Some Notes On … is a section which features my autoethnographic fieldnotes as I document my thoughts throughout different parts of my PhD project. Here, I write about the text resources discussed in our podcast episode.
For Episiode 3, “Just Let Me Hug a Tree in the Woods: Wicca, Paganism, and Religion in Fantasy Media”, we discussed the following texts.
1) Blog post – Harry Potter: “Making Evil Look Innocent”
On a video called “Harry Potter: Witchcraft Repackaged, Making Evil Look Innocent” which is disparagingly referenced in the blog post, the responses of the kids at the beginning sound quite wonder-struck and open to possibilities and to imagine differently. A couple of the responses belie the myth that children, especially girls, are always nice and innocent. I would be more interested in having deeper conversations with the respondents than just pass judgments based on quotes pulled out of context.
The writer sounds sincerely panicked about the perceived assault against Christianity in the public education system in the US and the risk posed by promoting Wicca in its stead. Not just the Harry Potter series but the internet is also implicated in this Wiccan propaganda where children can easily learn how to practice witchcraft and paganism. Honestly, it’s really easy to laugh at this hyperbole – especially given that despite proclaiming itself to be secular, the US seems to be structured on a Christian framework. However, I’m also aware that to many (not all) of them, this danger may feel very real. I was talking to my boyfriend last week about abortion and how many Christians are against it. And while I am very much pro-choice and think that people should follow their own beliefs, I can understand where the fundamentalist religious worry comes from. If they truly believe in these things and they think they’re trying to save not only their family and friends from eternal damnation but also the society they live in, I can see why they don’t care what others may think about them when they protest abortion clinics.
When I was younger, I vaguely remember the news of this panic against Harry Potter and witchcraft in the US being reported in India and online. Whenever I came across it, the news sources seemed bemused by the whole situation so I didn’t take it too seriously either, because it’s not something I live with. However, now seeing the situation in India, where such a huge group of Hindus have fallen for this belief that despite being the majority in India, their values and beliefs are somehow under threat, which means they need to secure their interests – it makes me think of what happened and what’s still happening in the US. It’s a very self-centred view of the world. I’m not religious but my mother is. However, she’s the kind of religious – or maybe spiritual – who believes in all religions. I think she likes having something to believe in, to provide comfort and hope, and to gather in a community with and to practice some rituals for solace. I struggle with the kind of religion which only wants its version of the world to exist. I find fundamentalism of any kind quite scary.
“Harry Potter provides a basic initiation into witchcraft for a whole new generation. Imagine what the world will be like when they grow up.”
This last line in the essay is really interesting because based on current research and what we’re seeing in protests in India and across the world, young people who’ve grown up with Harry Potter seem to use it to demand more inclusion, social justice, empathy and respect. This is, of course, a gross generalisation and I’m sure there are many Harry Potter readers (and one Harry Potter writer) who doesn’t believe in inclusion for all groups – there is a hierarchy of marginalisation. However, I’m pretty okay with how we’ve grown up. I don’t think it’s the Harry Potter readers that are the problem; it’s the systems we’re currently fighting against which, in many parts of the world, are founded on religious oppression.
2) The Guardian article – JK Rowling confirms that there were Jewish wizards at Hogwarts
Rowling uses Twitter to confirm that Hogwarts is very diverse apparently. Why isn’t this diversity apparent or engaged with in any meaningful way in the book series itself? I mean I want more explicit – not allegorical diversity. But also within the series itself, the diversity at Hogwarts extends to gender, blood status, and superficially race. What about other kinds of diversity? The goblins complain of witches and wizards hoarding their secrets. But at the end of the series, this status quo remains in place. And in terms of religious diversity, there was so much room to explore that as well. This retroactive diversity is really absurd to me. As I was saying to my friends, I wished she had acknowledged her blind-spots. As a writer, I know very well that you don’t usually think of everything when you’re writing your story. But instead of using this as a conversation-starter or a learning experience, she’s claiming credit for diversity which she didn’t come up with.
