Harry Potter podcast offers discussion of life, death and magic

4:00 p.m Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017 Go Guide
HANDOUT/Warner Bros Pictures
Daniel Radcliffe portrayed the boy wizard in the films. Here, he’s shown in the first film of the series, “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” which was released in 2001. CONTRIBUTED BY WARNER BROS. PICTURES

Harry Potter has given us seven books, eight films, dinnerware, theme park attractions and many years of entertainment.

Three folks at the Harvard Divinity School believe Harry can offer even more.

Since 2016, they’ve been discussing the books in a podcast called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.”

In the nerdy world of podcasts, this weekly meditation is distinguished by its deep look at serious philosophical issues. What’s surprising is that the podcast has also become a cult success, with 5 million downloads a year.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Vanessa Zoltan, a teaching assistant at the Harvard Divinity School, helps produce a Harry Potter-themed podcast that uses the stories of the boy wizard to examine deep philosophical questions. BO EMERSON / BEMERSON@AJC.COM

Several times a year, podcasters Vanessa Zoltan, Casper ter Kuile and Ariana Nedelman leave Cambridge, Mass., and take the show on the road, and they will bring it to Atlanta for the first time on Nov. 8, at the Park Avenue Baptist Church in Grant Park.

We caught up with the Hermione-haired Zoltan at the Crema Cafe on Brattle Street, around the corner from Harvard Square, where the 35-year-old looked like any other brainy undergraduate, resupplying with caffeine.

During her undergraduate years at Washington University in St. Louis, Zoltan studied English, a discipline she is proud to say she now uses every day in her analysis of Potteriana. She’s also a trained chaplain, a former middle school teacher, and currently, a teaching assistant and a proctor in a Harvard freshman dorm.

Raised in the Jewish tradition (and the granddaughter of four Holocaust survivors), she has a master’s in divinity from Harvard, but is also an atheist. Is Harry Potter a kind of Bible for atheists?

No, she said, not if you’re talking about Scripture. But if you’re talking about a great book (or series of books) that will yield great rewards with close reading, the answer is yes.

Millennials consider Harry Potter a childhood passion. The first book in the series just celebrated its 20th anniversary, and many 30-somethings were reared on the stories as middle schoolers. Zoltan argues that the Harry Potter stories are also worthy of adult reflection.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Harry Potter books just celebrated their 20th anniversary, and they have excited fans over the years, such as those at this Barnes & Noble in Buckhead, in a 2007 photo on the eve of the release of the final book in the series. Even now, the Harry Potter phenomenon is strong. AJC FILE PHOTO

“What would happen if we take this seriously?” she asks at the beginning of the first episode. “What would happen if we love something, and love it with rigor and love it with commitment?”

Though the podcast isn’t about religion, it addresses many of the same questions that religion struggles with: Why am I here? How do we love one another? What is evil? All seen through the Potter lens.

“The themes and questions that were in this book were so big, they were just as big as the Bible questions that I’d been reading,” said ter Kuile (pronounced ter-KYLE), a fellow at the Divinity School.

So who could have imagined that the general public wants to address deep questions in a podcast?

Zoltan is not surprised. For one, there is the success of the public radio show “On Being” with Krista Tippett. (Ter Kuile is also a member of the board of “On Being.”)

And there is her day-to-day experience, consoling and comforting. “We all come from a chaplaincy background,” she said of her colleagues behind the podcast. “You know that people want you to ask what other people are afraid to ask. Questions like, ‘Are you lonely? Do you have suicidal thoughts? Are you happy that your mother died?’”

Clients dealing with sickness and death need chaplains who will ask what isn’t considered a polite question, she said. “But they need you to ask, they’ve got to say it to you. Eventually you get used to very intense conversations.”

The team has produced more than 80 episodes, each looking at a single chapter. They are currently ranging through “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” the fourth book in the series.

Each episode includes a brief recap of the chapter in question and an exercise called Lectio Divina, developed by a 12th-century Carthusian monk named Guigo II.

Created for close reading of the Bible, the exercise involves picking at random a sentence from the chapter under study, and asking four questions of the passage: What is its literal meaning? What is its metaphorical meaning? What does it mean to us personally? And what is it asking us to do?

Even the most prosaic passages can generate surprising rewards. And one of the purposes of the exercise is to learn how to think deeply, and to recognize the sacramental quality of all aspects of life.

“Most theologians would say that the point of reading the Bible is teaching yourself how to treat the world as a sacred text,” said Zoltan.

Is there something blasphemous about treating a pop-culture artifact with such solemnity?

No, said Zoltan. “Every religion has looked at texts other than the scriptural texts: the Midrash, the Talmud, the Apocrypha. And depending on your denomination, you may say some books are in the Bible and others are out.”

In addition to being a well-written series of books, the stories about Harry Potter have the advantage of familiarity. They are, collectively, the second-best-selling books in the English language, with more than 500 million copies sold. (The podcasters have not been in touch with author J.K. Rowling, but have stayed clear of licensing questions by quoting no more than 20 seconds of the books at a time. “Theoretically, we are literary criticism,” said Zoltan.)

Though the books, like life, are shot through with darkness, they exude a positive message that can help us every day, said Zoltan.

“Joy and imagination are muscles,” Zoltan said. “We have to exercise them and strengthen them. The world is a sad place, and we have to stay optimistic.”