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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. QS

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

    All may be well, but it sounds nothing like Christianity honestly. Why is it, that even a seemingly rationally thinking person like the author of this article will still abandon rationality in order to latch onto the irrational? Why when religious people start to sound like they have some common sense about things, like saying it's community and love that see us through tough losses, do they then have to lessen the impact of that philosophy by claiming that "community and love" can only be obtained by those who are seeking god?

    Also, according to Rowling herself, Dumbledore was gay....curious if you ever bring that subject up in your class. How would a devout Christian, who is also fully invested in the Harry Potter saga, reconcile that? Seems to me that many Christians would instantly accuse Dumbledore of being incapable of teaching children due to him being gay; that he shouldn't be allowed to even be around children due to being gay; or that, before being allowed to be around children he must submit himself to "reparative therapy" at Bachmann's "clinic"....he'd be attacked for being a perverted pedophile who is an abomination and as such should not be allowed to obtain a wand for fear that he may begin using the Imperius curse on the kids at school to make them all believe they are gay!

    Harry Potter and Christianity are similar in at least one way...they are works of fiction that other people wrote, both of which depict and illustrate the human condition in varying ways from the perspective of the characters. But as ridiculous as it seems that we would adopt the Harry Potter theology as a religion, holding on to Christianity as a religion seems just as ridiculous to me.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:16 pm |
    • Laughing

      I want to personally believe she ended it that way because it was more poetic than actually sensical, because you're right, all is most certainly not well with christianity, but the last line sure does have a nice ring to it.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  2. MED

    An interesting and accurate analysis, but I don't think the author goes far enough in the connections she might make between Harry Potter and Christian theology. Harry is not just a symbol of the Christian Everyman – but hs is also a kind of Christ figure. Here's a lovely blog post on the subject from The Rabbit Room: http://www.rabbitroom.com/2011/07/harry-potter-jesus-and-me/

    July 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
  3. Luis Wu

    Harry Potter novels are fiction. The bible is fiction, ancient mythology, nothing more. So read the bible in the same frame of mind that you do Harry Potter and there won't be a problem.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  4. dreucalypt

    A beautiful, thoughtful reflection on a book whose depth took me by surprise.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
  5. CBSmtih

    I won't take issue with the wording of the Bible, but what I feel is happening in many cases of religious resistance to the HP series in many cases is based on the selfish desire of the individual. To explain, the more zealous the believer, the more concerned that believer is in making it to heaven. This type of person can't afford to let ANYTHING go by without commenting on it if they feel that it will impact the judgement on their entrance to heaven. It's personal and self-serving to attack HP, not an expression of faith. Read the books and say 'I don't care for them', then let it alone, rather than blasting it because you feel if you don't, you'll be given a demerit from the Almighty.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
  6. For all you know, i am Chuck Norris.

    it's a freaking children's book in which good triumphs over evil. how the heck can that be satanic in any way?

    July 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
  7. Veritas

    God is love and love will win. Yes, but what if we are all not on the right side of love. What if we have made ourselves the very enemy of love by our selfish, self-centered rebellion. But what if love bore the penalty that we deserved to make a way for us to come back. THAT is what Christianity is about. Love and a lot more.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Laughing

      are you comparing atheists with voldemort?....... BAHAHAHAHAHAAH

      Sorry, as a great man once said, "That dog won't hunt"

      July 13, 2011 at 1:11 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Veritas: Hmm... don't know if you've read the books but I think you should. The love in Harry Potter seems a lot more encompassing and forgiving than the thing you describe.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:34 pm |
  8. Floretta

    Harry Poster is an archetypal quest story, the young hero on a journey that seems to be about one thing but is really a journey of self-discovery. The hero is reluctant, challenged, driven to the brink, comes back again and again determined to see his quest through even when he doesn't necessarily understand it, accompanied by helpers and facing down mortal risks. Sound familiar? See Star Wars in our era; George Lucas acknowledged the influence of the late Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." Here's Campbell's quote on it: "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

    July 13, 2011 at 1:07 pm |
  9. Tom

    God is love; but love is not god.
    Don't be confused.

