Few contemporary works of fiction, especially those aimed at younger readers, have divided Christians quite as sharply as J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Some Christians view the books as harmless fantasy, no different form the works of C. S. Lewis or J. R. R. Tolkien. Others see them as poison that would steer believers away from the true faith toward wizardry and witchcraft. Oh that we could only cast such fantastical spells! Yet others argue for a more complex reading of the series. Critics like John Killinger argue that Harry Potter is actually a Christ figure and that Rowling borrowed liberally from the gospel narrative to craft her epic story of good vs. evil.
While it might initially sound like Killinger’s book, The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Harry Potter sounds like opportunistic Christ hunting in the forests of popular culture, he actually makes a compelling case. He cites no fewer than 43 parallels between Harry Potter and his experiences and the life and ministry of Jesus. From his celebrated birth to his self-sacrificial life to his love of the least of these to his ability to work magic/miracles to his death and resurrection that finally defeats Voldemort (“will of death”) and breaks down barriers between houses at Hogwarts and division between non-human and human beings, it is hard to ignore the similarities. And these are just a few of them. Some are more trite than others, particularly Killinger’s comparison of Harry’s skill as a Quidditch seeker to Jesus’ desire to seek out the lost. Killinger argues that Rowling’s series can stand alone without reference to the Christ narrative; however, reading the two together reveals another level of the series’ complexity and the brilliance of Rowling’s creativity. Moreover, she also couples this scriptural borrowing with excerpts form other myths, legends, fairy tales, horror films, and the like. While Killinger’s work won’t change the minds of Rowling’s staunchest opponents, I do imagine that it could manage to convert a host of new fans.
There’s much to enjoy here in Killinger’s work, not the least of which is the enthusiasm with which he engages the series. However, this enthusiasm is also frustrating. Methinks he doth boast too much. Killinger takes great pride in proving that he was right all along…that he saw the Jesus/Christ parallels well before any other critics or scholars. At the same time, he is also simply too assertive that Harry Potters is a Christ figure. This shortcoming is not unique to Killinger who simply follows a vein of religious criticism that enjoys finding a Christ figure in everything. Though his parallel examples are convincing, and while this may sound like splitting hairs, I feel it would indeed have been much safer to refer to Harry as a Christ-like figure and, by extension, Dumbledore as a God-like figure (which he actually does). For all of his talk of Harry as a savior, he ignores one feature of the character and the series that puts him at odds with Jesus/Christ…violence.
Though Harry, like Jesus, lays down his life for his friends, he does so in a violent fashion that finds no scriptural parallel. Harry knows he will die in facing Voldemort, but his confrontation is a violent one in which Harry casts powerful spells that weaken and ultimately contribute to his opponent’s downfall. As much as Harry exhibits humility, he does not go to his death like a lamb to the slaughter. Killiger sort of misses the point when he writes, “Harry […] becomes a sacrificial lamb only after exhausting all other options for halting the predatory Voldemort.” One might argue that this was the only option Jesus was ever ready to entertain. Like other critics who see Batman, Superman, and a host of other superheroes as Christ figures, Killinger fails to recognize that the Prince of Peace was not one who fought for it, but one who peacefully died for it in the process.
On the other hand, Killinger’s arguments reveal the real influence that the gospel narrative has had on the pop cultural imagination and how it shapes subsequent Western narratives. Unfortunately, he fails to offer any sustained examination of Rowling’s own faith. This is certainly one case where I would love to hear an author’s critique of or engagement with her critic.
On the eve of the release of the first half of the final film, The Deathly Hallows, fans, both casual and hardcore alike, would do well to take a look at Killinger’s book. Couples with younger readers/viewers will find much here to inspire conversations with their children…and each other, should they be as equally devoted fans. A true highlight of Killinger’s argument is his repeated assertion of Rowling’s recognition of love’s ability to defeat evil. No matter how trite or repetitious that message may have become, it still demands proclamation in both fantasy worlds and reality alike.