Hogwarts Professor at Yale

In late February of this year I traveled to New Haven to sit in as a guest expert of sorts in Prof. Danielle Tumminio’s “Christian Theology and Harry Potter” course (CSBR 352b). It was a Hogwarts Professor dream date, as you might imagine. Picture a neo-gothic seminar room with a diverse group of very thoughtful and well-read young adults who meet to discuss topics like sacramental theology in the context of their reading of the Harry Potter epic. And my book was part of the reading for the course.

The course description said that it was an “exploration of ways that the Harry Potter novels espouse a Christian theological worldview” with “readings from theological texts as well as the novel series.” Prof. Tumminio, a writer and Adjunct Faculty at University of New Haven and Central Connecticut State University while completing her second degree at Yale Divinity, explained to me that the class was “part of the College Seminar program sponsored by Branford and Trumbull Colleges, though we hold class in Branford College only.”

I’ll let her describe the class and how it came about:

As the books progressed, I grew to love them not just for their story lines but also because I thought they held really intriguing Christian values presented in ways that were both orthodox and original. I offered the course because I think that some corners of the Christian community have discarded the books on grounds relating to references to the occult rather than on consistent grounds of systematic theology, which encompasses topics ranging from Eucharistic theology to sin, love, grace, and apocalyptic thought. So I wanted to open up an extended forum where a variety of topics in Christian theology could be discussed in-depth so that students could decide for themselves whether and to what extent the books describe a Christian worldview.

A couple of notable features about the class: there are 16 students from a variety of backgrounds and years at Yale. Several of my students wrote their college admissions essays on Harry Potter; I believe two of them founded Harry Potter clubs at their schools that did charitable work and held Sorting Hat ceremonies; one of my students won a Scholastic book competition concerning the books (that was your friend at Hogwarts Professor). Also, my students come from a wide variety of cultural and religious backgrounds—there is a Kenyan student, a Chinese student, several atheists/agnostics, a Southern Baptist, a Mormon, a Hindu, a Roman Catholic, and a sprinkling of Episcopalians.

Her qualifications to teach the class include degrees from Yale in English literature and theology — and the best collection of ‘where I was when Harry Potter was published’ stories I have ever heard:

I’m a Yale College Graduate (I studied English literature as an undergrad) and have a Master of Divinity and am just completing my thesis (though I’m done with the coursework) for a Master of Sacred Theology (STM) degree from the Divinity School. My interests lie in theology and trauma; I research ways to understand trauma theologically and then propose theological models of grace and reconciliation. I’m also a part-time writer of fiction and non-fiction – and a postulant for ordination in The Episcopal Church. I am hoping to get a PhD in theology and very much also want to continue writing.

I came to the Harry Potter books through my mother—she’s been a fan since the first book came out, but I didn’t take her recommendation to read them (I actually made fun of her for reading them) until the Prisoner of Azkaban was out. I started reading then and have been hooked ever since.

I pre-ordered the fourth to my home, the 5th one to Biosphere II, where I was working over the summer as a residential advisor (in Oracle, Arizona, which is in the middle of nowhere and an hour from a grocery store), I arranged to pick the 6th one up at a midnight party in Harrisburg, PA where I was meeting some friends for the weekend to go to Hershey Park (we actually met up there at Midnight—I was coming with some folks from CT and another friend was coming from Ohio and midnight at the Barnes and Noble was our meeting point), and I accessed the 7th one in Jerusalem, Israel.

And her favorite character? “Luna Lovegood. She’s smart but open to unorthodox ideas and her dreaminess makes me laugh!”

And due to Prof. Tumminio’s direction and preparations, this was a course to stretch anyone who thought they had a firm grasp of systematic theology and the spiritual underpinnings of Harry Potter. The day I visited, the class was assigned the last ten chapters of Goblet of Fire, which, no doubt, all of them had read several times (the course had many more registrants than there were places at the table, so this was Yale’s Harry Potter finest), and a packet of readings from Constructive Theology on theological anthropology and eucharistic theology that Prof. Tumminio was kind enough to send me. It was forty-plus pages — and none of it was Dr. Seuss or even Looking for God in Harry Potter. Can you say, “Identity and Alterity,” “The Eschatological Character of Gregory’s Anthropology,” and “The Body, Time, and Eternity in Augustine”? For starters…

A friend of mine in Houston once told me that the person who says “that was a great class” or just “Good meeting!” is always the guy or gal who talked the most. I’m obliged, consequently, to say it was a really great class. Prof. Tumminio introduced each of the two hours with an introduction to the theological material and then let the dogs out with questions about how this material related to the Goblet of Fire text in question. At Exeter, in my time there at least, we called taking over a Harkness conversation “running the table” and it involved contradicting or supplementing every point made by classmates or teacher with citations from the subject at hand. As the celebrity-on-hand at Yale and because they were being gracious hosts to an overbearing guest, the Elis allowed me to do what I was never able to do in prep school and “run the table.” They didn’t make it easy, however, and I learned from Prof. Tumminio’s introductions and guiding comments as well as from the students’ challenging questions and counter-arguments a lot more than they got from me.

