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Professor of New Testament and Purveyor of Harry Potter Insight

Bethel Seminary Assistant Professor of New Testament John Anthony Dunne didn’t have his sights set on a career in academia when he started college—or even when he started seminary. But he’s faithfully taken each new step and found ways to weave his passions—including Harry Potter—into his work along the way.

By Cherie Suonvieri, content specialist

September 11, 2018 | 2 p.m.

John Anthony Dunne, assistant professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary

John Anthony Dunne, assistant professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary

“So, what do you want to study here?” a backward-walking college admissions representative asked a younger John Anthony Dunne, who was touring a campus as a high school student.

“I have no idea,” Dunne said. “I guess I’m going to study business or something to make money.”

The tour guide’s eye contact didn’t waver as he continued to step. “Are you passionate about business?” he asked.

“No, I just said that because I thought it was the right answer,” Dunne replied.

Even in his youth, Dunne never fit cleanly into one box. Though he grew up in a K-12 Christian school that frowned upon secular literature, he also played guitar in a heavy metal band and served as his classmates’ resident Mormonism expert whenever they had questions about their Latter Day Saint friends’ beliefs.

Dunne continued to live outside the norm as he began his seminary career, exploring scholarly topics such as Harry Potter, and it took some time before he saw his diverse interests begin to coalesce. But that college tour moment was one that stuck with Dunne and made him realize that studying what he was passionate about was a good place to start.  

Two of Dunne’s passions at the time were international missions and ministering to Mormons—an interest he had long held, as Mormons constitute about 10 percent of the population in Las Vegas, where he grew up. It was later at a tour of Biola University when he began to see these two passions come together. “There were a bunch of people on campus who were excited about sharing their faith with Mormons,” Dunne says. “Immediately I was all-in.”

After enrolling at Biola, major undeclared, Dunne heavily involved himself in the university’s mission trips to Utah, which focused on ministering to Mormon communities. His experiences in Utah helped him realize how much he enjoyed sharing his faith—and also how much he wanted to know his faith more—so Dunne decided to major in biblical and theological studies. 

After graduating in 2008, Dunne went on to complete two master’s programs at Talbot School of Theology, one in New Testament language and literature and another in Old Testament and Semitics. Dunne describes his aspirations during these years as mild. He didn’t know for certain where his education would take him, but he was sure he was supposed to be studying Scripture. “It just felt right,” he says. “That was enough for me at the time.”

“There’s something that happens in our head, but there’s also something transformative that’s taking place within the reader—and that impacts the real world.”

— Bethel Seminary Assistant Professor of New Testament John Anthony Dunne

During his first master’s program Dunne discovered another passion of his: the Harry Potter series. Dunne grew up in a separatist context that had frowned upon the reading of Harry Potter and other secular literature—so when he read the books in 2009, it was for the first time.

Harry Potter appeared during a challenging chapter of Dunne’s life. He’d been planning to propose to a woman he was dating. They were talking about marriage and planning for a future together. Dunne bought a ring and prepared for an elaborate proposal, but then a week prior she told him she didn’t want to get married. 

“That really rocked everything… I was so distraught and depressed by it all,” says Dunne. “I don’t know where this idea came from—looking back, I would say it was the Holy Spirit—but I had this thought that I wanted to immerse myself in something. I wanted to read some fiction.”

He purchased the seven book set, read them all in three weeks, and Harry Potter has been a prominent player in his life ever since.

Dunne started thinking about Harry Potter on an academic level, during his Ph.D program at Scotland’s University of St. Andrews, where they hosted a conference on the books. He originally planned to simply attend, but was encouraged by colleagues to submit an abstract for consideration—so he cleared his schedule.

Dunne quickly determined that he wanted to talk about the use of Scripture in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, specifically the epitaph on Harry’s parent’s tombstone, which reads, ‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death,’ from 1 Corinthians 15.

“Death is by far the most prominent theme in Harry Potter,” Dunne says. “From beginning to end, it’s a long meditation upon death: what is it, is it the worst thing in the world, and is there anything more powerful than it? Ultimately the story affirms that there is something more powerful than death—and it’s love.”

According to Dunne, J.K. Rowling came up with the concept of Harry Potter on a train ride, after learning of her mother’s terminal multiple sclerosis. “The idea of this boy wizard meets her in this state of grief,” Dunne says. “Harry Potter was, for her, a kind of grief counseling.”

Reflecting on his first read-through of the series, Dunne recognizes that Harry Potter played a similar role for him. “There was a kind of metaphorical bereavement at play, meaning the death of a relationship, but also the death of the life I thought I was going to have,” he says.

His article, “The Death of Death in the Death of the Boy Who Lived: The Morality of Mortality in Harry Potter” was published along with other works from the conference—and soon after, Dunne began writing and presenting on other ways Harry Potter can serve as a commentary on life, society, culture, and faith.

Dunne refers to a passage in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows where Harry and Dumbledore are standing in Kings Cross Station. Harry asks his professor whether what he was seeing in front of him was real or happening in his head.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” Dumbledore replied.

“This is true for the reader too,” Dunne says. “There’s something that happens in our head, but there’s also something transformative that’s taking place within the reader—and that impacts the real world.”  

Dunne impacts the real world around him by assuming an educating role at Bethel Seminary, in Sunday school classes, and through several publishing outlets. Inspired by N.T. Wright, prominent New Testament scholar with whom he did Ph.D work, Dunne strives to be accessible to his students, always encouraging them to reach out, even after a course has concluded.

“I want to inspire people to love scripture and to love communicating it well for the purpose of loving God with our minds and with our hearts,” Dunne says, “and for the purpose of loving our neighbors by thankfully communicating God’s Word and God’s heart to them.”

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