“Teaching Theology With Harry Potter”: Cultural Language as Parable and Other Lessons

I heard a fantastic lecture last week about teaching theology using Harry Potter.

I have to admit I was at first skeptical and that at several places along the way I was hesitant to follow author and teacher Patricia Lyons everywhere she wanted to go.

Theology And Harry Potter

Even still, there were four points from this lecture which I found particularly insightful for thinking about Christian education.

First, Lyons linked cultural languages with the practice of teaching using parables.  After suggesting that using Harry Potter to teach theology was an exercise in adopting a cultural language, she went on to say that “this is really just following the ancient approach of using parables to teach.”  In other words, discussing a cultural language such as the world of Harry Potter can function as a parable about the Christian faith.

Second, Lyons defended the use of Socratic teaching methods.  Educational models today tend to be about presenting information and then asking for it to be regurgitated by the student.  In contrast to this is a more ancient model of education in which questions and problems are used to draw out and refine a students own thoughts and beliefs on a subject, which is the approach Lyons advocated.

Third, Lyons argued that not all narratives are created equal.  She compared Twilight and Harry Potter by invoking Stephen King: Harry Potter is all about confronting fears , finding inner strength , and doing what is right in the face of adversity. Twilight is about how important it is to have a boyfriend.  One narrative fits quite well with the Christian faith, the other does not.

Fourth, Lyons discussed JK Rowling’s own strategy for telling the Christian story.  This was new information to me, as someone who was never totally on the Harry Potter train.  JK Rowling is a committed Anglican and there are clear Christian themes throughout the story arc of Harry Potter.  But Rowling was intentionally not explicit about her faith in either her public statements or her books because, Lyons said, she wanted the ending to be a surprise.  In other words, the Christian narrative of redemption and the defeat of death run throughout the books, but in order not to spoil the ending Rowling kept her faith quiet and her readers hooked until the last page.

Applications For Christian Education

Now for my reactions to all of this:

I just recently gave a talk about Christian education in which I argued that one of the greatest needs of the present-day church, and something that should be a priority for Christian education, is having students articulate for themselves the meaning and significance of their faith.  Students need to be able to express their faith in their own words, not just listen to me express my faith in my own words, for that faith to take root.

The approach that I advocated in that talk was essentially Socratic teaching:  I pose a question and help frame it in its context, then I push my students to answer that question on their own.

When Lyons first began her lecture I had the impression that she was working in the opposite direction:  presenting a narrative and asking students to regurgitate back to her what the meaning of that narrative was.  I also had the impression that attempting to squeeze from a secular story the Christian narrative would require a lot of creative license that would effectively render the story unrecognizable to its hearers.

However, as the lecture went on I realized that both these presuppositions were wrong.  In fact, what Lyons is doing augments my own thoughts in a pretty powerful way by cleverly using another narrative on its own terms.

By adopting a language well known to students (point 1), we are able to invite them to discuss important theological issues in a much more personal and meaningful way.  This allows us to engage in socratic teaching (point 2) and draw out the students own beliefs and ideas, help them refine those ideas, and push them to articulate their significance to the students own life and situation.  That application is made all the more meaningful to the student by locating the conversation in a language which feels more natural and safe for them (back to point 1).

So the adoption of a cultural language and use of it to teach in parable need not be a tool for indoctrination because it invites students to articulate the ideas of the Christian narrative in a language they already know.  Given that they already know the language, whatever they say about it is much more likely to be honest and reflect where they are and what they understand the meaning and significance of faith to be.

My second false assumption was that this movement was going to require a lot of stretching to work.  Lyons dissuaded me of that first by asserting that the narratives we use to teach the Christian faith must be chosen carefully (point 3).  Harry Potter works because inherent in the story is an essentially Christian narrative of redemption and the defeat of death (point 4).  Twilight does not because its just a hormone-inducing teen romance novel.  By carefully selecting the language or parable we use, we are setting students up for success, inviting them to explore a story that already contains the essential elements of faith without us having to reach in deep and twist the meaning of the text to line up with the Christian narrative.  This circles back to socratic teaching: when the “language” we choose to use already invokes the key components of the Christian narrative then instead of indoctrinating our students we are able to help them articulate the ideas in their own words and apply them to their own lives.

Finally, I was struck by the power of narrative as we reflected on JK Rowling’s work.  For those who doubt that the Christian narrative can still be compelling in today’s world, Rowling provides a major counter-example.  She has created one of the greatest literary franchises in history.  Her works have sold almost half a billion copies around the world in the last fifteen years and resulted in 8 major block-buster films.  Yet the stories contain an essentially Christian narrative, proving that the narrative of redemption and the defeat of death continues to powerfully resonate with our world.

What are your thoughts about the use of a “cultural language” like Harry Potter as a way of teaching the Christian faith?  What do you think the goals and priorities of Christian education should be and how should they be pursued?  What other “cultural languages” might be useful in Christian education?


What do you think? I would love to hear from you, please share your thoughts. Just remember to be respectful of others.

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