Although it is easy to accept that Rowling crafted the literary character of Harry Potter after the figure of Jesus, shouldn’t it pique our interest that Jesus — a monumental figure in modern world religion generally believed to have been historical — has so much in common with the obviously fictional fantasy world and character of Harry Potter? (Preface, p. viii, Jesus Potter Harry Christ)
It’s a good question. It appeals to me personally because I have a particular interest in the gospels as literature. I am convinced that they need to be understood as literature before we can decide if and in what manner we might seek to extract historical information from them.
This post is a first draft of a review I am preparing for the book, and covers so far only the first of the book’s three sections. I am posting this now for the simple reason that I fear too long a time gap before I will be in a position to post a completed review of the entire book. So serialization it is for now.
The significance of Derek Murphy’s question is that it brings to our awareness the way a fictional character can have such a strong cultural appeal by taking on the central traits, qualities, character and destiny of another figure, also evoking strong emotional and cultural responses, who is traditionally assumed to have been historical. The question will no doubt be threatening to some, and Derek Murphy discusses this response, too, and suggests it is not unrelated to the fear with which the Harry Potter books were initially received among many of the Christian faithful. What “saved” Harry Potter among such Christians was the eventual realization that Harry was unambiguously based on the Jesus Christ figure, so hence could be redeemed as a guide pointing the way to Jesus, much the way of The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis was recognized as an allegorical tale pointing to the gospel and promising to “help open a dialogue between Christians and the broader public.”
Derek Murphy concludes his preface with an explanation of the book’s argument:
This book will trace the genesis of the story of Jesus Christ and examine the controversy concerning the historical founder of Christianity, to see if Jesus can be distinguished from Harry based on the claim that Jesus was a real historic figure, while Harry Potter is obviously a fable.
The book’s primary aim is explained in the Introduction. It is
to increase awareness of the fact that a debate over the reliability of the historical Jesus exists, that the evidence for Jesus is insufficient to prove a historical founder, and that a strong case can be made in favor of a mythological, literary character that was mistakenly assumed to be historical by later Christian converts. (p. ix)
In the course of outlining his plan for the book, Murphy casts a valid observation on a postmodern trend among biblical scholars and one that I first commented on when reviewing Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses.
I recognize that the idea of a historical Jesus Christ is so deeply ingrained in modern times that it is difficult to raise an alternative theory — one in which the savior figure of the gospels many not have been historical. To a large extent, this is due to the consequences of postmodernism and the dissolution of Objective Truth in favor of local narratives. The ‘failure’ of historical criticism, with the realization that each researcher projects their own meaning into the evidence, provides the illusion that any interpretation of history is possible, regardless of the corroborating evidence.
Unfortunately, this loose perception of history as immaterial and essentially meaningless has been applied to Christianity in order to safeguard its very insubstantial history from the voracious criticisms of rationalism. The current disengagement with historical evidence cannot be maintained, however, precisely because Christianity’s faith is fixed firmly upon its own historical foundation: that Jesus, the son of God, really and truly died on the cross for our sins and was resurrected. (p. x, my emphasis)
Unfortunately some readers will conclude that a book like this must be some sort of “attack” on Christianity. It is not, and the insistence of some people in viewing any radical critique of Christian origins and the character of Jesus himself as an expression of angry atheistic hostility can only be regretted. Such people are excluding themselves from a very fruitful and positive enquiry into Christian origins.
Jesus Potter Harry Christ is not about the question of the historical existence of Jesus. It is an examination into
whether the literary character recorded in the New Testament was primarily inspired by a historical figure or previous literary traditions and characters. (p. xi)
Part One of the book is titled “The Historical Controversy”. This is followed by “The Roots of the Christian Mythos” (part two) and “The Accidental History” (part three). The latter enters into discussions of mysticism, ancient mysteries and the writings of Paul.
Chapter 1. Sacrificial Half Breed Warlocks: Harry Potter as Christ Figure
I have to confess that I have never read a single Harry Potter book. (But I have bought one as a gift for a relative. If that is insufficient for my redemption then I can also declare that I did once do a friend a favour by sitting in on the final Harry Potter movie in a cinema, although I confess I felt a little out of my depth not knowing the prior history of the characters.)
