The Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast reveals the magical power of vulnerability, empathy and inclusiveness.
Most bookworms would argue that something quite magical happens when a good book finds its way to a reader. Some texts just have that magnetic power to keep you reading way past what’s reasonable. For generations, the Harry Potter book series has been one of those special texts.
Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan, two graduates from Harvard Divinity School who identify as non-religious and atheist, respectively, further pushed their love for the series by reading the books as sacred texts. Inspired by some of the sacred practices she had been studying, Vanessa teamed up with Casper and they started recording their weekly podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text in 2016. They charted number-two podcast in America on iTunes shortly after their debut.
In each episode, the duo dives into a single chapter from the book and discusses it through the lens of a specific pre-chosen theme. The podcast starts with sharing a personal story around the theme. Casper and Vanessa then battle each other in a competitive 30 seconds recap of the chapter and move on to reading a section of the text through a range of sacred practices. They end the episode by delivering a blessing for a character from the chapter.
INKLINE had the opportunity to catch up with Vanessa and dived into the three pillars behind the podcast, the power of treating texts as sacred and the importance of sharing life stories to foster a sense of community.
INKLINE: Through your training at the Divinity School you must have studied many sacred practices and sacred texts. How did that evolve into becoming the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast?
Vanessa Zoltan: Slow and very incrementally! I was halfway through Divinity School and I went to see my favourite professor, Stephanie Paulsell, give a lecture and it was one of those weird epiphanies. She was preaching on the lines of love is stronger than death and it reminded me of my favourite scene in Jane Eyre, the proposal scene.
I emailed Stephanie saying: ‘I really want to learn how to pray but I can’t do it with the Torah and it bothers me. Can you teach me how to pray with Jane Eyre?’. And she said yes!
She taught me everything I know about what it means to treat a text as sacred. We spent a few months developing a theory of what it would mean to treat secular texts as sacred and one of the things that we decided was that you needed a community. A text is sacred because the community declares it to be.
I was working at the Humanist Chaplaincy at the time and invited people to join me on Tuesday nights to read Jane Eyre as sacred. Four women came and it was so beautiful! And then one week my friend Casper came even though he had never read Jane Eyre. Afterwards, he said: ‘Vanessa, this is really beautiful but it would be even more beautiful if you did it with a book that more people have read. And I think that the Harry Potter books could work!’
We started doing the same class and 75 people came instead of four. It’s not like more is better but it’s just a more diverse conversation. And people know Harry Potter like the Talmud! It is a very special text in that way. Our friend Matt Potts [Associate Professor of Religion and Literature and Ministry Studies at Harvard Divinity School] suggested that we start a podcast and it just then fell into place.
I: Your approach developed on three pillars: faith, rigour, and community. Why are those three aspects so important?
V: We defined faith as a belief that the more time you spend with the text, the more blessings it will give you. So, in Jane Eyre when you realise that Rochester is not this great hero but has been locking his wife in the attic for 10 years you can be like: ‘I can’t treat this text as sacred’.
You have to have faith in yourself that as long as it can get you better at loving, it’s worth the effort. Faith gets you through the fact that no text is perfect. If you love a text you just have to be ready for you to feel betrayed by it at some point.
There’s an idea in preaching that you preach from your scars and not your wounds.
And then rigour is important for a similar reason. There will be days when you don’t want to engage in the practice. And sometimes you shouldn’t but if you have a weekly group that you’re meeting with, you also show up for the doughnuts and the laughs! That’s important because maybe you’ll still find something in the text that speaks to you. It’s just like a gym commitment, right?
And the community is the gym buddy aspect of it. It’s some accountability and it also keeps you from becoming a fundamentalist in your reading. Community makes everything better. You are likely to be more careful while talking to people who are different from you than with those who are similar to you and that’ll get you to think better and differently.
I: Your Facebook community is incredibly positive and empathetic. What do you think makes the podcast so appealing to people?
V: The fact that Casper and I are genuinely close friends helps a lot. I think a lot of people just tune in to hear two people who love each other and are kind to each other. This also sets a tone for how other people talk to us. Our editor Ariana [Nedelman] found that tone and set it!
As far as the popularity of the podcast, we got lucky. iTunes put us on their banner and that’s it. It happened overnight, Casper and I just watched our podcasts go up and up the charts! And then of course people love Harry Potter. It’s so cross-generational; millennials who read it while growing up are now reading it to their kids. There is just something inherently special about Harry Potter.
I: A powerful aspect of the podcast is that both Casper and you share so much about your real life and the challenges that you’ve overcome. It then feels a safe space where listeners can share their own experience as well. How do you go about sharing those personal stories?
V: There’s an idea in preaching that you preach from your scars and not your wounds. We don’t tend to talk about anything that we haven’t dealt with or that is currently going on. So there are some boundaries around it. It’s vulnerability with boundaries, which you get taught in Divinity School. So I think we feel very safe within that.
We have a rule in all of our classes that vulnerability should be like yoga. You should always try to push yourself but never risk hurting yourself. And so we try to teach people when they go into small groups to share as much as they can because we do believe that there’s a lot of strength in vulnerability but we can’t promise safe spaces.
Faith gets you through the fact that no text is perfect. If you love a text you just have to be ready to feel betrayed by it at some point.
I think what it really is that people don’t have anywhere to go. There is an epidemic of loneliness. We try to create real spaces for people where they’re not relying on me, Casper, and Ariana. We have 90 local groups all over the world and we have the Facebook group and we run different events so we’re trying to create opportunities for people to form relationships with each other.
I: The situation of J.K. Rowling is quite complex at the moment and has impacted the Harry Potter community enormously. What would your advice be for people who are fans of Harry Potter, but don’t know how to deal with that situation?
V: I would say that they have to do what makes them feel good. Although I think we should boycott her financially, boycotting the text is a much more complicated thing. If you’re still capable of enjoying Harry Potter, if you know it by its fruits, if it gets you better at loving, if it creates comfort in your life or works on you in any positive way, it’s not hers anymore! It’s out in the world and it’s ours now. I know so many people, who’ve lost their parents and read these books as grief management. No one should take that away from them.
If it makes you feel uncomfortable, take a break from it. Walk away. There are other books, there are so many other books.
Julia Migné is a multimedia journalist and wildlife photographer specialising in environmental issues and odd hobbies. She has written for Africa Geographic and BBC Wildlife among others. An endless traveller, she swears that she would visit one country for each letter of the alphabet.