Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Do You Believe in the Devil? Because He Believes in You.

Keep Telling Yourself It's Just a Game

So reads the billboard for a movie coming soon to a theater near you. The movie is ouija. Yes, ouija, as in the board, as in the game that many of us remember from seventh grade slumber parties.

So it's a great time to talk about the devil.

The devil has pulled quite a fast one on all of us sophisticated, rational, modern thinkers. Maybe he hired an image consultant. These days he's the portly, comical, pitchfork-wielding fella in the red tights sitting on your left shoulder sparring with an angel on your right. Or he doesn't exist at all.

So almost no one takes the thought of the devil or demonic activity seriously. I'm pretty sure the devil likes flying under the radar.

Addressing this issue a while back, Simcha Fisher wrote a clear and sensible piece over at Patheos. She begins:
Satan is real, and he is not fussy. He doesn't care if you are kidding or not when you call him by name. This is why I tell my kids to stay far, far away from participating in anything occult — ouija boards, tarot cards, etc. — even if it’s just a game.  An invitation is an invitation, and Satan doesn't stand on manners. You may not see Exorcist-style special effects when the Father of Lies creeps into your life. You may not realize anything has happened to you at all, as the rift between you and God slowly gets deeper and wider.
As we drove to school today, we sang Holy, Holy, Holy. Verse two begins:
Holy, holy, holy
Though the darkness hide thee
I pondered for a moment the darkness that hides God.

We live in a brick and mortar world, and I, for one, certainly struggle to see what we actually can't see, both the good and the bad. Yes, the darkness hides quite a lot -- God's goodness, the devil's snares -- both are obscured by noise and busyness, by piles of laundry and daunting to do lists, by flesh and blood, here and now, clearly discernible realities like a scratchy throat and an aching hip, but by the good things, too, the soft feel of my daughter's cheek, John's enthusiastic eyes, Tim's piano playing.

It's hard to see what we can't see.

We live in a world, my friend Father Brett always reminds us, in which our understanding is darkened, and our will is weakened.

Dabbling in the world of the occult, at the very least, serves only to make these already problematic realities a shade worse. Why make the darkness darker?

I played with a ouija board as a teenager. Seances were standard fare at slumber parties. In neither instance did I experience anything supernatural or dramatic. Lots of giggling, but nothing weird. But, boy, do I know people whose experiences were quite different. No one reports what Simcha calls "Exorcist-style special effects," but they do share a sense of gloom descending, a growing distaste for prayer and more generally for the things of God, a feeling of oppression.

I watched The Exorcist as a teenager. Creepy, creepy, creepy. Bed rattling, head spinning, green vomit flying. Since many of us dabbled with the occult and experienced no technicolor drama, we do exactly what the movie poster tells us to do: We keep telling ourselves it's just a game and write it all off as a lark, as so much childhood nonsense.

And yet I've heard and read too much to accept that brushing up with the occult is cost free.

Over the summer I found myself in the odd position of defending people who don't read Harry Potter. It was odd because I've read and enjoyed Harry Potter. Here's my stand on Harry: I have read and liked (to varying degrees) all the books. I have seen several of the movies and not particularly enjoyed any of them. Tim has read about half the books and was neither enthralled nor dismissive. Kolbe, very picky about what he reads, finished about half the first book and said no thanks to the rest.

That being said, I fully understand why parents would pass on Harry Potter. To wit:
1. Harry attends a school of witchcraft and wizardry.
2. Witchcraft is real.
3. Many of the subjects Harry, Ron, Hermione et al study -- arithmancy, charms, divination --  all exist in real life and are used for the purpose of communing with the dead or gaining supernatural control over people or things.
4. All of these are big time no no's for Christians in general and Catholics in particular.

To me it is significant that the characters in Harry Potter are born witches and wizards, much as Gandalf is a wizard, and Legolas is an elf in Lord of the Rings. Harry doesn't adopt witchcraft as someone could do in real life. Like the Narnia series, there is good magic and dark magic in Harry Potter. The books chronicle a battle between good and evil and highlight the virtues of self-sacrifice and courage, among others.

But they do depict heroic characters engaged in practices that Catholics deem objectively wrong. Parents do well to point these out.

