Why Two Harvard Academics Talk About 'Harry Potter' Like It's The Bible

Will aliens someday confuse "Harry Potter" with a religious text? Let's discuss.
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You’d be forgiven for assuming the team behind the podcast “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” in which two hosts dissect J.K. Rowling’s classic series as if it were the Torah or the Bible, were raving tinfoil-hat superfans.

But while they adore the boy wizard anthology, the team approaches their subject matter with reasoned academic discipline like the Harvard Divinity School members and graduates they are. Each episode allows hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, along with producer Ariana Nedelman, the chance to reread a chapter of the series (starting from the beginning, with one chapter given to each episode) and analyze the characters’ struggles and motivations, picking out moral teachings along the way. (Give it a listen here.)

The show got its start through Zoltan and ter Kuile’s friendship (notably, an essential Harry Potter theme). After they briefly considered giving Jane Eyre a “sacred text” treatment, the co-hosts ― one an assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard and the other a minister-in-training for non-religious people ― settled on the Potter series due to its length and popularity. Both connected with the books in their own way: Zoltan as she discovered them for the first time in her mid-20s, and her co-host as he reread them in divinity school only to realize they resonated more with him than the Bible.

“The same things are in these books as are in the traditional sacred texts,” Zoltan explained. As of this writing, they’ve made it through Chapter 13 of The Sorcerer’s Stone, but plan to dissect all 199 in the series.

The Huffington Post spoke with Zoltan about blessings, why talking about a children’s book series like a sacred text isn’t as crazy as it sounds, and whether aliens might confuse Harry Potter for a real religion.

How much do you think J.K. Rowling legitimately thought about the themes you talk about on the podcast, and how much does that even matter?

We took the position that it doesn’t matter. I think that it’s completely valid way to read a text, and sometimes I think it’s a really interesting way to read a text. You know, that’s the way that I’ve read Phillip Roth novels ― I think a lot more about his intentions, and the arguments he’s trying to make, and the way that his arguments matured and evolved over the years that he wrote. And I think that there’s a lot to be said for doing that with these books, with Rowling’s.

It’s just not how we chose to do it here. We’re trying to talk about the books the way that people talk about religious texts in religious settings. The way that you talk about the Bible in church, the way that you talk about the Torah in temple, the way that you talk about the Quran in mosques. And authorial intent is not the way that those things get discussed in those spaces. You know, you don’t go to church, or you don’t go to most churches, [to discuss authorial intent.] There are certainly some churches and certainly some temples and obviously some mosques in which we talk about historical, critical theory ― you know, who were the people who sat around and actually transcribed these texts? ― but most places of worship aren’t like that. And we think it is to the benefit of our hearts and our spirits to not get tripped up by that.

We’ll never know what Rowling intended. If you do a Freudian interpretation of Rowling, Rowling will never know what she intended. So we don’t want to get distracted by that.

Do you think people naturally want to analyze any entertainment media they love to this extent and try to draw meaning from it? As such a powerful communication tool, the internet has certainly given fans a way to do that, and we’ve seen so many fandoms crop up there.

The way that we talk about it is: If you love something, and it’s complicated enough, we encourage you to practice treating something as sacred. What you’re doing is practicing loving something, and practicing loving things can only be a good thing. You get better at loving, and it’s a time in which you’re having a positive emotional experience. We just think that is always good.

But I think that it depends on the intention. I think that if you’re on “The Bachelorette” website, you can think that being absorbed by this is really interesting ― [maybe] it’s distracting from something really stressful in your life ― but I don’t think that’s treating “The Bachelorette” as sacred. And I think that is fine. If you’re on the website because you love the gossip, and no judgment in that, I just don’t think that your heart is being fed by that exercise. I certainly do a lot of things in which my heart is not being fed! But I just think that if you pick these things with intention, and apply practice to it, a lot of things can end up being sacred texts.

At the end of each episode, the two of you each pick a character from that chapter to bless. Why?

We do it for two main reasons. One is that so much goodness is invisible in the world, and so we want to call out people’s goodness that isn’t entirely obvious. So you reread a positive quality on a character that we had negative associations with ― seeing something positive in Aunt Petunia or Aunt Marge ― or draw attention to secondary or tertiary characters, pointing out that just because somebody isn’t a primary character in your life doesn’t mean they don’t have an entire inner life. And we’re trying to draw attention to that.

But then the secondary purpose is that we’re hoping, in some ways, that we’re offering blessings to our listeners. So if we are blessing the fact that Hermione is a recreational reader, we’re hoping that people who feel introverted and alone in their reading ― and feel like that’s something private about them ― that they feel recognized in that blessing. We hope that people feel a sense of community and feel a lack of aloneness in hearing these blessings.

What is your take on the fundamentalists who tried to ban Harry Potter from school libraries in the early 2000s on religious grounds?

First of all, I’m just against banning books. So there’s just that. But I also think that they haven’t read the books. I went and gave a talk at Gordon-Conwell Seminary, which is one of the most conservative Christian seminaries on the East Coast, and I was talking about Harry Potter. And somebody said to me, “Well, it makes sense that you’re treating Harry Potter as a sacred text because it’s such a Christian text.” And I grew up atheist and Jewish so I was like, “How is it a Christian text?” And the guy was like, “Well, he literally dies and rises from the dead in order to save humanity.” And I was like, “Oh, right.”

It certainly has very traditional Christian values like generosity and love and non-violence, and [based on] my understanding of Jesus from [divinity] school and my minister friends, I think Jesus would really dig the Harry Potter books. People ban things because they’re afraid of them. I don’t think that there’s a lot of hate involved ― it’s just fear. They were really popular. They were capturing kids’ imaginations, and [people] want to control the narrative of what is capturing kids’ imaginations. The irony of all of it is that the Church was playing the same role that the Ministry of Magic was. They’re such loving, traditional-values-oriented texts that it’s funny.

So, 5,000 years from now, do you think archeologists or aliens might look at the rubble of our lost civilization and legitimately confuse Harry Potter for a religious text?

Yes and no. I think the artifacts of Judaism and Christianity and Islam and Zoroastrianism or whatever ― they have much more archeological history of, you know, buildings and churches that go back thousands of years. So it depends on the sophistication of their tools. But certainly we have Harry Potter World, which is a church, of sorts, and you only have one Bible on your shelf but you have seven Harry Potter books on your shelf.

Not to mention all the book parties and movies.

Right! And costumes. Absolutely. The Harry Potter universe has a lot of things that look a lot like a religion. It has rituals. It has sayings. You say, “mischief managed!” Or, “Raise a glass to the Boy who Lived!” You have certain arguments; there are these [conventions] where they do all sorts of rituals. I haven’t been to a con yet but we’re supposed to be going in the spring and I’m really excited to see it. The midnight release parties are absolute rituals. There are movie-watching parties. There are all sorts of rituals associated with it. There’s a central text associated with it. I mean, it has a lot of the requirements of being a religion.

I, at minimum, think it would confuse them. I also think football stadiums will confuse the aliens in 10,000 years.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Before You Go

'Harry Potter' Venn Diagrams