So I appreciated Derek Murphy’s discussion of the origin of the concept of the Harry Potter novels and a recapitulation of both the astonishingly widespread appeal of the books and the controversy surrounding their early reception. Thus informed I even feel predisposed to read a Harry Potter book for myself, now.
Murphy includes here an overview of academic studies of the Harry Potter phenomenon and what gives the books their distinctive appeal. I was not aware that over a dozen literary conferences have been held and have produced scholarly proceedings on Harry Potter.
Though I had never read a Harry Potter novel, I was both amused and exasperated to hear of Christian shock and horror over them. I had been a school librarian and had read scores, possibly hundreds, of children’s and adolescent’s books, and loved in particular the novels of Susan Cooper such as those in The Dark is Rising series. That series was scandalous to many parents, but knowing the books I scoffed at such fears. Interestingly Murphy observes something similar in relation to the criticisms of the Potter books: “critics who are against the reading of the Harry Potter series have rarely read the books themselves.” (p. 14)
Murphy reminds readers, however, that many Christians are unable to take such fictional themes lightly because they really do believe in the world of the supernatural themselves. The Bible really does, after all, teach readers to believe they are in a constant warfare with evil spirits, that supernatural powers and forces do exist, and that Christians are required to respond to them in certain ways. Jesus does not teach them that magic or even witchcraft is not real, but that he has higher powers over all other supernatural wonder-working agents.
The specific criticism leveled against the series, and discussed in turn by Murphy, are that the series
- promotes the idea that magic is just fantasy
- makes a distinction between good magic and bad magic
- introduces children to the occult
- has no moral compass or ethical authority
- uses satanic symbols
To give an idea of the discussion here, the second last point listed above, Murphy notes, is really addressing “the problem” that very few characters in literature behave in black and white all-good or all-bad ways at all times. Harry Potter “often lies and breaks the rules, is rude towards authority figures and prone to violent encounters with his enemies”. By contrast the novels of C. S. Lewis (Chronicles of Narnia) and J. R. R. Tolkein (Lord of the Rings), are often championed by Christians as “appropriate books for Christian children.” Murphy, however, compares a number of prominent Old Testament godly heroes who also evidenced morally ambiguous behaviour. He does not mention Jesus in this context, but we know that many believers do seek to find excuses to whitewash some of the behaviour of Jesus himself that displays disrespect for family, racism, anger and insults.
But everything changed with the release of Joanne Rowling’s final book in the series.
At the end of the last book, we have a dying and rising Potter — he has to be killed to deliver the world from the evil personified by Voldemort. (from an academic article in the Journal of Religion and Film)
Rather than decrying a wicked certain elements of the series — as far too many Christians have done — we ought to be inviting our communities into deeper appreciation of both the similarities and the contrasts between the stories and our Christian faith. (from a Word & World article)
Baylor University Professor of English, Greg Garrett, is quoted declaring that the complete Potter narrative is indeed “the shape of the Christian story”: prophesied saviour, willing personal sacrifice to defeat evil and deliver others to a new hope, the celebration of love, community, sacrifice, compassion, courage. . . .
so even though no one in the book preaches, the books preach.
J. K. Rowling is herself quoted from various occasions conceding the religious undertones of the books, although she insists that this is solely the consequence of allusions to the belief system in which she was raised. She did not set out with a religious agenda.
Comparisons between Jesus and Harry Potter
Derek Murphy then comes to the comparisons themselves. He admits that astute readers familiar with the Potter series will surely find many more than those he singles out.
First there is the miraculous birth tales and survivals of attempts to destroy the new-borns.
Then there are the childhood miracles in which the juveniles struggle with learning the proper use of their powers. With respect to Jesus we find this in the “apocryphal” sources such as The Infancy Gospel of Thomas rather than in the Bible.
Magical powers. After citing a few comparisons Murphy writes:
The truth is that there is no miracle performed in the gospels that is in any way more astounding than the magical feats in Harry Potter’s world. A large part of what has always made the gospel stories exciting to readers, just like the Harry Potter novels, are the elements of magic, fantasy and power. (p. 29)
Battles with evil. Both Jesus and Harry have power to speak with, and power over, demonic forces. Harry learns and applies the power of faith and love in his challenges with these spirits.
