In 2001, I was intensely skeptical about Harry Potter. In fact, I was so skeptical that, as I dutifully accompanied my wife to the midnight premier of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (both to understand her fandom and to satisfy my curiosity), I confidently told a local TV news crew that the event wouldn’t amount to much. What was the point of showing a film intended for children at midnight? Surely the popularity of the books was overblown and the films would fall short of Warner Bos.’ expectations. How wrong I was. On every level. I had underestimated not only the ardor of the series’ fans and the subsequent record-breaking success of the film series, but the quality of the Potter narrative itself—a narrative I had come to love by the film’s end that night. I had gone in a skeptic and emerged a fan.
That same year, a young woman I’d yet to meet, but who is now a very dear friend, had a similar experience. After a few years of prodding from others and in capitulation to her own increasing curiosity, she opened the book upon which that film was based and fell in love. Knowing her as I do now, it’s not at all surprising that she did. Because it wasn’t just Harry Potter she fell in love with. It was the image of Christ she saw reflected in him. Ten years later, Leigh Hickman is now an accomplished Christian scholar and an adjunct professor of English at Dallas Baptist University. After a decade of intense, careful study of, as she terms it, “all things Harry,” she is beginning, as a writer and speaker, to share the discoveries she has made within the Potter text—discoveries, she says, of the story of Christ embedded in “one of the central narratives of our time.”
She’s not alone in this field of study, nor is she the first to arrive at such conclusions. In fact, it was the work of other scholars—Connie Neal and John Granger among them—that confirmed and strengthened her suspicions about the theological implications of the Harry Potter story. After reading Granger’s book, Looking for God in Harry Potter, she began to see even more clearly why the story had struck her the way it had. “As I started to apply some of his strategies of looking at the book,” she told me, “it just became more and more apparent that this is no accident. And that was what was really exciting to me because I knew that the reasons I was invested in the book had everything to do with this Christocentric through-line in the book. But, when I found out that it was quite possibly intentional, that’s what made me really excited.”
The intention to which she refers is that of J.K. Rowling, the now internationally famous author of the Potter book series. In her, Hickman found a self-described Christian whose narrative seems laced with far more than incidental Scriptural themes and images of Christ. As the series neared its close, Hickman thought, “If [Granger’s] right and she’s going in this direction, this is going to be one heck of a great ending of the book.” After this past Summer’s release of the eighth and final film in the Harry Potter franchise, when even mainstream journalists had begun to freely connect Harry with Jesus, Hickman says the time is right to begin discussing this aspect of the books and films even more deeply.
“Harry lives with great purpose,” she says, “with great sacrificial purpose. And I think that is one of the keys to his success and the keys to people’s affection for him. He lives out of a purpose and out of a heartbeat of sacrifice that is so needed and so foreign and people vicariously enjoy his certainty about how he loves other people and how he lays down his life for other people. And they enjoy that because they’re designed and created to engage in that story and to do that for other people.” In the passionate following of the Harry Potter books and films, Hickman sees people drawn to something that reflects the God they were made to worship.
Harry lives with great purpose, with great sacrificial purpose. And I think that is one of the keys to his success and the keys to people’s affection for him. He lives out of a purpose and out of a heartbeat of sacrifice that is so needed and so foreign and people vicariously enjoy his certainty about how he loves other people and how he lays down his life for other people. And they enjoy that because they’re designed and created to engage in that story and to do that for other people. – Leigh Hickman
“If I’ve learned anything about the cultural phenomenon that surrounds Harry Potter,” she tells me, “it’s that people—this is very simple—people want to worship Jesus Christ.” It’s a universal desire, she says, that is deep in the human heart. “People are attracted to him. People like the way he smells; people like the way he tastes. People want to worship him.” And, in her view, it is the way in which people see Christ reflected in the Harry Potter books and films that, whether they realize it or not, draws them so strongly to the story and to its eponymous central character.
“It’s about a young man’s journey to give his life away. That’s what the story is. Harry continually, from book one to book seven, always makes the choice—in battle with another will inside him that doesn’t want to do it—to give his life away for other people.” This reflects Christ’s struggle in the Garden of Gethsemane as he pleaded with the Father to “take this cup away from me,” but ultimately submitted his will to his Father’s and laid down his life for humankind. “And in doing that, [Harry] always wins, after going through the crucible of great human suffering and loss.”
This is no one-time metaphor in the story. Harry is a savior in every book of the series. “He is continually bringing people out from the dead,” Hickman says. “He is bringing people back from the dead. He is [rescuing] things that are particularly stolen away by demonic, Satanic images like snakes…He takes people away, literally, from snakes and dragons. Continually. All the time. That’s his thing. He snatches people, literally, from the flame that they will die in unless he grabs hold of them and throws them up behind him.” She stops for a moment, remarking, “Behind him, not in front of him. It’s important. If you want to live, you get behind this guy. You join his ranks. You let him teach you.”
Hickman does not believe, however, that Rowling’s intent with her books was purely evangelistic. “I think she’s writing the world that she would like to see. I think she is writing the hero that she wants to believe in. I sincerely feel more angst in her answers than I do when I read C.S. Lewis or even Tolkien. And that, to me, is one of the greatest appeals of Harry Potter. [Rowling] lets him suffer. She lets him question and she lets him doubt and that is the greatest service she can give to her modern readers. And to me, that is a precious thing. It’s hands reaching through the dark to find God.”
Like the father of the possessed boy in the book of Mark who said, “I believe; help my unbelief,” Hickman sees Rowling confessing faith, even as she admits the struggle that faith involves. “I sense her saying, ‘I’m writing this in trust that it’s true.’ It’s a beautiful, beautiful thing. I do not believe she wrote this as a witnessing tool. I don’t believe she wrote this to necessarily evangelize.” But, she says, “I think it is a witnessing tool and it does evangelize my heart…big time. But it does so precisely because it meets me where I am, in my doubts, in my uncertainties, in my fears, in my unspoken angst that I hope this is real. And in that way, it’s unlike any fantasy novel that I’ve ever read. Precisely because of that.”
Hickman hopes that sharing her discoveries of the Gospel reflected in the Harry Potter books and films will help draw others to a deeper love for and understanding of Christ. She also hopes it will encourage Christians to see God at work in their culture and to act as interpreters for those around them. Every Christian, she says, is called to speak to their culture in some way and she hopes to encourage a deeper conversation of the influential narratives of our time. “The workers are few and the time is really limited,” she says, “Come on. Come on.”
You can learn more about Leigh’s work and book her to speak at www.leighhickman.com.