August is the month we get to welcome new full-time voices to the post calvin! Please welcome Josh Parks, who is taking over Paul Menn’s spot. Josh graduated in 2018 with majors in English literature and violin performance. He’s currently living in Holland, MI, and working as a freelance musician, writer, and editor. This fall, he will start an MA program in medieval studies at Western Michigan University. He loves books, coffee, Walt Disney World, dead languages, and puns, probably in that order.
I’ve never been particularly good at doing devotions. I’ll occasionally plan to read through a book of the Bible one or two chapters a day, but if the book in question is any longer than, say, Hebrews, my effort fizzles out. It doesn’t help that I usually schedule my devoting right before bed or first thing in the morning, the times when I’m most likely to opt instead for a little extra sleep, a YouTube video, or a podcast episode.
If I think about that a bit, it brings up an interesting point. For some reason—probably total depravity—this problem seems only to apply to the Bible. But I consume plenty of other media daily (one could say religiously), including a whole host of podcasts. I listen to podcasts while driving, while cleaning my room, while falling asleep. There isn’t much time during the day when I’m not consuming some kind of media, often through my treasured AirPods (which, miraculously, I have yet to lose).
One recent addition to my daily audio diet is Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, a podcast in which two secular humanist divinity school graduates approach J.K. Rowling’s famous fantasy novels as if they were scripture. Hosts Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile spend each thirty-minute episode reading a chapter through a particular theme, like forgiveness, love, or loneliness. In any given episode, they might analyze the merits of Dumbledore’s undying loyalty to Hagrid, search for the Dursleys’ redeeming qualities, or question whether the books go far enough in denouncing racism against Mudbloods. And then they ask how these beloved books call us to live differently.
Vanessa and Casper discuss how the books encourage generosity and forgiveness, warn against propaganda and manipulation, and explore ideas as complex and commonplace as heartbreak, vulnerability, and hope. They also observe a number of Christian and Jewish sacred practices, such as lectio divina and havruta, using the Harry Potter text.
In one episode, Casper explains that he’s always been drawn to the traditions and disciplines of religious practice, but the sacred text he grew up with—the Bible—never really felt like it was his. This podcast is an attempt to capture the power and joy of those practices in a community that has chosen to love Harry Potter rather than Hebrews. It’s an argument that sacred reading might be more about the reader than the text.
For Vanessa and Casper, sacred reading means “trusting the text,” taking for granted that it is “worthy of our attention and contemplation.” It means believing that the time and attention we put into the text will be rewarded with insight, encouragement, and admonition. We (re)read sentences through multiple lenses because we trust we’ll find multiple layers of meaning.
Which, after a month or so of following along with this project, has made me ask myself: Do I trust my own sacred text that much? If I really believe that the Bible was inspired by the creator of the universe, it should be much easier to find that trust than it is with a series of young adult fantasy novels finished a decade ago. If I believe this text is sacred, I need to give it the dedication and time of a sacred reader.
I’ve also learned just how much my Christian ethics has in common with a loving, thoughtful, secular humanism. Having grown up in a conservative Christian environment, it’s taken me a while to develop the mental category “compassionate atheist,” but Vanessa and Casper have helped me feel a sense of solidarity with people who share many of my values without sharing my theology.
That said, though, there are episodes in which I disagree wholeheartedly with the hosts. In an episode on hope, for example, Vanessa explains that she views hope as something dangerous and dishonest because it can lull people into inaction. She says hope is only to be indulged in when you’ve exhausted every practical action. Hope is for the evening of election day after you’ve campaigned and voted, for a Quidditch spectator who has no effect on the game. But my Christian theology gives me the concept of radical, motivating hope—hope in the ultimate redemption of the world that gives the confidence to act rather than a reason not to.
So, like any meaningful religious experience, listening to this podcast has left me encouraged, challenged, and grateful. Encouraged that there are beautiful things in this world like books and friendships and that these things respond with abundance to our investment in them. Challenged to love better my own sacred text, to grant Abraham and Mary and Jesus the sympathy, care, and attention it’s so easy to summon for teenage wizards. And grateful for an upbringing and a community that has made the Bible mine, surrounding me with its images and stories in a way that makes me want to keep reading.