    July 13, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • DoubtingThomas

      That’s right. Love is real and God is not.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm |
    • DoubtingThomas

      If God is love – why will he let 16,000 innocent children die of starvation today? Oh, he only loves some people – usually self-centered fat Americans who think that life is about getting their reward. Not based on merit or deeds – no – on faith alone. He sure is a helluva guy 😉

      July 13, 2011 at 1:17 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      God is an imaginary being. Don't be confused.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • W247

      Doubting Thomas – and how are you helping those children? The bible tells us to take care of little children, which there are many Christians who are striving to take care of these young ones, supplying them with food, shelter and water. In a world that has turned it's back on the Lord, there are many who are willing to be used to do His will.

      July 13, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  10. Tom

    God is love; but love is not god.

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

      My love involves a lot of smiting.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:05 pm |
    • DoubtingThomas

      If God is love – why will he let 16,000 innocent children die of starvation today? Oh, he only loves some people – usually self-centered fat Americans who think that life is about getting their reward. Not based on merit or deeds – no – on faith alone. He sure is a helluva guy

      July 13, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
    • Chris

      Here is the problem with your argument, DoubtingThomas. You're trying to apply your own morals and standards to an immortal, spiritual diety. We can't even understand why other cultures do and believe the things they do, let alone a spiritual diety that has existed far before thought.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
    • Wow!

      Doubting Thomas, The reason that children are dying, etc, is that we live in a fallen world.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • W247

      Doubting Thomas – and how are you helping those children? The bible tells us to take care of little children, which there are many Christians who are striving to take care of these young ones, supplying them with food, shelter and water. In a world that has turned it's back on the Lord, there are many who are willing to be used to do His will.

      July 13, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
    • Another Doubting Thomas

      Doubting Thomas
      When backed into a corner, you can always count on the "God works in mysterious ways".

      July 13, 2011 at 4:02 pm |
    • Frogist

      @Doubting Thomas: Chris and Wow's arguments make me absolutely want nothing to do with that god.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • Another Doubting Thomas

      @Wow,
      You actually would have us think there were no tsunamis that hit Ja'pan BEFORE your Adam and Eve caused the world to "fall". So the babies just got in the way after the "fall". OMG

      July 13, 2011 at 8:14 pm |
  11. L.Kurt Engelhart

    I would suggest that another word for 'love' is 'solidarity.' To succeed at anything you have to commit yourself to relationships with purposes and people. When you have done it, it feels like 'love.'

    July 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  12. Tony

    The article was somewhat unfair to Lord of the Rings. While Tolkien was certainly inspired by doctrine – by his beliefs as a Catholic – he made a conscious effort to to NOT let his symbols become metaphor. He used a principle that he called "applicability" in his symbolism, which is another way of saying that his symbols were mythical archetypes. The scene near the end, for example, where Frodo is in Mt. Doom struggling to remove the ring: for Tolkien, this scene was inspired by the Lord's Prayer, but he intentionally wrote it as a symbol that could come alive in the reader's heart in its own way depending on who they were and where in their own journey. This is consistent with one of his motivations in writing the book. He was driven by the desire to explore how people of virtue would have lived in a world before what he believed to be divine revelation (i.e., the New Testament) yet existed.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:56 pm |
  13. Truth Teller

    II used to be ignorant of the real spiritual battle going on right now ! Its invisible so people with out spiritual minds can't grasp it. I used to think Harry p was harmless too. It unfortunatly bears the signiture of the arch deceiver, Satan.

    It reaks of satanism, wichcraft spiritualism etc. If people don't understand the state of the dead, they'll think that dead relitives can comunicate with them. and satans evil angels will be happy to provide the delusions. My Bible says " on that very day his breath go forth his thoughts perrish. PS. 146:4 K.J. There are sleeping and waiting for the resurection.
    ( there are 2 and you want to be at the 1st). So you can believe the lies. I'll cling to the Word of God, over the lies of men

    July 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
    • BB

      Well you completely missed the entire point of the article. Stop hiding behind your "religion" & learn about the true purpose of christianity, love.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • Anthony

      "II used to be ignorant of the real spiritual battle going on right now ! Its invisible so people with out spiritual minds can't grasp it. I used to think Harry p was harmless too. It unfortunatly bears the signiture of the arch deceiver, Satan." – This sounds like a quote from someone who is not only highly delusional, but also someone with no rational thought. Also please proofread your work before you submit it.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Zacula

