In 2008, 100 Yale students lined up to apply for the new course I was offering on the Harry Potter series and Christian theology, many standing outside in subfreezing temperatures because there wasn't enough space in the classroom.
The course originated because the positive depictions of witches and wizards led some Christians to believe the books were heretical. But to my mind, there is so much more to Christianity than its stance on witchcraft, and I wanted to give students a chance to think about some of those topics.
So what does the series really say, and does its message overlap with Christian belief and values?
To answer that, I have to tell you a little about the class. The 18 students I admitted represented a microcosm of our world: A Jewish student sat between a Chinese atheist and a Hindu who went to Catholic school in India. There was a Southern Baptist, an Episcopalian, a Methodist and a Mormon. And for 13 weeks, we all had to coexist in one classroom where we would discuss what I call "the 3 a.m. questions." These are the issues that wake you up and keep you up in the middle of the night, what theologians call questions of ultimate meaning.
They include topics such as:
Why did this evil thing happen?
What happens when someone I love dies?
Who are my neighbors, and what do I owe them?
These questions and topics are so primal and powerful that they've become the stuff of political diatribe, cultural conflicts and wars. And they also form the heart of Christian theology. So what did my students learn about the relationship between these themes and the series' values?
After reading the work of both historic and contemporary theologians, most of my students concluded that the Harry Potter books support a Christian worldview in some way.
One student described how the war between Harry and Voldemort mimics the battle between good and evil in the Book of Revelation. Another suggested that Voldemort is a metaphor for the anti-Christ. My Mormon student wrote how Harry's journey in book seven mirrored the kind of questioning Jesus did in the Garden of Gethsemane.
But beyond seeing resonance between themes in Christian thought and the series, my students also believed the books teach an important message about what it means to live a moral life, a message strongly rooted in Christian values.
See, the Harry Potter series isn't an apologetic text like "The Chronicles of Narnia," meaning that it's not primarily designed to defend Christianity. But that doesn't mean it doesn't have Christian values embedded in it nonetheless. Indeed, if the series teaches the reader anything about how to live a moral life, it's that evil never triumphs over love, a love that demands radical welcome of the outsider. That's why Harry and Dumbledore and Hermione and Ron and all the other heroes in the books dedicate their lives to the "Mudblood" and the "squib" and all the other groups that Voldemort sees as impure, not worthy of being included in the wizarding world.
Now if it sounds familiar, that's because it is. Welcoming the Mudblood or the squib isn't so different from Jesus welcoming the tax collector or the leper. In Jesus' mind, there isn't a single human being on Earth who doesn't deserve to be loved, and that's what Harry and his friends believe as well.
So if you ask, what is the Harry Potter series teaching the reader about what it means to live a good, moral life, then the answer is to love your neighbor.
Which means that even if the books aren't explicitly Christian, their vision certainly aligns with Christianity.
What's even more moving is that I get to see that theme reflected in my classroom every year that I teach. I have offered the Christian theology and Harry Potter class multiple times now, and the students in my course are models of inquisitiveness and tolerance. And while I would like to attribute that outcome to my brilliance as a teacher or to the wisdom of Christian theologians, I believe that the tenor of the Harry Potter series is largely to blame.
That's because many of my students don't affirm the beliefs of an institutionalized religion when they enter the course, but they do believe in the message of the Harry Potter series, a message that preaches acceptance and love at every turn. They come to the course with that mindset, and it means that it doesn't matter if the person sitting next to them is Hindu or Buddhist or Mormon. They welcome them as they are.
The idea for the Harry Potter series came to J.K. Rowling 25 years ago, and the mark it has left on young adult literature is beyond measure. Yet my time in the classroom taught me that the mark it has left on young people's moral lives is also significant. It reminds them to be welcoming, loving and kind. And regardless of one's professed faith, those are certainly values worth holding dear.