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My Take: Why we’re drawn to Harry Potter’s theology
July 13th, 2011
11:29 AM ET

My Take: Why we’re drawn to Harry Potter’s theology

Editor's Note: Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio is an ordained Episcopal Church priest and is author of "God and Harry at Yale: Faith and Fiction in the Classroom."

By Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, Special to CNN

It’s been 13 years since the first Harry Potter book landed on store shelves and provoked some Christian conservatives to begin voicing opposition to J.K. Rowling’s world of wizardry.

“Let me say something about Harry Potter. Warlocks are enemies of God,” said Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal pastor featured in a documentary called Jesus Camp. “And I don’t care what kind of hero they are, they’re an enemy of God."

“Had it been in the Old Testament,” Fischer continued, “Harry Potter would have been put to death. You don’t make heroes out of warlocks.”

First reviews of 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2'

I was a graduate student at Yale when I first heard words like these, and it made me want to delve deeper into the nexus of Harry and Christianity, to see whether the books really were heretical.

So I decided to pitch a class on the subject to Yale, where I continue to teach on the intersection between Christian Theology and Harry Potter.

One of the questions I get asked most frequently about the class is what makes the Harry Potter series so spiritually rich. My sense is that, unlike some other famously theologically driven books, like "The Chronicles of Narnia" or "The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter" is less interested in teaching doctrine than in asking questions of ultimate meaning:

How can a person—wizard or Muggle (Rowling’s term for non-wizards)—respond to evil?

Is it possible to maintain relationships with those beyond the grave, just like Harry sought to have a relationship with his deceased parents?

Is it worth believing in God or, for those in Harry’s world, love, without evidence of its transformative power?

These are the questions to which Harry seeks answers throughout the series, most explicitly in "The Deathly Hallows," part 2 of which opens in movie theaters on Friday. (I tell my students that not for nothing does Harry play Seeker on Gryffindor’s Quidditch team, Quidditch being the wizarding world’s sport of choice.)

J.K. Rowling: 'Never say never' to more 'Potter'

Yet these are also the questions that motivated Rowling — who was struggling with her mother’s recent death — to write the series in the first place. Indeed, they’re the questions asked by all who seek a deeper understanding of our world.

In other words, the reason the Harry Potter series resonates with so many is that Harry’s journey is our journey; what he seeks, we seek.

But is what we find heretical, as some Christians have claimed?

The first winter I taught at Yale, I was a true seeker. I had moved out of my cozy attic apartment and into my parents’ home after doctors diagnosed my father with a rare neurological disease called Primary Lateral Sclerosis (PLS).

PLS is similar to Lou Gehrig’s Disease and Multiple Sclerosis, the illness from which J.K. Rowlings’ mother suffered. Like those diseases, PLS is progressive and incurable, immobilizing the muscles without affecting the mind.

Driving home from class one day, alone in my car, I found myself overwhelmed by my father’s illness, by the pained look in his eyes as he struggled to cut food with a knife, by the anxiety that plagued my mother.

And then I thought of Harry Potter.

Each week, I’d been asking my Yale students to look at Harry’s journey and to determine the significance of that journey for them. In that moment, I wondered about the significance the books held for me. Could they offer consolation, and would that consolation be antithetical to Christian faith?

In the car that day, I remembered the end of "The Deathly Hallows," when Harry, walking towards his nemesis Voldemort in the Forbidden Forest, finds himself surrounded by those who died but who loved Harry well: his mentors, Sirius and Lupin, and his parents, James and Lily.

Lily speaks first: “You’ve been so brave.”

“You’ll stay with me?” Harry asks.

“Until the very end,” responds James.

In other words, it is community and love that see us through even the greatest losses. That’s the same for Rowling and for Christians, for whom God is love. It is friendship and faith that help us walk—or drive, as I was doing at that moment—bravely to our destiny.

In that, I found consolation.

In the new Potter film – reportedly the last in the Potter franchise – we’ll see Harry as a different kind of seeker, one who struggles with his faith. His mentor, Dumbledore, is absent in a time of evil, as the wizarding world is subjected to a Hitler-like campaign to abolish anyone not of pure wizarding descent. Meanwhile, the equivalent of a tabloid journalist has published a book smearing Dumbledore’s previously unadulterated reputation.