Fun? You bet. Heady? My notes from the class on what we discussed and debated include four different ideas and practices about what “Communion” means with special reference to the blood elements of Voldemort’s re-birthing and Dumbledore’s “gleam of triumph,” three notes about the relation of body and soul in the Potterverse and how this contrasts with orthodox Christian belief (and two other religions), and the ideas of “other,” chosen-ness, and community in these books. And there were a lot of laughs! As I said, it was a Hogwarts Professor’s dream speaking-date: literature, theology, and philosophy, straight up.

Did I mention that Branford College is a look alike for the Quadrangles and classrooms at the University of Chicago? Between the kindness of the students and my host and the surrounding neo-gothic buildings faced with Indiana limestone, I was very much at home.

End of story? Oh, no; the larger story, The Daily Prophet coverage, begins where the class ends.

I met six of the students for lunch before class with Prof. Tumminio – perhaps the best part of the event as everyone shared how they met Harry and what part reading his adventures played in their young lives (I was reminded again that this is a generation for whom Harry is not only a shared text but is also an age-group peer and no small part of their identity, both as individuals and collectively). I spoke at length afterwards, too, with Patrick Lee, a Yale student and campus writer for CNN.com, which, of course, is where the “larger story” is written.

Mr. Lee wrote an excellent article, sober and straight-forward I thought, about the Yale class after speaking with professors around the country who also teach Potter courses. The Leaky Cauldron linked to the CNN.com piece so that the part of Fandom that didn’t see it on CNN also learned about Harry in the Ivy League.

And the Harry Haters learned about “Harry Potter and Christian Theology” being taught at Yale, too. The Christian Post checked in with this response and Christian Today picked that article up so it had even greater reach.

What were their thoughts about Harry-on-Campus?

The majority of Christians, especially those in the evangelical community, remain strongly opposed to the book, which they say promotes witchcraft, the occult and defiance against authority to children.

A number of prominent Christian leaders, from family guru James Dobson to the pope, have publicly denounced the series. They have either urged a boycott on the books or strongly advised parents to exercise caution when letting their children read the books.

Matthew Slick, the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, which reports on cults and other religious movements, said in a review that he found “no Christian principles at all” after reading the books.

Unlike some who have drawn parallels between Christian themes in C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe” series and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, Slick argued that the books taught anti-biblical principles.

In “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” he said that the “failures of the occult side were demonstrated against the power of grace, love, and truth of God, though done through metaphor,” where as the Potter books don’t.

He added that the books do not condemn lying and deception, justifying the vices as a long as they meet the ends of the characters.

Richard Albanes, author of “Harry Potter, Narnia, and the Lord of the Rings: What You Need to Know About Fantasy Books and Movies,” also rejected the comparisons drawn between works of Christian authors like C.S. Lewis and “Harry Potter.”

“There is this whole movement within Christianity where people are trying to say that the Harry Potter books are Christian novels. And that is just untrue,” he told Christian Broadcasting Network in a past interview.

Albanes said that while kids cannot replicate the magic in Lewis and Tolkien books, they can “really copy” the witchcraft that appears in the Rowling’s books.

“There is this crossover where the Wiccans know it, the occultists know, the practitioners of all these things know it, and they are using that curiosity that kids have for all of this stuff now through Harry Potter to attract readers to their real world how-to manuals. I think many parents just don’t get that. They don’t understand,” he said.

Ergo, Yale is just plain stupid for allowing a course like “Harry Potter and Christian Theology” to be taught on their campus. There is no link between Harry Potter and Christianity, except, perhaps, a link like “Osama bin Laden and Esoteric Ecumenism,” which is to say, a negative or anti-link. You may have forgotten post Deathly Hallows, with its passion Gospel finish, that “a majority of Christians” including James Dobson and the pope “have denounced the series.” I certainly had.

The blogosphere picked the story up as well, of course. There were quite a few Christian defenses, anti-intellectual rants, and the occasional snide aside (“In later modules the students will learn how to do joined up writing and tie their own shoe laces”). The rants and snide asides, sadly, didn’t have any idea of what was going on in Prof. Tumminio’s classroom or bothered to fact-check. This meant they could write from their assumptions to draw their ready-made conclusions and confirm their target audience in their shared convictions about whatever alterity they were despising. (I am here despising the HogPro metanarrative alterity, “Rita Skeeter journalists;” please shake your head at their other-ness from our circumspect virtue.)

Oh, well.

