In an attic apartment during my last year of graduate school at Yale, I ate pizza with two friends and crafted a syllabus for the Harry Potter and Christian Theology course. My plan: de-emphasize witchcraft -- which previously dominated Christian perspectives on the series -- and focus on a variety of other topics in theology, including forgiveness, salvation and grace. Reframing would allow for richer, deeper analysis, letting students visit not just one small country but the entire globe of theology so that they could decide for themselves whether the books supported a Christian worldview.
But the proposal initially met with skepticism. Popular culture isn't often included in a liberal arts curriculum, nor is an introduction to theology typically taught alongside literature many perceive to be for children. In fact, one student who participated in the selection process said of my idea: "The committee had a good laugh over the Harry Potter proposal" because it was "not something you could talk about for 13 weeks."
And yet, between 2,000 years of theologians with their fast-firing synapses, logical savvy and critically constructed thoughts, and seven volumes of J.K. Rowling's nuanced prose, there is more than enough fodder for discussion. Consider, for instance, whether there's a God-figure in the series. This is the first issue my students question and it becomes the fundamental one in the course. Classical theologians define God using three characteristics: omnipotence, omniscience and omnibenevolence (otherwise known as the Three Os). Yet it's hard to think of a person within the series who possesses all three qualifications.
Every potential Christ-figure in the series falls short of at least one criterion. Harry, for instance, lacks full knowledge (omniscience) or he would have known the whereabouts of all the Horcruxes, while Dumbledore lacks omnipotence, or else he would have had the power to defeat the Death Eaters and their Dark Lord himself. Lily Potter's death -- while making her fully human -- precludes her from being fully divine on the omnipotence count, and Severus Snape lacks not only in omniscience but also in omnibenevolence. Every character my students consider meets obstacles such as these.
Yet what if the search for a God-figure wasn't limited to people? After all, God is ephemeral, transcendental, somehow beyond human. Looking for God beyond human form opens the possibility that something more abstract might fit the bill, something like love. Many of my students come to the conclusion that love is the closest approximation to God in Harry Potter, in part because God is defined as love in Christian tradition (1 John 4:16). Of course it goes without saying that love is all-good, but love also guides the operation and has the power to defeat Voldemort. Even in the first book, the reader sees evidence of love's God-likeness when Dumbledore tells Harry:
Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn't realize that love as powerful as your mother's for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no not a visible sign ... to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed, and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reason. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good (SS, 299).
Intriguingly, love's identity as something God-like within the series is a departure from other 20th-century fantasy books with theological overtones, most notably "The Chronicles of Narnia," which depict God as a being (i.e. Aslan). This fact is not lost on my students. Why is that significant? My sense is that presenting God as an abstract concept resonates for many non-Christians who live in an era of skepticism. In other words, to describe God like this tracks for contemporary seekers in our scientific age who shy away from personifications of God because they feel too unrealistic.
Interestingly, if God is imaged as a force, the devil is not. In our section on Eucharistic theology, the moment when Voldemort regains his body with Wormtail's invocation grabs my students' attention:
Flesh -- of the servant -- w-willingly given -- you will -- revive your master ... B-blood of the enemy ... forcibly taken ... you will ... resurrect your foe (GOF, 641-2).
Few miss the connection when they then read Jesus' lines at the Last Supper: "This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me" and "This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant of my blood" (NRSV, Lk. 22:19-20). It seems as if Voldemort's words are quite literally the opposite of Jesus': Whereas Jesus gives his body and blood for the eternal life of many, Voldemort demands the bodily sacrifices of many for his own revival. In this way, he is quite literally the opposite of Jesus.
Intriguingly, in the last moments of Voldemort's life, Harry gives his anti-Christ enemy a last chance at redemption: "I'd advise you to think about what you've done," Harry says. "Think, and try for some remorse" (DH, 741). So it would seem that when it comes to forgiveness, even the most damaged creatures in the wizarding world are given the possibility of wholeness if they repent. Restoration, then, is not for a chosen elect but for those who take the opportunity to choose.
If salvation is offered to all in the Harry Potter series, there is still the matter of figuring out who does the saving in the Harry Potter series. In Christian theology, it is Jesus who saves through his work on the cross and resurrection. Most Christians define Christ as being fully God and fully human, largely thanks to the medieval reflections of Anselm of Canterbury. For Christ to be fully human means that Jesus cognitively developed over time just like any child maturing to adulthood does, and it also means that he was made of flesh as vulnerable as ours. For Jesus to be fully God means he possesses the same Three O characteristics mentioned above.
So, is there anyone in the series that meets these criteria? The short answer is: No, there is not, for the same reasons that there was no person who functioned as a God-figure in the series. No one is quite godly enough.
Yet in order to discern a Christ-figure, it's necessary to evaluate not only who Jesus is but also the work that he does. For some, salvation is accomplished in Jesus' defeat of evil, which is done during a cosmic battle in Hell between his death and resurrection. That defeat meant that evil, no matter how powerful, could no longer trump God's loving power. A different perspective -- and probably the most commonly held one -- states that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross was an act of supreme obedience offered in order to free humans from the power of sin. (Some Christians would understand just one of the previous theologies to define salvation, whereas others would resonate with a variety.)
While these are two of several major theologies of salvation, the reader can see that these ideas are certainly present in the Harry Potter series. Dumbledore, while neither omnipotent nor -- due to his younger years -- omnibenevolent, teaches Harry about the power of love and, in that way, procures salvation for the wizarding world. Similarly, Neville, Ron, Hermione, Mrs. Weasley, Fred, George, Ginny, Luna and a host of others work together to defeat evil in the final battle at Hogwarts. Likewise, Harry, in his walk through the Forbidden Forest, subscribes to the radical obedience to death typified in Anselm's theory.
Curiously, what the Harry Potter books do is to accomplish the work of Christ utilizing a whole community instead of a single person, which explains why no individual character closely resembles Jesus. This means that salvation is accomplished not by one person but by many people working together, with love (aka God) for a guide. Ethically, a theology like this has important implications because it empowers people -- both in Harry's world and our own -- to live the life compassion for which Jesus lived and died.
What do students think of ideas like this? Over the years I've offered the Christian Theology and Harry Potter class, students consistently rank it a favorite, regardless of their faith tradition. This may be because my students treasure any excuse to re-read their favorite saga, but my sense is that the real reason for the course's success runs deeper than that: The subjects theology tackles -- what the purpose of evil is, whether we can maintain relationships beyond the grave, what forgiveness looks like -- are the ones that keep our minds racing at 2 a.m., when we're wrapped in warm blankets and sipping hot milk for comfort. Yet without a vocabulary -- Christian or otherwise -- to express those questions, it's hard to find lasting resolution or peace. That's why I tell my students that I know Harry Potter brought them to the class, but I hope that theology keeps them there, because questions about how much we love our neighbor or how much we embrace diversity are worth some curiosity, whether one is planning to become an elementary school teacher or a cardiologist. In other words, while I don't expect or encourage my students to embrace the Christian faith, I do ask them to consider the kinds of questions that faith demands.
At the end of the first year that I taught the Christian theology and Harry Potter course, one of my sophomores asked if she could speak with me. She came from a secular background, a home in which religion was a banned topic. "Your class gave me a way to talk about questions of ultimate meaning," she said. "I never had that before."
I left smiling that day. It was the highest compliment she could have offered.