There are Jewish students, and LGBTQIA+ students, and all religions (or even non-belief) it seems. Except Wiccans. Where is this mysteriously diverse cohort hiding? Rowling’s response to someone’s assumption that Hogwarts would be a safe space for LGBTQIA students was to use a fan text, a version of which I encountered, during my Master’s research.
“If Harry Potter taught us anything, it’s that no one should live in a closet”
Again, rather than credit the fantastic work that fans do in expanding the Potterverse and making it more diverse, she seems to just co-opt that work (see also: black Hermione) and present it as her own idea. And, of course, she’s well within her right to do that. However, seeing as how much her words mean to so many people, I wish she was more sensitive and took more responsibility to engage with these issues rather than use flippant tweets.
Anthony Goldstein seems to be the sole Jewish representative. In terms of religion, it seems to be framed around Christianity too. No paganism in sight, no matter what the fundamentalist Christians are afraid of. But Christmas is celebrated very grandly. No other religious celebrations or festivals are given the time of day. There’s Halloween (which seems to celebrate food and carved pumpkins than any form of paganism), then Christmas, then Easter. I remember reading an interview many years ago when I was a teenager and the last two books weren’t out yet. Rowling didn’t say what religion she followed because she said that would make the plot of her final books very clear to astute readers. Harry’s sort-of death and sort-of rebirth was very reminiscent of Jesus and Aslan.
What would religious diversity in Hogwarts look like? Different lessons in the classroom? Celebrations? Cross-cultural relationships?
3) The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina episode – Chapter Seventeen: The Missionaries
This was quite a gripping episode to be introduced to the show to! I found it very interesting (and scary) about how Christianity was positioned in opposition to witches. And of course, from what I gleaned, it makes perfect sense within the context of the show. But I suppose the connection wasn’t as apparent to me before – Christianity versus Wicca, that is. Is Wicca a Western faith tradition? I’d be interested in understanding how it stands in contrast to other religions. What’s the relationship between other Western and Eastern religions with Wicca? Does it draw from other religions? Like I said, I don’t know enough about even the more mainstream religions – let alone the less familiar ones.
The characters who act as representatives of Christianity demand that the witches convert to their faith to save their souls. Again with Hinduism, which is what I’ve grown up with culturally, the discourse around conversion to Hinduism isn’t that prevalent. Or at least it never used to be. There are people who converted from Hinduism to escape the oppressive nature of the caste system – and recently there have been efforts by right-wing groups in India to re-convert Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. It’s called Ghar Wapsi. And there’s the moral panic of Muslim men stealing Hindu daughters and how Hindu women need to be protected from this danger which has the tone of both religious prejudice and patriarchal control.
4) Fan podcast – Woke Doctor Who “Faith in the Whoniverse”
They discuss how Christianity in the US is the structuring force of most media. This doesn’t leave room for non-Abrahamic religions or atheists. The insecurity with Christians feeling like they’re under attack in the US resembles the attitude of many Hindus in India. I think India and the US have more in common than they realise!
One of the co-hosts, Toya, follows the Orisha faith which believe in nature-based deities among African people (which is a minority religion even among black Americans in the US most of whom are Christian and then Muslim). Toya chose her religion as a political decision to find deities which resemble her and don’t marginalise her as she felt Christianity does. The new religion also met her desire for faith and community. According to Toya, Christianity has been used to oppress black people wherein black people’s lives are perceived as being punished for their sins. She does acknowledge that for some black people, Christianity has been connected to liberation. However for her, her faith is both a religious and political identity.
Eugenia, the other co-host, is an atheist and connects this with her scientist identity. She discusses the connection between religion and morality whereby atheists are considered amoral. Like Eugenia, I have a different moral code as someone who isn’t religious. However, I do understand those who base their morality on their religion, but I think there could be more critical thinking there. Not all religious people act with kindness, goodness and inclusion.
When there’s a dominant religion in a country, everything in its media and culture is largely measured against that religion and other ways of being and faith are othered. Different countries feature different religions (Middle East and Islam) or not (China). But even then you can engage in resistant readings where you interpret a text based on your own beliefs. The hosts believe that the UK has more positive representations of atheism in its media.
