Harry Potter and the Satanic Specters: The Franchise as Seen Through its Religious Metaliterature

Curator's Note

[Click HD on the slideshow at left, and you can read the covers first hand.]

Conversations on Harry Potter seem to inevitably return to quantity - 67 languages, 400 million copies, £15 billion - but when the religious reactions are invoked, they remain unmeasured - a few churches complaining, but many others which aren't. Toward giving Rowling's religious readership some specificity, we might begin with the 65 works easily identified in Worldcat, or with the 14 works in the slideshow at right (including two audio series). 

When I began investigating these books, I thought I would discover the same concerns about the seductions of Satanism which surrounded Dungeons and Dragons in the 1980s, but I was surprised at the range of religious readings I found. Of course, if one would like to remain convinced that it would take an incredibly shallow reading to articulate Potter to occult practice, I recommend you read Phil Arms' book, but even here a great deal has changed since the 1980s. In particular, every concerned work had to wrestle with the question of whether or not the witchcraft denounced in Deuteronomy 18:10-11 includes contemporary Wicca. And, that answer in hand, they each had to decide whether the Pagan Federation was right when they claimed to be "swamped" with new applicants, and partially attributed that fact to supernatural themes in popular literature. Not every author was concerned, but those who were had to discuss the possibility that Christianity is now vying for adolescent faith not against graveyard conspiracies, but respectible and accessible witchcraft.

But the most interesting critique was that which began after the specter of occult practice passed. Authors like Connie Neal worry less about the books as such than about the fact that Christians were fighting with one another over them, and work to create a space where Christians with diverse readings of the text could treat one another with love. And in Abanes we find a nuanced attention to the ethics and metaphysics of the Potter books which challenges the conventional wisdom likening Rowling to Tolkien (he is an outspoken supporter of the latter). Restoring the metaphysical nuance obscured by film adaptation, Albanes encourages serious reflection on the fact that humans never weild magical power in the Lord of the Rings books. Gandalf was once, and could still be, a vivid and specific analog of a Christian angel in a way that Harry really cannot. Some of the complaints in this literature do not emerge from shallow readings or fast fears, but a depth of reflection that exceeds that of many academic commentators.

And religious readings of Potter also include many works that find profound homiletical teachings in the series, not for people in general, but for their tradition in very particular. The sixteen sermons that Rev. John Zingaro collected from a circle of Potter-friendly pastors present an as-yet-unnamed genre we might call "fan-homiletics." And Luke Bell's explication of what he, as a monk, learned from the series makes innumerable tiny patterns in the book spiritually significant.

In recent years, scholars of popular culture have realized that our work must not be constrained by (though it must account for) licensing decisions. We have learned to attend to fan-art, but we have not yet begun to take seriously the creativity in religious readings of popular culture. Of all of the multiple, community-specific readings of Harry Potter, this minor analytical genre, both when it supports and when it opposes Rowling's series, attends to the inner lives of its readers admirably. Here, unlike the theme parks, licensed clothing, and action figures, our attention is drawn toward what might be Harry Potter's big take-away: Young people share an ethical and metaphysical reality to which "fun" is not an adequate orientation.


 This is fascinating!  Thank you for educating me about the range of religious responses to Harry Potter.  And I love the idea of fan-homiletics.  

I don't really have anything more thoughtful to say...except that this reinforces my belief that fan practices are just another kind of ordinary cultural practice, and there are many practices out there that are not named as fan activity, but are virtually the same thing.  The only thing that separates them is the degree of cultural acceptance they enjoy.

Absolutely. I wonder if we should even persist in using the phrase "fan practices." Or maybe we should use it to describe licensed efforts as well. As came up in the butterbeer discussion running parallel to this one, the value of the licensed remediations emerges from reading practices and modes of creativity which are accessible without license. Chef Jayson's authority to make butterbeer is that of a peculiarly well-equipped fan, but, critically, just-a-fan. And though film studios, game design studios, theme parks, and candy plants are enormous actors with thousands of hands, they might be best understood as a bizarre species of "fan" too.


What a fascinating post, Vincent!  I was familiar with some of the religious furor over the books, but only in a hackneyed, popular media way.  The strong narrative in the media is of crazy religious fundamentalists who are scared that Harry Potter is going to turn their kids into witches.  You offer a nice corrective to this.

My question is a little off-topic, but have you come across any evidence of Rowling going after the publishers of these books for copyright infringement?  Or has she stayed out of their way?  There was that big kerfuffle with the guy who wanted to publish a Harry Potter dictionary, so I wonder if she's similarly concerned with the religious folks...

Well, as far as I know the only legal challenge to religious remediations of the Potter franchise was the attempt in 2007 to prevent the erection of a giant Hogwart's complete with the Express and statues of Harry and friends as part of a festival for the Goddess Durga. Of course, whether this was actually a religious festival or the construction of a pirate theme park NEAR a religious festival was contested. Though Rowling and Warner Brothers apparently cannot imagine the conjunction of religious practices and copyrighted texts, it seems that Titanic had been similarly used in a previous year.

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