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Left to right, Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Grainger (Emma Watson) in "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Photo by Peter Mountain

SALT LAKE CITY — A group of panelists at this year’s Salt Lake Comic Con discussed the similarities and differences between fandom and religion in the context of J.K. Rowling's “Harry Potter” series.

The idea for this panel was inspired by the “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” podcast, which approaches reading the series as if the books were sacred texts.

Panelist John W. Morehead, who researches pop culture and religion professionally, drew similarities between fandom and faith communities by identifying specific elements that run through both groups.

“There is a desire for mythos that is connecting to a story that provides meaning and a connection to transcendence,” Morehead said. “There is a sense of ritual; I think cosplay can be understood in a sense for some people as a form of almost religious ritual. There is an ethical sense; scholars have studied and seen that out of the Star Trek franchise, people have developed an ethical sense, and they apply that to their lives.”

Another panelist September C. Fawkes, a Dixie State University English graduate who wrote her thesis on “Harry Potter,” drew a parallel between great fictional and religious texts. She said both can change meanings over time and be applicable to readers throughout various stages of life.

“Things that are considered timeless, it’s usually because they’re still so relevant, and there’s still so much in them through each reading and as society progresses,” Fawkes said. “It still has a lot of that universal truth, but yet changes with each reading.”

Moderator Debra Jenson, a Utah State University journalism and communication professor, said a similarity she sees between religious and fandom communities is a propensity for “hero worship.”

“I see a tendency in faith communities and in fandom communities to identify a leader and they become untouchable, and I have experienced this with other authors,” Jenson said. “I’ve experienced this with other Harry Potter fans — that there is no critiquing J.K. Rowling’s work, and if you attempt to, they interrupt you.”

The panel's discussion also touched on what it means to see something as sacred.

“When I think of the concept of something that’s sacred, at least to me, there has to be a personal element to it — that I connect to it personally or it connects to people personally,” Fawkes said.

Morehead noted during this discussion that in the last several decades, there has been a shift in Western culture from institutional spirituality to an individual search for the divine.

“What was once considered fringe is now becoming more mainstream as they put together what’s meaningful for them in that quest for the sacred,” Morehead said.

Another panel topic addressed whether it is appropriate to consider something sacred that is not necessarily religious. John K. Lundwall, chief editor of the online journal “Cosmos and Logos: Journal of Myth, Religion and Folklore,” said this division between the sacred and the religious is a double-edged sword.

“Using the imagination to explore what it means to be human is every bit as important as historical so-called religious text, so I would say that they’re both absolutely necessary to develop a healthy sense of self,” Lundwall said.

Panelist Dawn Pink, a writer and poet, said similar to C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, the “Harry Potter” stories cannot be separated from religion.

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“Christianity is so engrained in the way that it uses language — it’s engrained in the types of symbology it uses, there’s a lot of Christian themes in it,” Pink said.

The panel also talked about whether something from popular culture, written by a contemporary human with an agenda, should be considered a legitimate source for guidance in life.

“Coming from a writing perspective, you can’t write a story that rings true to people if you aren’t putting in some of yourself and your views of life into it,” Fawkes said. “Everything’s going to be teaching something, even just through the actions of the characters — that’s teaching something.”

Email: sharris@deseretnews.com