PODCAST: “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text”

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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.

Podcasts: Part Three

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OK, so according to the views of this blog, people like reading about podcasts. Here are four more of my favourite podcasts and why I think you should get hold of them if you haven’t already. For more, see parts one and two.

podcast 9Podcast: The Message
Number of Episodes: 8

This is a really short one, but it’s completely worth it. It’s a story that follows Nicky Tomalin, a podcaster who is following a team of cryptographers as they try to decode The Message, a noise that arrived on Earth from somewhere far out in space in the 1940s. But as she and the team look into the history of the sound, which definitely seems to have extraterrestrial origins, it becomes clear that something is very wrong with it. Bad luck and worse follows those who’ve listened to the noise, and it isn’t long before disaster strikes closer to home…

I’m not going to say anything else about the plot because you need to listen to it to get the full impact, but it’s a punchy, well-performed piece of work and intensely creepy. Although there are only a handful of episodes, and each of those is only around fifteen minutes long, it’s enough to get across a story that grips you from the start and has you terrified by the end. It’s hard to say much else – this is just one of those one’s where you’re going to just do it, as my words can’t do it justice.

podcast 10Podcast: Desert Island Discs
Number of Episodes: 1000s
Release: Every Sunday

If you’ve never heard of Desert Island Discs then I worry for your sanity. It’s a radio show where every week (for the last sixty years) a celebrity guest is interviewed by a charming, affable host, currently the sultry-voiced Kirsty Young. The interview is built around a simple question; “If you had to be sent to a desert island, what 8 records would you take with you?” Then, a longform interview takes place about the interviewee’s life and career, interspersed with the eight songs that mean the most to them. At the end, each castaway can also choose one book to take (they all get the Bible and the works of Shakespeare automatically) and one single other luxury to make things more bearable for them, as long as it isn’t too useful (i.e. no speedboats).

Most episodes have now been converted to podcast form. All the ones of the last few years are there, and then there’s a selection of others dating right back to the forties. Guests range from musicians and actors, politicians and ambassadors, scientists and explorers, astronauts and soldiers. There’s nowhere easy to suggest you start from, so your best bet is to find some names you’ve heard of and download those. I’ve found that even with people I’ve only vaguely heard of, I find the episode hugely fascinating. Kirsty Young is a wonderful host and can get some really interesting stories out of her castaways, providing an interview that is often funny, tragic and fascinating all at the same time.

It’s also always quite interesting to see what luxury people pick at the end. Recently, Tom Hanks has gone for a typewriter and paper, Berry Gordy took a cellar of wine, Chris Hadfield opted for his guitar, and Kylie Minogue went for a family photo album. One of my favourite luxuries ever belonged to John Cleese who wanted to take Michael Palin. Since other people are forbidden, he was given the option, “You can have him as long as he’s been stuffed.” Cleese accepted.

podcast 11Podcast: Harry Potter and the Sacred Text
Number of Episodes: 7
Release: Every Saturday

OK, so I admit that suggesting a podcast when it’s not even got ten episodes up is perhaps jumping the gun, but I’ve never fallen for a podcast so quickly. Part of me wishes I hadn’t discovered it so early so that I could have a good binge, but at the same time I’m pleased to be able to one of the people who can count themselves as a fan from the beginning.

The concept of this podcast is simple. Hosts Vanessa and Casper, a Harvard chaplain and minister respectively, are reading the Harry Potter books chapter by chapter as if they were a sacred religious text on par with the Bible and its ilk. I’ll stress that they’re not declaring Dumbledore’s dialogue the word of God or anything, they’re just examining the text through themes and seeing what it can tell us about our own lives. Each half-hour episode features one chapter and explores a theme. For example, “The Boy Who Lived” is looked at through commitment; “Diagon Alley” explores the idea of being a stranger. Each episode delves into examples from the text, followed by more intensive readings of certain passages, and then ends with a blessing for two of the characters in the chapter.

It’s really beautifully done. I’m not religious in the least, but these books do hold a real magic for me, and for millions of others, so it’s interesting to see them studied in a slightly different way. Perhaps one day, hundreds of years from now, future humans will find this podcast after the apocalypse and a new religion will begin. We can only imagine.

podcast 12Podcast: Talking Simpsons
Number of Episodes: 50
Release: Every Wednesday

By now surely everyone in the Western world has seen at least one episode of The Simpsons. Since December 1989 the show has had people hooked and it’s still enjoyed across the planet. But perhaps the biggest fans of all are the guys on this podcast. They’re responsible for several other podcasts in which they found they made a lot of Simpsons jokes and references, so started a new podcast where they could talk about nothing else.