      Right. So a story telling people that faith in love and each other is the key to defeating evil and bigotry is the work of a demon that seeks to destroy humanity and the rest of the world. Even if you were right, I'm kinda getting the feeling that said demon is probably very bad at his job. Self-destructive, if you will, since his methods actually run opposite to his goals. Basically, his plan to destroy the world and corrupt human morals by encouraging them to have faith in each other and turn away from evil is a very stupid one, if it is actually his. I personally do not believe in demons or hell or Satan, and I happen to be agnostic, so I think it was just a story based on years of European folklore with modern influences that happens to be very good.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • tommas

      "Its invisible so people with out spiritual minds can't grasp it." hahahahahahahahahahahahaha, im pretty sure delusional minds see invisible things.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:13 pm |
    • koboksue

      you say it says in PS the spirit has no thoughts from death til resurrection. but is says in John ch 5: 25-28 that "the dead shall hear the voice of the son of god", "all that are in the graves shall hear his voice". how can they hear if they have no thoughts and the spirit is not living?

      July 13, 2011 at 1:19 pm |
    • L.

      Have you ever read the books and studied the themes?If not, all you have to read the stories to understand where the author is coming from in this article. Burying your head in the sand, throwing bible quotes around, what does that do except keep you ignorant? Before mindlessly condemning Harry Potter, educate yourself.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • You need a mental holiday

      @truth teller – You are a lunatic. You need some serious mental health assistance, some anti-psychotic drug therapy and some time contemplating your belly button. When people like you start speaking you degrade your religious belief and turn it into some kind of cult. Harry Potter is fiction, it isn't real, if people read it and think it is real, then they too are in need of mental help.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
    • Another Doubting Thomas

      Do you know what caused you illness ?

      July 13, 2011 at 4:05 pm |
  14. Greg

    Yale pays you to teach a bunch of nonsense? Hmmm....

    July 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm |
  15. Iris

    All memorable literature relies on a battle between good and evil.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
  16. Karen

    wonderful article! Each of us should all be "seeking" every day. Always learning, always staying open to new ideas.....always using the critical thinking processes....

    July 13, 2011 at 12:51 pm |
    • Another Doubting Thomas

      Agree. Am not a believer type, but I loved the article.
      I'd take her class.

      July 13, 2011 at 4:06 pm |
  17. Iris

    In HP, there is no worship of deities demanding sacrifices to them. There is no worship of evil. Just because we can't do it, and we don't understand it, doesn't make the HP brand of magic into evil. There is also:

    “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke
    “One man's "magic" is another man's engineering. "Supernatural" is a null word.” Robert A. Heinlein

    July 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • Don F.

      Amen sister.

      HP has nothing to do with what are conventually understood to be witches and warlocks. (It would be interesting to note that most of those so branded were unjustly labeled as such - as a convenience to, in most cases, to justify evil).

      As a Christian I have found much that resonates with my understanding of my faith - sacrifice, character, deliberately choosing good over evil, eschewing predjudice, the proper place of gifts and status, the continual presence and power of evil often mascurading the guise of respectability, the corrupting influence of superiority and self righteousness, that our lives are something we embrace and grow into, and shape from the box of puzzle pieces we collect along the way.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:30 pm |
  18. Believe

    The author's intent was "to see whether the books really were heretical." I cannot judge the Potter books as I've never read them, but any Bible student would recognize this author's conclusions as a play on Christian truths from the Bible. "Seek with all your heart and all your soul and with your closest friends by your side" is a clear molestation of Deuteronomy 6:5 "You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and all your soul..." Christianity believes it is the LORD you should be seeking, not seeking some unpredictable path or some magical elf. The author's conclusions themselves are heretical. The Christian life as defined in the Bible is NOT about the journey, but rather the destination – Abba, Father, God – a living being. Any other conclusion is heretical. So let the flaming hit me, but this is conservative Christianity. The "seeking" and "journey" themes are postmodern idolatry with little basis in Christianity.

    July 13, 2011 at 12:50 pm |
    • DoubtingThomas

      Christianity stole all of its ideas from older religions. Ignorance and fear based Ideas like – just believe in superman, don’t think and everything will be alright were around for millennia before Jesus was even born. Early Christianity had to make the myth magical in order to compete with other rival religions.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:03 pm |
    • BB

      wrong, its very much about the journey

      July 13, 2011 at 1:04 pm |
    • Laughing

      "I cannot judge the Potter books as I've never read them"...... stopped reading after that. You're point is moot, just like your brain. If you expect to argue theology with an athiest, obviously he/she has to read the bible before stating an argument. Same applies here, doll. Pick up the HP books and I guarantee you won't be disappointed.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:08 pm |
    • Luis Wu

      People who believe in invisible, supernatural beings in the sky are not right in the head.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:09 pm |
    • Don F.