The power of faith and love. Harry learns to have faith in his mentor, Dumbledore, who has a hidden plan for Harry. Harry learns to trust Dumbledore despite not-knowing exactly what he was destined to undergo. In Harry’s world the most powerful magic is love, and it is this power that enables him to defeat Lord Voldemort, the personification of evil.
Prior to the final novel several readers were beginning to sense the direction the series was heading and predicted that Harry Potter would die a sacrificial death to save the world from the Satanic Voldemort. Harry’s Gethsemane moment comes when it dawns upon him that he is to die, and that he must go willingly to his death to save the world. In death he was mocked by his enemies and mourned by his friends. But after his death, on meeting his mentor in that other world, though said to be at Kings Cross station, he is given the choice of returning to the world to finally defeat evil once and for all.
Mythical heroes are traditionally half divine and half mortal, and Harry Potter also fits this mold by being the son of a “mud-blood” normal every-day non-magical woman and a warlock father who belonged to the magical world.
There are other apocalyptic comparisons between the two figures, with lion and serpent/dragon imagery shared by them. Both have powers to rise into heaven, to wield a sword (metaphorical or literal), to open or break seven seals or seven horcruxes, and more. Rowling has also smuggled the names of Peter, James and John in as the three best friends of Sirius Black.
Derek Murphy thus establishes significant points of contact between the novelistic and religious characters. But what of Harry as a Christ figure?
Is Harry Potter a Christ Figure?
Yet Harry Potter is much more than a simple retelling of the Christ story. There is a borrowing from a wide range of literary and mythical motifs, innovative characters and events etc. Murphy explains that Harry must still be understood as a Christ figure by definition.
A “Christ figure” is simply a literary referent used to identify a fictional character that seems to symbolize Jesus Christ in a significant way, such as through the endurance of suffering, a sacrificial death, or a (perceived) rebirth or resurrection. Many literary figures have been called Christ figures by various researchers . . . . . (p. 38)
- Ahab in Moby Dick
- Gandalf or Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings
- Galahad in the Grail Quest
- McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Oedipus in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex
Murphy lists ten criteria for potential Christ figures, many of which have been alluded to above.
Related to this literary device is the pattern of the “mythic hero” as delineated by mythologist Joseph Campbell, and Murphy quotes a number of academics also observing this connection with Harry Potter. Some of these even reject the idea of Harry being a Christ figure on the grounds that the same motifs deployed by Rowling are found widely in myths and legends and folklore of a “standard sacrificial hero archetype” . . . . “It’s a storyline that was old before Jesus was born.”
And this scholarly criticism, Murphy notes, brings us full circle to face again the question of the nature of Jesus Christ in the Gospels.
In other words, everybody agrees that Harry Potter and Jesus Christ have a lot in common but disagree about how important these similarities are or where they came from. In fact, the determining factor has very little to do with Harry Potter, and everything to do with the reader’s understanding of Jesus Christ. Is Jesus absolutely unique in history, divorced from common universal mythological traditions, making all apparent similarities therefore unbinding or irrelevant? Or is he related to those mythologies, either as founder, or product? (p. 41)
Spot the difference
The main distinction between the two, Murphy accepts, is that the life of Jesus is believed to have been real, Harry fictional. But then Murphy introduces the subversive questions (again my emphasis):
But does this distinction apply to the many seemingly mythical elements in the gospels? Can Jesus’ miracles be separated from Harry’s magic tricks because they really happened — or will we allow that certain features of the gospels were exaggerated or intended to be literary[?] If if so, where do we stop? What protects Jesus from the claim that he is, like Harry, a fictional character?
I did it again . . . . .
Once again I completely underestimated a time it would take me to dash through a post and instead of covering (much more succinctly) all four of the opening chapters that make up Part One of Jesus Potter Harry Christ, I have only completed the preface, introduction and chapter one before meeting the deadline time for me return to the real world.
I absolutely promise myself to be more concise and cover the next three chapters in a single post that will take no more than one hour to write.
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