One thing we have wanted to do on this blog from the beginning is publish new essays on other books that “have, should, or will create Christian culture.” My first essay in that series will almost certainly be about Ragan Sutterfield’s Farming as a Spiritual Discipline, a 46-page book that took me 14 days to read because I kept tossing it across the room with a mix of awe (at how fabulous the book was) and frustration (because now I was going to have to live differently). But, alas, I have day job deadlines that take priority, so I won’t be able to write it until the new year. In the meantime, I’m looking ahead to future essays, which is why I started re-reading the Harry Potter series last week.
I know many conservative Christians have a problem with the Harry Potter books. I don’t agree with their criticisms and fears, and it makes me a little sad that they’re missing out, but I recognize where they are coming from. On the other hand, I’m intrigued by this new book God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom, by Danielle Tumminio. Tumminio has two Master’s degrees from the Yale divinity school, and she is ordained in the Episcopal Church. God and Harry Potter at Yale grew out of a college course she led that used Harry Potter to teach Christian theology.
The co-editor of CNN’s Belief Blog wrote in a recent article that Tumminio “asserts Harry Potter is [a] good Christian.” In the very next line, the co-editor writes, “Tumminio argues Potter lives a life that lines up with Christian values.” Being a Christian and living a life that lines up with Christian values are two very different things. I know non-believers who live lives aligned with Christian values, and I know Christians who don’t, including me much of the time. So does Tumminio actually suggest that Harry Potter is a Christian? It’s impossible to determine from the CNN article, but I look forward to reading the book, which is in the mail.
Re-reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone I paused several times to acknowledge to the empty room how much fun I was having, but also to reflect on some of the book’s legitimately profound moments. For example, Professor Albus Dumbledore leading the students at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in the school song, and then saying “Ah, music. A magic beyond all we do here!” And Professor Dumbledore again, reflecting on the sacrifice of an ancient wizard who gave up immortality (he had found the magical world’s equivalent of the fountain of youth) for the greater good: “After all, to the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
And the chapter in which Harry, three other students, and Hagrid the Hogwarts gamekeeper are looking through the Forbidden Forest for a murdered unicorn. They meet a centaur and ask if he has seen anything. “Always the innocent are the first victims,” the centaur says. “So it has been for ages, so it is now.” The truth of this statement is revealed by even a casual glance of the daily headlines. I also happened to read this chapter on December 28, which is the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the day the Church remembers the slaughter of the male infants in Bethlehem.
Frankly, it doesn’t matter a lot to me whether Harry Potter is a Christian. If J.K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series, intended her hero to be a Christian, if she intended a specifically Christian faith to play a role in his adventures, she buried it so deep in her characterization as to be almost undetectable. (Kind of like Professor Dumbledore’s homosexuality, which Rowling revealed after the seventh and final book had been released, to the surprise of basically everyone.) But I think I agree with Tumminio when she tells CNN: “I see [Harry Potter] best as a seeker in a world where Christianity is not the vocabulary. I see him best as a seeker trying to live a life of faith in the same way a Christian seeker tries to live a life [of] grace.”
Update: Maybe Rowling didn’t bury the Christianity so deep. Maybe I am just too thick to see what is right in front of my eyes. Check out this great interview with Rowling, from MTV of all places, for more on Harry Potter’s Christian imagery. And then check out the Hogwarts Professor blog – not because it deals specifically with the topic of Christian imagery in Harry Potter, though it does sometimes get into that, but because it takes the series seriously and treats it within the broader context of English literature. It’s primary author is a guy named John Granger, a last name that has become synonymous with integrity and intellectual courage.