The program for the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, taking place this weekend in Chicago, includes some pretty arcane stuff -- "Music in Confucian Moral Cultivation" and "Heterogeneous Tantras in Practice" -- so this afternoon I stopped by a session on Harry Potter titled "The Potterian Way of Death: J. K. Rowling's Conception of Mortality.''
In the mainstream media, Potter's world most commonly intersects with the religion beat in the form of a perennial debate in some corners of Christendom over whether the Potter series is anti-Christian, in that it glorifies magic and witchcraft, or pro-Christian, in that it celebrates good over evil. But the 50 or so professors who gathered this afternoon blew right past that question, and moved on to deeper matter -- what exactly is Rowling's take on the value of life after death?
First up was Paul Corey, a religious studies lecturer at McMaster University in Canada, who was fairly critical of what he views as Rowling's excessively simplistic and black-and-white take on good vs. evil. "Why isn't there an evil Hufflepuff?" he asked. Corey managed to compare Voldemort to suicide bombers, saying "they, like Voldemort, kill so they can transcend death,'' and to Michael Jackson, saying that in his pursuit of immortality, Voldemort "lost his nose, his skin turned white, and he looked like a reptile.'' But then Corey began to explore how Voldemort's quest to conquer death might differ from, or resemble, the desire of Christians for eternal life in heaven. "What is the difference between a Christian and a death eater?'' Corey asked. He said both want to banish the impure and to receive immortality. Corey noted that the epitaph on the gravestone of Harry's parents, "The last enemy that shall be destroyed is Death," is actually a quote from the apostle Paul (First Corinthians 15:26), and said that the quotation triggered a dispute between Harry and Hermione over what exactly destroying death means -- does it mean actually defeating death, or living beyond death? And is there life after death in Rowling's world? Corey suggests the jury is still out, saying, "the series never answers the question definitively.''
Oona Eisenstadt, an assistant professor of religious studies at Pomona College, took a different approach, exploring ways in which the Potter series functions as a Christian allegory. She suggested that, in the series, Rowling has effectively split each of the major New Testament roles in two, saying, "Rowling has made the split in order to facilitate a differentiated theological understanding.'' For example, Eisenstadt said, Dumbledore and Harry Potter represent Jesus, with Potter as Jesus's human incarnation, who dies and is reborn to defeat Voldemort, and with Dumbledore as Jesus in heaven, as a divine intercessor. She described Snape and Draco Malfoy as two aspects of Judas, and the horcruxes and the hallows as two facets of the afterlife. Most provocatively, Eisenstadt, who teaches Jewish studies, suggested that the goblins and the Ministry of Magic both stand in for the Jewish community as seen by anti-Semites. "Rowling takes the rapacious and unscrupulous characteristics of the Jews (as seen by anti-Semites) and assigns these to a non-human species,'' she said. She noted that the goblins are "small, hunched and wizened,'' love money and precious metals, work as goldsmiths, are hoarders, run the bank, and cheat when they can. "Clearly the goblins are the anti-Semites' Jews,'' she said. "The other side of the anti-Semitic conception of Jews is legalism,'' she said, "and legalism is the quality of the Ministry of Magic." Eisenstadt said the ministry "is unquestionably the Pharisees,'' and said that as the ministry's role evolves during the Potter series, "the reader can not help but understand it as a commentary on politics at large.''
(One observation by Eisenstadt that caught my attention was her critique of the Hogwarts administration for allowing a Sorting Hat to assign children to houses with others of the same personality type. "An enlightened school board would break up Slytherin,'' she said. "But there is no enlightened school board in the wizarding world.")
Finally, Lois Shepherd, an expert on bioethics at the University of Virginia Law School, explored the connection between the body and the mind in the Potter series.
A postscript: the hotel where the religion professors are meeting is across the street from Grant Park, where Barack Obama is scheduled to have his election night rally, and there are lots of folks walking by wearing Obama gear. But in the lobby of the Hilton this evening, I saw an academic wearing campaign button for a ticket only Potter fans can appreciate: Fudge/Umbridge.
(Photo above shows Ralph Fiennes as Voldemort in the 2007 film "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.")