They cite a Doctor Who episode which features atheism, another which questions blind faith – The Fires of Pompeii – by providing metaphorical commentary on religion and questioning blind belief. In his run, David Tennant’s Doctor seems to position religion and curiousity versus acknowledging you don’t know everything including whether or not a God exists. In some episodes, the Doctor acts as a godlike figure – an ancient god who makes mistakes and doesn’t know everything – similar to mythology. Parallels to Gandalf and Dumbledore? Religion as mythology where different groups of people wrote different stories about their understanding of how the world works and how humans exist in it. Faith doesn’t have to be connected to organised religion. Doctor Who raises questions about humanity and what brings us together rather than explore religions in detail.
In Jodie’s first season, they note that there are lots more diverse faith-based episodes. For example, the faith-based conflict and imperialism in Demons of the Punjab. They wonder if this is because of the diversity of the cast and writers. People can understand each other through the faiths they follow and the beliefs it reveals. Representations of different religions can act as a way to evoke respect and empathy for diverse experiences.
They notice the absence of Jewish representation in Doctor Who which is similar to this erasure in Harry Potter. They wonder why this is. Someone on my Facebook newsfeed talked about how Judaism only seems to crop up in Holocaust narratives with no room for Jewish representation in other aspects. Though I have read two books recently which had Jewishness at its core without being about the Holocaust – The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik.
5) Fan podcast – Witch, Please “Special Bonus Episode: Secret Feminist Agenda 1.7”
Hannah McGregor, academic and podcaster of Witch, Please talks about her new podcast Secret Feminist Agenda and interviews authors/witches Jaya Saxena and Jess Zimmerman to talk about their forthcoming book Basic Witches. Their view of witchcraft isn’t religious but more historical and pop cultural (they aren’t practising Wiccans). They’re trying to reclaim the witch from its historical contexts to a more empowering version in contemporary feminism. They claim that in the book, there is no fundamentally bad way to be a woman. I disagree with this somewhat. If your being a woman involves oppressing other people in any number of ways – women, men, nonbinary folk, trans folk – I think that’s a pretty bad way of being a woman or a person. They acknowledge that there was an essentialist approach to gender in old-school paganism and Wicca where the focus on menstruation and the moon cycle can appear transphobic to contemporary feminists/Wiccans.
I do agree with their point of people shouldn’t degrade women for being too smart, too frivolous, too unserious, “too standing near a cow and it dies”. They propose a radical acceptance of womanhood and femininity as a tenet of their version of witchcraft They say that historically, it has been scary for women to have medical knowledge but not men. Is this only in certain contexts though? I don’t know enough but surely there are traditions of women healers in history? They believe in creating rituals and practices as a way to empower the practitioner where the rules act as a framework not as a hard boundary.
Can there be male Wiccans? Or is it just a religion for women? They challenge the notion of aggressive as masculine and emotional as feminine emotions. This can lead to women rejecting traditionally feminine traits in an effort to be feminists. There are also different reactions to getting your periods – different ways of looking at the world.
They argue that embracing ugliness as a feminist stance. Eurocentric, patriarchal standards and expectations of beauty., where beauty is seen as a marker of morality, perpetuates a narrow version of beauty. There are so many different ways to be ugly. Beauty is also subjective. Both ugliness and beauty are loaded terms; ugly has severe negative connotations – how do you engage with beauty on your own terms? Why is beauty a requirement? Witches, like feminists and ugliness, lies outside of the status quo. Hagrid as the wizard/witch mid-wife initiates Harry into a new community and rejects any standards of beauty or propriety, firmly situated outside the status quo.
“Beauty is the dues that you pay for existing in the world.”
A lot of women or people who are raised as women are conditioned in this way which is similar to femininity as a tax you pay. Beauty is shaped by the advertising and cosmetics industries which are capitalising on beauty.
“Magic as a way of intervening in capitalism.”
How do you embrace a different approach to aesthetics?
