Years ago, I profiled the executive director of the Sixth & I Synagogue in Washington DC; one of the most eclectic houses of worship I’ve ever run into. Half of the stuff I encountered there hardly -- IMHO -- belonged at a synagogue (Yoga shabbats? Rock concerts? Political panels?) but the place was packing these events out week after week.
Which is why I’m not surprised that Sixth & I hosted the taping of a podcast known as “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” a creation of two Harvard professors that’s become quite the rage in the past year. You thought Harry Potter was just an unbelievably clever series of children’s books?
Think again. Last year, your GetReligionistas look at the Boston Globe’s shallow coverage of these two professors and their work. But now that a major Potter anniversary is here, more publications have gone searching for a higher meaning in words penned by J.K. Rowling.
Here’s the top of the Washington Post's recent piece:
Mark Kennedy grew up a Catholic, and a Harry Potter fanatic. Only one stuck.
“I considered myself a non-spiritual person,” he said. He thought he was done with religion. And then he stumbled on the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.”
The podcast told him that the Harry Potter series -- the books that he always turned to for solace when he was angry or stressed or in need of an escape -- could be a source of spiritual sustenance.
“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.
Call this higher criticism with a twist.
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. ...
I guess I never thought “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” was holy writ, although they are packed with Medieval Christian symbolism, but that’s just me.
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.”
Of course millennials revere Harry. They grew up on the seven core books, published between 1997 and 2007.
But does imputing higher meanings to these texts mean that the author was divinely inspired? Is she capable of the same kind of deep moral statements that infused books by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis?
There’s been other pieces in recent months on this Harvard couple, including a recent article in the Economist.
Ms Zoltan acknowledges that Harry Potter series, while certainly a cult of sorts, hardly rates as a religion in the full sense. It is far from accumulating the collective historical memory or shared culture which the world’s great belief systems can claim.
But she says there are important underlying themes and lessons in every chapter, and in her view they come in a more easily digestible and less divisive format than is offered by some of the more “mainstream” religious texts. Very few evil acts have been done in the name of Harry Potter, and that can’t be said for other religions, she argues.
For the reporter to repeat with a straight face that the Church of Potter hasn’t been violent like real religions have been and then not challenge these professors to list the charitable acts (like what many religions do) inspired by Harry Potter is falling down on the job.
You can bet that if this were a real religious group, the criticism could be withering. But letting the creators of Potter shtick get off without a penetrating question is sloppy.
In all the articles I read, everyone's gushing.
The Jewish Exponent found Jewish references in the presentation. CatholicPhilly.com talked about the spirit of resurrection that permeates the books (which grew out of J.K. Rowling's grief over the loss of her mother). It also quotes a priest saying more of his students have read Potter than the Psalms or indeed all of Christian scripture.
Obviously many millennials are so starved for meaning, they’re turning to their favorite childhood book for inspiration on how to live their lives.
It's fun, yes, but now that these professors have been doing this road show for about a year, let's ask a few more questions. Do practitioners claim changed lives? More virtues? Fewer faults? Some of the people quoted in the video claim an emotional closeness to the Potter characters that they don't feel with biblical figures.
It's been a long road since the days people said the Potter books have occult or satanic subtexts and that premise was challenged by journalists many times.
Now that the tide has turned 180 degrees, let's see that same degree of skepticism toward a more sainted Harry. The Dementors won't get you. I promise.