We See Better When We Don't Squint

Back in the late 80s, many Christians decided that the big threat to civilization was something called "backward masking", the occasional practice of incorporating reversed recordings of the human voice (and sometimes instruments) into rock songs. Christians were all a-twitter over the satanic message supposedly encoded therein.

Rush Limbaugh, with his keen eye for when conservative common sense crosses the line into wacky conservative paranoid fantasy, announced to his listeners (tongue planted firmly in cheek) that Slim Whitman's "Una Paloma Blanca" was one such specimen of sinister backward masking. He solemnly warned his audience of the immense dangers to our children, our souls, and the American Way of Life if this menace went unchecked. Soon, he was getting calls from distressed and earnest people saying, "I listened to my Slim Whitman album and I can hear the backward messages! Rush, what do we do?" He let this go on for some time before finally making it clear he was pulling our collective legs.

Why do I tell this story? Because feel I must write about poor old Harry Potter--again.

I have a bit of a grudge against Harry, which is not really his fault. My problem is I keep having to talk about Harry. Not out of devotion, but out of fairness. Because, for some reason, an inordinate number of people have decided to see in Harry the Locus of All Evil in the Universe and to give him the Royal Una Paloma Blanca Treatment.

One major Christian publication, for example, claimed that Harry's "Mirror of Erised" (a Magic Mirror that reveals your deepest wish) was a veiled pagan invocation of Eris, the Greek goddess of discord and strife. Once again, the backward masking mentality strikes, only this time it forgets to read the message backward. "Erised" is "Desire" spelled backward and, like the rest of the inscription on the Mirror ("Erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi"), is simply part of a longer (and perfectly harmless) sentence that fits the story with no sinister satanic message: "I show not your face but your heart's desire." A ten year old could figure it out. Many ten year olds have--because they were enjoying the story and weren't bent on squinting to "read between the lines" and miss the obvious in their zeal to find ammo for the war on Harry:

And so I defend Harry. Then, when I'm done defending him, I have to defend myself from questions like, "You seem to really be invested in these books. Don't you think they have too much of a hold on you? Why are you so obsessed with them? Don't you think you should be reading the Bible and not Harry Potter?"

Argh.

The problem here is the same as with the Slim Whitman Menace: it's not that I'm all that invested in Harry, it's that when you spend too much time squinting to see the incredibly subtle Hidden Conspiracy, you miss the big, obvious, in-your-face things that are actually going on. Forget playing Slim Whitman backward. Play Eminem or Nine Inch Nails or Godsmack forwards. You'll find more than enough evil being hurled at your children in plain old, honest-to-badness English. Likewise, instead of peering between the lines to find the satanic message cleverly encoded into Harry Potter's pseudo-Latin, just read a really sinister and subversive series of books like Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Never heard of them? That's because while Christians, including a dismaying number of Catholics, were squinting at Harry Potter, Pullman has been deliberately authoring a very well-written, highly imaginative series of stories with the express goal of blaspheming God and making an atheist of your kid. The tale describes a struggle to overthrow the "Authority" ("God, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father, the Almighty-those were all names he gave himself," an angel tells one of the heroes of the story). In Pullman's fantasy, what Christianity calls God is actually the first angel, who tried to deceive all creation into submitting to him. Some of the angels rebelled (think plucky Jedi vs. the Evil Empire) centuries ago, but lost, and now a faithful remnant of the Rebellion is stirring to assert "truth" to the Authority's power.

Pullman himself is quite frank about this atheist agitprop in real newspapers, not The Onion. He set out to write the perfect anti-Narnia books. And he's come a long way toward success. He means real harm to the Faith. And he sells very well. But Christians, so focused on listening for the backward masking in Harry Potter, are unaware of these books.

Similarly, Catholics who are greatly exercised about Harry can be found reading the dreadful Left Behind series in huge numbers. For those not familiar with this publishing phenomenon, it is the tale of the Rapture and the rise of Antichrist, a phantasmagoria of Fundamentalist Christian apocalyptic and various speculations about the future, heavily ladled with anti-Catholic ideas. (Basic message: Catholics can be saved--just so long as they reject Catholic faith.) Catholics are buying these books by the truckload, stepping straight into this aggressively hostile bit of anti-Catholic agitprop, but we don't hear much about it, because it's "Christian literature" unlike Harry. But it's far more toxic for Catholic faith (and badly written) than anything from Rowling's pen--if we could just stop squinting to read between Rowling's lines long enough to notice it.

Moral?: Pay attention to the obvious and don't worry about trying to second guess Satan. He isn't that clever.

Copyright 2002 - Mark P. Shea