Or, "Why the World’s Most Famous Boy Wizard is Not a Christ Figure"
SPOILER ALERT: critical plot details discussed (or at least hinted at) below.
With the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, the publishing and cinematic juggernaut that is the Harry Potter franchise reaches its (we mean it this time) final chapter. As the most anticipated event of the summer, the movie will garner considerable attention and conversation. As happens with such cultural phenomena, churches will want to get in on this conversation, to use it as an opportunity to share and explore the gospel. The coming weeks will no doubt see the list of analyses of the Harry Potter story in light of Christian faith (like this one) expand. After viewing the film many preachers will want to draw comparisons between Harry and Jesus, to suggest that the Boy Who Lived is a Christ figure.
To which I offer a one-word (two if you add “please”) reply: Don’t.
Wait, wait; put down that pitchfork. I am not among the folks who brand the series antiChristian because it imagines a world with magic in it. I’ve been recommending the books to classes I teach since 1998, when the first volume appeared. I’ve spent many a bleary-eyed midnight with my family at bookstores and theaters when the newest book or movie was being released. Like you, I’m a big fan.
But I’m also a big fan of Christ figures in literature and film, and I know that it doesn’t help the cause to say a book or movie reflects the gospel just because a) it portrays the conflict between good and evil, and b) a lot of people read or watched it. Not every act of self-sacrifice, not every (seeming) death and resurrection makes a character a Christ figure.
The folks who want to turn Harry into Jesus with a wand forget that being a Christ figure is a two-way street. To start with, some quality or action of the fictional character reflects or draws inspiration (intentional or not) from the Jesus story. Things happen in the Potter story that could lead a person to make this claim for Harry. But true Christ figures also reflect back on their inspiration; something about their story helps us understand the story of Jesus just a little bit better. This doesn’t happen in the Harry Potter stories. Squint as you might to see it, no new light shines from them on the gospel.
O.k., I see your hand reaching for the pitchfork again. Let me hasten to say that the Potter stories contain excellent lessons, ones that I was pleased for my children to learn. One of the best has to do with destiny, free will, and ethical choice. Harry is what you might call a Boy of Destiny, someone from whom everyone expects Big Things. Having lived in obscurity and neglect among the Muggles, he arrives in the magical world a celebrity, the child who survived and defeated the Dark Lord Voldemort. Most of the public expects him to become a great leader or protector; most of his enemies expect him to be overwhelmed by the powers of evil. Just about everyone think they know what’s in store for Harry . . . except Harry himself. While the rest of the world assumes that Harry’s path is predetermined by some great and mysterious destiny, Harry (under Dumbledore’s tutelage) discovers that he is creating his life one choice at a time, that the key to his story lies not in his stars, but in himself.
This lesson is one of the story’s central ideas. Its source, of course, is the Enlightenment. Now, I’m not among those who think that Enlightenment concepts and perspectives are of necessity bad or misguided; this one happens to make a lot of sense. It’s just not Christian, by which I mean that it doesn’t tell the whole story. Like the Enlightenment, the gospel rejects the idea that dark and inscrutable fate directs our actions. But unlike the Enlightenment, we believe that there is a Cross-shaped purpose behind creation and history, and that God works in and with us to bring that purpose to fruition.
Now, if you want to compare and contrast the Potter story’s Enlightenment teachings with the gospel, that would be a great way to capitalize on the teachable moment created by the release of the final film. The ideas and values that animate the world of Harry Potter are winsome, appealing, and unerringly right. They’re just not always Christian. Figuring out how those two statements can go together should provide much opportunity to preach, teach, and ponder.
And while you do, I’ll just put your pitchfork back in the barn.
Bob Ratcliff is an editor and teacher living in Franklin, Tennessee. He blogs about theology, the Bible, and other curious stuff at http://thinkandbelieve.wordpress.com/. Don't miss his other articles on religion and film, about Jesus movies and Christ figures in film.