Washington Post contributor Christine Emba published an opinion piece yesterday titled “Millennials are turning to Harry Potter for meaning. Thats a mistake.” Its a lazy headline for a lazy opinion. In this article she criticizes the podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text and its current following at live recording events as being as “willful infantalization” and is more indicative of a collective retreat into the familiar moral universe of childhood than a genuine search for meaning, and that Harry Potter is not a difficult enough text to contain enough ideas to help one lead a good life. I wish there was more to say about Emba’s opinion but there is none. She’d be better suited to have written “Millennials are turning to Harry Potter for meaning. I feel that its a mistake.” because no actual reasons are given for why this is true and if it were true why it would be a mistake. Emba does not argue against the value of the Harry Potter series, except later in the piece when she writes “Rowling didn’t set out to create a Bible — the books are a compelling fantasy tale and nothing more.” So Harry Potter is good, just not good enough. Emba’s main mistake is that she has confused the difficulty and rigor of reading a text with the rigor of interpreting a text. The peripheral mistake is that she failed to consider that the audience of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text might be motivated by something other than nostalgia.
It turns out that Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is really nothing like a retreat into childhood. The aim of the podcast, produced by two divinity students, is to apply the methods of scriptural hermeneutics to texts familiar to the public and help people find meaning where before there may have just been entertainment. I’ve spent some time talking about the virtues of Dune Club on this page but I have just as much admiration for the outside the box thinking and approach to internet discourse that Harry Potter and the Sacred Text has shown. Repurposing Harry Potter with the tools of another discipline demonstrates to the world that it is possible to add depth to contemporary cultural products that seem to be robbed of their meaning as they become more and more indistinguishable from commodities. Since 2000 Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets seems like a further distant description of the soul of the series than Harry Potter and the Portfolio of Marketable Intellectual Properties. The real retreat into infantile nostalgia is the repurposing of Beatles songs to sell cars or insurance, the repurposing of songs like “Small Town” by John Mellencamp to theme music for political rallies or the ever encroaching flood of remakes, reboots, and sequels of anything remotely familiar to movie audiences.
Emba might point to the use of the word “easy”, used by the podcast hosts themselves to describe their purpose. Easy has nothing to do with it; Harry Potter is accessible, familiar, and its themes, literary and historical allusions to fascism, racism, and the banality of evil done even by the wizards are extremely fertile ground to grow a garden of values. Emba’s simple insistence that the popularity of this podcast is merely the infantile retreat from reality without offering any real argument puts her writing in the same lazy category of blaming ‘Millennials’ for the always changing fabric of American society that she tries to distance herself from in that article. Consumption is easy, interpretation and reflection are what build the muscles of the mind, and I can’t imagine why anyone would cast a reflective exercise like Harry Potter and the Sacred Text as being intellectually weak except as an excuse to repeat a weak meme of stereotyping young people for the excuse of publishing a clickbait headline with the magic word “millennial” in the title.
You can read the whole thing here.
Have some new wave made thirty five years too late.