I am a big fan of Michael O'Brien. His book A Cry of Stone has one of the loveliest examples of being poor in spirit I have uncovered in contemporary literature. O'Brien published a piece of non-fiction, Dragons in the Landscape, analyzing images in modern literature, particularity a troubling trend he sees in young adult and children's literature. The trend, he shares, is that good used to be good and bad used to be bad. Literature is full of "types," and these "types" were consistent over centuries, but suddenly and especially in the literature we feed our young, they are evolving. Black and white are no more; the world is increasingly gray.

While I reject some of O'Brien's conclusions (i.e. I read Harry Potter), I agree with his basic premise.

When The Hunger Games trilogy was all the rage, I wrote a long post analyzing the good and the disconcerting in the series. Among the more troubling ideas in the later books are the notions that suicide can be heroic, that killing -- not in self-defense or in time of war -- is justifiable, that assassination is okay .

The world is gray.

I don't think my sons will read Harry Potter and and try to jump on a broomstick and fly, but they may read The Hunger Games and absorb messages that are much more worrisome and much more likely to arise in real life.

Simcha sensibly points out that we have to use discernment with individual children in making decisions about books, movies, video games, what to allow, how much, at what ages, etc. She clearly points out that some kids may be more swayed by disturbing plot lines or images.

My kids vary wildly in their personalities and sensitivities. I had a kid freak! out! during 101 Dalmatians. For that matter, I think Dave's still mildly traumatized by the death of Bambi's mother circa 1967. What parent wants to instill fear in a child?

John has been trudging through Magic Treehouse books. We started Mummies in the Morning, and it's all about an Egyptian ghost trying to get her body back or some such rot, and it was all creepy and off, just plain off, and you know what I did? I threw it away.

Yes, I threw it away.

Kelly, the English teacher, threw it away.

And English teachers aren't supposed to do such things -- banning and burning and pitching books.

We have a zillion other Magic Treehouse books, but I didn't like that one. And we don't have to read everything set before us. Crap is crap, and let's not be afraid to label it as such.

Parents can evaluate Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, and any other young adult lit and trust that they have the discernment to sift through the good and the dubious and make informed decisions for their children. And here's the startling news: People of goodwill come to different conclusions about these issues, and that's okay.

After All Saints Day/Halloween, Tim came to me and said that a few of his friends had gone to something I believe was called "Blood Plantation." Would I have let him go, he wondered.  I think it was a bad idea, I told him, but I probably wouldn't have told you no. 

Tim's seventeen years old.

I firmly believe in sheltering very young children. I regret that the little people around here are growing up much faster than their older brothers did. But I also believe that there's a time to let kids begin making decisions -- bad and good -- on their own so that they learn to discern these things on their own.

As for ouija?


We'll pass.


Kris said...

Really great piece, Kelly! I especially like the part about using discernment with each child to determine what they should be exposed to and what they should not. All my kids except my youngest have read all the Harry Potter books, as have my husband and I. I have read all the Hunger Games, as have my 4 oldest. We have all seen the movies so far, but I have not allowed my youngest to see them. Although he's 10, I feel like the subject matter is above his level at the moment. But I see a big difference between the fantasy of Harry Potter and perhaps the Hunger Games, and the more reality based topics in horror and supernatural films. Although they are still portraying things that may or may not happen in a way that seems fantastical (aka the Exorcist), they have that undercurrent of real evil in them. So I stay far, far away and so do my kids. None have ever even expressed an interest in that genre - it's like they know.

Kelly Dolin said...

Kris - horror/supernatural films being The Exorcist, Halloween, Freddie Krueger kind of things?

I saw all manner of slasher films in high school, but by the one that truly got under my skin was The Shining. Scares me to this day. Actually the book Pet Cemetery did the same thing to me.

Last summer on vacation a bunch of kids wanted to see the movie Saw. Whhhhhy?

Kris said...

Exactly - slasher films aren't so bad, although I don't particularly enjoy the genre. And Pet Cemetery was the scariest book EVER. I was reading it in my apartment one night, on the couch (which was not against a wall) and my cat jumped up from behind right beside my head - I about had a heart attack! I think I stopped reading Steven King after that.