Harry Potter’s ‘sacred meaning’ probed by Harvard chaplains
Ministry for millennials'People share very intimate aspects of their lives'

Harry Potter’s ‘sacred meaning’ probed by Harvard chaplains

Touted as ‘the English class you didn’t know you missed,’ a podcast based on J.K. Rowling’s iconic series has converted Muggles around the country

Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe are shown in a scene from 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.' (AP/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Emma Watson, Rupert Grint and Daniel Radcliffe are shown in a scene from 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.' (AP/Warner Bros. Pictures)

SOMERVILLE, Massachusetts — In a castle-like armory outside Boston last week, nearly 300 devotees of Harry Potter met the creators of a podcast based on finding “sacred meaning” within J.K. Rowling’s iconic novels.

“Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” began life as a Harvard Square-based reading group in 2015. After engaging dozens of neighbors in “church-like” gatherings, co-hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, both graduates of Harvard Divinity School, transferred their ministry to a digital format. The podcast quickly rose to second place on iTunes, supplemented by live shows around the country.

Last week outside Boston, Zoltan and ter Kuile spent 90 minutes riffing on Hogwarts, Rosh Hashana, and the forgotten use of “spiritual technology” in our everyday lives. As with each podcast episode, the duo chose a theme for the evening — new beginnings — and invited audience members to co-investigate Rowling’s world with them.

Asked why he and Zoltan chose Harry Potter to launch a reading ministry, the British-born ter Kuile told The Times of Israel that he was looking to fill a spiritual gap in people’s lives. Most US millennials read or saw Rowling’s novels depicted on screen, and the “Sacred Text” project could be part of that ritualized, lore-packed culture, with midnight release parties and toasts to the boy who lived.

The armory in Somerville, Massachusetts, where a live show of the podcast ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text’ took place on October 18, 2017 (Elan Kawesch)

“People feel that their experience with the sacred is not aligned with traditional religious institutions,” said ter Kuile. “Two out of three people still believe in God or a higher power, and people were already feeling that the [Harry Potter] books and story were, for them, a place where they made real meaning in their lives,” said ter Kuile.

Describing her religious background as “atheist and Jewish,” co-host Zoltan came to the endeavor after teaching a class about “Jane Eyre” as sacred text. Having read Harry Potter as a college student, Zoltan believed the novels were “duly complicated” enough for a spiritual treatment.

Although podcasting put ter Kuile and Zoltan’s project on the map, the chaplains believe that in-person gatherings are more important than ever.

“I still think we need churches and temples and physical spaces,” Zoltan told The Times of Israel. “I don’t want the podcast to replace people getting together. I don’t want to see the world move to a meaning making place that’s entirely online,” said Zoltan, who will appear with ter Kuile at upcoming “Sacred Text” shows in Atlanta and Seattle.

‘It makes it feel like ministry’

Although their “Bible” is less than 20 years old, Zoltan and ter Kuile bring ancient study methods to Harry Potter World. As demonstrated during their live shows, the Jewish study method “Pardes” (an acronym of four Hebrew words which spells out “orchard” in Hebrew), helps the pair apply four layers of analysis to any portion of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

After some audience conjuring in Boston last week, the sentence, “Mrs. Dursley sipped her tea through pursed lips,” from the first Harry Potter book, was chosen to dissect.

Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan perform a live version of their podcast, ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” in Somerville, Massachusetts, October 18, 2017 (Elan Kawesch)

First, Zoltan explained the “pshat,” or simple meaning of the text, which was clear in this case. The “remez,” or implied meaning, sparked audience members to call out other tea-related scenes in the novels, eliciting chuckles and applause.

Next up was “drash,” or the allegorical meaning of the text. Zoltan noted that Mrs. Dursley’s lip-pursing was a replacement for talking about her feelings in a cold home.

“Don’t assume that people know you so well that they know what you’re thinking,” said Zoltan. “A lot of war is miscommunication and not giving people the benefit of the doubt.”

Also within the “drash,” or metaphorical view, ter Kuile chimed in that he is a “gulper” of boiling tea, as opposed to Mrs. Dursley and her chilly sips. These details about drinking tea, said ter Kuile, speak to people’s outlook on life.

Finally, Zoltan spoke about the “sod,” or secret, embedded in the sentence. Here, ter Kuile mentioned Harry Potter’s forehead scar, which — like pursed lips — is “a visible symbol that things live within our bodies like trauma,” he said.

Podcast producer Ariana Nedelman laughs during a live show of ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,’ performed in Somerville, Massachusetts, October 18, 2017 (Elan Kawesch)

To help listeners cope with their own trauma, the chaplain co-hosts run one fan voicemail each episode. The content is often quite serious, including suicide, drug abuse, and assault. Using Harry Potter and their own theology degrees as a roadmap, Zoltan and ter Kuile help advice seekers around the world.

“We are modelling and having the kind of conversations we want people to be having with one another, and the voicemail helps them because they become part of the conversation with us,” producer Ariana Nedelman told The Times of Israel.

Ralph Fiennes as Lord Voldemort in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 1. (photo credit: Warner Bros. / Wikipedia)

Not every listener is willing to leave a voicemail, said ter Kuile, but hundreds of followers have sent emails to the “Sacred Text” team.

“People share very intimate aspects of their lives,” said ter Kuile. “The podcast accompanied them through a difficult time, with deaths, or mental health challenges. People come up to us at the [live] shows and it makes it feel like ministry,” said ter Kuile.

Also during each episode, ter Kuile and Zoltan pick characters to bless, including some of Rowling’s less beloved creations. As Zoltan put it, if you can learn to love the shady Draco Malfoy, you might be able to tolerate that cousin who’s been estranged for 30 years.

In Zoltan’s assessment, Harry Potter can play a role in helping young adults grapple with the Holocaust. She “relied heavily” on the novels while taking college courses on genocide, and Hogwarts became a place for Zoltan to process “the confusion, the horror, and the trauma that came with my studies.” Additionally, wrote Zoltan earlier this year, the Potter books became something of a template for her study of the Shoah, or murder of 6 million Jews by the Nazis.

Vanessa Zoltan in the live show of her podcast, ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Stone,” performed in Somerville, Massachusetts, October 18, 2017 (Elan Kawesch)

“The Harry Potter books are full of ghosts,” wrote Zoltan and co-author Brigid Goggin, a Holocaust educator in Boston. “Harry is joined by the dead at various points on his journey and they provide guidance, comfort, and strength. In fact, there is a line at the very end of the series, in reference to four of these ghosts, that ‘their presence was his courage.'”

As they wrap the “Sacred Text” project, Zoltan and producer Nedelman are thinking a lot about romance novels, and how the genre’s “happy ending” formula can help people find sacredness. For Harvard’s millennial ministers, there’s no commercial break in sight.

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