Though Dumbledore taught Harry that the only way to defeat Voldemort is through the power of love, that force has been seriously called into question. With subjugation and violence all around and with Dumbledore’s image smeared, love doesn’t seem much worth trusting.

As Harry wanders through the wizarding world, he must seek for himself what is worth trusting and what is not. And, without giving too much away, let me say that when his faith in love finally takes root, transformative things begin to happen.

As movie theatres reel the final film, and as we reflect on the years we shared with members of Dumbledore’s Army, perhaps this is the takeaway: Seek.

Seek with all your heart and all your soul and with your closest friends by your side.

If you do, you may find yourself on an unpredictable path to places you never knew existed. You may meet people so unlike you that they could be properly called a centaur and you a house elf. You may walk into a dark and forbidden forest. You may battle your greatest enemy.

Through all of that, you may very well find love. And at the end, you may conclude, as J.K. Rowling did, that “All was well.” Kind of sounds like Christianity, doesn't it?

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Christianity • Movies • Opinion

soundoff (703 Responses)
  1. Tonelok

    @CNN: I would like to apply for a position as an editor with your website. Your lack of grammatical accuracy and spelling is appalling. I figure I don't even need to send a resume, seeing that most other applicants have the education of a fifth grader.
    .
    Please consider my proposal, or do something to actually make it fun to read your articles. I just feel mad afterwards.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • CNN

      Sorry Tonelok. You are overqualified.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  2. HPReader

    In book 7, it is when Harry is digging Dobby's grave, without magic, as a testament to his love for him, that he realizes he will trust in Dumbledore's love. There's a lot to that– Dobby is a "lesser" creature, but always kind and full of love for Harry, and his death, more than anyone's, affirms Harry's quest.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  3. Chris

    Amazing. I am a Christian and I've read the whole Harry Potter series a few times. My wife's grandparents were missionairies in Africa (specifically Liberia and Kenya.) Her father grew up on the mission field and he loved the Harry Potter books as does my wife (who introduced me to them.)

    I think uber-fundamentalists need to relax. I think they need to understand, there's a difference between practicing witchcraft and being entertained by a story. After all, how many of them have seen a Disney movie? How is Harry Potter not in the same vein as any Disney movie? It has the same concepts of any fairytale. Evil villian who wants to destroy everything the hero holds dear, but the hero, though outmatched, manages to conquor evil by perserverence and love.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
    • Artist

      "I think uber-fundamentalists need to relax. I think they need to understand, there's a difference between practicing witchcraft and being entertained by a story."
      .
      You expect too much from fanatics or the Christian Taliban

      July 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
    • JD

      I agree that the "magic" is no more troublesome than the science fiction of other movies. That said, the story's moral messages, and particularly this author's take on them, do conflict with Christianity. Then again, so do the messages of many other movies.

      July 13, 2011 at 6:07 pm |
  4. Cathy W

    I picked up the HP books long before I had ever heard of conservitive Christians condemning it, and found the books wonderful. The struggle between good and evil, where good eventually triumphs. Where people do the right thing, even when it's very very difficult, and they face great opposition. I was then pretty flabbergasted when I heard that a few conservative Christians condemned the books due to the obviously fictional powers of the main characters. It made me realize how much more conservative the world has gotten since the 1970s, where kids were free to enjoy Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, etc. I've never met a single person who truly believe he or she would have the powers that these characters did, though we all wished we could.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Chris

      Cathy, I think you're right in certain aspects. The world has gotten, in some cases, more conservative, but I think the majority of the world has gotten more liberal and permissive. I think the 1960s really changed a lot of standards and viewpoints. And I think the fundamentalists are reacting. It's simple physics. Each action has an equal and opposite reaction. So the more permissive society gets, the more certain people will respond.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Frogist

      @CathyW: I don't think it's particularly a matter of growing conservatism that was why certain Christians railed against Harry. I think those lunatics were always there and are still here. They are just more vocal. But still as hypocritical. There is no outrage over Narnia. Or The Sorcerer's Apprentice. Or Twilight. Even though they all have mystical or magical elments. They see big bad evil in anything that can tell a tale of morality that they cannot claim for themselves. JKR has always said she wrote the books not to preach to children. And refuses to specifically link Harry to any religious influence. Considering how popular Harry has been for over ten years, they were always going to be p'o'ed.

