The Harry Potter & the Sacred Text podcast has spent the last four years expanding on a central question: What if we read the books we love as if they were sacred texts?
In other words, what if those seeking spiritual or moral guidance, or even a guide for prayer, were to turn to books like Jane Eyre or A Separate Peace or, yes, the seven novels in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series? Every week since May of 2016, starting with Chapter One of book one, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone to us Yanks), co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile have taken a deep dive into each book, exploring central themes such as commitment, fear and loneliness.
In the first episode, Zoltan explains the concept behind the podcast: “We are going to ask ourselves, ‘What if we take this seriously?”” she said. “What gifts is it going to give us if we love something, and we love it with rigor?”
Zoltan and ter Kuile search for those gifts through the process of “sacred reading,” or reading the text slowly, repeatedly and with concentrated attention. That effort, which has existed among religious scholars with various approaches since at least the third century, is what ultimately makes the Harry Potter books sacred for the hosts.
The roots of the Harry Potter & the Sacred Text podcast lie in Zoltan’s struggles with her own faith and how she practices it. She has a masters degree in divinity from Harvard, but as a young Jewish child with an interest in spirituality, she felt a certain alienation from the traditional methods of worship.
“For me personally, it came from the fact that I am the grandchild of four holocaust survivors,” she tells Free Times. “I grew up going to temple, and loving a lot of temple, but I would often get really pulled out of the prayers I was growing up with. They were beautiful, but there were reports that people were reciting them from inside the gas chambers, so every time I would say the Shema [considered one of the most important prayers in Judaism], I would picture people dying.”
Zoltan sought guidance from one of her favorite professors in divinity school, taking her first steps on the path that would lead to the podcast.
“I asked her to teach me how to pray,” Zoltan recalls. “She was a Christian minister, so she said she didn’t think she was the right person, but I asked if we could do it using something more fun, and less triggering, than the Torah. And she said, ‘Like what?’ And I said, ‘Jane Eyre,’ because it was one of my favorite books. So she spent about six months teaching me how to pray using Jane Eyre.”
Zoltan says she found solace in both the perfections and imperfections of Jane Eyre as a sacred text.
“What was interesting was the way Jane Eyre worked as well as any traditionally thought of sacred text,” she says, “and also how it worked imperfectly in the same ways as traditional sacred text. There’s just as much racism and sexism and similar issues in Jane Eyre as there are in the Bible.”
Zoltan felt compelled to share what she’d learned and began conducting lectures on reading Jane Eyre as a sacred text, and ter Kuile, himself a respected author and graduate of Harvard Divinity School, attended one of those lectures. As a longtime fan of the Harry Potter series, he suggested taking the same approach to that series.
“We set it up for the following year, and so many people came,” she remembers. “Somebody wrote an article about us, and it went viral, and we started getting emails from all over the world, saying, ‘This sounds great, can I join?’”
Seeking a way to connect with a larger audience, Zoltan and ter Kuile decided to move from lecturing to podcasting.
“I’m a huge podcast listener myself,” Zoltan says, “so we found someone to produce it with us, and we’ve done it for four years.”
As the podcast became more popular, Zoltan and her team created a live version of Harry Potter & The Sacred Text, a more interactive approach that’s coming to the Newberry Opera House this weekend.
“I’m going to give a little bit of a history of how the podcast came to be, and why I think it’s an important thing for this moment in religious history,” Zoltan says of the liveformat. “People feel more and more disconnected from community, so we try to gather people as often as possible to make sure that they’re getting out and meeting one another. And we give a sample sermon or lesson on what it means to treat Harry Potter as sacred. People were already turning to these texts for inspiration, and I want people to be inspired and comforted wherever they can be.”
What: Harry Potter & The Sacred Text Live
Where: Newberry Opera House, 1201 McKibben St., Newberry
When: Saturday, Feb. 1, 7 p.m.
More: 803-276-5179, newberryoperahouse.com