harry potter and the sacred text

When I was in college, students returned to campus during a month-long lull between the end of winter break and the start of spring semester. We’d sleep until noon, and store up enough concentrated fun to get us through yet another grueling term. You could take courses during this rare moratorium, but they weren’t the typically rigorous ones we were used to. My favorites were a series of one-credit weeklong courses devoted to reading and discussing a single book. It was the only time my favorite English professor, a forbidding half-Brit who normally barked questions about Virginia Woolf’s drafting process during seminars, became a sympathetic teacher to a motley crew of super-studious English-major overachievers and students who never read fiction, much less studied it. Slowly and carefully, we read our way through Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. If I’d been reading for a seminar, I would’ve read as quickly as possible. We did not. We read closely. We read as if we’d been entrusted with a sacred text that happened to be by Wharton.

This deliberate, reverential approach to literature is the operating principle behind Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile’s liturgically derived podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which comes to Portland this Sunday. Zoltan and ter Kuile both have secular backgrounds—Zoltan comes from an atheist Jewish family, and ter Kuile grew up in the UK, where he says only around six percent of the population attends church. But they share an appreciation for religious ritual and community, and bonded in divinity school over the idea of adapting reading practices culled from religion and applying them to secular texts.

Zoltan started with Jane Eyre, and led a Bible study-style reading group. “Casper’s a very good friend... so he came one week and we were sitting there after all the participants left and he was like, ‘This is wonderful. I love it. It would be even better with a book people actually wanted to read,’” says Zoltan. “So I was like, ‘Like what? Everyone wants to read Jane Eyre.’ And he was like, ‘Like Harry Potter.’”

Zoltan and ter Kuile started their Harry Potter Bible study as an in-person class in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that grew to 30 participants. When they started to hear from interested parties outside Cambridge, they realized it might work as a podcast. “So we started just over a year ago in May 2016 and it’s just been an amazing experience,” says Casper. “We hear from so many people writing in about how they’ve started to use sacred reading practices in the classroom, how they’ve adapted it for family long drives, two sisters speaking every Sunday on the phone... it’s really wonderful to see how some of these ancient reading practices are finding real resonance with listeners today.”

They started out with 1,000 listeners, and after being featured on the iTunes home page, their podcast now draws 50,000 for each episode. It’s easy to see why: In a world that often feels unhinged, amid a news cycle that moves with impossible, overwhelming speed, it’s deeply comforting to return to a beloved story, and to listen in on an unapologetically nerdy, proudly slow deconstruction of its hopeful and enduring themes.

Zoltan and ter Kuile say the pace is critical to their mission. “In Judaism, you go through the Torah,” says Zoltan. “You start at the beginning and then you end it and then you start at the beginning again... In church you just go through the liturgy... book groups often only come together at the end of the book. This is about being really slow and intentional with it.”

Because the Harry Potter books are so ubiquitous, says ter Kuile, “it’s easy to get through them very quickly without digging into the juicy questions,” so each week, reading chronologically, Zoltan and ter Kuile discuss a single chapter from the Harry Potter series through a particular theme—e.g., mercy, foresight, forgiveness, humor—which brings a satisfying focus and rigor to the conversation. “[B]ringing in these themes has allowed us to dig into big questions about regret or love or revenge, all sorts of big themes we’re all dealing with: forgiveness, love, loss,” says ter Kuile. “And what’s been amazing is that when you read through a theme, you’ll nearly always find unexpected gems in the text. It’s like if you’re shining a light at it from a certain angle, suddenly there’s a reflective surface that you hadn’t seen before and you suddenly get a little spark out of somewhere.”

There’s a textual function to this approach that any English major can love, but it also has practical applications. “Part of what we’re trying to demonstrate is if you look for something, you’ll find it,” says Zoltan. “And that’s true for positive things and that’s true for negative things. When we look for fear in a chapter, we find it, and when we look for forgiveness in a chapter we find it, and so [we’re] trying to model that that’s also true in your life.”

If you’re a young adult of a certain age, and you had a secular childhood, Harry Potter might well be the closest thing to a religious text that you grew up with—a document of clear morality, with elemental themes of good and evil, love and duty, friendship and wisdom. But recall that Zoltan started her religiously-derived inquiry into literature with another book in mind (and here’s where I say that, Ravenclaw that I am, Jane Eyre is sacred to me, too). The beauty of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is that it shows that the sacred isn’t prescribed: It’s where we find it. Or as Zoltan puts it: “You can treat anything you love as if it was sacred... We can find sacredness in the world around us and where we want to.”