Meaning making, sacred reading, and political engagement in the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast

Cynthia Cheshire

University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland

[0.1] Abstract—The cohosts of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, along with producer Ariana Nedelman, work chapter by chapter through the Harry Potter series, reading each chapter through the lens of randomly selected themes and applying sacred textual reading practices to find hidden layers of meaning within the text. This witch's brew of analysis invites listeners to move from fandom-focused media consumers to promoters of fandom-inspired political engagement.

[0.2] Keywords—Politics; Religion; Religious nones; Sacred texts; Spirituality

Cheshire, Cynthia. 2019. "Meaning Making, Sacred Reading, and Political Engagement in the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text Podcast." In "Fan Fiction and Ancient Scribal Cultures," edited by Frauke Uhlenbruch and Sonja Ammann, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 31.

[1] "What if we read the books we love as if they were sacred texts?" Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, cohosts and cocreators of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast (, first posed this question to one another while they were graduate students at Harvard Divinity School. Several years and five podcast seasons later, they have been posing this question to their thousands of subscribers each week. Zoltan and ter Kuile, along with producer Ariana Nedelman and associate producer Chelsea Ursin, work chapter by chapter through the Harry Potter series, reading each chapter through the lens of randomly selected themes and applying sacred textual reading practices to find hidden layers of meaning within the text. If it sounds boring and academic, be assured that this podcast is styled more after Professor Lupin than Professor Binns.

[2] Harry Potter and the Sacred Text reacts to a major ethos of the Harry Potter fandom: that the Harry Potter series is a text that can help readers make meaning of the world around them. For this reason, the podcast has been a springboard for political discussion and engagement since its inception. Instead of using their platform to draw tired parallels between figures from the book and figures from modern American politics, Zoltan and ter Kuile do something much more difficult: through a combination of analysis, modeling, and invitation to their listenership, they offer their listeners the tools to analyze the text, allowing them to make meaning both on their own and among the listener community.

[3] One might be forgiven for assuming that the only audience interested in Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is the traditionally religious. The podcast's approach is a classic exegetical one familiar to scholars of biblical texts, but its diverse listenership points to a wider cultural moment: the rise of the religious nones. The designation "religious nones" refers to the population who profess no particular faith tradition; such adherents make up almost a quarter of the subjects in a 2014 Pew Research survey. Despite their absence from traditional faith communities, the religious nones—especially Millennial nones—seek a community-oriented and politically engaged spirituality. Sociologists and religious studies scholars have explored how the nones are forming communities in which they can explore meaning and purpose, two of the traditional functions of organized religion. The placement of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text in this milieu is neither accidental nor unexamined; ter Kuile is coauthor of "How We Gather," a cultural map and comprehensive report of "how Millennials are finding and building communities of meaning and belonging." He continues this work as a Ministry Innovation Fellow at Harvard Divinity School. Zoltan is a Research Assistant at Harvard Divinity School and wrote her master's thesis on treating Jane Eyre as a sacred text. With backgrounds like these, it can come as no surprise that the podcast's media coverage includes references in articles from the Atlantic, Huffington Post, Jewish Journal, the New York Times, and others, as well as a session at the American Academy of Religion's annual conference in 2017. Guests on the podcast range from rabbis and ordained clergy to social activists and human rights lawyers. Zoltan and ter Kuile's podcast draws from their diverse personal and professional experience, meeting their religiously diverse listeners at the intersection where their ongoing quest to find meaning encounters a book series many of them have loved since childhood.

[4] The podcast's weekly themes—which are diverse, thought-provoking, and sometimes unexpected—have included "Instinct" (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Chapter 1, "The Riddle House"), "Justice" (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Chapter 20, "The Dementor's Kiss"), and "White Privilege" (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Chapter 12, "The Mirror of Erised"). After a thirty-second recap competition (with the winner decided by the podcast's listeners, who vote on the podcast's website) and discussion of that week's theme, Zoltan and ter Kuile apply a sacred reading practice from Jewish or Christian intellectual traditions to that week's text. One week might find the cohosts pulling from Roman Catholic Ignatian spirituality by imagining themselves as present in the text's plot. Other weeks, Zoltan and ter Kuile ask each other thought-provoking questions inspired by the text, according to the Jewish practice of Havruta. At the close of each episode, Zoltan and ter Kuile each offer a blessing to a character from that week's pages, but not before they play a voicemail sent in by a listener reflecting on a prior chapter. This witch's brew of analysis and invitation to their listeners moves Harry Potter and the Sacred Text from fandom-focused media to a promoter of fandom-inspired political engagement.

[5] One tool that the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast offers to its listeners is the language of political theory. From the first episode, Zoltan and ter Kuile's discussions focused on political concepts like power structures in the Potterverse, the agency of different characters, and how identity contributes to marginalization in the text. Zoltan made clear in the first episode that she would only ever bless female characters, a decision that has offered many opportunities to reflect on the portrayals and absences of women in the text. In the episode covering the final chapter of Book 5, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Zoltan blessed Dolores Umbridge, an infamous villain in the series. The cohosts make the academic language of privilege and oppression, power structures, and agency accessible and understandable to their nonacademic audience. In so doing, Zoltan and ter Kuile offer their listeners ways to conceptualize these complicated notions in a fictional—and therefore safer—space.

