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Rutgers course beckons new thinking when religion mixes with Harry Potter

<p>Sandy Russell Jones teaches a course that uses the Harry Potter novels to teach "the hero's quest," a narrative structure seen in various works throughout history, including religious texts.</p>

Sandy Russell Jones teaches a course that uses the Harry Potter novels to teach "the hero's quest," a narrative structure seen in various works throughout history, including religious texts.

In his seven years as a wizard-in-training, Harry Potter, the protagonist in J.K. Rowling’s famed book series, squared off against the sinister professors Quirrell and Umbridge, plunged a sword through the mouth of a giant serpent and managed to pull off the Herculean feat of saving the entire wizarding world.

Potter is a literary hero, said Sandy Russell Jones, and most readers recognize it. But fewer readers see the link between “The Boy Who Lived” and religious texts. A class at Rutgers wants to change that.

Jones, director of the Middle Eastern Studies program and teaching assistant professor in the Departments of Religion and History, is teaching “The Hero’s Quest: Religion, Mythology and Harry Potter” for the second time — and students are fascinated.

The course is designed to introduce students to studying religion in an academic setting.

“For students who need to fulfill a requirement, and who don't initially think they'd be interested in religion, reading about some of their favorite pop culture heroes, as well as religious figures, will hopefully reveal that the study of religion is a lot more interesting than they thought it was,” Jones said.

The course focuses on the “hero’s quest,” a narrative structure also referred to as the “hero’s journey,” which describes the adventure of the hero, a person who typically undergoes adversity and victory for the sake of a larger group of people.

“The main premise of the course is that the hero's quest is a common narrative that can be found in all of the major religious traditions, as well as in mythology, legend and popular culture,” Jones said. “This story is literally everywhere you look.”

Students read about religious heroic figures such as Moses and Muhammad in the class, which she said is structured so students read excerpts from many religious texts, and compare the religious narratives to pop cultures heroes such as Potter.

“Harry Potter, by the way, is absolutely chock full of religious imagery and symbolism,” Jones said.

Fan sites have drawn parallels between Harry Potter and the Bible, comparing Potter to Jesus, Dumbledore to God, Voldemort to Satan, Peter Pettigrew to Judas and Dumbledore’s Army to Jesus’s disciples.

The course focuses mostly on Harry Potter, but Jones said she also exposes the class to other fantasy and film heroes — Bastian Balthazar Bux in "The Never Ending Story," Meg in "A Wrinkle in Time," Emmett in "The Lego Movie" and even Phil Conors in "Groundhog Day."

“The journeys that these heroes take are remarkably similar to those of our most beloved prophets and sages, but we also examine the ways in which these stories differ from each other, and those differences can give us all kinds of interesting insights about the cultures and societies that produced them,” she said.

Gabi Cozzolino, a student in the class who took several of Jones’s other classes in previous semesters, said she loves the course, just three weeks in.

The School of Arts and Sciences senior said one of her first motivations to register for the course was knowing that she could share her enthusiasm for the Harry Potter series in an academic setting.

“Who doesn’t love that?” she said.

Prior to the first class, Cozzolino thought the course was going to focus on what she thought were the areligious elements in the "Harry Potter" series — the books were banned in certain churches and denounced by religious leaders in the last several years.

Becky Fischer, a Pentecostal children’s pastor, flamed the series on stage in the 2006 documentary, “Jesus Camp.”

“Let me say something about Harry Potter,” Fischer said. “Warlocks are enemies of God. I don’t care what kind of hero they are, they’re an enemy of God, and had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would’ve been put to death. You don’t make heroes out of warlocks.”

The course does not focus on the opinions of religious leaders, but on the applicability of the hero’s quest to religious texts and, for her personally, non-religious texts, Cozzolino said.

“I’m starting to realize most books I read follow this pattern,” she said.

Like Cozzolino, Jones’s previous students have positive impressions of the class.

“Some students commented about how much they learned about themselves in the course," Jones said. "The hero story is not just about prophets and dragon-slayers. It's about us. We are all called to adventure ... We are, each of us, the heroes of our own journeys, and this is something all students can relate to."


Katie Park is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in journalism and media studies. She is a former news editor for The Daily Targum. Follow her on Twitter @kasopar for more.

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