HogPro Interviews the Rev. Danielle Tumminio, Author of ‘God and Harry Potter at Yale’

I had a short conversation earlier this week with the Rev. Danielle Elizabeth Tumminio, the author of God and Harry Potter at Yale, about her experience teaching Christian theology at Yale University through the lens of the Hogwarts Saga. I think you’ll find it informative — and I hope that you’ll join in the conversation with your own questions about the controversial course, its content, and her reasons for the choices she made.

(1) “The Rev. Danielle Tumminio,” soon to be “The Rev. Dr. Tumminio” — tell us about the “reverend” part, the “doctor” piece, and, most important, the “Danielle” in there. Give us the resume in brief with some idea who the person is under the degrees and ordination.

Wow–what a complicated question!  I guess I’ll have to start with the meaning of my name because I think it’s pretty tied to my identity.  My first name, Danielle, comes from the Hebrew name Daniel, which means “God is my judge.”  My middle name, Elizabeth, means “consecrated to God.”  With names like that, what else could I do but become a priest and theologian, right?  Seriously, though, I’ve always felt drawn to religion, especially Christianity.

When I first began speaking, my not-very-religious parents said I asked some very theological questions, at which, they decided it was time to take me to church.  They hadn’t planned on raising me as a member of an organized religion (they were lapsed Roman Catholics themselves), but they thought that if I was asking this many questions about God, then I needed a safe religious space in which to ask them.

They took me to the Episcopal Cathedral in Garden City, New York, and I was hooked.  I would sit in the aisle on a kneeler, mimicking the actions of the priest.  I guess I was trying to get some early training for myself!  I remained a member of that Cathedral until I went to college, and it was a huge part of my life growing up.  I sang in the Cathedral’s choir, which rehearsed 3-4 times a week, and it gave me a marvelous musical and theological education at a young age.

So I guess the “Reverend” and “Dr.” part ultimately grew from all of that.  I think that from this very young age, I was exploring and growing into the person I felt called to be (though I wouldn’t have used those words at the time).  As I got older, I began to discern a call to a specific kind of work.  I wanted to be part of a faith community where I would be preaching, teaching, and serving, but I also wanted to be in a university setting where I could research and work with students.

Luckily for me, The Episcopal Church allows its clergy to be bi-vocational (meaning that they work in two separate settings, one of which is a church community), so this was a career path that I could pursue.  I spent five years at Yale Divinity School, after college, pursuing all the academic work I needed to be ordained and to start a doctoral program.  Currently, I am ordained by The Episcopal Church and completing doctoral studies at Boston University.

(2)  Neat! On to your book, then. Your class, ‘Harry Potter and Christian Theology,’ was taught in a specific part of Yale’s curriculum that is designed and run by the Colleges within the University. Can you explain Yale’s college system and how you applied to teach within this program?

I taught in the College Seminar Program at Yale, which is a unique institution based on Yale’s housing structure.  Undergraduates admitted to Yale are assigned to one of twelve residential colleges, which are much like the Houses at Hogwarts.  Students are members of a particular college for the entirety of their time at the university, and each college has its own dining hall, Master, and Dean, who live alongside the students.  The Master is in charge of students’ social well-being and the Dean is in charge of academics.  In addition, each college has a couple of classrooms, which hold one or two courses per semester that any undergraduate can enroll in, though privilege is given to members of the college.

This program has a rigorous application process where potential faculty submit applications that are evaluated by committees from individual colleges composed of students and faculty.  If the committee likes the application, the applicant receives an in-person interview.  The committees then meet and decide which college will sponsor which course.  Each year I taught, two colleges co-sponsored the course; that meant I admitted six students from one of the colleges, six from the other, and six from the remaining 10 colleges.

(3) I was privileged to sit in on this course twice and have dinner with your students in New Haven. Frankly, I left both times incredibly envious of you as the teacher of this bunch; in addition to being sharp and well-prepared they were unfailingly curious and were persistent with their questions. Please tell us how students got into the class, the seminar rooms that were your classrooms, and the format of the class.

