First Unitarian Church of Worcester will offer a 2-week Hogwarts summer camp July 9-20. As this is the first time we are offering this program here, I have had a few parents ask what Harry Potter has to do with Unitarian Universalism. And so I offer up an essay I wrote as part of my "Creating Hogwarts Magic" curriculum, giving some of the background and the purpose of this program.
Registration is currently quite low, and if we do not get more student registrations soon we will have to decide whether or not we can offer the camp. The early registration deadline is April 1. You can find out more about the camp and register here.
When I was a child, I always looked forward to Vacation Bible School (VBS), a day camp offered at church by volunteer teachers. Unlike regular school, at VBS we got to make crafts, play games, eat sugary snacks, and learn about stories through hands-on experience. These day camps are offered by all sorts of Christian churches, Catholic and Protestant, but traditional VBS would not likely fulfill the needs of less conventional churches. Unitarian Universalism (UU) prides itself on being the “uncommon denomination,” non-creedal and open to all people and life-affirming ideas. The Bible is not considered to be the authority in UU churches, and many families would have avoided a Bible-based event. So, unlike the Christian Vacation “Bible” School, from 2005-2010, the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge decided to host a Vacation “Magic” School, a summer day camp based on the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling. This guide is based on those six years of camp. Our version of the magical school of “Hogwarts” included a 3-dimensional theatrical environment in which adult volunteers invested tremendous time and energy so that children could learn spiritual and social values.
With her Harry Potter books, J.K. Rowling revitalized folkloric imagery into a new generation of young witches and wizards, complete with pointed hats, flying brooms, magic wands, and simmering cauldrons. In this incredibly well-known story, a young orphan named Harry leaves the home of his neglectful aunt and uncle to study magic at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft & Wizardry. Through the course of seven years (and seven books), Harry battles the evil Lord Voldemort in an epic coming-of-age tale. Thanks to clever marketing, the Harry Potter books spun off into a cultural phenomenon, including eight blockbuster feature films, a plethora of merchandise, major book-release parties, academic/fan conferences, and now an interactive theme park experience. The movies were co-released while the books were still being newly published and in close consultation with the author.
While these books have not yet been staged formally in a theatrical setting,fans have created a variety of paratheatrical forms based on the books. At book parties and conferences, fans dress like the characters from the books and enact some of the activities, including the fantasy sport Quidditch. “Wizard Rock” is a genre of music developed by fans, while fan-fiction set in Rowling’s “Wizarding World” abounds on the internet. For the purpose of this essay, I will outline the ways the Harry Potter stories have been used in a variety of educational activities, including religious education (particularly at Unitarian Universalist churches).
I must clarify that I am in no way arguing that the Harry Potter books “promote” Unitarian Universalism or should be avoided by people who have other religious beliefs (despite some of the more vocal criticisms). I do not claim that J.K. Rowling is UU. She has stated many times that the magic in her stories is strictly fiction and that she had no intention of “converting” anyone to any religion. In a recent interview with Oprah Winfrey, Rowling specifies that the books contain “a lot of Christian imagery … That’s an allusion to a belief system in which I was raised” (“Transcript”). Yet the books, films, and paratheatricals appeal to fans of all faiths and are especially useful tools from an interfaith perspective. One valuable analysis of spiritual themes in Harry’s Wizarding World is The Seeker’s Guide to Harry Potter by Geo Athena Trevarthen. While Harry Potter may not be converting children to anything, the stories encourage development of the imagination, cooperation, and faith and moral development.
Movie Magic – The Harry Potter Film Franchise and Fan Reactions
In fall 2001, fans of the Harry Potter books awaited the films with both excitement and trepidation. Four of the seven books in the series had been released before the first film and many had clear images of the characters and world in their imaginations. Fans knew that the costume choices, the actors, and the setting would be more “fixed” based on choices made in the film series than it had with the books. All but one of the films were written by the same screenwriter, Steve Cloves, and at Rowling’s insistence the basic plot of the films stayed close to the plot of the books. However, the films drastically differed from each other based on directorial style. Chris Columbus directed the first two films (2001 and 2002), interpreting the source material quite literally. Alfonso Cuarón directed the third film, The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), with a much darker, more mature style, while Mike Newell directed The Goblet of Fire (2005) as an action-adventure. David Yates directed the fifth (2007), sixth (2009), seventh (2010), and eighth (2011) films. Yates effectively brought an edgier style into the series of films as the characters mature. The first two films are really the only ones made specifically for children.
