I was 27 when I first taught at Yale, barely five years older than the 70-plus students who stood out in the cold to enroll in my seminar on Christian theology and Harry Potter.
I'd been following Harry's adventures with interest since Christians discovered the characters used magic and began crying "Heresy!" As a committed Christian and theologian, I wanted to give my students an opportunity to assess whether these claims were true.
Three years have passed since that first seminar, and the question I continue to be asked is whether Christians should avoid reading the "Harry Potter" books because the characters are witches and warlocks.
It's a question that's getting renewed attention as the final installment of the "Harry Potter" film franchise -- "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows -- Part 2" -- opens in theaters on July 15.
My response is twofold:
First, I say, biblical writings condemn witchcraft because of the spirit in which it is practiced. When the people use magic with the goal of making themselves into a god, then magic becomes idolatrous.
Second, Christianity is defined by much more than its stance on witchcraft. It's concerned with how to love well, whether there is life after death, whether our mistakes can be forgiven, and what kind of hope there is for the future.
In order to assess whether or not a work of fiction is heretical, Christians need to look not only at witchcraft but also at prominent topics like sin, salvation, and grace. In other words, Christians need a big-picture approach.
Just as one can't read a paragraph of J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings" and presume to understand the plot, or just as it's unrealistic to watch five minutes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and claim to know whether Buffy and Angel will stand the test of time, so it's impossible to refer to a couple of scriptural verses about witchcraft and claim that those alone define the Christian worldview.
If we look beyond witchcraft, what kind of message do we find in the Harry Potter series? That's what my students and I set out to discover by reading classical and contemporary Christian thinkers, and here's what we found:
The "Harry Potter" books are unlike C.S Lewis' "Chronicles of Narnia" in the sense that they don't try to defend Christian doctrine or to teach the reader about traditional Christianity. Instead, they show characters -- like Harry -- on a faith journey in which they must learn to trust the love that Dumbledore teaches, even when that love seems powerless against the strength of the evil Lord Voldemort.
Only when Harry and his friends learn to trust in that power of love can they defeat evil and transform the wizarding world into a place where -- as the Book of Revelation says -- there is no more pain or tears.
In other words, it's not coincidental that Harry plays Seeker on the Hogwarts Quidditch team. He is, in many ways, searching not only for the golden Snitch but also for a way to be true to the concept of love, which in turn plays out in his struggles to love his neighbors and honor his parents.
Harry's a lot like many modern-day seekers who find themselves on a journey, searching for ways to grow closer to God (who Christians say is love) and live more fulfilling lives as a result.
When my first group of students completed the seminar, they, too, had gone on a journey. For a semester, they had an opportunity to ask the kinds of questions that Harry and his friends ask over their seven years at Hogwarts. As one of my students told me, "I came from a household where we weren't allowed to talk about religion or faith. Now I have a way to ask those questions."
While my students didn't figure out all the answers to questions of ultimate meaning, the journey was worth taking. And perhaps it led them one step closer to catching that golden Snitch.