Professor! I have the perfect paper topic! Harry Potter is just like Jesus!
See also: Dumbledore is just like Jesus. And Gandalf…wait for it…just like Jesus! No, hold on…FRODO is Jesus…
If I had a dollar for every student who tried to write that paper, I would have retired from teaching by now.
So what’s the problem? For one, labeling every heroic protagonist a Christ figure is lazy literary analysis. The heroic archetype is an archetype because it crosses cultural and temporal boundaries; it resonates with vastly diverse audiences and performs the same cultural functions, transmitting social values and providing models of behavior. Consider the basic characteristics of traditional heroes: sacrificing themselves for others, confronting evil, conquering tests of fortitude and temptation, suffering literal and/or figurative death, providing some form of renewal and redemption for their communities. Christ performs these acts in his story. So do Harry Potter, Dumbledore, Gandalf, Katniss Everdeen, and Buffy Summers. Bottom line: If you want to call every archetypal hero a Christ figure, then Christ is a Christ figure, so a student who identifies a literary character as such does nothing more than correctly point out the hero.
Moreover, using the term “Christ figure” instead of archetypal or mythological hero limits what a student can say about a character. Christ’s story is, after all, pretty bereft of detail. If you want to attempt a penetrating analysis of a character’s martyrdom, for example, you’d be better served dealing with the character on its own terms and within its own context, especially with characters that embody more intricate motivations than Christ, because otherwise, in focusing on that one-to-one comparison, you are likely to miss some of the complexity.
Here’s an easy example: Students like to argue that Sidney Carton in Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is a “Christ figure” because Carton makes a sacrifice [SPOILER] in going to the guillotine in place of his cousin Charles Darnay. The temptation to read this act as “Christ-like” derives from the martyrdom itself, of course, as well as the public execution aspect of that martyrdom, and the fact that Carton’s sacrifice is voluntary. The comparison falls apart quickly beyond those initial broad characteristics, though, and trying to force Carton into that role obscures the more gripping elements of his decision; namely, Carton’s choice presents a contrast to the Christ story in that it does NOT involve an “innocent” who is tortured and murdered for the benefit of sin-ridden others. Sidney is not redeeming anyone but himself, because Sidney is not the innocent here, Charles is, and that’s a major reason why Sidney saves him.
In other words, Christ’s epiphany is that his death is necessary to redeem humanity. Sidney’s epiphany is that Sidney kind of sucks, while Charles is a good guy who is about to be slaughtered for the French revolution’s narrative of community redemption that involves purging itself of the aristocracy. The book rejects vicarious expiation of sin, focusing instead on personal responsibility and actual moral and immoral actions by individuals, refusing to endorse the group guilt promoted by Madame Defarge as a concept or as a justification for murdering people who didn’t themselves do anything wrong. The effects of Sidney Carton’s sacrifice are immediate and real: Charles will live and he and Lucie will escape France. Carton also imagines that someday they will have a child named for him, representing his awareness that his personal choice to go to the block for Charles, this “far, far better thing,” is an attempt to repair his legacy, to give the people he cares about reason to remember him fondly. Living on in memory and/or through children is a pagan form of afterlife, not a Christian one, so to understand Carton’s “resurrection” we must deal with it in a extra-Christian context. If we restrict our analysis to Christian parameters we lose that insight. The concept of afterlife is very old, much older than Christianity, and Christianity merely presents its version of that mythological trope, not the definitive or even (in my opinion) the most compelling one.
We should remember, too, that Sidney has to drug Charles to make this happen. Because Charles is a “good” moral character, there is no way he would ever agree to let Sidney do this, and Sidney knows it, and the reader has to know it or the character of Charles Darnay doesn’t work. How would we feel about Charles if Sidney managed to convince him to escape with his pretty little wife and let Sidney suffer this grisly death in his place? We would lose respect for him as a character, and rightfully so. He has to be tricked, they all do, or they’re complicit in Sidney’s execution, which the book codes as immoral.
My point is, the novel identifies zealotry and dogma as elements of a corrupt system under which people end up sacrificed and martyred, and though characters like Sidney can achieve dignity by dictating the terms of their own suffering, it would still be better if the suffering didn’t happen at all, and the culprit is the corrupt system, and that system is the real Bad Guy. The story of Christ’s suffering affirms the horrific idea that violently shed innocent blood can wash away the sins of other people and is thus necessary and even something to celebrate, while A Tale of Two Cities rejects such fatalism. Readers who get stuck at Christ have a harder time reading Sidney’s choice this way, which is why literature teachers continue to try to drag students away from that comparison, no matter how hard they fight us.