Mark Kennedy grew up a Catholic, and a Harry Potter fanatic. Only one stuck.
“I feel like I’m born again,” he said.
On Tuesday night, Kennedy came to an event space at Sixth & I Historic Synagogue in the District with hundreds of fellow fans of the podcast, who have found a surprising spirituality in the magical fiction series, which turns 20 years old this year.
Hosted by Harvard Divinity School graduates Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan, the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” became the number-two podcast in America on iTunes soon after it debuted last summer. It has inspired face-to-face Potter text reading groups, akin to Bible study more than book club, in cities across the country. In Harvard Square, ter Kuile and Zoltan host a weekly church-like service for the secular focused on a Potter text’s meaning.
In the episode they taped at Sixth & I, they used one chapter of the third Harry Potter book as a vehicle for discussing the topics of trust, betrayal, love and prejudice (against werewolves).
Touring the country this summer, the podcasters have been met night after night by adoring, mostly millennial crowds who want to soak up their secular meaning-making. For the growing slice of Americans who label themselves “spiritual but not religious,” Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan are kind of pop stars.
The irony is, the pair are skeptical about secularism.
“It doesn’t speak to people’s hearts and souls,” Zoltan said during a recent interview. “I get that people get connection and meaning from Soul Cycle, but will [those people] visit you when your mom is dying?”
Zoltan and ter Kuile are complicated evangelists for their own cause. Even as their following grows, they are still pondering some big questions: Can non-traditional types of meaning-making build community? Can texts that are deeply moving to readers truly hold them to account in the way Scripture has among the God-fearing?
Neither one of them puts much faith in Humanism, though Zoltan tried working as a chaplain at the lively, cutting-edge secularism center at Harvard called the Humanist Hub, where there is a Sunday school for kids based on ethics. People who don’t want to join an organized religion aren’t looking to label themselves part of a religion for atheists either, ter Kuile said.
“That’s all being unbundled. You might get your ecstatic experience at Soul Cycle, and your community in your book group, and your [spiritual] formation in Harry Potter or ‘On Being,'” he said.
The podcasters said they worry that these disparate experiences leave people much lonelier than experiences that are all tied up within one faith community.
“I’m scared what we’re going to do without the buildings. Some of the best things in the world happen in church basements,” Zoltan said. “That’s where you have sex ed classes, and that’s where you have kids on their church trip to build houses, and that’s where you house the new immigrant, and that’s where you register to vote…. I’m terrified if there aren’t these designated spaces. They’re called sanctuaries for a reason.”
On their summer cross-country tour, which concluded in the District this week, the podcasters did fill church and synagogue auditoriums with fans in their 20s and 30s, many of whom hadn’t set foot in a house of worship in years.
They said that their podcast doesn’t aim to offer all the benefits of a religious community, but does strive to provide the moral insights that seekers gain from study of Scripture. In their podcast, they use the rigorous methods they learned in divinity school, like the Benedictine monks’ practice of lectio divina and the medieval florilegium, to parse the lines of Harry Potter, which they typically refer to as “the text.”
In the seven-book adventure story of Harry Potter growing up, mastering his magical powers, forming friendships and fighting the evil wizard Voldemort, ter Kuile and Zoltan find an ethical theme in every chapter, like “duty,” “forgiveness,” “mercy,” love,” “heartbreak,” “sanctuary” and “grace.”
Onstage at Sixth & I, they parsed a solitary sentence from the third book, selected by the audience: “The important thing is, I was watching it carefully this evening.”
Following a Jewish study method called Pardes, they analyzed the sole sentence on four levels, leading from the actual events of the story — a professor, looking at a moving map to see if it reveals that his students are in trouble — to an eventual sermonic conclusion. “I think what I would preach is that everybody needs to be taken care of in different ways. You should take care of the person in the form they need to be taken care of, not in the way that works for you. We have to teach each other how to take care of each other,” Zoltan said.
She said in an interview that she hopes this sort of close reading teaches moral values.
“To me, the goal of treating the text as sacred is that we can learn to treat each other as sacred. If you can learn to love these characters, to love Draco Malfoy, then you can learn to love the cousin you haven’t spoken to for 30 years, then the refugee down the street,” Zoltan said.
Attendees at Sixth & I lined up to buy t-shirts reading “Harry Potter is my sacred text,” but Zoltan and ter Kuile say they’re not trying to create a new religious identity, and they don’t think anyone comes away from the podcast thinking his or her religion is now Harry Potter-ist. (They also say they have never communicated with J. K. Rowling, who wrote the texts that they study and promote.)
Sally Taylor, 23, came to Sixth & I toting her journal. The trip to Washington to see the podcast taping was her graduation gift to herself for finishing her degree at the University of North Carolina in Asheville. She’s been writing down “sparklets” — a word she learned from the show for phrases that stand out to the listener as imbued with meaning — and she wanted to write more during the live taping.
“It always gives me guidance in a way I didn’t know I needed,” Taylor, who said she has no religion, said about the podcast.
That’s the goal. For a book to be sacred, Zoltan said, “You have to believe a text can give you blessings. You have to read it with rigor, commitment and practice, and do it with others.”
More than 500 cheering Potter fans seemed to agree.