Each episode of the podcast zones in on one episode of the series, and at time of writing they’re midway through season three, so there’s hundreds more to go. Each episode contains a rundown on what was happening in the world the day the episode was released (just to hammer home to point that this show has been running for a looooong time), anecdotes regarding both the series and the presenters, information from the writers and creators, explanations of jokes that went over our heads the first time round, audio clips from the episodes themselves, and a lot of really nerdy issues with continuity and character appearances.

Episodes run between thirty and fifty minutes, generally getting longer it seems as the show improves. If you’re looking for their analysis of season one, you won’t find it on iTunes, as it’s hidden behind a paywall, so while really die-hard fans might want to get their hands on it, there’s plenty enough for everyone else here. It’s really funny and brings back memories of some of the classic episodes and their greatest moments, all lovingly bundled up with new information and gags.

Podcasts: Part Two

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Last month I reviewed four of my favourite podcasts, and now I’m back with another four. Let’s get going!

podcast 5Podcast: Flash Forward
Number of Episodes: 15+
Release: Every other Tuesday

As humans, we seem to spend an awful lot of time worrying about the future. Will we be successful? Will we be happy? Will we survive? In Flash Forward, every episode sees host Rose Eveleth conjure up a possible future for humanity. The show combines snippets of drama as we hear the future played out as if it’s happening, and masses of interesting information, as she speaks to experts about whether the future she’s envisioned could ever become a possibility.

Episode topics covered recently include a future where everyone wore lie detectors all the time, a future where we’d eradicated mosquitoes, a future where everyone knew their date of death, and a future where paper is no longer used and everything’s digital. Some of the ideas are realistic and could happen; others are from the deepest realms of impossible science fiction, but are no less interesting to discuss. It’s actually on it’s second season, but the first isn’t available on iTunes and I haven’t got round to listening to it yet. It also has another name; Meanwhile in the Future. The first season includes such futures as what would happen if Earth gained a second moon, or if a robotic overlord banned all human weaponry.

Rose is a very chipper host, keenly interested in her subject, and the interviewees she gets are no small bones, all being important in their fields. There is such a mix of tones and emotions at play here too, but she navigates them with serious skill. Any episode is worth listening to, but to start off I’d go for “My Everything Pal” or “Love at First Bot”.

podcast 6Podcast: Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast
Number of Episodes: 100
Release: Wednesdays, but currently on hiatus

There are so many people in this world that I’d love to sit down and have a chat with. While I still can’t really do it, someone who can is Richard Herring. His podcast (RHLSTP) is smart, irreverent, hilarious and pure bliss. His guest list is one that other interviewers can only dream of, and it doesn’t matter who’s sitting opposite him, they’re going to get the same treatment. Herring is capable of asking really important questions, getting to the heart of who someone is and what drives them, and where they think their careers are going, but mostly he just wants to make cock jokes and talk about seventies television. That’s not a complaint.

It’s currently on hold, and will be back this month, but over the last 100 episodes, guests have ranked from up-and-coming comedians like Joe Lycett, Sara Pascoe and Roisin Conaty, to really high-profile guests like Stephen Fry, Eddie Izzard and Harry Shearer. While the guests are generally pulled from the world of comedy, there have also been academics (Mary Beard), TV presenters (Louis Theroux) and fellow podcasters (Helen Zaltzman and Olly Mann). While a lot of it seems to be Herring asking people if they’d rather have a hand made of ham or an armpit that produced sun cream, he nonetheless always gets a great interview.

Particularly wonderful episodes include Stephen Fry (for which the podcast got noticed by the mainstream press when Fry admitted to recently attempting suicide), Armando Iannucci & Graham Linehan (if only for Linehan’s Bob Dole anecdote), Louis Theroux (which contains a lot about Jimmy Saville), and Miles Jupp (who is distraught at Herring’s obsession with Balamory). Frankly, if you’ve ever liked anyone in comedy, chances are they’re in here somewhere.

While I’m a bit too young to have been able to appreciate Richard Herring the first time round – indeed, I didn’t know he had a lot of success in the nineties until I started listening to this – it’s clear that the rest of the comedy industry worships him and he seems to be on good terms with all his guests. They’re really good fun, but if you’re listening in public, be prepared to get some odd looks.

podcast 7Podcast: Serial
Number of Episodes: 20+

If there’s ever been a podcast that changed the nature of the genre and showed people what it was really capable of, it’s Serial. Everyone else has already talked about how wonderful this is, but in case you’ve been living under a rock with limited Internet access, here’s what you need to know.