      July 13, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  5. colin

    This tells me how haunted and superst.itious your average theists is. They actually take offense at the Harry Potter movies!! Schoolchildren regard them as mere fairytales, but grown men are concerned by them.

    Wow, just wow!

    In this vein,which of the following is sillier and why?

    Harry Potter walked into the magic cave. There he saw the wizard, dressed in his purple robe. The wizard raised the golden goblet of wine to the sky. He spoke the magic words of the sacred ceremony to the sky fairy in the heavens and the wine was turned into the blood of the great prophet." or

    Daniel Radcliffe walked into the church. There he saw the Catholic priest, dressed in his white robes. The priest raised the golden chalice of wine toward the sky. He spoke the sacred words of the Catholic mass to God in heaven and the wine was transformed into the blood of Christ."

    July 13, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
  6. Anotheralt

    The devil is definitely in the details here. It's just another example of how some people put faith not in what the Bible says, but rather how it reads. It seems that Biblical literalists believe that whatever interpretation/version/contextualization of the Bible they're reading, or more often hearing about, is actually the direct word and will of God. Therefore, claiming that all sorcerers are unholy without understanding why they're unholy seems perfectly natural. It is, of course, not rational or reasonable, but neither is faith by its nature. Some of the base values presented in Harry Potter are similar to the values that Christians hold. Really, the only evidence we see of characters in the books claiming such zealous faith without question are the actions of the Death Eaters; they wouldn't dream of questioning the Dark Lord. One could say that Harry Potter is a scathing commentary on blind faith, and asks that people do good works that are both thoughtful and faithful.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      The bible is ancient mythology. Nothing more. Get a brain people.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • Abby Normal

      Go Feed your horse troll.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:46 pm |
    • Anotheralt

      You either: didn't read post, didn't understand it, or weren't talking to me. Which is it, Luis?

      July 13, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
    • Bill

      Luis: You can't be an educated person and not have a basic understanding of the world's great religions, of which Christianity is but one. Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and the many diverse sects of Christianity all have very interesting ideas about humanity, how to live in a community, and how to deal with things you can't control. Even Atheism has some interesting ideas. You don't have to believe in some all powerful mystical being(s) but you can take the ideas from these religions and apply them to your own life as you see fit.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:58 pm |
    • Mel B

      With that in mind, would you call a Pagan evil? A Witch even? That's what we're all about. Growing and improving upon ourselves so that we can send that love and work into the world to improve the state of things by our deeds and words, to treat others better, to be open minded and open hearted even in the face of those who are so blinded by their beliefs they breed hate and contempt for anything and anyone who is beyond their very narrow view of the world. I was raised Catholic and in my darkest hours all that teaching and training abandoned me. Later I struggled with the first death of my closest relative, my Grandmother, and again I was at a loss to understand what just happened, even at 27. The spiritual path that came to me was paganism, and suddenly I got it. I understood the love of a higher power and how that applies to all of us. Removing all the dogma and rhetoric and everything clicked into place. Would you call that evil?

      July 13, 2011 at 12:59 pm |
    • JD

      It's funny how whether a person's faith is blind is solely determined by his critics.

      July 13, 2011 at 6:08 pm |
  7. love not hate

    I love how people take this seriously... It's great entertainment.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  8. EKP

    Everyone needs to take a chill pill. Seriously.

    It's like Miracle Whip: you love it or hate it.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  9. Tonelok

    @Alvin Wimperton, Dean of Religious Studies at Yale
    .
    epic win

    July 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  10. Mcrunner34

    I think Harry Potter evokes such a strong response from people is because we are designed to want significance. I've never met an atheist or Christian who didn't want to feel significant. In Potter's story that significance ended up not coming from being a great wizard (or its power), it came from his loved ones, his community. Love, in it's fullest, came from people who died for something great, for their friend Harry.
    Christ said that love, at it's finest, is sacrifical. His life spoke of it.
    I think most people forget what theology means: what you and I think about God. The theology we see in Potter books are: people looking for significance and a war with evil. Looking for significance is always more complicated than we would like it to be.
    The ultimate wisdom for any person is to seek.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
  11. Loren

    The secret of the theology of the Potterverse is that there is never any explicit theology there. Ms. Rowling isn't trying to convert anybody to anything; she's trying to tell a story, to create characters we can empathize with and challenge them to surpass themselves.

