Once more, into the Harry Potter religion debates!
But first, a word from long ago, care of one of the featured speakers at Nimbus 2003 in Orlando, the first global convention dedicated to academic (and semi-academic) studies of the canonical texts of J.K. Rowling. Yes, I was there, with a notepad and my marked-up copies of a Potter text, or two.
The speaker was Lee Hillman of Rochester, N.Y., a pagan believer known as "Gwendolyn Grace, Minister of Magic" to the throng of 600 gathered at Disney’s Swan Hotel. She was dressed in a spectacular purple witch’s robe and hat. Let us attend:
"There is no relationship set up in the Harry Potter books between magic and religion," said Hillman. … "This had to be a deliberate decision by J.K. Rowling. ... She is using literary conceits drawn from throughout Western culture."
She scanned the crowd at a panel discussion last weekend entitled "Harry Potter: Witchcraft? Pagan Perspectives." ...
"There is nothing in these books that relates magic to any particular religion," said Hillman. "There is no connection. None. None. Zero. ... They are not really about witchcraft."
Ah, but what are the books about? All kinds of people have found all kinds of messages in these books in the past and that phenomenon, clearly, is continuing. I say that because of an interesting Boston Globe news feature that ran the other day under the head, “Could Harry Potter become a spiritual leader?”
Could? Is there any question that many people have already treated Rowling’s work as semi-holy? The key to this story shows up really early on:
A Cambridge podcast treats the boy wizard’s story as holy and reflects on life’s big questions using the seven-book series by J.K. Rowling as a guide.
The online show, “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” currently holds the number one spot on iTunes’s religion and spirituality charts, ahead of best-selling author and televangelist Joel Osteen. Launched in May, the 25-minute Potter-cast draws about 100,000 listeners a week.
Cohosted by Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, the podcast is resonating with fans, many of whom fell for the books as children and have always felt a special kinship with the characters.
“A lot of what we’ve heard [from listeners] is that this validates the way many people have always felt about Harry Potter,” said Zoltan, 34, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard and the Humanist Hub. “But they’ve never felt comfortable articulating it.”
The show is recorded weekly at Harvard as the hosts thoughtfully examine passages from the text. Among the questions the podcast seeks to answer: What would Harry Potter do?
To make a long story short, these podcasts and discussion groups are clearly applying what millions of other believers would recognize as a Bible-study format to handling all things Potter.
What this particular Potter operation has going for it is the Harvard connection, which is the kind of thing that gets people noticed by journalists and other parts of the chattering classes. I can totally understand that. This is a solid story about an interesting mini-trend.
What amazed me about this story, however, was the fact that it ignored the years of debates that have already taken place about this topic.
The Globe story avoids the elements of the books that are clearly religious, such as Bible quotations, character names linked to Christian saints, references to Medieval Catholic traditions, etc., etc. The story ignores the fact that numerous other writers have already produced religious study materials -- even Sunday school lessons -- based on themes and messages in the Potter canon. And what about Rowling’s own statements about her rather liberal form of Christian faith and the origins of the books in her grief, and questions about life after death, following the suffering and death of her mother?
Let me be clear: There was no need to dedicate a massive chunk of this perfectly valid story to the past. But why not include at least a few paragraphs that let readers know that the folks in this particular Humanist circle are exploring a path that others have already walked?
Does anyone on the Globe team know how to use an online search program?
Trust me, there's plenty of material out there. Almost a decade ago, I wrote this three-part summary of the ongoing religious education debates about the Potter universe, starting with reactions from official Anglican educators:
* Like the Church of England educators, some supporters say the Potter books can -- at the very least -- be mined as acceptable sources of stories to help teach young people about faith. One early evangelical book making this case, "The Gospel According to Harry Potter" by Connie Neal, was blacklisted in many Christian bookstores.
* While Catholics have debated the merits of Rowling's work, a Vatican voice on culture has said the novels portray clashes between good and evil in a manner consistent with Christianity. Speaking in 2003, Father Peter Fleetwood noted that the author is "Christian by conviction, is Christian in her mode of living, even in her way of writing."
Rowling has confirmed that she is a Christian and a communicant in the Church of Scotland, which has Presbyterian roots. In one oft-quoted interview, she told a Canadian newspaper: "Every time I've been asked if I believe in God, I've said, 'yes,' because I do. But no one ever really has gone any more deeply into it than that and, I have to say that does suit me."
Thus, this group of Potter supporters argues that Rowling is a Christian ... who has chosen to write mainstream books containing Christian symbols and language. In other words, she is a Christian who writes books, but not "Christian books."
* Some go further and find elements of overt Christian storytelling – especially in the new "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows." They may, for example, see parallels between Potter's willingness to surrender his life to save others from the evil Lord Voldemort and the redemptive sacrifice made by the Christ figure in "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" by Lewis.
There's more. In a pivotal baptism sequence, Potter dives into deadly waters to recover a sword -- described as a "great silver cross" -- required to destroy evil treasures.
The Humanist circle close to Harvard is taking a similar approach, only applying a different set of lenses when it comes to culture and world religions. If anything, this story suggests that debates about Potter exegesis will continue for years to come.
Readers are told, for example:
They discuss a chapter each week. Now 17 chapters into “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” the first book in the series, the hosts have already discussed bullying, regret, and white privilege. ...
The podcast conversation usually isn’t planned. The hosts have employed the Jewish practice of Havruta, in which a religious text is interpreted by two people asking a question and discussing possible answers. They’ve also invoked the devotional practice of a 12th-century Carthusian monk that involves choosing a line from the text, reading it four times and asking questions of it. ...
Many months from now, they will discuss one of Zoltan’s favorite moments: when Harry walks the woods to confront the evil Lord Voldemort in the final book. There, as Harry contemplates his mortality, the 17-year-old wizard stops to smell the grass.
“It’s such an amazing moment,” Zoltan said. “Harry realizing how beautiful the world is and the ability to smell grass is almost a Buddhist meditation on being present.”
Like I said, this is a valid story about an interesting many trend -- one with a Harvard stamp on it, sort of.
But why completely ignore what Rowling and others have said about these texts?