Serial is the brainchild of Sarah Koenig, a journalist and producer who was asked to look into the case of Adnan Syed. He was arrested in 1999 for the murder of his ex-girlfriend, Hae Min Lee, a student in Baltimore, Maryland. Syed pleaded his innocence, but was given a life sentence in 2000. He is, as expected from this verdict, still in prison. Koenig looks into the case and begins to see that things aren’t as simple as they seem, so week by week goes back and visits the locations, speaks to the people who were involved at the time (although she wonders how much anyone can remember after 15 years) and talks directly to Syed himself. Koenig fishes up evidence, theories, information that was missed or ignored during the trial, and tries to piece together what really happened.

It’s hugely compelling, and I’ve already forced so many of my friends to listen to it. Not one of them was disappointed. It isn’t a spoiler at this point to say that when the series finishes, Koenig doesn’t give us an answer. She has presented to us all the evidence, and we can make up our own minds. The thing that makes this particularly compelling? In my social circle, we can’t agree on whether Syed was innocent or guilty. With our own backgrounds and ideas, we’ve chosen our own answers, for better or worse.

There is a second series, but it’s about a completely unrelated story, and while I haven’t listened to it, everyone I know who has says that it doesn’t compare at all to the first. So, please do listen to the first series of this, but then don’t feel an obligation to continue. It’s simply incredible listening.

podcast 8Podcast: No Such Thing As A Fish
Number of Episodes: 100+
Release: Every Friday

One of the greatest shows on TV is QI, simple as that. John Lloyd, the brains behind it (and, frankly, every excellent British comedy show of the last forty years) has declared it more a way of life than a show, and so it has expanded in many directions, including books, websites and clubs. A podcast was a logical step. Hosted by four of the QI researchers (the “elves”) – Dan, Anna, Andy and James – every week they take a bizarre fact that they’ve discovered and for about thirty to forty-five minutes discuss them and any other facts they’ve found related to each core fact. Prone to tangents and base humour when the opportunity arises, this is nonetheless one of the smartest and funniest podcasts ever.

The hosts have great chemistry, and while Anna and James are primarily researchers, Andy is an improv comic, and host Dan is a stand-up. They’re all blisteringly intelligent though, and can dredge up facts off hand about any topic, no matter how far from the original point they go. They also occasionally record the shows in front of a live audience (and I can tell you first hand, they are hugely entertaining evenings, having been to one myself) and now have their own TV show, No Such Thing As The News, which is in the same format, but with a more topical edge.

With over 100 episodes now, and that’s without including the special short episodes they did with information about each country taking part in the 2014 World Cup, there’s plenty to be getting on with here. They also occasionally turn up with a special guest, including Victoria Coren Mitchell, Simon Rich or John Lloyd himself. It’s the best way to learn without realising you’re learning.

More podcasts next month!

Podcasts: Part One


Hello! So here’s something I’ve never reviewed before: podcasts! I’ve been fairly late to the podcast game, not getting into them until late 2014 but then devouring them by the score over last year. I’ve decided to share my favourite podcasts here, perhaps at the start of each month, and give you a brief precis of what they’re about. Some you’ll have heard of before, others perhaps not. So, let’s crack on with the first four.

podcast 1Podcast: Thinking Sideways
Number of Episodes: 150+
Release: Every Thursday

Thinking Sideways is a newer podcast for me and it specialises in tales of the unexplained. Basically, wherever there’s an unanswered question or a mystery that has never been solved, this podcast will step in, give you the facts and try to come to a conclusion that explains the puzzle. The hosts are Steve, Devin and Joe, three smart and funny (the best descriptors for a podcaster, I find) Americans who claim to have no formal training in investigation, but are simply interested in the world. I confess that I haven’t listened to many of the episodes yet, but what I’ve heard so far is brilliant. Each week, we are introduced to a new mystery and one of the team runs through all the facts we have about it, with the second half of the podcast dedicated to potential theories.

Episodes have covered everything from what happened to the Mary Celeste, where the Voynich Manuscript comes from and what it means, how the Max Headroom broadcast intrusion was achieved, the disappearance of Lord Lucan, and the suspicious deaths of Kurt Cobain and Princess Diana. Episode lengths range from twenty minutes to over two hours, although most are about an hour long. If there’s ever a question you’ve wanted answered, then this is the podcast for you.

If you want a flavour of the podcast without committing right away, the “Santa Claus” episode just a quarter of an hour long and gives you an idea of what to expect. I also highly recommend “Taman Shud”, about a man who was discovered dead on a beach with no identification and all the labels cut from his clothes, and, because it’s me, I also suggest “Agatha Christie Disappearance” for suggestions on what really happened to her.

podcast 2Podcast: The Allusionist
Number of Episodes: 35
Release: Fortnightly

This podcast is hosted by Helen Zaltzman, who most of you probably know better as one third of Answer Me This, a podcast I’ll cover another time. Helen is obsessed with language and grammar, and this podcast is her pet project to delve deeper into its murky waters and pull up something shiny. Each fortnight, she selects a topic related to language and explores its history and usage, and fills your brain with trivia you never knew you needed. Most episodes include an interview with someone related to whatever she’s discussing.