    As for those who claim that "witches are evil," first, you're mistranslating Leviticus. That particular verse was about well-poisoners. Second, you're ignoring Jesus in the Gospels when he says, "These things that I do, you can do also, and greater things can you do." Water into wine, walking on water...flying on broomsticks. Why not? Jesus says you can.

    If someone does a good thing, I don't care Whose name s/he does it in. Nor do I care Whose name is invoked when evil is done. Good is good, and evil is evil. When the labels become more important than the deeds...I believe that you've lost your way.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • dnfromge

      Well said

      July 13, 2011 at 1:15 pm |
    • Frogist

      Well said, Loren!

      July 13, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  12. Luis Wu

    Who cares what stupid Christians think. They believe in ancient mythology as if it actually had something to do with reality. Hopefully with time, people will finally use logic and reason to judge nonsense like that instead of blindly accepting it just because a lot of other people do. It's a waste of time and effort to even write articles like this, nobody cares what ignorant Christians think.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Sam

      YOU obviously cared enough to come here, read the article and take time to post something bitter and sarcastic about Christians~

      July 13, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • s2kMATTers

      That's right Wu-tang, keep spouting off opinions, not facts, that you cannot back up.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      I will oppose ignorance and stupidity at every opportunity. You retards vote, that affects me because you vote for blah blah blah, mumbo jumbo spouting politicians that will work to implement your ignorant agenda. I have to live with those laws even though they're stupid. Christianity, like all religions, is nothing more than ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by primitive, ignorant people. If you want to believe in an invisible, supernatural being in the sky, fine. Go ahead and wallow in your delusinary fantasy world. But keep your stupid mythology out of my life.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:35 pm |
    • W247

      Luis – before you start calling people "primitive and ignorant" you should probably step back and take a closer look at the word "maturity and tolerant" as it applies to your life.

      The Jewish people were the most well read and literate people of their time. Their children were taught how to read, write and discuss the important issues of the day at an early age. What do we teach our children now? How to get to the next level of the most current video game.

      July 13, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Frogist

      @W247: Hey! I considering video game competency I highly important skill. How will you know about koopas and deku nuts unless someone tells you? You need to train your brain like it was a Pokemon. Otherwise one day you're driving along in your car and you get blind-sided by turtle shell! Facts of life, man. Facts of life.

      But in all seriousness there are things to be learned from video game interaction like perseverance, fair play, creativity and more. Just nit-picking on you rpost.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:12 pm |
    • W247

      Dude- Atari came out when I was 10 yo. LOVED video games! Spent many hours playing games, buying games and hanging out at the arcade. Video games are great! However my point was that people shouldn't just throw out statements without really understanding or researching what they are commenting on.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
    • Frogist

      @W247: Fair enough! You're totally right. Nice to see another gamer on here. 🙂

      July 13, 2011 at 6:11 pm |
  13. Alvin Wimperton, Dean of Religious Studies at Yale

    Hello and good morning. As the Chancellor of Yale, I am proud to announce the expansion of our "Pointless Fluffy Religious Studies Classes" series! Due to the overwelming success of Professor Tumminio's masterpiece of pointless fluff, "The Nexus of Christian Theology and Harry Potter," we have added the following classes to our theology curriculum:

    "Fear and Loathing in the Vatican" A study into how hallucinogenic drugs make Catholicism seem even more like a bad trip.

    "SpongeBob's Pilgrimage to Mecca" How SpongeBob's relentless optimism in the face of grumps like Mr. Crabs and Squidward leads him to Allah's divine mercy.

    "Plan 9 From Outer Utah" The parallels between a badly-made movie and a badly-made religion.

    "Jesus: The Original Transformer" How Jesumus Prime battles Satans and his gay decepticons for control for the universe.

