The Qur’an, the Tripitaka, the Torah, the Vedas, the Bible… Harry Potter? To me, there’s nothing out of place in this list of sacred texts, but some folks might raise an eyebrow at that last one. Enter Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a weekly podcast hosted by Harvard Divinity School grads Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile. To accomplish their goal of “reading something we love as if it were sacred,” they analyze one chapter at a time through the lens of a theme, such as love, betrayal, or even white privilege. The show is currently in season three with a planned seven-season run (each book is its own season, so they’re now on Prisoner of Azkaban).
Check out a recent Procrastination Pro-Tips that includes Harry Potter and the Sacred Text on a list of the best Harry Potter podcasts.
Here’s the Quick-Quotes Quill rundown of how the show goes:
1. One of the hosts begins by telling a story from their own life that connects to that week’s theme.
2. Rather than reading the chapter aloud on the show, Casper and Vanessa begin each half-hour or so episode by jogging listeners’ memories with a humorous 30-second recap competition, inviting listeners to vote on whose summary was the best.
3. They then spend some time discussing where they saw evidence of the theme throughout the chapter.
4. Next, they pick a sacred reading practice from their repertoire of religious traditions (one example is Havruta, a Jewish practice in which a pair of readers take turns asking a question about the text and posing a potential answer to their own question before inviting the other person to do the same).
5. They play and respond to a voicemail from a listener that might offer a different perspective or a way the theme applies to the listener’s own life.
6. Lastly, the hosts each choose a character from the chapter to bless. Vanessa has chosen to bless only female characters, with the result of highlighting both their vital contributions to and lack of representation in the series. (I can’t count how many blessings Hermione has received because there were literally no other women in the chapter.)
Bonus Content: They occasionally have a special guest on the show (often religious scholars, but most recently, Hank Green), and if you listen past the credits you’re rewarded with an outtake from the episode.
Harry Potter and the Sacred Text has been a big hit—so much so that Casper, Vanessa, and the show’s producer Ariana Nedelman have started doing live shows on tour. To my delight, San Francisco was one of the stops on their west coast tour, so Jennie and I bought our tix and prepared to get our nerd on.
Like, really prepared. We even got high fives from Casper for our, and I quote, “awesome glasses.”
The venue was this beautiful Jewish synagogue:
I loved the idea of having the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text live show in an actual sacred space as opposed to a concert or event hall, and at least half of the audience (myself included) raised their hands when Casper asked whose first time it was in a religious building this year.
They gave a little bit of background info as to how they got started (Vanessa was leading a Jane Eyre-as-sacred-text reading group until Casper showed up and said, “What a great idea! Let’s try it with a book people have actually read”), but the show mainly followed the same format as the podcast, focusing on chapter 12 of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, The Patronus, through the theme of truth.
Vanessa opened with a story about her eight-year-old self’s obsession with Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories and the idea that something real happened but that no one knows the truth about it.
Complete with tin foil hat.
Then there was the 30-second recap:
To no one’s surprise, Vanessa was crowned the winner. Casper is notorious for zeroing in on random, minute details from the chapter, which, although entertaining, isn’t the most effective strategy when you only have half a minute to summarize.
They spent some time discussing examples of truth in the text, and one idea that resonated with me was when they brought up the saying, “The truth will set you free,” yet pointed out that Professor Lupin essentially lost his job for his truth (spoiler: he’s a werewolf) and Hermione wasn’t even allowed to share her truth (that she was using a Time-Turner to get to all her classes).
Next up was a guest speaker, a Hindu woman who talked about her many years of wrestling with the truth of the Ganga River: the spiritual significance of making a pilgrimage to cleanse herself in the sacred water, and the knowledge that that same water is dangerously toxic and polluted.
She ultimately decided that her spiritual well-being took priority and made the pilgrimage with no regrets.
The spiritual practice Casper and Vanessa chose was Lectio Divina, a Benedectine practice that they use frequently on the podcast. One host picks a quote at random from the chapter, and they analyze it in four steps: on a literal level, on an allegorical level, what it reminds them of in their own lives, and what action it calls them to do.
This chapter’s quote was, “‘I have complete confidence in you,’ said Lupin, smiling,” from a scene when Harry is practicing the Patronus Charm on a Boggart.
And of course, there were the blessings. Casper’s went to Professor McGonagall, while Vanessa’s went to… drumroll please… Hermione. In lieu of voicemails, there were plenty of audience participation opportunities, from “turn-and-talk” (it’s my summer vacation and I still can’t shake my inner teacher voice) to inviting audience members to fill in the gaps of any important parts Vanessa and Casper might have missed during their 30-second recaps. Jennie and I were sitting next to a tiny, adorable Potterhead, so wise beyond his six years, who piped up, “What about what’s under a Dementor’s hood?”
Disclaimer: This pic of Casper and the li’l future Ravenclaw is from the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text blog. I am not a creeper who photographs random children.
Audience members also received index cards and were invited to write on and add them to the Wall of Truth:
Truths spotted: “I am enough,” “I matter and am loved,” “I am not my family. I make my own choices.”
While the podcast has ads, the live show staged a couple of commercials for “WDate,” a Wizarding dating service complete with reading aloud hilarious dating profiles and swiping left or right.
Sir Cadogan’s WDate profile reads, “I seek a comely lass to rescue from dragons. Likes: relaxing in still lifes, romantic picnics in landscapes. Dislikes: dastardly rogues, falling off my horse.”
The show ended with the audience playing the podcast's theme music on kazoos, because why not?
Vanessa schools the crowd in the art of kazooing.
While they've wrapped up their West Coast tour, they're about to kick off their East Coast tour and Mid-West meet-ups.
Do you listen to Harry Potter and the Sacred Text? Were you following along while Jennie and I live-tweeted? Let us know in the comments!