The episode began with an excerpt from a sermon after the Brett Kavanaugh hearing in the US which contextualised religion with contemporary real-world issues. For me, who thinks of religion in terms of violence and control, this is a refreshing perspective I did not consider before. Even though, of course, for many religious people, this may be the point – understanding the world through the lens of religion
Parallel between violence of the Ministry of Magic against Harry in the fifth book where they don’t believe him and the media and the government mock him and gaslighting him and his trauma ] to women’s reporting of rape in a patriarchal society. In Order of the Phoenix, many readers found Harry’s anger annoying – like the responder, I was one of these people too. But in my master’s research, I encountered another perspective of his PTSD and justifications for his behaviour. One of the callers draws parallel to his anger and trauma and existing in a world where you’re being persecuted to the anger of those who are marginalised. I certainly feel this way in the context of India and the UK – I’m so constantly angry about everything, especially reading more news on social media which sends me into simultaneous spirals of rage, helplessness and despair. I went to two protests last year to channel some of that anger. They discuss going through secondhand trauma where even though you’re not being targeted and impacted personally, but you’re afraid of what’s happening in the world. They recommend looking for acts of bravery, kindness, joy and inspiration – little pockets of them – to keep going.
The deeply personal voicemails listeners of the podcast leave for the show and for fellow listeners creates a form of community where fans come together to make sense of the world and its people through the lens of Harry Potter. This is similar to how people use religion as a lens to understand the world and to form a community around as well.
Dr Lynn Gurber, a scholar of religion, discusses neo-paganism and Wicca. She cites the influences of feminism, women’s studies, and feminist studies in general in the 80s and 90s when she was growing up. Witches and witchcraft act as a feminist alternative movement – providing a spirtual and social, community life. It’s a way to understand and negotiate misogyny and women’s historical and ongoing oppression and an attempt to understand power dynamics between men and women and between people. Is this power imbalance just against men though? There are power hierarchies among women too which has many class, race, gender identity, religion, disability intersections. She proposes that the Church’s opposition to paganism is also a patriarchal response to women’s agency. Hinduism is very patriarchal as well.
“Claiming a history that people say isn’t important.”
She also talks of how Wicca is used as a way to grow closer to and learn about the natural world – herbs, food, seasons. It is also a way to practice rituals in a community, where it provides an opportunity to come together with others. As a now non-practising Wiccan, she has kept the spiritual and intellectual practice of claiming the power of possibility and of believing in potentials. She acknowledges that Harry Potter provides a space to cultivate wonder in a way which is important to all people and allows them to imagine differently, and to imagine alternative possibilities.
“Fantasy fiction is limited to our cultural experiences.”
This episode features an interview with Malaysian-British author Zen Cho. They discuss how most magic in fantasy media draws on Judeo-Christian practices which results in excoticising and othering non-Western ideas of magic. Zen talks about how for her, reading Regency era fiction as a Malaysian kid in the 80s felt like reading fantasy – the stories were full of new and unfamiliar norms, vehicles, language. This is similar to my own experiences full of an Indian childhood diet of Enid Blyton and other British children’s literature. Western fantasy hugely influenced her writing but she also drew on her own local stories and folklore. My own ideas of fantasy are so heavily influenced by Western notions. My writing for children is still pretty colonised, I think, though I am slowly unlearning this. The idea of Western magic involves old men with beards hurling incantations.
Back in the day, you believed in magic because you only half understood what’s happening in the world. Modern magic is more functional where there is a well-defined system of magic creating a more rational approach to magic. More traditional fantasy played with rules and magic wasn’t as well defined. In Zen’s book, magicians use spirits and words where magic is external rather than internal. In Harry Potter, the magic comes from somewhere else. In Terry Pratchett, the wizards have academic magic and witches have community magic where one isn’t better than the other. In Uprooted, there are two different forms of magic – intellectual versus emotional – gendered implications. There are cultural clashes between different kinds of magic (In Harry Potter, Native American magic seems to be superseded by more Western influences which appear superior and have made Native practices obsolete.
