Harry Potter, Pop Culture and the Affections of the Heart

A Conversation with Leigh Hickman

Texas native Leigh Hickman is a Christian scholar who is interested in unique topics relating to literature, media and the arts. An adjunct professor of English at Dallas Baptist University, she has long applied her love for both Christ and the arts through academic rigor, writing and speaking. She is drawn particularly to artistic expressions—books, films and plays—that have captured the popular imagination, and perhaps more so to those popular expressions which have largely been rejected by Christians.

Though the subjects she studies (Jesus Christ Superstar, the Twilight saga and Wicked among them) may court theological controversy or feature vampires, monsters or magic, she sees in their popularity an indication of deep longings in the human heart—specifically, a longing for Christ. It's a belief about popular culture that has long driven her interests. “I knew instinctively,” she tells me, “that if there is a cultural phenomenon, [Christ] is going to be at the heart of it somewhere, bringing glory to himself.”

This is perhaps most deeply true of what may be her greatest pop cultural passion and area of expertise—Harry Potter. Hickman has been researching Harry Potter since 2001 and has collected “virtually every book in print” as well as every academic paper and article she can find on the subject. Though she has a particular passion for the topic of the Christian community's response to the books and films, her focus encompasses “pretty much all things Harry.”

“I knew that this was worthy of a good conversation,” she says, regarding her obsessive dedication to her research, “and I wanted to be as well-versed as possible on it.” Though the study of Harry Potter is a scholarly pursuit for Hickman, it is born of a deep love for the books themselves. “I do it because I love the story,” she tells me, “I'm a fan first and foremost.” As her passion and expertise have led her into “many good conversations” about the boy wizard, she is currently expanding her focus to begin publishing and speaking about him as well. The story of Harry Potter is something that has affected her deeply and she has developed a unique, important voice about this cultural icon that she clearly desires to share with others.

Given the amount of vociferous criticism that has been leveled against Harry Potter over the past 15 years—from TV preachers to talk radio hosts to pastors, teachers and other voices of influence across mainstream Christian culture—one might expect Hickman to be alone in her quest. Not so, she responds, citing such works as The Gospel According to Harry Potter by Connie Neal and John Granger's Looking for God in Harry Potter, which she says “blew my head off” by more deeply opening a positive Christian reading of the books. “Overwhelmingly,” Hickman tells me, “I have read more Christian scholarship about Harry Potter affirming its merit than vilifying it. The people that do vilify it, however, get the most press.”

These critics, Hickman is convinced, represent “a very small minority who have a very large megaphone.” In her experience, the complaints coming from this loud minority have sprung largely from ignorance. “99.999% of the people who have a problem with it,” she tells me, “haven't cracked a page. I've never known anyone who was against Harry Potter who had read the book.” As Hickman sees it, the real problem is a “dualism and anti-intellectualism,” which assumes that “someone else needs to do your thinking for you” and has spawned mass avoidance of Potter among Christians.

When asked why such vitriol has arisen against the series, Hickman replies, “My first instinct is that we're very concerned about false Christs and that we're very concerned about false prophets. It's an old-time fear that some false god will displace the authority of Christ.” But this view is rooted, she says, “in a fundamental distrust of the Holy Spirit's work in another's life and a fundamental distrust of God. The people who are most afraid of Harry Potter, in my opinion, are the people whose God isn't very big. If J.K. Rowling can overthrow Jesus Christ, then Jesus Christ isn't all that powerful.” Because of this, she says, the popular Christian campaigns against the Potter books and films are “symptoms of the very thing they claim to treat – which is a lack of discernment. They are manifestations of a lack of discernment in the Church.”

It is for this reason that Hickman feels there is still much work to be done in recasting this conversation within Christian culture. The damage done by the hostility leveled toward Potter by Christians, she tells me, amounts to a failure to fulfill the cultural mandate of the Church. “When Christian culture abandons one of the primary narratives of our time, that's not well-disciplined stewardship of Creation. If it is capturing the hearts and minds of our generation, then [by not discussing it] we're losing a great opportunity to enchant hearts and minds for Christ.”

Instead, she says, the popularity of the series—along with its clear focus on affirming a Christian worldview—begs for a positive Christian dialogue. “J.K. Rowling,” she explains, “has gift-wrapped this for Christian culture to discuss.” Hickman is quick to note, however, that while the Gospel is clearly mirrored in Harry Potter, the story must not necessarily be construed as an evangelistic work. She refers to Rowling as “a person who doubts and struggles” and a “very human Christian.” But while the series may be “an outgrowth of [Rowling's] own questions and doubts more than her certainties and convictions,” Hickman says, “It does evangelize my heart.”

When it comes to researching a topic as deeply as she has Harry Potter, Hickman says, “I think that's always my primary motivation—whether I can better see what I love the most through it.” And see it she has—not just in the series' ultimate conclusion, where even mainstream journalists noted the Christ imagery, but from the first time she picked up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and read of the titular hero as an orphaned baby being placed on his relatives' doorstep. “From chapter one, Harry's dropped off at the Dursley's and doesn't know how special he is. He doesn't know that he's the chosen one. You've got this child out in the elements in the cold, dark night who's come to inhabit this place. And he's incredibly special and yet [living] in the limitations of the normal and the everyday. It was so beautiful that I actually teared up. Literally, I have a note in the margin of my book: 'Insert manger scene here.'” 

This kind of engagement with the arts and pop culture that is open toward and responds positively to ideas and images that are in harmony with the Gospel, wherever they may be found, is as much about what we see and hear as it is about having the eyes to see, the ears to hear and the intellectual discipline to notice something deeper. All truth is God's truth, revealed through all Creation. Therefore, we may very well find the truth and goodness of God in places we would otherwise consider unlikely. As Scott Higa, writer of the blog “The Christian Nerd,” recently noted, “Because God created the world, the truth about his heart and character is revealed all throughout, even in places we would least expect to find it. So when we see God’s character revealed in a movie, a sunset, a book or a piece of technology, we should be moved to reflect upon who God is and the endless wonder of his character.”

Hickman agrees, referring to Jesus' acts of opening the ears of the deaf and the eyes of the blind as a metaphor for the Church's need to open its eyes and ears to the heart of God reflected in the popular voices of our culture. “We are the people who claim to see,” she says, “and yet we are blind.” But Hickman sees hope in the breadth of expressions available to us, suggesting that a renewed perspective might allow Christians to follow their innate interests into greater engagement with their culture.

“There are so few workers in this field, and yet there is so much to glean out of it,” she says, stating that we are all called to some form of interaction with the conversation of our culture. “You don't need to look at thirty different narratives. Just look at the ones that matter. Some Christians are called to certain narratives because God speaks uniquely to them through that story.” She encourages others to find what draws them and “glean in that field. Because more than likely, the reason that your affections are in that field is because you need to speak to people who are in that field with you who love it. You're uniquely called to speak to those people. … Share Christ through what has grabbed your heart and your affections.”

For more information on Leigh Hickman or to book her as a speaker, please email her at profleigh7@gmail.com.

Kevin C. Neece is a pop culture columnist for New Identity Magazine and founder and editor of undiscoveredcountryproject.com, where he writes and speaks on Star Trek from a Christian perspective. He also writes and speaks on other topics at kevincneece.com.