Hello Hogshead readers! It’s been awhile since I’ve had the honor of getting to share in your conversations, so it’s great to be back with you!
Since I last posted on the Hogshead, there have been many changes in my life: I got married in September and ordained as a priest in The Episcopal Church in January. Both of those are tremendous joys.
But perhaps most exciting for fans of Harry and his friends is that my first book, God and Harry Potter at Yale: Teaching Faith and Fantasy Fiction in an Ivy League Classroom, was released in December and hearing from passionate fans has been one of the most rewarding parts of seeing the book in print. I’m especially grateful to Travis for doing some really astute editing and for letting me discuss some of the ideas that appear in the book on The Hogshead a couple of years ago.
What I thought I’d do today is tell you all a bit of the story of God and Harry Potter at Yale and pave the way for some future conversations about Christianity and the Harry Potter series. So what do you say—are you up for a discussion that would keep even Ron from falling asleep and have Hermione’s hand flying up with enthusiasm?
The tale of God and Harry Potter at Yale began three years ago when I was a poor graduate student living in the attic apartment of two Yale professors. In exchange for cooking several meals a week, I received free rent, which allowed me to stay in school and finish my master’s degree. In the summer of 2008, I decided to apply to teach in the College Seminar Program at Yale, which allows non-Yale professors to teach a course at the university, provided that you are either an expert in your field or in your final year of graduate study. I qualified as the latter. Since I majored in English, was working on a master’s in theology, and loved the Harry Potter novels, teaching a course on Christian themes in the series seemed like a natural fit. After all, there had been so much debate in about whether or not the books were heretical that I felt it was important to weigh in…but from a different perspective.
See, most of the discussion about whether or not the series was heretical revolved around witchcraft. Here’s how most of it went:
A. Many of the characters use witchcraft.
B. The Bible condemns witchcraft.
C. Therefore, the books are heretical.
As a theologian, I had some problems with this logic. Here were my thoughts:
A’. The characters are witches and wizards, but that’s not the only thing they are. They have many other personality traits, some of which seem much more definitive of their personality. For instance, Hermione was definitely smart first and a witch second.
B’. The Bible condemns withcraft not because witchcraft in and of itself is bad but because people use it in an idolatrous way. In other words, they use it to create powers for themselves because they want to become gods. Now, this is like saying that a blood transfusion is morally wrong. A blood transfusion is a technology without moral value, just like your refrigerator doesn’t have moral value. It’s how we use it that defines it as good or bad—if you save a life with a blood transfusion, that’s good. If you purposefully use blood tainted with AIDS to make the recipient sick, well, that’s bad.
C’. In light of these two critiques, it seemed to me that the books weren’t necessarily heretical.
But that didn’t mean that there wasn’t more work to be done! And that’s where the course came in. I wanted to create a class where students could ask, in detail, whether or not the books supported a Christian worldview. That meant considering all sorts of topics in Christianity, everything from sin to salvation. So each week revolved around a theme from Christian thought—say evil. Students would read historic and contemporary Christian perspectives on evil alongside the Harry Potter series. Then we’d come to class and discuss them.
Initially there was some skepticism about the class. I was asked repeatedly whether there would be enough substance to the course (I replied that with 2000 years of Christian tradition and 7 Harry Potter novels, the real question was whether there was too much). One student even went so far as to tell the Yale Daily News that a course on theology and Harry Potter was a joke.
In the end, however, the course was offered and when 72 undergraduates showed up on the first day to vie for the 18 slots, I knew that the student body was giving the course a thumbs up for academic integrity. And as for the students who got to take the course? Well, I’m thrilled to say that many of them said it was the best class they’d taken at Yale, and one of them, three years later, told me she still talks about material from the course.
In the next few weeks, I’m excited to get to share some of the themes we covered in the course with you all. But in the meantime: let me know if there are particular topics you’d like to see covered. After all, there’s nothing better than an interactive classroom!