Usually Western magic looks at non-Western magic but in Zen’s The True Queen, the roles are reversed where an Imperial subject’s perspective is highlighted. This made me think of my own experiences growing up in India and looking at the UK as exotic and other. She treated British culture as foreign and Malay culture as the norm in her book – used Islam since it’s a dominant religion in Malaysia. God and Allah are loaded terms in contemporary times. You don’t see much fantasy set in tropical countries – language, setting, food, culture, biology etc. would differ and impact the magicians and the writer’s world-building. Growing up with largely Western fantasy narratives, it begins to shape what you think of as proper fantasy and it’s something you take for granted. Christianity’s spread killed off belief in magic in many parts of the world – this may explain fantasy’s looking down at native magic even today where other cultural traditions are denigrated either subtly or explicitly. After the Enlightenment, belief in magic was replaced by belief in science – definitely something I can identify with. It’s something I really chafed against with the Hindu beliefs my upbringing exposed me to. There is a lack of animistic fantasy which acknowledges that humans cannot know everything about the world. How does fantasy differ when created by people who grew up in a “rational” culture versus an “irrational” one? Diversity just makes things so much more interesting! You’re drawing on so many different kinds of cultures and beliefs; this representation is great not only for marginalised but also for dominant cultures. You’re surprised by things that you don’t expect if you’ve grown up with Wetsern habits of magic and culture.
“Using other cultures as set-dressing just to exocticise an unfamiliar culture in your story – frustrating for a tradition which isn’t well-represented in Western culture which is currently global culture.”
“Tolkien spirituality. By this term I refer to groups and individuals who, since the 1960s, have developed increasingly sophisticated religious beliefs, practices, and traditions based on Tolkien’s literary mythology.”
Tolkien spirituality consists of fans using the fantasy series as canon – and reading the books through a religious lens. Religious Tolkien fans who fuse their religious beliefs with their love of Tolkien by practising both their traditional religions (Christianity, paganism etc.) and rituals celebrating Tolkien mythology made me think about the more direct parallels between fandom and religion and fandom as religion. A group of people who took the text and its characters as literally as people would take the Bible or the Ramayana and Mahabharata, for example.There’s a huge cultural influence of popular culture texts like Harry Potter and the boom in online fandom exacerbates this. According to the paper, the hippies adopted The Lord of the Rings as a quasi-religious text and even had wedding ceremonies based on the books. Many people today also include their fannish texts in wedding ceremonies in both subtle and more explicit ways.
“Two American magicians, known as Arwen and Elanor, allegedly were told by an Ouija board spirit to found a feminist, Elven, magical group and call it “The Elf Queen’s Daughters” – the Elf Queen being a reference to Elbereth, the Star Queen.”
This is similar to Wiccans who are now making the faith an actively feminist practice. This is especially interesting considering the critiques of the lack of female characters and agency in the series. It is also similar to the ecological parallels with pagan religions – looking after Mother Earth – which I can see can have contemporary relevance and attraction with the climate crisis movement for young people. For example, what would reading Extinction Rebellion through a religious lens result in? How about veganism and religion – especially the more fundamentalist aspects in both?
“The Silmarillion was published, and the wealth of information within this book about the culture and religion of the Elves was a true gift to the emerging Elven movement.”
A way for practitioners to frame their identity. Tolkien’s work was reinterpreted by the Silver Elves to their own contexts and priorities; this is very similar to more traditional religious texts. There are different interpretations of the Bible where some are more conservative and others are more progressive. Similarly, there’s a split in current Elvish theology with some who are Tolkien adherents and others with allegiances to Elves in folklore and mythology – this has some Islamic parallels as well as Christian. I seem to know more about Christianity than Hinduism – based on my education and the culture and media I consume. They use other Tolkien texts to build and understand their mythology and canon – his letters and other short stories. What canon you follow is so based on who does the editing (as someone on a Harry Potter and the Sacred Text episode once said).