Fans of the books and films want to immerse themselves in the world of Harry Potter. Simply buying a copy of the latest book became an occasion for enactment. The incredibly popular book parties began as a marketing ploy, but for many they became an opportunity to enter the magical world. At our local Barnes and Noble on the eve of the Deathly Hallows release, I saw one man painted gold and dressed as a golden snitch,  along with many dressed as various characters. Hundreds of children (and some adults) wore black-rimmed glasses and had lightning bolts drawn on their foreheads. The theme park at Universal Studios in Florida promises to “really transport you there,” according to actress Emma Watson in the teaser preview for the park on the Half-blood Prince DVD. Universal is advertising that the “whole Potter experience comes to life,” through shops where one can purchase magical items and clothing, pubs where one can drink butterbeer (a beverage Rowling invented), and three different interactive rides. While some fans dress up as the specific characters at parties and conferences, other fans seem enchanted by the environment Rowling created. Children and adults of all ages want to really go to Hogwarts.
Unitarian Universalist Journeys to Hogwarts
Unitarian Universalist Churches have readily embraced and explored popular fantasy narratives, including Harry Potter. All of these stories have been explored in various sermons in UU churches and adapted for religious education. Perhaps the most popular UU activity has developed out of the Harry Potter books in the form of summer camps. In 2003, the UU Church of Kent, OH presented a workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Association’s General Assembly, where representatives from thousands of UU churches meet, about hosting Harry Potter themed day camps (Haines and Goekler). In this workshop, the volunteer leader of their program Becky Haines described what they do in Kent and encouraged other churches to develop their own programs. The Kent program ran a three- or four-day event four times per year (though according to their current website the Kent church is no longer offering this program). In their promotional materials, they specify their message:
Join us at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Kent where we focus on the magic of hope, peace, faith, and love, without promoting any specific belief system. We believe that we can help our children best by respecting diversity and receiving respect in return. We stand in defense against the dark arts of hatred, poverty, and abuse of any kind. (Haines and Goekler)
They used images of Harry, Ron and Hermione from Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone in their brochure, invoking the popularity of the performed images. Since then, hundreds of UU churches have followed the tradition, though each church takes its own approach. Almost all use costumes and props in some way, as these are such significant parts of the books and films. Some stretch their use of the stories into Sunday School classes all summer (like First UU Memphis’s “Hogwarts on the River” program, which is presented in an adapted form in this curriculum), while others condense their program into one or two weeks during the summer. Some use the characters and imagery directly from the books, while others adapt or create new characters within the fictional Wizarding World. This appropriation of Harry Potter for religiously expressive performance seems a natural fit.
Unitarianism and Universalism were separate liberal Christian traditions for hundreds of years, but after their merger in 1961 became a much more pluralistic religious tradition. In 1984 the General Assembly of UUs voted on a statement of principles that became a type of covenant between member congregations (Bumbaugh 196). As part of this document, Unitarian Universalism embraces six sources of religious teachings:
1. Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;
2. Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;
3. Wisdom from the world's religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;
4. Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God's love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;
5. Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.
6. Spiritual teachings of earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.
We found that we were able to incorporate all six sources into the “container” of the Harry Potter camp, using the mythic themes to incorporate much, much more. This language of the first source reinforces a magical worldview, allowing for personal experience to guide spirituality.
From 2004-2010, I served as Director of Religious Education at the Unitarian Church of Baton Rouge and Headmistress of their program “Hogwarts School of Magic and Fun” which ran from 2005-2010 with as many as 200 participants. We offered the camp independently in 2011 as the Imaginorium Educational Collective. Camp brochures and the camp website stated: “Please note: this is a Unitarian Universalist church camp. We accept and teach diversity of race, religion , class, sexual orientation and gender identity at this church” (“Summer School of Magic and Fun”). The camp staff identify themselves as Unitarian Universalist, Pagan or Wiccan, humanist, Christian, Buddhist, or agnostic. About half the campers attended the UU church regularly. Many of the children from outside the church come from Christian homes, but some were from Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu families. The camp strived to make everyone feel welcome in a diverse interfaith environment.
Hogwarts Camp and Faith Development
In the books, students are accepted at Hogwarts at age 11 and study for seven years. Our program, however, was geared toward a much younger age group, advertised for students entering 1st-8th grades. Teenagers and adults who wanted to participate were encouraged to be faculty. According to James Fowler, a psychologist whose theories of faith development are highly influential in religious education, stories are a fundamental part of early categorization of meaning. The stage he marks “Intuitive-Projective” usually lasts from ages 2-7 and includes creating narrative patterns of meaning to explain sensory input and imitating belief in the same things as his or her parents or primary caregivers. Fowler explains, “Story becomes the major way of giving unity and value to experience” (149). This early stage relies on fantasy and narrative to give meaning to their experiences of the world around them. Fairy tales are encouraged because they allow children to make early intuitive connections between their own experiences and the experiences of others. According to Scholastic, distributor of the Harry Potter books, the first book is recommended for age seven and up. As the characters in the books mature, the recommended minimum age is increased to ten. Thus, the books are a big fit for children in the intuitive-projective stage. Yet, if children in this stage have parents or older siblings who read the books, they want to be a part of it. For this reason we opened our day camp to children as young as 5 years old. Some of these young children had the early books read to them or had seen the movie adaptations, but many had only heard of the stories. However, the camp provided a rich and fertile fantasy-land for children in the Intuitive-Projective stage to make their own connections and narrative before their encounter with the books themselves.