      If the journey were not important the bible would begin and end with the resurrection. All that other stuff, well it is just part of the journey.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:32 pm |
    • mayorkl

      Well, technically modern conservative Christianity has little to do with the core concepts of Christ's word, and far less to do with the idea of His teachings from Judaic standpoint. Also interesting – you use the term "molestation" rather than "paraphrasing" or "interpretation". Which Bible do you read from? King James? Or do you read in the original Aramaic or Greek or Latin? Perhaps your version is a "molestation" of the original Word. You don't know this, therefore should not judge so harshly. A wise man once said "Only God can judge me"...you should heed that idea, as it has true roots in the religion you claim.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:38 pm |
    • APJ

      Without the journey the destination is meaningless...

      July 13, 2011 at 2:01 pm |
    • Bucky Ball

      "The road is long and in the end, the journey IS the destination.”
      White'y Durham – One Tree Hill

      July 13, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  19. Josh

    Kind of reminds me all of those people who claim Star Trek is atheism. That's because these "Christens" define Christianity as going to a church for 1 hour on Sundays. Since none of the characters on Star Trek do this, they therefore must be all atheists. To these "Christens", it doesn't matter of the characters on Star Trek are portrayed as living a Christen life style or demonstrating Christen values. All that matters is that they don't go to church on Sundays and therefore MUST be aligned with Satan.

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

      What if they were Atheists would that make you think less of them? I also doubt characters like Counselor Troi, Jadiza Dax, and Worf were Christians since they were from other planets.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:21 pm |
  20. Luis Wu

    So, one book of imaginary beings is in conflict with another book of imaginary beings? I have the answer. Stop reading books about imaginary beings and there'll be no conflict.

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

      Luis, if you think Christians are stupid and you don't care what they think, why are you spending so much time reading about the "stupid things" and wasting your time spilling your bitter and sarcastic comments here, and digging out any Christian comments you can find to throw rocks at? Don't you have better things to do? You say you do, since Christians are stupid, but obviously you are contradicting yourself by spending so much time here reading "what stupid Christians think"...

      July 13, 2011 at 1:00 pm |
    • DoubtingThomas

      He never said “stupid” like you claim. However, you have just proved your own conclusion. By the way your Christian defensiveness only makes your point of view seem more fanatical and less valid.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:10 pm |
    • Dave

      Sam,

      Because you people vote. Therefore what you think affects our lives since far too many politicians run on religious tickets. It shouldn't, I'm all for christians living their desired lifestyle. The rest of us like books of fantasy and wizardry. We like equality. We like critical thinking. We like science. We like problem solving. We want to be free to live as we see fit as well. Call it heresy, it is our right.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:18 pm |
    • Chris

      Wait a minute, Dave...with all due respect, you're painting all Christians with the same brush! I enjoy critical thinking, science and the like. I also enjoy fiction. Heck, I am an avid roleplayer (i.e. Dungeons & Dragons) and the like. Sure, there are fundamentalists who yell and scream loudly.

      Amazingly enough, I -believe- in the seperation of church and state. I don't want the government affecting my spiritual beliefs. I agree wtih the First Amendment, and that J.K. Rowling should be able to publish her book, regardless of what a few pastors and a vast minority of Christians actually think. I just also believe, at the end of the day, there is a God and that He loves humanity. At the end of the day, I understand that I can't understand everything, and it gives me peace to know that "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. " Romans 8:28.

      Critical thought and Christianity are not mutually exclusive and to be honest, it's a bit offensive to imply that they are.

      July 13, 2011 at 1:41 pm |
    • Chris Meece

      Fool

      July 13, 2011 at 1:42 pm |
    • Dave

      Sorry Chris, not at all my intention. I know some very respectful people who are of varying religions. I was more focused on those specifically trying to cram their god down the throats of the masses. You know, the ones that completely miss the point of "a personal relationship with god"

      July 13, 2011 at 5:27 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.