In order to apply for the course, students submitted an application stating why they wanted to be in the class.  Seniors who had never enrolled in a college seminar were given priority.  After that, selection became very difficult, and I had to turn down an amazingly large number of talented students (for every student admitted to the course, 4-5 got turned away).

Each class was broken up into roughly two parts: In the first, I would give a brief lecture on the theological topic for the week.  I would tie together different ideas from the readings, and answer any questions that students raised in their weekly reading responses.  In the second part, I prepared a set of questions based on student reading responses for discussion.  I can honestly say I’ve never seen such an energetic classroom.  Multiple students would raise their hands and discussion was always lively and energetic!

As for the seminar rooms, they were usually in the colleges themselves.  I had the privilege of teaching in beautiful, gothic rooms with wood paneling and stained glass windows.  The rooms often looked just like what you would imagine classrooms being like at Hogwarts!  It was wonderfully atmospheric!

(4) What about the cookies and brownies? Both classes I came to were started with food — good stuff, too — was that your norm or just because you had a geeky guest?

No, it wasn’t to show off for guests, geeky or otherwise!  I actually bake for every class (which may not be as good as it sounds, since I’m kind of a Lucy Ricardo-style fiasco of a baker)!  This tradition goes back to when I was a college student myself, and I had a wonderful professor who baked for every class because she believed that students needed energy to get their brains excited.  She disappeared from the university after I graduated, and I’ve never been able to find her to say what a positive influence she made not only on my waistline but also on my life, so instead, I carry on her tradition of baking in the hope that it brings out the best in my students.  And yes, I think it does facilitate better discussions!

(5) Okay, into the heart of this with two questions from those who thought the idea of your class was a laugher. First — Harry Potter at Yale? Isn’t the combination something to make outsiders question the seriousness of those studying in New Haven? What was the blowback on and off campus?

Overall, I think that my class is part of a larger academic trend we’re seeing towards presenting academic material in new and exciting ways, but that kind of change is sometimes hard for universities, who are used to teaching in a particular manner.  When I first applied to teach the course, the interviewers often asked what made this class rigorous enough for Yale.  I would tell them that students had a hefty reading load of approximately 500 pages a week, and about half of that was some of the most influential theological texts in the Christian tradition.

That said, there was one student quoted in a Yale Daily News article from Saybrook College who kind of laughed the class off, saying that it was hilarious that someone wanted to teach a class on Harry Potter.  Needless to say, Saybrook didn’t sponsor the course…but it did sponsor it the next year!  The course was a huge hit on campus once it was offered, and the following year, I think people were much more accepting of it, because they understood that my classroom was not going to be one that compromised Yale’s academic standards.

(6) And, as if the Yale connection with Potter weren’t dicey enough, you used the Hogwarts Saga to teach Christian Theology? The gateway to the occult to teach fundamentals of Christology and key ideas about the Eucharist? How is that not just down right impious, if not silly?

Well, it’s no surprise that I don’t think it’s impious or silly!  First of all, the idea that Harry Potter is the gateway to the occult is an assumption, not a fact, and I don’t think the assumption is a true one.  There are a number of Christian themes in the books–which I discuss in God and Harry Potter at Yale–that really provide great opportunities for theological discussion.

I think what may throw people off is that Christian symbols and themes aren’t used for the aim of conversion.  Instead, they’re presented more from the perspective of a seeker who is curious about faith and struggling with it–which J.K. Rowling has admitted to doing.  I think that sometimes in Christianity we’re very keen on finding answers and not so keen on asking questions; these books compel us to ask questions, which I think is a good thing.

(7) Were the students there more to learn about Harry or ‘Christian theology’ through Harry? As a rule were they big Harry fans and theology novices or theology majors looking to learn more about Harry Potter?

