When I was a kid, I worried about my parents with an anxiety bordering on obsession. If they went out for the evening, I'd sit up in bed waiting to hear tires on the snow, the quiet roar of the garage door, the jingle of keys in the lock. I felt that any second my babysitter would come into the room bearing news of a terrible accident. To distract myself from the worry, I read Harry Potter until my books fell apart. It was the only thing that calmed me.
Within the pages of his story, Harry was a living example of all my worst fears—an orphan, a survivor. He taught me to be brave in the face of an uncertain future. Coping through Harry Potter got me through those anxious nights, my first heartbreak as a teenager, the death of both of my grandfathers, the sudden passing of a close friend in college.
As I've gotten older, I've realized the comfort and peace I find within the pages of this series toes the line between the secular and the divine, and I'm not alone. The books have sold an estimated 500 million copies since the original's 1997 release, making the series fifth on the most popular books of all time list—just a few steps behind actual religious texts like the Qur'an (No. 1) and the King James Bible (No. 2).
While a 2012 study from the Pew Research Center found nearly one in three millennials are religiously unaffiliated, that doesn't mean we're a generation devoid of faith. The same study concluded we are indeed deeply spiritual, but find it hard to connect with traditional religious settings and texts that may have been used to invalidate our sexuality, our autonomy, and our freedom. And that's where the appeal of a series like Harry Potter comes in, says Casper ter Kuile, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School and the co-host of Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a podcast that examines the Harry Potter books as religious scripture.
When ter Kuile was in divinity school, he reread Harry Potter for the first time since he was a teenager and was shocked at how religious it was.
"I realized all the same themes we were talking at school within a biblical context were showing up in these books," he says. "I already knew the characters, and I loved the story, but I really trusted it in a different way, because it hadn't been used in ways that had hurt me in the past."
Ter Kuile's co-host is Vanessa Zoltan, an assistant humanist chaplain at Harvard University and the Humanist Hub in Cambridge, whose lecture on reading Jane Eyre as a sacred text served as an impetus for the show. (Casper attended said reading, and they ended up doing the same with Harry Potter due to its status as an undeniable cultural touchstone.) On the podcast, the two spend a few hours every week interpreting Harry Potter through a religious lens. Each episode matches up with a chapter, and each chapter has a theme, like jealousy, fear, or innocence.
Zoltan and ter Kuile use ages-old spiritual practices like the Christian tradition of Lectio Divina and the Jewish practice of Havruta to find deeper meaning within the text. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text has hit a nerve with Harry Potter fans, who have suddenly found their religious obsession with these books justified by actual religious scholars. The podcast is a Top 40 mainstay on iTunes Religions and Spirituality Chart, and has inched up to the No. 1 and No. 2 spots more than a few times, putting it shoulder to shoulder with folks like Joel Osteen and Bishop T.D. Jakes.
The show's listeners come from every walk of life and every conceivable religious background. Among them are casual Catholics, born again Baptists, ordained Rabbis and preachers, secular atheists, and teachers who use the podcast as an example of close-reading. No matter their background, ter Kuile says most of them have used the books to find comfort in times of pain.
"It's remarkable how many listeners we have who have lost a parent when they were young, or who have gone through something truly difficult" said ter Kuile. "Afterward, they turned to Harry Potter, which is why the books are so important to them. They were a saving grace in a difficult time.
"Harry Potter is about learning how to be brave, how to stand up for those who are weaker than us, how to love our families even when they are difficult and how to forgive," ter Kuile continues. "These are common themes across so many religious traditions."
People are still hungry for meaning, searching for things that give them an experience of belonging. The Harry Potter universe is already fulfilling those things.
One of the principles the two started the podcast with, ter Kuile says, is the question of what makes a book sacred. The Bible, for instance, is not a sacred work because it arrived from on high, but, ter Kuile believes, because a community of people throughout the centuries have gone through it. Sat with it. Really mined it for truth, tried to understand it from many different perspectives, and map how it matches current reality.
Harry Potter is becoming sacred for the same reasons—for nearly 20 years a global community of devotees have been meticulously disseminating its text.
"That's been happening at such a scale, at such an intensity, that it's totally normal people would feel more connected to [Harry Potter] than just a normal book," says ter Kuile. "It's identity creating. Suddenly, it means something when you say you're a Slytherin, in the same way it means something to say you're a reformed Jew. We have a common language built around it."
The changing landscape of religious affiliation makes this time in history ripe for the creation of new ways to worship. A primary affiliation to one singular religious identity [i.e. Methodist, Catholic, Jewish] is becoming less and less relevant, says ter Kuile. "But people are still hungry for meaning, searching for things that give them an experience of belonging. The Harry Potter universe is already fulfilling those things for a lot of people, and what we're learning with the podcast is that the potential to expand on that is very large."
While ter Kuile doesn't envision physical Harry Potter churches popping up anytime soon, copious Harry Potter meetups are already offering solace for many. In fact, ter Kuile believes that the practice of going to places like Universal Harry Potter theme parks and conventions like ComicCon are a kind of worship. These spaces may not quite be modern day pilgrimage sites for a new kind of spiritual practice just yet, but religions don't develop at the speed of a Snitch.
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