    Some have criticized us for losing direction, but since Harry Potter is as real as all of the other Gods and supernatural beings, it only makes sense to read absurd things into his texts as well. And of course, Religious Studies students are not looking for reality anyway, just the affirmation of their existing delusions.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • NOT MY CHAIR

      lol awesome!

      July 13, 2011 at 12:40 pm |
    • Laughing

      Seriously,

      I would take Jesus: The Original Transformer.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Abby Normal

      ::bows down::

      July 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Misha Gastonai

      I guess Yale also has a masters program in arrogance and elitism.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:44 pm |
    • colin

      That was funny.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
    • Frogist

      LOL! @Alvin Emeritus. But I would think Twilight would work better for Catholicism with all the blood drinking and abstinence education. Even if it is written by a mormon.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:19 pm |
  14. NOT MY CHAIR

    if imaginary powers of a warlock and imaginary people are the "enemies of god" wouldn't that lead to the line of reason that god is imaginary? fake things pose no threat to real things only other fake things...

    July 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
  15. recreative

    Thanks for your take on the spiritual themes that excite us and inspire us in the Harry Potter series. I penned a related blog post on the draw to make a pilgrimage through, and to see, the Harry Potter movies and books – http://blog.chron.com/sacredduty

    July 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  16. pplr

    "BRod
    I'm a Christian and I got caught up in the anti-Harry Potter hype until I actually read the books for myself, and realized that the same Christians griping about HP, were the ones griping about He-Man and Care Bears and Rainbow Brite in the 80's. And that the magic in HP had nothing to do with real witchcraft, except for use of the word "witchcraft".

    I have read all the books and seen all the previous movies and am looking forward to seeing this last film.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:21 pm"

    One of the best posts so far.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:38 pm |
  17. Abby Normal

    CNN....why? Really, seriuosly, why?
    Well, I know why, but can't you be better?

    July 13, 2011 at 12:37 pm |
  18. Rjhildy

    Grasping at straws to compare things like Harry Potter to religion. People like this author really are just pathetic, and I honestly believe they make the world less intelligent.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:35 pm |
  19. Leviathan

    The Bible isn't fiction but a godless universe is.

    PSA 10:4 "In his pride the wicked does not seek him; in all his thoughts
    there is no room for God."

    PSA 9:17 "The wicked return to the grave, all the nations that forget God."

    July 13, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • FSM4LIFE

      Quoting the Bible to "prove" that the Bible is true....always a great strategy. Awesome.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
    • Craig

      Cuckoo

      July 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      The bible is ancient mythology, written thousands of years ago by primitive, ignorant people. And only unintelligent, ignorant people believe it today.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:42 pm |
    • Vulpes

      The Bible isn't fiction? Why? Because you say so. Why to you say so? Because the Bible isn't fiction.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:49 pm |
    • DAT67

      @FSM4LIFE – You're looking for logic. Belief in the Bible is an act of faith – it has NOTHING to do with logic. (In fact, logic is almost an enemy of the faithful.)

      July 13, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
    • FSM4LIFE

      DAT67, trust me, I know better than to look for logic in the Bible(or in its followers). I was merely pointing out the stupidity of trying to convince people that the Bible is correct simply because the Bible says so. "The Night Before Christmas" is a beloved book throughout the United States. Does the existence of that book prove the existence of Santa? By the original poster's logic, yes it does.

      July 13, 2011 at 5:47 pm |
  20. Tonelok

    She never says HP has anything to do with the Bible, she is simply commentating on the slight hypocracy of Christian leaders who have said that HP is devil work and shouldn't be read. It is parelleled with the struggle christians face to keep their faith in God(love in HP).
    .
    That is the only real comparison she has made, she doesn't mention Jesus at all in her commentary, nor the bible. Good Grief
    .
    There is no death, there is only the force.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:33 pm |
    • Melanie

      Hypocricy of Christian leaders who have said that HP is devil work and shouldn't be read? Perhaps they should go back and read about the Witch of Endor. The Harry Potter series holds to more Christian principals than most "Christians" I know.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:39 pm |
    • Bill

      The author doesn't talk about "hypocracy" at all. She's basically defending the series by stating that there are Christian themes in the Harry Potter series even though Rowling doesn't come out and say it or even use Christian imagery.

      July 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.