[6] The use of sacred textual reading practices in the podcast offers another tool, as well as a bridge between conceptual discussions and listeners' lived realities. In addition to Ignatian Imagining and Havruta, the podcast also guides listeners through PaRDeS and Lectio Divina—Jewish and Christian practices, respectively, which guide readers through layers of meaning within a text. At the conclusion of Lectio Divina, readers are encouraged to determine whether their analysis of the text has inspired them to any action or to make any change in their life. Similarly, sod, the final stage of PaRDeS (which is a transliterated Hebrew acronym for the four stages of the practice), invites readers to encounter the deeper, secret meaning of a text. Such discovery often leads to inspiration to action. Neither political theory nor sacred reading practices were conceived as concepts to be kept in a vacuum; both are analytical methods with the aim of life application, and both are offered by the podcast's cohosts for their listeners.

[7] By offering and modeling these practices, Zoltan and ter Kuile are equipping their listeners to bring the lessons at the heart of the Harry Potter books into conversation with the world around them—including into the realm of political discourse. Early in the podcast, political discussion more frequently dealt with ideas of oppression and privilege, but the fourth season of the podcast offered an opportunity for its cohosts to engage more specifically with the modern, Muggle world. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the fourth novel in the series, climaxes with the reembodiment of Lord Voldemort, a Hitler-type villain who envisions a new world order with pureblood wizards at the top. A concurrent rise in global nationalism offered a striking backdrop to the podcast's discussion of the novel. In the wrap-up episode for Goblet of Fire, Zoltan addressed this connection, saying, "I guess what's striking to me is how political of a novel this is, it like starts and ends with terrorist attacks." In a recent episode (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Chapter 21, "The Eye of the Snake"), Zoltan acknowledged the conscious shift of their podcast toward the political: "When we started this podcast, we said that we did not want it to be a political podcast, that we wanted it to be as inclusive as possible. And then when Donald Trump was elected, it became important for us for it to become more political, and we said explicitly that part of the reason why we wanted to say the things that we say is that we want it on the record where we stand." Zoltan and ter Kuile's conscious engagement with political discourse is both an expression of their convictions and one more way that they model meaning-making for their audience.

[8] Zoltan and ter Kuile could easily end their podcast after they offer their blessings, and it would be a fine piece of analysis. However, they have chosen not to. From the beginning of the podcast, the cohosts have invited their listener community to send in voicemails. The topics of these voicemails are mostly focused on new layers of insight based on listeners' histories and experiences. Sometimes they are arguments advocating for a character to be read differently. There was once a listener voicemail that was a live recording of a best man giving his wedding toast to the Potter-loving bride and groom! However, just as the discussion during the episode itself has tended toward the political as the books have become more political, so also have the voicemails. More frequently, they reflect listeners' fears, experiences, and engagement around political issues, all of which connect to their analysis of Harry Potter as a sacred text. The podcast's creators, in response to the mass of voicemails from their listenership, offer at least one "Owl Post" episode per season composed entirely of listener voicemails. If Zoltan, ter Kuile, Nedelman, and Ursin notice a significant number of voicemails on the same theme, they sometimes create a special episode for them. This was the case with an "Owl Post" episode in November 2018, which featured listener voicemails reflecting on the Kavanaugh hearings in light of Potter-related themes. Zoltan and ter Kuile both invite and allow their listeners to do most of the political discussion for them, and this ultimately creates a more robust encounter; political engagement in the podcast is a two-way street.

[9] While listeners offer their Potter-informed political views via listener voicemails, Zoltan and ter Kuile will occasionally offer "Special Edition" episodes directly responding to political crises. The first of these was released five days after the 2016 US election. In this forty-seven-second recording, ter Kuile offers a quote from Chapter 37 of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix: "'I DON'T CARE!' Harry yelled at them… 'I'VE HAD ENOUGH, I'VE SEEN ENOUGH, I WANT OUT, I WANT IT TO END, I DON'T CARE ANYMORE—'… 'You do care,' said Dumbledore… 'You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.'" Zoltan then offers a short response: "So from all of us here, we just wanna say that we care with you. And you caring with us means the world to us." The recording was short, but its open-ended outreach is a hallmark of the podcast's community engagement: we care that you care, now let's care together.

[10] "Let's care together" took a new direction in the podcast's first true call to action, which occurred in a "Special Edition" episode recorded four days after the "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. In it, the podcast follows its typical routine of "analyze, offer tools, and invite," but with a striking new tone. The comparatively longer, nine-minute recording opens with ter Kuile calmly declaring the importance of using accurate names for things, specifically naming white supremacist and Neo-Nazi presence at the Charlottesville rally. Zoltan explains why nuance is an important concept, but not one to be used when naming injustice. The cohosts then offer a resource for having difficult conversations around race and racism for their listeners to use with friends and family members. They conclude with a strong set of statements: "Many people in our listening community have been activists for a long time and many of you maybe haven't stepped into this role before, but we need you. This country needs you, the world needs you. There are Death Eaters on our streets. It's time for the Order to gather and act together." True to form, the creators of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text stop there, after equipping their listenership with tools and inviting them to action.

[11] The aim of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is to discover new layers of meaning within the text and to equip its listeners to do the same for the betterment of the world around them. As the podcast website says, "It's the English class you didn't know you missed and the meaningful conversations you didn't know you craved." If study and meaning are their two benchmarks for success, the creators of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text have earned an "Outstanding" on their podcasting O.W.Ls.