There’s an episode for everyone here, and they’re only ever 15-20 minutes long, but she packs so much into that short space of time. These are bite-sized nuggets of joy; both genuinely funny and genuinely interesting. Helen is potentially the only person who could make a discussion on the use of spaces between words interesting. Some particularly good episodes include: “The Writing on the Wall”, which talks about the display signs used next to objects in museums; “Crosswords”, which goes into detail on how to make a good crossword and how to write cryptic clues”; and “Toki Pona” in which she and guest Nate DiMeo try to learn one of the world’s smallest languages in just a few hours.

While usually light-hearted, a few episodes take on a more serious tone, such as “Pride”, which deals with the usage of that word in the LGBT community, or “Step Away”, which tries to argue for a better term than “step-parent”, which conjures up all the connotations Disney have imbued it with over the years. You can dip in and out of the series in any order; you’ll find yourself wanting to listen to them all anyway.

podcast 3Podcast: Stuff You Should Know
Number of Episodes: 800+
Release: Tuesday and Thursday

Have you ever wondered if lethal injection is really humane? Do you want to know who gets to name the continents? Do you have questions about pinball, maggots, werewolves, AIDS, collective hysteria, electricity or anything in between? Well, Stuff You Should Know has you covered. Josh and Chuck are on hand twice a week with a new topic that they’ve researched and want to tell you all about.

They are excellent hosts. Josh has a very soothing, sleepy voice that gives you the impression of a wise man imparting his knowledge interspersed with dry quips, and Chuck is there keeping him awake with more of his own facts and jokes. They can take any topic and make it interesting because, frankly, all topics are interesting. It’s going to be a long time before I make it through all the episodes, but the thirty or forty I’ve listened to so far have been wonderful. They’re great for commuting, as you feel your time isn’t wasted – you’re learning and becoming a better person all the time! To give you an example of the variety here, in the last month alone they released episodes about cats, labour strikes, the Big Bang, kin selection, tornadoes and lead. Episodes typically last half an hour to an hour.

It’s impossible really to suggest an episode to start with, so just think of a topic you’re interested in and have a rummage. If you do want to just dive in and try something at random, I suggest “What makes us yawn?”, “How Royalty Works” or “How Jim Henson Worked”. Their medical-based episodes are also particularly great.

podcast 4Podcast: Kraken
Number of Episodes: 100+
Release: Every Sunday

I always feel Kraken ought to be better known than it is. Hosted by four guys – Mazin, Craig, Joel and Ian – each week they take a topic and share their opinions on it, with the second half of the episode dedicated to a related question, in search of an answer or at least something sensible. The thing they discuss can be a film, a book, an article, a person, or something a bit more bizarre, but generally comes from the field of “culture, technology and that”.

The related questions are always interesting and bring up so many issues regarding things that aren’t even related, as well as those that are. This is a podcast that enjoys a tangent. Some examples of related things and questions include “Amy Winehouse / Do we kill our celebrities?”, “Game of Thrones / How far is too far?” and “Adventure Time / Are we becoming a culture of children?”. Sometimes they’re far more simplistic, such as, “Christmas / What do you want for Christmas?” or more recently, “Brexit / In or out?” There are also occasional episodes that have a twist, such as one in which they play Dungeons & Dragons while discussing games, or a recent episode about William Shakespeare which was recorded while in the audience of a play, a gimmick that treads the fine line between being hilarious and ambitious, to simply being impossibly rude. It leads to a very tense episode in which you wonder at what point they’re going to be thrown out of the theatre.

The four guys all have their own voices and opinions. Mazin seems the most level-headed but is plagued by strange dreams, which become the focus of an episode themselves at one point. Craig has given up on films entirely and doesn’t want anything to do with them anymore. Joel is obsessed with the power of stories and will throw this into the conversation whenever possible. And Ian usually hasn’t seen or read whatever they’re talking about, but if he has, will invariably deem it “alright”. Good episodes to start on are “London / What’s the worst thing about living in a city?” and “Swearing / Do words have power?” If you want to see just how strange it gets, look for the episode “A stick / Is this the greatest stick?” Later episodes are generally better than earlier ones – once they’ve established the template for an episode – but they’re all worth a go. Even if you don’t know about the topic they’re discussing, odds are it won’t matter. Soon they’ll be arguing that chicken should be free or plague pits are thrifty instead of racist. Just listen and laugh.

I’ll be back on this next month with four more podcasts.