Some Tolkien spirtualists posit that Middle-Earth was prehistoric Earth. I often have this vague thought that if some sort of apocalypse destroyed humanity as it currently stands – what would future Earth inhabitants or even aliens make of our perceived religious and cultural beliefs? It depends on what they find – what texts and media and assorted paraphernalia they encounter. Harry Potter, Marvel, science fiction? What will they think about our gods and goddesses and belief systems? Aren’t current religious systems based on texts written thousands of years ago too?
“The group claims to have established with magical research that Tolkien was a “Bard of the kin folk”, i.e. that he was a Changeling himself who chose to be incarnated in a human body to tell the truth of the Changelings in fictional form.”
This reminds me of the fan text I read a few years ago, which proposed that Rowling was a witch who now lives as a Muggle to tells us about the exploits of her world. She’s documenting history not fiction. I’m amazed by the sheer creativity of these religious rituals, practices, stories, and myths. A few years ago, I began trying to read more religious texts because even though I’m not religious, I love stories and ancient religions really do have fascinating stories which reveal so much about their beliefs and attitudes towards each other and the world. I’m also an extremely fannish person so reading about religious practices make me draw on fandom comparisons. For example, fans have rituals too like going on pilgrimages to places connected with their favourite worlds, they enjoy engaging deeply with the fictional world, they meet fellow believers, and find online and offline communities. As respectfully as I can say, Tolkien spirituality (and other religious beliefs) read like embodied fanfiction – losing yourself into this world created by someone else where there are enough gaps to explore and fill and interpret based on your own priorities and interests. The paper credits the internet for Tolkien spirtualists being able to find each other more easily based on extremely niche interests and beliefs – more parallels with fandom. The paper also credits the expanding canon to this which offers more room for exploration and interpretation. In fandom, fans expand the canon with their own fanworks, which oftentimes supersedes the original text or intention of the author.
“It has been reported that some lending libraries in Britain read the prologue in this manner and classified the book, at least initially, as history rather than fiction.”
I don’t know whether this is true and if it is true, whether the libraries did this sincerely or tongue-firmly-in-cheek. However, there’s an interesting possibility of playfulness being considered as seriousness by others.
“Practitioners of Tolkien spirituality say that it is Tolkien’s normal readers who get him wrong – those who read his works as mere fiction. It is the practitioners of Tolkien spirituality who use Tolkien’s books as he himself intended them to be used.”
More parallels with other religions and fandom with conservative and progressive followers/fans. Fandom as religion could maybe explain the different schools of thought among fans – more traditional fans who uphold the tenets of the original canon and more progressive fans who are open-minded to the disruption and expansion of the original canon.
9) Fan podcast – Imaginary Worlds “Faith in Fantasy”
This episode features different faith leaders discussing the role of religion in science fiction and fantasy.
“In the end we’re all stories, make it a good one.”
Minister Oscar Sinclair has used this quote and idea from Doctor Who in numerous memorial services – interesting relationship between faith, death and fandom. Rabbi Rachel Barenblat draws the comparison of Doctor Who regenerations and the Jewish concept of beginning again. Alwaez Hussein Rashid, a Muslim travelling preacher, reads the elves in Lord of the Rings as perpetual outsiders and the Jedi in Star Wars as Sufi mystics. Rachel read a story from the point of view of Morgana rather than Arthur which completely changed the story. This made me think of the relationship between religion and fandom again where multiple perspectives and diverse interpretations can result in the same story being understood in different ways.
“SFF asks a lot of the same questions that religion asks.”
They discuss the relationship between faith and rationalism where some people also use faith to rationalise the things they encounter. There are different kinds of faith systems which may not match more traditional understandings of faith – so there’s faith in religion, but also faith in science. A lot of early science fiction explored worlds in which religion did not exist. However, their interactions with unfamiliar and unknowable things ask religious questions (even if they don’t say that). I found this a fascinating concept. It also reminds me of the premise of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a podcast which uses the Harry Potter series as a framework to have spiritual conversations and engage in spiritual practices borrowed from different religions.
“How do you deal with difference? How do you marginalise people who are so different from you?”