For the most part, they were big Harry Potter fans, though a few students came to the class either as religious studies majors or as people generally curious about faith.  I always say that I’m under no illusion that Harry Potter is what brings them to the course, but I hope theology keeps them there, because the questions theology asks are urgent ones.  They’re questions about what it means to love well, how to care for people, and how to live a good life.

So while I don’t want to convert my students to Christianity, I do hope that they will find the kinds of questions theology asks to be compelling ones.  In other words, what I ultimately hope for them is that whatever they decide to be or do with their lives, the course will be something that influences them to forever feel comfortable asking big questions and seeking answers for them.

(8) As my memory serves, most of the students were believers of some kind — from Hindus to Mormons to Catholics. Was there any inter-faith clashing? Did any of the non-believers have a change of heart consequent to his or her class experience?

You know, this was one of most surprising parts of the class for me–there weren’t!  I was very nervous, especially the first time around, that talking about about faith in a public setting–(even just a class of 18 students) could lead to a lot of arguing about the legitimacy of Christianity or other belief systems.  There was certainly the risk for that, given the religious diversity in the room, but students seemed committed to living out the ideals of tolerance and acceptance that J.K. Rowling had for the wizarding world.  So no, there was never any inter-faith clashing.

There was one student who got baptized during the time I taught the course; however, the student was planning to do so before the class began, so neither the class nor I had anything to do with that!

(9) Why write a book about this class? What will serious readers of Harry Potter, the folks reading this interview at HogwartsProfessor.com, get out of God and Harry Potter at Yale?

I wanted to write the book for the same reason I taught the class–because asking whether the Harry Potter series is heretical is a complicated question.  The Christian conversation that has dominated the field is all too often focused only on witchcraft, and Christianity is so much more than that.  If you want to know whether the books are heretical, you need to turn to all sorts of topics in Christian thought–like sin, evil, resurrection, death, sacrifice, the apocalypse, and so forth.  And looking at all of those topics takes a lot of pages–say, a book’s worth!

I think the serious Harry Potter fan (hi, folks reading this article!) will have a great opportunity to get a new perspective on the series.  My book uses theology ultimately to analyze the series, so you will learn a bit about faith but you will also learn more about this amazing saga!

(10) You’re in Boston now, right, rather than New Haven? Does the book mean you’re done teaching the class at Yale? What are your plans now that you’ve moved and been ordained?

Well, that’s a complicated question!  The College Seminar Program that I taught in at Yale is in the process of being revamped, so I’m not teaching this year, though I would love to return and teach there again.  In the meantime, I will be teaching at Tufts University this spring.  I’m really excited about bringing the class to another campus and seeing what some of Boston’s brightest have to say about the material.  (The shorter commute will be kind of great too!)

In terms of a broader future: I’m looking forward to finishing my doctorate and going on the job market.  My dream would be to teach in a university, research, write, and assist in a congregation part-time.  I’ve always enjoyed striking a balance between working with students and working with congregations, so keeping that is important to me.  I think both are places of great transformation, and it’s really an amazing blessing to have a career where I see that on a daily basis.

Thank you, Rev. Tumminio!

I barely scratched the surface here, All-Pros, and I’ve asked my guest to check in to answer your questions now that I’ve gotten the surface stuff out of the way. Please ask anything about the course or book that you’d like in the com-boxes below.

Photo credit: Rev. Danielle Tumminio by Julie Carlson


  1. I would love to hear what other reading materials Rev. Tumminio had her students read, other besides the Harry Potter books themselves that is. And could she perhaps mention which 2 or 3 were the ones she would recommend starting with (assuming that those of us who are not college students probably will take a while to get through the reading list).

  2. Carrie-Ann Biondi says

    I agree, Rev. Tumminio, that working with students is immensely rewarding. It also provides occasions for unexpected enlightenment. What are some of the most remarkable questions and insights from your students that allowed you to learn from them as you taught your Harry Potter course?

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