The Parable of Harry Potter

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harry potter

On a recent Sunday morning at Unity Church, on the southside of Birmingham, a couple of dozen kids, ranging in age from about six to 12, file down a stairway to a brightly-lit basement classroom for Sunday School. Gradually, the music and the conversations die down so the kids can recite the Lord’s Prayer. But then, the lesson takes a slightly different turn…

Students shriek with delight as teacher Brad Riegel announces that today, the lesson is ghosts, trolls and snakes!

And not just any ghosts, trolls, and snakes, but the ones recently made popular by the best-selling Harry Potter novels for young people. On Sundays during May, June, and July, Unity’s youth education program is bringing Harry to church…through a series of scripture lessons based on the young wizard’s adventures. It might sound, at first, like a bit of a stretch. But Unity’s GiGi Talley says that, as both a parent and a teacher, she’s found the series of stories to be a natural for teaching life lessons…

‘Harry Potter…although he has a lot of dark things happen to him, and not-so-great things, he becomes his own person. He comes out of it on his own. And I think kids are looking for that…especially kids in the age range of 10 to 12. They go through that point where they’re starting to pull away from their parents, and they want to be able to go through the challenges that they face in life on their own, and come out on the other end. So magic kind of makes that look appealing.’

The curriculum, written by a Unity teacher in Illinois, is called “Lumindorf,” a name that translates literally as “place of light.” You won’t find it on a map…or for that matter, in the Harry Potter books. In the lesson plan, Lumindorf refers to a place inside each person’s heart that’s capable of learning and enlightenment. Gigi Talley…

‘We want to “illuminate” the children from inside; that’s where we believe Jesus lives. The “Christ light” is inside of us. So there’s a correlation, metaphysically, of each teaching that we have in Unity with the stuff that comes from Harry Potter.’

The Unity movement, which is sometimes confused with the Unitarian Church, is an interdenominational fellowship founded in Missouri in 1889. Today it has some 900 churches around North America, and another 65 internationally. Talley say that finding biblical truths in popular culture is not that unusual for Unity, which often takes a different slant on traditional Christian teachings…

‘A good way of putting it is that Unity is spirituality with the religious “fat” cut off. It’s the meat, you know? Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s all about love, it’s about goodness, and kindness and being good to one another. And that’s what we believe.’

Brad Reiger and GiGi Talley make the point with the kids with questions like ‘We all know that ghosts are disembodied spirits. But can ghosts be…ideas? Maybe ideas that are no longer workable for you? Ideas that need to leave?’

The kids seem to understand this more abstract concept of ghosts. After they’ve vanquished the ghosts, the kids watch a scene from the film “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” in which Harry’s cousin Dudley harasses a snake at the zoo. The young hero apologizes to the snake, saying Dudley just doesn’t understand what it’s like ‘lying there day after day, watching people press their ugly faces in on you.’

The subject of understanding…the lack of understanding, and the pain it can cause…is a recurring theme of the Lumindorf lessons. In a discussion at the end of today’s class, 9-year-old Jordan and 8-year-old Grayson tell why they think Harry makes a good role model…

‘Harry Potter was a very nice boy, and he, like, wasn’t mean to people?’

‘Always treat someone nice, instead of just bossing them around, and giving them a hard time.’

But while British author J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books have sold some 200 million copies in 55 languages, her young hero is not universally loved. Some church pastors are preaching from their pulpits against the Harry Potter stories… arguing that the books promote witchcraft, and might lure unsuspecting children into exploring the dark side of the occult. One church group in Arkansas succeeded in having the Potter books put under the counter at school libraries, so that students had to bring a note from their parents to check one out. But after a court hearing, a judge overturned that rule. Gigi Talley says she’s aware of the controversy, but that it hasn’t diminished their enthusiasm for Harry Potter as a teaching tool…

‘You need to lighten up. They need to look at it with a little bit more sense of, “Oh, this is just play. You know, fairy tales have been around forever, and nobody’s been out slaughtering cows and doing rain dances around, because their kid read a fairy tale, you know? Our kids are pretty savvy, nowadays. They know what’s a fictional story and what’s not.’

Brad Riegel, who’s also a father of two, agrees.

‘It’s fascinating to look at the curriculum and see so many wonderful stories that are wrapped up, the little “mini-stories” inside the story, that we can use to kind of open up their minds to explore things that are very similar to biblical parables. We hope that their interest in Harry…opens up their mind, and that they can walk out the door on Sunday morning, maybe not even knowing that they learned something.