by Allison Vander Broek
In the wake of the election in November, I made a New Year’s resolution to read more. I read a ton for school as it is, and I’m also at the point where I’ll do almost anything to avoid writing my dissertation—including reading all the news and/or non-history related reading material I can get my hands on.
But in the current political climate, reading also felt like it took on a whole new and urgent purpose. I don’t think I was the only one who felt that way—given the resurgence in popularity of books such as George Orwell’s 1984 and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. And though I added many serious tomes to my list, I also wanted to return to an old favorite—the Harry Potter series.
I am an unabashed Harry Potter nerd. I’m pretty sure there are embarrassing pictures floating somewhere around the Internet of me and my best friend dressed up in full Hogwarts regalia for one of the book releases. I have fond memories of devouring each newly released book in one sitting and, once I finished, immediately starting to read it again—much to the chagrin of my younger brother who was waiting his turn for the book. With my New Year’s Resolution, I thought returning to one of my favorite book series would provide some much needed levity and comfort in my life, maybe a little escapism.
What I hadn’t anticipated was discovering a new and rich window into spiritual practice and the sacred. It was all thanks to that same best friend who I’d dressed up with for the book release all those years ago. She’d discovered this new podcast called Harry Potter and the Sacred Text. Basically, two former students from Harvard Divinity School wondered what it would be like if they applied the skills and knowledge they’d learned studying sacred texts to the beloved Harry Potter series.
I was a bit skeptical at first but the podcast is fantastic. The podcast takes on a chapter of one of the books per week, and each episode follows the same basic format. The hosts of the show, Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan, center each episode on a theme they’ve chosen for the chapter and discuss how we see that theme play out. The theme could be love or humor or forgiveness or hospitality or white privilege.
The other main part of each episode is applying different spiritual disciplines to the chapter. They’ve done the Christian practices of Lectio Divina, Ignatian spirituality, and florilegium, as well as the Jewish practice of Havruta.
This is my favorite part of each episode, and it has been an unexpected and rich resource for me this season. It provides a different way to think about spiritual practice and to think about life’s big questions and the nature of the sacred in a new way. And of course it reminds me of the powerful themes in Harry Potter, in so much fiction, and how they can enrich, empower, and encourage us.
I thought I was returning to the series for some comforting escapism. What I got instead was spiritual renewal and a way to rethink how I encounter the divine and the different forms spiritual practice can take. As a religious historian and a bit of a nerd when it comes to thinking about new trends in religion, I think the podcast is perhaps a window into my generation and how so-called “religious nones” are finding spiritual community and spiritual practice outside of traditional religious settings.
The podcast has become a part of my weekly spiritual practice alongside my more traditional Christian practices. I have to say—I think my spiritual life is the better for it. If you too are a Harry Potter nerd or just curious about approaching spiritual practice in a new way, check it out.
Allison Vander Broek is a PhD candidate at Boston College studying American religious history. She is currently working on a dissertation tentatively titled “Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Religion, Grassroots Politics, and the Antiabortion Movement Before Roe” in which she explores the grassroots organizing that built the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and 1970s.