Can novels where bodices rip and manhoods throb be considered sacred?
The creator of a new podcast says the answer is an emphatic, “Yes! Oh, yes!”
“For something to be sacred, the way we think about it, it has to teach you to be better at loving,” said Vanessa Zoltan, the 36-year-old who created the podcast, which will be called — ahem — “Hot and Bothered.”
The show encourages listeners to write their own romance novels as a sacred practice.
“This will be a place where people can think out loud about what love is. Romantic love or friendship or hospitality — whatever. It will be a place of imagination, and I think that is a virtuous thing,” she said. Then she added: “And romance novels are more fun to talk about than Leviticus. I have done both and I stand by that.”
The podcast will premiere in October and appear weekly through the end of the year. And while some traditional believers may roll their eyes, Zoltan and the band of 20- and 30-something wannabe writers she has lined up to contribute to “Hot and Bothered” say it is another example of how their millennial generation is breaking with traditional religious practices to create meaning in new ways.
“The church for many people is a gift, but for others, it is a place of trauma, a place where they have been told that not all of their identity is welcome,” said Zoltan, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. “Those people are leaving the church, and we need to come up with new spiritual technologies.”
Culturally Jewish and a self-identified atheist, Zoltan herself could be a poster child for the new millennial brand of spirituality.
At Harvard, she studied Charlotte Brontë’s “Jane Eyre” as a sacred text. Then she co-founded “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” a podcast exploring the meaning of friendship, power, grief, integrity and other themes through the J.K. Rowling novels. It is now one of iTunes’ most popular podcasts, with 9 million downloads a year.
Her new podcast project was born after the 2016 election, when she found herself obsessing over the news to the point of sleeplessness. The only thing that offered relief, she found, was reading romances — novels whose lurid, louche covers open upon worlds in which everyone is beautiful, the good always triumph, the bad are always punished and, above all, love always wins. She read 27 of them in 60 days.
Then she started writing one.
That led to deep conversations with friends about the nature of love, the value of fidelity, the power of sacrifice and more. It wasn’t long before she thought, “This would make a good podcast.”
But can writing a romance be a sacred practice? “In order for something to be sacred it needs three things,” Zoltan said. “It needs faith, rigor and community.” Faith that the act of writing can bring real blessings, rigor in the commitment to write regularly and community in the podcast’s listeners and team.
Brent Plate, who teaches courses on religion and popular culture at Hamilton College, says “Hot and Bothered” is a good example of how millennials are redefining religion for themselves. “Millennials are perhaps the first generation in which a broad swath of them grew up without traditional religious practices,” he said in an email. “This has allowed them to rethink and reimagine the need for a community of people to come together for a common activity and common interest, so they are making communal rituals out of going to music festivals, cosplay, and writing romance novels together. The content has changed, but the form hasn’t.”
Rethinking and reimagining does not mean replacing. Zoltan is not suggesting listeners write steamy scenes instead of going to church, temple or mosque. “I am definitely not saying this should take the place of any spiritual practice people already have,” she said. “But like St. Augustine said, anything that makes you better at loving is a good thing.”
Ariana Nedelman, a 26-year-old Harvard Divinity School graduate who produces the Harry Potter podcast, will produce “Hot and Bothered,” as well. “I think that the loneliness and lostness of my generation means we are looking for a communal life that makes sense of the big questions — where do we go when we die, etc.,” Nedelman said. “Asking questions in community is right for us in a spiritual sense.”
For the podcast, Zoltan will be joined by a team of writers — from bestseller Julia Quinn to novices — who discuss a common romance trope on each episode: love at first sight, marriage of convenience, enemies to lovers and so on. Listeners will be encouraged to write their own romances and to share their writing experience with others in small, local groups. “Our dream is people listen to the podcast and then find each other and partner up,” Zoltan said.
The goal is not to publish but to explore what is sacred about human relationships. “For me, being a spiritual person means being a good person,” said Sejah Patel, a San Francisco-based public interest lawyer who is one of the writers who will be featured in the podcast. She is Hindu, and she is 30,000 words into her novel. “So to me a spiritual practice is simply how am I putting what I consider to be good into the world. And I believe I am putting good in the world because the writing is bringing me joy, the joy is allowing me to do my job, and my job is helping people. I can only do that with enthusiasm and freshness if my soul feels full and happy and not depleted.”
Plate sees “Hot and Bothered” as evidence of the malaise afflicting traditional religious institutions. “The old-school, churchgoing Christians, I think they’re going to have to realize that their stories and rituals no longer meet the bodily and communal needs of people,” he said.
But can writing romance novels, even with faith, rigor and community, serve up the spiritual sustenance of traditional religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Islam? Only if it moves beyond individual fulfillment, Plate thinks. But perhaps it really can.