podcast 11Earlier this month, on my podcast review I included this new podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. However, I was so taken with it that I since pestered the creators with some questions and have written a whole entry for it. So, without further ado, here is my first full length podcast review, complete with interview with the creators. Enjoy, and please download this podcast!

People take comfort from any number of sources, be it relationships, religion, food or literature. But sometimes if you combine some of those things in surprising ways, you find a whole new way of looking at the world. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text combines religious thought with one of the most popular book series of all time to bring joy and comfort in a new way.

Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, a Harvard chaplain and minister respectively, along with producer Ariana Nedelman, started the project as a reading group, but it has recently expanded into a podcast with wonderful goals. The idea is that each week takes a chapter from the Harry Potter series and explores the text with the fervour and depth that one may explore the Bible or Koran. They’re not comparing Voldemort to Herod, or declaring Dumbledore’s words to be direct from God, but merely seeing what the text can teach us about our own lives through a number of themes. The episodes also include thirty-second recaps on the events of each chapter, blessings for the characters, and the use of religious practices to get more out of the text.

The pair teamed up at Divinity School, where Vanessa was trying to come up with ways to use secular   texts in sacred ways, just to prove that that religion didn’t corner the market on treating things with reverence, and Casper was trying to create spaces of joyful belonging. They teamed up and, joined by their love of all things Potter, began a reading group at the Humanist Hub of Harvard. Word spread globally and soon people across the world were asking for the material. They got Ariana on board and the whole thing just fell into place.

hpst team

L to R: Vanessa Zoltan, Casper ter Kuile and Ariana Nedelman; the brains behind the podcast

“We hope that people will gain two main things [from the project],” said Vanessa. “Firstly, they will learn how to treat the world around them as sacred. Secondly we want people to feel as though they are part of a wide community of people beyond their immediate sphere.” Harry Potter already has a massive communal following, so it seems a natural starting point for a project like this. Vanessa also notes that it’s best to practice these activities on something you love. “If you want to learn how to have good table manners, might as well learn with cake!”

Vanessa has previous experience with this sort of project, having done something similar with Jane Eyre. When asked if she had come across comparable findings with each project due to their having plots that seem to echo one another – both are about young orphans thrust into a new world and trying to find their own way – she says that she hadn’t thought how alike they were, but that both held a big space in her heart. “The big similarity I see between Harry and Jane is that they are both young people on a journey to define their adult identities. The big difference […] is that there is a real evil in the Harry Potter series, whereas the evil that is in Jane Eyre is more implicit and insidious.”

Casper also seems to have an interesting career in the works, calling himself a “minister for non-religious people”. He says, “I grew up without a faith tradition at home, so I’ve never really felt comfortable using the language of religion – even though I’ve been through Divinity School! I see my work, including our podcast, as offering people an opportunity to connect, make meaning and be part of joyful belonging. And as that is ministry in my eyes, I thought why not call myself a trainee-minister for non-religious people! Ironically, I am now seeking ordination as a Unitarian Universalist minister, […] but I don’t expect to serve in a parish or church setting.”

Religion seems less and less prevalent in many people’s lives these days, but this is a way of bringing something like faith back to secular people. The hosts have such soothing voices and you feel comfortable and safe in their audio presence. Each episode lasts about thirty minutes, but they pack so much into that time. Some people might dismiss the project as frivolous, but I think there’s something a lot more interesting and important going on here. It’s already been shown countless times in the last twenty years that so many people turn to the Harry Potter books when sad or in a bad mood. They have changed the face of the literary world so quickly that perhaps it only seems right that they be treated with reverence.

When asked if there were plans afoot to study anything else through this method, and what would be particularly good for it, Vanessa said, “I think that there are infinite things that can be treated as sacred, but we are focusing on Harry Potter for now.” Maybe, then, even if you’re not into this series, it might inspire you to pick a favourite book, film or album, and study it in a new way. Perhaps it can teach you something new about commitment, betrayal or love.

The podcast is still relatively new, but all the episodes so far can be found on iTunes by searching the podcast store for “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”. The team can also be reached at http://harrypottersacredtext.com or followed on Twitter at @hpsacredtext.