A lot of people have made it into adulthood without reading Harry Potter. Often this is because their parents were uncomfortable with the books when they were younger. As I see it, if you have no problem with the Narnia books, or with other “Christian fantasy” novels, then you can’t really object to Harry Potter. Though they’re not going to start selling them in Christian bookstores, J.K. Rowling has made it clear that the Christian symbolism that fills the books is no accident. From where I stand, Harry’s story is wonderful because in some important aspects, it parallels Jesus Christ’s. I won’t ruin the ending, but when I realized what was going to happen, it knocked me down in shock–I began praising God for what He’s done for us (then I got back to reading).
For years, I’ve been telling people that if they didn’t read Harry Potter as children, it’s not worth it to start now. They might as well spend their time on edifying “adult” novels. Let me RETRACT that advice right now. These novels are shockingly mature. Books 1 and 2 are comfortable in the JUV section in the library. Book 3 should really be in Young Adult. And if I didn’t think the stories were morally praiseworthy, I would never let my kids touch the much-darker books 4-7–they are not “kids’ books.”
J.K. Rowling is a Christian, undoubtedly–but a liberal one. It is lucky, then, that when she set out to write books in which, as she says, “the [religious parallels] have always been obvious,” the religion she is paralleling is grand and true enough to burst out of any box she could put it in. I think she saw this herself: “…I never wanted to talk too openly about [the Christian parallel] because I thought it might show people who just wanted the story where we were going.” (Again, see Book 7).
But Harry Potter is not perfect. He is not Aslan, nor Peter Pevensie. He is not meant, as Aslan is, to truly represent Christ. He is meant to represent man, limitedly Christlike. But Harry has the capacity to be very un-Christlike indeed. He has a real anger problem and hates and disrespects older and wiser people in the stories (and is often “right” to do so within the narrative). In the final three books he has a rocky relationship even with his closest friends. These traits, while certainly not Christlike, certainly makes him seem more like me. What I like about Harry Potter is that he is someone prideful and angry, who nevertheless sometimes does things like Christ, humbly and often without regard for Himself.
J.K. Rowling can perhaps be compared to an old prospector who was looking for silver in the mountains, and found a rill of perfect diamonds. She was looking to tell a story her way, and to allude to Jesus Christ as she went along. But alluding to Jesus Christ is not like alluding to anyone else. Jesus Christ has power over all such allusions. Jo Rowling has traced a little bit of Story, but the Story itself shines through the cracks brighter than she ever knew or intended, because Christ is always more powerful and loving, more human and vulnerable, more present on the Earth and in our stories, than we imagine.
Harry Potter is not the only Christ figure in popular literature, nor the best. He is, as we have seen, unreliable, angry–very human, even if his heart is “pure.” He is often sorry, often shows remorse, often learns from his mistakes. But he never has a rebirth or conversion, never a self-conscious “I’m learning from my mistakes now” moment. But still, it’s significant that the bestselling and fastest-selling book series of all time is full of Christ and Christian imagery, even if the whole is not really theological at all.
But Jo Rowling’s characters are unique. Granting that she has seven book to do so, I would still assert that few authors have managed to push their characters closer to the reader, until the divide between author and character and reader is slim indeed. Harry Potter is perhaps the most relatable character I have ever read in a work of fiction. His flaws and his qualities are, I think, close to the ones we all imagine ourselves to have. I’m really addressing this to people who scoff at Harry Potter. Sure, there are laughable flaws in the books. Sure, parts are downright silly. But underneath and beyond those flaws are truly human characters, some of the most real I have read, part of the great Story just as we are.
I think the Harry Potter books are going to stick around for the long haul. With that in mind, isn’t it time you read them? It’s easy: they’re more addictive than you can imagine.