I have a tentative invitation to return to Yale in the fall for a more formal talk, a professor at Princeton who uses my book in a religion and literature class has me penciled in for a lecture there next spring, and there’s a possibility I will be speaking at UChicago’s Great Hall (Hutchinson Commons) soon, too. I’m scheduled to be at Augustana College in April of next year and I’m hoping to get to Lawrence University, my wife’s Alma Mater, in the near future to speak alongside Prof. Edmund Kern, a brilliant Potter exegete. And then there’s Biola/Torrey, the school good speakers think of as heaven. No joke. It’s the school I wish I had gone to.

WARNING: Incoming Mercantile Moment!

“If you want me to speak in your classroom or give a lecture in your library, church, reading group, school or University, just write me; the email address for those of you who don’t have my books (what’s up with that?) is john at HogwartsProfessor.com. My wife Mary will send you the very reasonable rates and the blurb sheets from other places I have spoken to help your decision-maker make the right decision and hire me.”

Phew, we made it. Thank you to Prof. Tumminio and her seminar students at Yale for your knows-no-bounds hospitality and for the engaging and edifying discussion. I’m confident, despite the yahoo trumpeting on the Internet about Ivy League students studying Harry Potter being a sign of the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, that these students appreciate what Prof. Tumminio accomplished in her class design and execution, namely, creating both a first-class introduction to critical thinking about the intersection of literature, theology, and human life and a classroom environment to match. Would that those who dismissed it should ever be so fortunate that they have an equally rewarding experience with thoughtful friends discussing a good book.

This just in: Scottish newspaper reports Harvard satire is Student Protest to Ms. Rowling’s selection as Commencement Speaker in June. I’m dreading the Commencement Speech and the probable political content; the nonsense about the inappropriateness of Harry Potter at Harvard is something predictable enough that they’re already lampooning the subject in Cambridge.

Comments

  1. Chosen66 says:

    John, sounds like loads of fun! Philosophy, theology, and literature chats, on HP no less. I’m fighting the temptation to envy . . . 🙂

    I don’t know that I buy the assertion that most evangelicals have denounced Harry Potter. I think there are small, but very vocal, pockets of this, but their numbers have been dwindling quickly. A gallup poll in 2000 (the height of the great Anti-Potter train) found only 7% of evangelicals believed the books were bad or evil, with 52 feeling they were positive and 41 percent feeling undecided.

  2. Another school offering a Harry Potter class: Harry Potter and English Comedy. Sounds rather light weight compared to Professor Tumminio’s class… I wonder if playing Quidditch on the Division I team is a class requirement? Could the course just be a cover for inflating Quidditch scholarship athletes at OSU?

  3. Arabella Figg says:

    What a thrilling tale! I’m so happy, Professor, to see academia embracing these books and their deeper meanings. And I’m thrilled for you to be recognized and invited to participate, as you should. You got this conversation rolling. How I would have loved that class!

    Naturally the reactive Rita Skeeter Christians react as usual; ho hum. I loved Harvard’s lampoon. And thanks for a new sesquipedal (alterity) to add to my collection.

    Big-Eye Foody would consider an alterity something to catch and eat…

  4. Harry Potter 101: Columbia College students learn there’s more to the boy wizard than they thought

    snip to finish…

    This isn’t to say that James or her students find the Potter series 100 percent perfect. The class holds Rowling’s epilogue, at the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in near universal contempt. “It seems almost as if it was written by somebody else — even the storytelling suffers,” James says. “I feel like she wrote the epilogue so she wouldn’t be talked into writing an eighth book.”

    The class also questions some of Rowling’s recent statements about the characters, and, in the case of her revelation that Dumbledore is gay, finds them a bit much. “This is obviously not something I would’ve picked up from the books themselves, because it’s not there,” Magyar says. “And it kind of weirds me out to have any kind of sexual orientation attached to him. If I found out that he was having an affair with McGonagall, I’d feel the same way.”

    Still, the students came away with exponentially increased regard for the Potter books and their author’s skill. “I have a lot more respect for the books and for J.K. Rowling,” Tegan Smith says. “I knew she was a great planner, but not to this extent. Just realizing the amount of devotion that went into each and every character — each and every page, basically — is pretty awe-inspiring.”

    James, it seems, has done her job well. “And if they’ve learned to look beneath the surface with the Harry Potter books,” she says over the tops of her glasses, “my hope is that they’ll do the same thing with all their other reading.”

  5. Arabella Figg says:

    This was great, John. James is using real exegesis in teaching these students. Perhaps she’s read some great books by a certain professor? Or perhaps she could benefit from and make use of them in teaching Potter?

    Curious Black has just prompted me about the kibble bowl…

  6. Coppinger Bailey says:

    I am really fascinated by these posts, in particular. I have wondered for awhile, now that the “Harry generation” has hit full stride on college campuses, what might begin to emerge in various literature, theology, philosophy, etc. course. Or, just as interesting, what might not – that is – refusal to take the texts seriously.

    Just knowing that some folks have created a muggle version of Quidditch on multiple campuses in the U.S. makes me smile. Hopefully there will be ever-expanding dream-date opportunities like these for the HogPro!

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