Holy Hogwarts!

An Experimental College course divines the spiritual themes of Harry Potter
Danielle Tumminio
“Harry Potter is what brings them to the class,” says the Rev. Danielle Tumminio. “But I hope that theology will keep them in.” Photo: Alonso Nichols
April 6, 2011

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Soon after the first Harry Potter books began working their magic on young readers everywhere, they were attacked by some fundamentalist Christians as heretical, and were banned from their followers’ bookshelves.

“I’ve certainly come across my fair share of people who have said, ‘I wasn’t allowed to read the books,’ or ‘In my faith tradition, we’re told the books are evil,’ ” says the Rev. Danielle Tumminio. Maybe, she argues, it’s time the devout got on the Hogwarts Express, because for all the depictions of curses, spells, hexes and charms, the Harry Potter books make a rich platform for discussing key ideas of Christian thought.

Tumminio, who holds three degrees in English and theology from Yale University and is pursuing her doctorate in practical theology at Boston University, is exploring those ideas this semester in an Experimental College course, Christian Theology and Harry Potter. She first taught the class at Yale in 2008 and wrote a book about it, God and Harry Potter at Yale (Unlocking Press, 2010).

“I felt like if you really wanted to have a conversation about whether the books were Christian or not, you needed to expand it to some of the other themes in Christianity—like sin and evil and death—and begin to look at whether those ideas were reflected in the series, and how,” says Tumminio, who is ordained in the Episcopal Church.

“Harry Potter is what brings them to the class,” she acknowledges. “But I hope that theology will keep them in. These are questions any of us living on earth should spend some time asking and hopefully derive some meaning from.”

In one typical Wednesday evening class, students discuss the Bible’s Book of Revelation and how the Harry Potter story might depict the End Times. Is Harry a martyr? Is the Dark Mark of the Death Eaters analogous to the Mark of the Beast? Is the malicious wizard Voldemort the Antichrist? Several students come down firmly in the Voldy as Antichrist camp, but there are a few votes for his minion, Barty Crouch Jr.

The course is not just a hunt for biblical motifs in the books, which have enough snakes to infiltrate several Gardens of Eden and a messianic protagonist who rises from the dead. Tumminio has her students dig down into the writings of history’s spiritual thinkers to tackle some of the big questions about God.

Take evil, a driving force in both Christian thought and the Potter narrative. When Harry is just a baby, his parents are killed by Voldemort, also known as the Dark Lord. Explaining why an all-loving and all-powerful God would allow bad things to happen to the innocent has been a conundrum for millennia—one that is revived with every earthquake and tsunami.

Tumminio suggests that the tragedy of Harry’s parents jibes with the view of Iranaeus, a Christian writer from the second century, who reasoned that the setbacks of evil help people learn to be better; it’s a soul-building exercise. Harry’s horrific loss, Tumminio writes in her book, “became something that shaped him in powerful and beautiful ways, preventing him from developing the kind of misplaced priorities that define the Dark Lord.”

For a discussion on divine grace, which theologians define as an unwarranted gift from God, Tumminio turns to the character of Draco Malfoy. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t read the books, you might want to skip to the penultimate paragraph.) Draco, Harry’s nasty-hearted foil at school, perpetrates evils small and large, yet Harry still saves his life in the final book in the J.K. Rowling series. “The fact that he survives and gets a second chance is sort of an unmerited favor that he received, despite all the things he had done to Harry,” Tumminio says. Still, Draco’s continued unhappiness years later may be a sign that he has not received grace. “He’s going though life, and he’s surviving, but he’s not thriving,” Tumminio says. 

Is Harry Potter the Chosen One?

And let’s not ignore the burning bush in the room, either. Is Harry, who gives his life to destroy Voldemort and his evil reign, supposed to be Jesus?

“Harry’s sacrifice is very Christ-like, but it doesn’t accomplish exactly what Jesus’ sacrifice does,” Tumminio says. Readers could also look to Harry’s mother, Lily, who sacrifices her life for Harry and protects him for years to come with her love. That, Tumminio says, would fit in nicely with the writings of Julian of Norwich, a medieval mystic who described Jesus as the “natural mother” of humans.

But Harry is too prone to the all-too-human traits of jealousy, secrecy and isolation to be a perfect parallel for Christ, and the English major in Tumminio thinks that is just fine.

“It’s very hard to make a literary character compelling if they are going to be that much like Jesus,” she says. Perfection doesn’t necessarily make for a page-turner.

In fact, for those who complain that the epilogue to the series is overly sweet (“too fluffy,” says one student; “it made me want to cry, it was so bad,” says another), they could try blaming it on the final book of the New Testament.

“So they just get conventional happiness, that’s all they get?” Tumminio asks, echoing many fans when they read that Harry and his friends go on to live a quiet, family-oriented life. She points to the very end of the Book of Revelation, with its world free of tears, sorrow and pain, “just like Harry doesn’t feel his scar burn anymore, and everyone seems very happy,” she says. “That, I imagine, would be a wonderful way to live—but then that maybe doesn’t feel very satisfying to a reader”—or at least one who isn’t satisfied with conventional happy endings.

Besides seeing the students’ reaction to the Every Flavor cupcakes she bakes (was that Tabasco?), one of Tumminio’s favorite parts of the class is preparing a syllabus that lists the Harry Potter books as “required textbooks.” Teaching theology through a beloved series of books, she says, is the “spoonful of sugar” approach to a subject that leaves many people as blank-eyed as a Stunning Spell victim.

As for the question of the books’ Christian bent, students, she hopes, will decide for themselves whether her arguments have a Jelly-Legs Jinx to stand on. “They are welcome to come to any conclusion they like,” she says, “as long as it is a well-informed conclusion.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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