Most of the students at the Baton Rouge Hogwarts fit within the second stage of faith development, which Fowler calls “Mythic-Literal.” This stage usually begins in elementary school and may last through adolescence or even adulthood. With the foundation of stories and beliefs from the Intuitive-Projective stage, the Mythic-Literal child begins to test those stories to develop concrete “reality” from “make-believe.” J.K. Rowling insists that her readers know the difference between fantasy and reality, as she says in a CNN interview: “It is a fantasy world and they understand that completely.” Fowler also explains that this stage of faith development is when a child “begins to take on for him- or herself the stories, beliefs and observances that symbolize belonging to his or her community” (149). Sometimes this translates to a literal interpretation of stories that are taught to be true, such as the stories in the Bible or in history, and a person in this stage will argue vehemently for the literal truth of the story (150). One challenge in UU Religious Education are that children in the Mythic-Literal stage long for something concrete on which they can rely, but the denomination is built on a postmodern sense of relativism. The only concrete guidelines offered to UU children are the “Principles” which are affirmed and promoted by UU congregations:
1) The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
2) Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
3) Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
4) A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
5) The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
6) The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
7) Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. (“UUA Principles and Purposes”)
These principles provide positive guidelines for children and adults, but they are quite abstract. According to Fowler, stories are the best way for children at this stage to learn ethical guidelines, whether taken literally or metaphorically. In a traditional VBS, the Bible stories are taught as necessarily true, giving the children no opportunity to develop their own mythic-literal interpretations. At our camp, the stories of Harry Potter gave us a structure and framework to present the UU principles. We never taught the stories as “literal” truth, but the books became like a Bible to us, providing a point of departure for the spiritual and social messages we wanted to teach. In relating this to the students’ lives, first they must recognize their own inherent worth and then their ability to make a difference in the world. Teamwork is essential in the books, as each character brings his or her own strengths to the confrontation. Vacation Bible School usually teaches students to be “good Christians,” giving definitive answers to any questions. In each of the Hogwarts classes and in the basic structure of the camp, we helped the children explore their questions and how they can make their own unique, positive choices, facing the darkness that confronts them. The children are given tools to explore possibilities rather than answers.
 The only references to Harry Potter being enacted on stage are for charity events including a performance at an elementary school in Dubuque, IA (Olson) and Landing Stage Youth Theatre Group in Chennai, India (Achuthan). Given time the story will likely be adapted for stage performance, though author J.K. Rowling stated in an interview with Oprah Winfrey that she specifically turned down an offer from Michael Jackson to make a musical of Harry Potter (“Transcript”).
 Many vocal conservative Christians have accused the Harry Potter books of promoting Witchcraft or Wicca. In Hour of the Witch, Steven Wohlberg suggests “Could there be something more than mere literary magic fueling the success of Rowling’s novels? Something more akin to a real spell cast by some sinister source?” (27). The video “Witchcraft Repackaged” (2002) claims that Harry Potter is taught by “practicing occultists” who teach “the dark arts of sorcery and divination: fortune telling, astrology, potion mixing, spell weaving and curse casting.”
 For the sake of brevity, I will use shortened titles throughout this essay. All of the film and book titles begin Harry Potter and the…
 See Melissa Anelli’s description of the development of the Harry Potter phenomenon in her book Harry, A History. As an editor for the “Leaky Cauldron” website, she had opportunity to see much of the development firsthand.
 The “snitch” is a small, gold ball with wings that Rowling describes as part of her wizarding sport of Quidditch. Interestingly, Trevarthen claims the image itself echoes earlier folklore, as “The winged disc is found throughout the ancient Near East and in ancient Egypt… as the life-giving orb of the sun” (105).
 UU Churches are not the only organizations to create this sort of religious educational expression of the Harry Potter stories. For example, the United Church camps in Wisconsin, Bishop Stoney Christian Camp in Santa Fe, NM, and Earnest Shepherd Youth Center in Liberty, MO, all offer Christian-based Harry Potter-themed camps.