January 28, 2020

Treating ‘Harry Potter’ like a holy Bible

There’s no doubt the cultural impact of “Harry Potter,” J. K. Rowling’s magical creation, has extended beyond her seven books, eight films and the new London stage play, going so far as to inspire social justice initiatives. Among the countless organizations are the Harry Potter Alliance (founded and run by fans) and Lumos (founded by Rowling herself. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Applied Social Psychology went so far as to suggest that reading “Harry Potter” instills empathy and, overall, increases moral fiber.

You could almost say that “Harry Potter” has morphed into a kind of religion, complete with a moral code, close-knit communities — and a central, sacred text.

That’s the idea at the heart of “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” a weekly podcast co-hosted by Harvard Divinity School graduates Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile and produced by current Divinity School student Ariana Nedelman. Going chapter by chapter, Zoltan and ter Kuile delve into weighty themes such as hope, destiny, rebellion and vulnerability, using the text of “Harry Potter” as a guide.

Zoltan, an assistant humanist chaplain at the Humanist Hub in Cambridge, Mass., insisted they are not trying to teach “Harry Potter” as a religion in itself, but that applying the sacred reading process to the “Harry Potter” text can illuminate some of the instructive lessons found within its pages. Zoltan and Nedelman both grew up in Jewish homes in Los Angeles — Zoltan is a San Fernando Valley native and Nedelman hails from Santa Monica — and Zoltan said Judaism informs a lot of what they do. In fact: “The whole thing feels super Jewish to me!” Zoltan laughed. “It's people getting together and reading. The whole thing is chevrutah!”

This is not Zoltan’s first foray into finding the holy in unlikely sources: For her thesis research, she organized a reading group to explore “Jane Eyre” as a sacred text — to approach it with faith, intellectual rigor, and within a community. It was ter Kuile who suggested they do the same with “Harry Potter.” When word of the “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” reading group spread outside of the Humanist Hub, where the group met weekly, Zoltan and ter Kuile enlisted Nedelman, a longtime digital producer and also a Harvard Divinity student, to turn it into a podcast.

But what exactly does it mean to reinterpret a text as if it were sacred?

“I think that something sacred is something that you love and something that is worthy,” Zoltan said. “By worthy I mean duly complicated, and by duly complicated, I mean that two people should be able to look at one thing and have three different readings of it.” As an atheist, Zoltan said she believes that “sacred is an act, not a thing. It’s about how you interact with something that makes it sacred, not the thing itself.”

With the air of someone who has had this friendly debate many times before, Nedelman politely disagreed. “I take issue with Vanessa's idea of worthiness and complication, because I think it imbues a text with some kind of quality that I would rather imbue the reader with,” she said. “So, I tend to stick with the idea that it just has to be something that you can love enough that you want to spend that much time with it.”

Clearly, Zoltan, Nedelman and ter Kuile all agree that “Harry Potter” fits this bill. When asked why the podcast resonates with so many listeners— it averages between 15,000 and 20,000 listens each day — Zoltan and Nedelman alluded to the larger, existential questions that occupy the minds of religious and nonreligious folk alike.

“People who are unaffiliated have a need to answer these big, meaning-making, spiritual questions, and to have a space for that in their life,” Nedelman said. “What's brilliant about addressing secular texts like this is that it gives people who aren't comfortable in churches or in synagogues a place to go.”

Nedelman pointed to ideological similarities between fandom communities and religious communities. “The way that I see fandom, with people coming together to love something, to talk about it in-depth and apply it to their lives,” she said, “that, to me, seems so similar to the way in which I had thought about my relationship to a religious community.”

Each week on the podcast, Zoltan and ter Kuile use exegetical practice to interpret a textual component of that week’s chapter. After a couple weeks of Christian practices, they applied the Rabbinic tool of chevrutah study — learning with a partner — as part of the “sacred reading” process. They plan to apply additional Jewish practices (such as “PARDES,” a Hebrew acronym that alludes to four different interpretive methods) as they dive into the second book, “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Much like biblical students, many ardent “Harry Potter” fans pour through the series of books every year or so, whether to escape from the hardships of life by immersing in a familiar, comforting world, or to recall again the real-life lessons in the books — and to discover new ones. Echoing this practice, the “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” reading group tackles all seven books over the course of nine months, then starts again from the beginning — “like a Torah we go through,” Zoltan smiled.

“That's a great quality of a sacred text,” Nedelman added. “It gives you something new every time you return to it.”

Zoltan noted that listeners of “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” have specifically expressed gratitude for the podcast’s earnest tone. “I don't know what that speaks to culturally — if it's the election season, if it's the cynical television shows that we're all watching — but people seem to really be responding to the sincerity and positivity.”

In that sense, “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” is proudly idealistic. But Zoltan and ter Kuile ground their discussions in realism as well. Like any enduring sci-fi or fantasy story, “Harry Potter” provides a framework for addressing real-world issues.

On the podcast, Zoltan and ter Kuile invoke Harry’s invisibility cloak as a symbol of untouchable white privilege and praise Hagrid’s open-hearted generosity. In the reading group, Zoltan recalled participating in polarizing discussions about whether Hermione is a positive ally for House Elves, and how using a body-binding curse (Petrificus totalus!”) can be connected to issues of bodily autonomy.

Zoltan admitted that some elements of “Harry Potter” don’t stand up well, for example, there isn’t a lot of racial diversity in the series. “But I do think that there is humanoid species diversity that works really well as a metaphor,” she said, “and those are the things that will transcend time. “ As Zoltan learned, “sacred” does not mean “perfect.” And that’s OK because, as Nedelman put it: “The action of imagination, of engaging, is what's important.”