Ludmila, the great epics of medieval Russia? The heroic fantasy that forms a part of our cultural heritage is primarily that of the West.

But does this fact make such literature irrelevant to our lives as Orthodox Christians? One Orthodox authority who has given this topic much thought is Bishop Kallistos Ware of Oxford, England. In an interview recorded in Kyriakos Markides’ wonderful new book Gifts of the Desert, he encourages a careful but wholehearted engagement with the best that Western culture has to offer. “Christ is the lord of history,” reflects Bishop Kallistos. He continues:

“We must look, then, for signs of the Truth, traces and footprints of the Truth, throughout our modern culture. . . . We Orthodox, particularly those of us who are Western converts, are often in danger of becoming church mice. We just live inside the church and nibble at the crumbs in the church, but we don’t look outside at the presence of Christ in the world as well. We Orthodox who live in the West are heirs to the entire cultural and intellectual tradition of the West, much of which indeed is profoundly Christian. We are heirs to Dante, to Shakespeare, to Milton, to Wordsworth. Of course we have our own Orthodox interpretation of their work. But if we are to play our role as Orthodox in the Western world we must be willing to listen and to learn from the spiritual masters of the Western tradition. . . . [Some] of us must surely engage in a dialogue with Western culture. Otherwise we are betraying our roles as Orthodox placed here in the West as mediators and witnesses.”

Orthodox Christians can hold their heads high, and unashamedly embrace the traces of Truth found in our cultural heritage—including the tradition of heroic fantasy—without compromising our allegiance to our Faith. We are, after all, Orthodox of the West. With that comes an obligation to develop an Orthodox understanding of the great stories of the West, to witness to the Truth of Christ present in them.

The American monk Fr. Seraphim Rose understood this need for Orthodox to serve as mediators, bridging Christ’s presence in both the East and the West in our own lives. “In general,” he wrote, “the person who is well acquainted with the best products of secular culture—which in the West almost always have definite religious and Christian overtones—has a much better chance of leading a normal, fruitful Orthodox life than someone who knows only the popular culture of today. . . . Everything good in the world, if we are only wise enough to see it, points to God, and to Orthodoxy, and we have to make use of it.”

. . .

Orthodoxy has always been able to embrace and renew pre-Christian understanding. St. Basil the Great spoke of the potential value of the epic legends of the pagan Greeks, saying, “No source of instruction can be overlooked in the preparation for the great battle of life, and there is a certain advantage to be derived from the right use of the heathen writers.”

Fr. Alexander Schmemann explains the reason for this “certain advantage” in his book For the Life of the World. “Before Christ came, God had promised Him to man,” he explains. “As Christians we believe that He, who is the truth about both God and man, gives foretastes of His incarnation in all more fragmentary truths. We believe as well that Christ is present in any seeker after truth. Simone Weil has said that though a person may run as fast as he can away from Christ, if it is toward what he considers true, he runs in fact straight into the arms of Christ.”

AGAIN columnist Fr. Michael Oleksa, drawing on his own long experience with the native culture of Alaska, explained the relationship to me. “I'll take a good pagan any day,” he said. “The Church knows how to deal with pagans. You find some common ground and bless it. You find some points of agreement and enlarge them. You find something good, true, and beautiful in a belief or practice and affirm it, endorse it, celebrate it.”

Christ Bless,
Douglas Cramer
Managing Editor, AGAIN Magazine

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Bishop HILARION on Recent Catholic Teachings

Orthodox Say Unity Must Be Priority

VIENNA, Austria, JULY 11, 2007 ( The breach of Eucharistic communion between East and West is a common tragedy, and the quest for unity should be of equal importance to both, said Bishop Hilarion.

The Orthodox bishop of Vienna and Austria, and the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions, spoke with ZENIT about the document released Tuesday by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The document is titled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects of the Doctrine on the Church."

The document, Bishop Alfeev said, "brings nothing new in comparison with previous documents of similar kind, such as 'Dominus Iesus.'"


Bishop Alfeev acknowledged that the document's explanation of the Church, and precisely that the Church of Christ subsists in the Catholic Church, is an idea that the Orthodox do not accept.

"The distinction between 'subsists' and 'is present and operative' is probably meaningful from the point of view of Latin theological tradition, but it makes not much sense for an Orthodox theologian," he said.

"For us," Bishop Alfeev explained, "'to subsist' means precisely 'to be present and to be operative,' and we believe that the Church of Christ subsists, is present and is operative in the Orthodox Church."

However, the prelate also affirmed that the Orthodox Churches share the Catholic Church's understanding of other ecclesial communities.

"With regard to the Orthodox Churches," he said, "the document states that 'these Churches, although separated [from Rome], have true sacraments and above all -- because of the apostolic succession -- the priesthood and the Eucharist.' Thus, apostolic succession and the sacraments are indicated as essential marks of the Church.

"The Orthodox also believe that apostolic succession and the sacraments are essential marks of the Church.

"This is why the Orthodox will agree that those ecclesial communities which do not enjoy apostolic succession and have not preserved the genuine understanding of the Eucharist and other sacraments cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense."

"The division between the Orthodox and the Protestants," Bishop Alfeev underlined, "is therefore much more profound and substantial than the division between the Orthodox and the Catholics."

Read it all at Directions to Orthodoxy