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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 06, 2017 1:00 am

Harry Potter holds no keys to the mysteries of life

Christine Emba

WASHINGTON – One evening recently more than 500 people, most younger than 35, crowded into a historic synagogue for a recording of the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.”

The podcast – currently on around Episode 60 of a planned 199 – aims to give J.K. Rowling's children's novels the same treatment as the Bible or Koran. In the words of the two Harvard Divinity School graduates who host the program, the books are to be scrutinized “to glean what wisdom and meaning we can make” as “instructive and inspirational texts that will teach us about our own lives.”

The hosts are aware that “Harry Potter” is not, in fact, a sacred text. Their tagline, thankfully, is “reading something we love as if it were sacred.” Even so, news of this event filled this Potter-loving millennial with dismay. It seems more a reversion to childhood than a real search for meaning.

It's no secret, of course, that many millennials tread a different spiritual path than GenXers, baby boomers and their elders. Attendance at religious services has cratered among young adults relative to older generations. According to the Pew Research Center, more than a third of millennials say they have no religious affiliation.

The reasons are varied and open to interpretation. Millennials don't like to have their behavior policed, as more traditional denominations are wont to do. Or, viewed from a gentler angle, millennials are seen as wanting to design their own identities, from the ground up. Self-creation aside, many in my generation are mistrustful of institutions in general – whether it's government, their employers or their parents' churches – and for good reason: There are only so many sex scandals and self-serving Trump endorsements one can take before a certain cynicism sets in.

Yet the search for significance continues: Members of my age group are just as likely as those in earlier generations to spend time thinking about the meaning and purpose of life.

So why am I so skeptical of using The Boy Who Lived to fill that empty space? It's not because the books themselves are empty; it's because the action being taken here is.

“We're here to practice faith,” one host of the “Sacred Text” podcast says in the teaser for its first episode. “And to make it easier for ourselves, we're going to practice faith with something we already love: Harry Potter.” Why not practice on something outside of your childhood comfort zone?

Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, Albus Dumbledore and the rest are soothingly familiar to those of us who grew up alongside the series, starting from the first book's U.S. publication in 1998 to the release of the last one in 2007. In a world that seems less stable than ever, comfort is a powerful thing. Plus, the writing is full of charm, the magic is exciting, good and evil are easily distinguishable, and the heroes always win.

But writing recently in the Spectator, Lara Prendergast described the downsides to this comfort well: “To believe in (the Potterverse), even ironically, is to divide people into goodies and baddies, and ignore the complexity of reality.” Rowling didn't set out to create a Bible – the books are a compelling fantasy tale and nothing more. It's not fair to try to turn her series into a guide to living one's life, and it won't be particularly rewarding even if you succeed. There's no challenge there. Real meaning often depends on toil.

I find it hard to get behind much of the offhanded criticism to which my generation is subjected. Many of my peers' supposed flaws – not getting married! not moving out! not being loyal to employers! not growing up! – are more accurately pinned on the economic climate in which we've come of age. They also seem like ones we'll age past.

Yet this inability to search for meaning in any but the safest, softest locales feels different – less an accident of time and more like a willful infantilization. Perhaps it's a symptom of a larger societal fatigue that rather than seeking out something larger than ourselves, we revert to the small, safe spaces of childhood. While I understand their appeal, I hope we'll grow out of them soon.

Christine Emba edits The Washington Post's In Theory blog.