With questions of otherness, community and death rituals – different writers create different ideas of this in science fiction and fantasy. As someone who isn’t religious, I like the idea of creating your own rituals to celebrate or mourn things. I like the idea of rituals without the religious baggage.
“How do things end? And what is our response to it?”
This made me think of the climate crisis because that’s what I’m most worried about right now.
Rachel Barenblat wonders whether things are getting better or whether they’re getting worse. In Judaism, the debate is whether the best Jewish scholars are in the past or whether they’re in the future; the second scenario would lead to an expansion of ideas rather than relying on traditional ideas and interpretations. In terms of science fiction – what the world could be – this idea is something which I keep thinking of. I have faith and hope in human beings so I like the idea of things becoming better.
There are problematic elements in early science fiction writers where straight white men were largely writing for other straight white men. What their future envisions caters to a certain, very limited group of people. To Rachel, the Firangi in Star Trek: Deep Space Nine felt deeply anti-Semitic. To Hussein, Narnia is a Christian allegory but can also be a Shia/Sunni allegory. Harry Potter can be read as Jesus, Mohammed, or Moses. You interpret the text not only based on the context of the text but also based on your own personal, social, cultural contexts. Hussein recommends some books which use Islamic elements in fantasy which makes me think of how so much fantasy is framed around Judeo-Christian values. But now more diverse writers means more diverse beliefs and worlds. Popular culture stories are taking the space of religious canon. With both religion and popular media and its fandoms, the process involves telling the same kind of stories in different ways, and making them more relevant to different contexts. You find community and metaphors in both religion and fandom.
“Do they become the stories we tell when we’re searching for meaning?”
What does it mean to be human? How do you answer these questions? Religion is just one lens. For me, it’s definitely through stories – both fictional and people’s real stories.
10) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Special Edition: Owl Post and Broderick Greer”
Reverend Broderick Greer is an ordained black gay man – unusual in the Church. He believes everyone’s engagement with religion is different; this is also true in fandom. He teaches the hosts the spiritual practice of marginalia. This allows for different interpretations of the Bible based on who’s ministering. Marginalia literally involves writing on the margins of the Bible and thereby making the text your own. He is inspired by his grandmother’s practice of writing in the Bible. A woman who inhabited so many oppressed identities expressed ownership of the text and had a conversation with the text. This practice sees the Bible as dynamic, fluid, and open to interpretation.
He acknowledges that one doesn’t always begin with the confidence to speak back to the text. This is especially true with religious texts but also something seen in a massive fandom like Harry Potter. Being comfortable with talking back can come later when you’re more familiar with the text and gain a sense of ownership. For someone from a group marginalised in the text or in culture at large, speaking back to the text and inserting their perspectives and opinions can be empowering.
As Broderick points out, when you put the text above God, it can be weaponised. He cites the example of the Bible’s disapproval of homosexuality. Which is why he believes that there is no text, just people’s interpretations of it. He also positions fanfiction as marginalia where fans are exploring and filling in missing gaps and forming communities around this which make the stories more accessible and inclusive. It’s more interesting to speculate than have a definitive answer from the author.
“Who (in our culture) is imagined out of stories and who needs to reimagine themselves back into them?”
This applies to a literary text but even to history. The practice of marginalia sees texts as both popular work and democratic work. It explores the questions of who’s allowed to own the stories and who’s allowed to write in the margins.
11) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Special Edition: Owl Post and Rabbi Scott Perlo (Again!)”
What is part of canon and what isn’t – in religion and in fandom (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? Rowling’s Twitter announcements?). There’s especially a parallel with Judaism. There are debates even among religious scholars of what counts as canon and what doesn’t. As the episode points out, when it comes to canon, the writer isn’t in control, it’s the editor who is in charge. In Jewish texts like the Talmud, the Torah, or the Bible, what stories and voices are included and which are removed? This depends on who’s doing the compiling. With religious canon, you see periods of expansion – when you’re adding more to the canon, or periods when you’re going deep where you’re analysing everything which exists minutely. For a meaningful engagement with the text, there needs to be a balance between breadth and depth. Your interpretation of the canon can be informed by what’s beyond canon and what you’re choosing to not engage with; but someone else may have a different perspective. The Jewish tradition sees itself “as a conversation across time” similar to the Half-Blood Prince’s marginalia and Tom Riddle’s diary which Ginny writes in.
12) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post and Other Journeys with Professor Stephanie Paulsell”
Religious pilgrimages involve taking some time out of your real life. Some pilgrimages are following in someone else’s footsteps – writers, religious people, artists, fictional characters. Fans go on pilgrimages either to conventions or to places where the movies/TV show has been shot/or to places which have connections with their favourite fictional worlds. There also pilgrimages that readers take to get to know their favourite writers better. The importance of materiality and artefacts for pilgrims/fans depends on the objects and the people. For me, bookstores, libraries, nature, and museums form my points of pilgrimage whenever I travel to a new place or even when I’m in the same place. They fill me with joy and wonder and also make me actively think of connections with people who are very different from me, led different lives either now or historically. Pilgrimages can also act as a form of building a community where you meet people from different backgrounds and people who aren’t like you – encountering diverse experiences and perspectives which you you.
13) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post Edition: Reclaiming Tradition with Professor Matt Potts”
The word “tradition” has negative connotations because it has been used to exclude groups of people. Matt Potts reclaims tradition by using it as a resource of possibility and using it as a framework to see what the future can look like -respecting both the past and the future and using both to build relationships in the present. This perspective looks at tradition as dynamic rather than static. Tradition cannot thrive without changing with the times to suit relevant contexts and settings – this is true for both religion and fandom. Some religious structures are changing to suit the times – for example, the radical church article I read about and linked to in the transcript of this episode. There are also changing traditions of marriage -who can get married and how. However, some people and structures do cling to one version of tradition and resist change. Religion is a meaning-making system where it changes over time in much the same way language changes over time. Whose stories are highlighted? Throughout history, only a certain group of privileged men have had their interpretations become mainstream. The question now is how you can change traditions in order to include people rather than exclude groups of people. Traditions can actively include voices which have been historically marginalised on grounds of gender, race, national origin etc.
14) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Owl Post Edition: How to Be in Community with Burns Stanfield”
In this era of social disconnection, people are looking for reasons and ways to build connections. Both religion and fandom offer a sense of and space for community. The interfaith church that Reverend Burns Stanfield runs attracts a mix of people – economically, socially, politically, culturally, and theologically diverse. Religion as well fandom has the potential to draw people from different backgrounds who have to interact with each other. This provides an opportunity which they might not otherwise encounter. The importance of community in combating loneliness but also to practice love even if it is inconvenient and it is people you wouldn’t otherwise have met or agreed with. Different people bring different skills to a community and contribute in different ways, both big and small. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text itself acts as a community which includes multiple voices and perspectives actively through its guests and by playing voicemails from listeners on the podcast.
15) Fan podcast – Harry Potter and the Sacred Text “Faith: The House-Elf Liberation Front”
Is Dobby and Winkys faith the same? Dobby has blind faith in Harry while Winky has the same in the Crouches. You see subservience in both. However, Dobby has more agency since it’s something he chooses. Even though Dobby has agency, it’s still not completely empowering. He still doesn’t consider himself worthy of equal payment and leave, for example. He has blind faith in some wizards and wizarding institutions but is there a corresponding lack of faith in himself and his abilities? However, he does have some sense of dignity and value of his own worth because he is seeking work despite rejections and social censure. Winkys faith isn’t considered proper because Barty Crouch Jr is a Death Eater and she is forbidden from “worshipping” him. The episode draws parallels to certain faiths being oppressed historically and even now.
House elf-dom itself can be read as a religion rather than a species. It’s a religion and not a cult because Dobby has proven that you can leave it. Perhaps it was a cult before that. Which means that Dobby can be read as a religious reformer while Winky is a conservative practitioner. Many world religions have traditions of gendered oppression. Dobby shows that you can choose which parts of the religion you can keep and which parts you can do away with based on new information and contexts. Even non-religious people have faith in something, and similar arguments apply to them.