It was born on a whim, but Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile’s treatment of the Harry Potter series as sacred quickly became intentional. In 2016 at Harvard Divinity School, the two launched “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” with producer and fellow scholar Ariana Nedelman. The weekly podcast explored each chapter through the lens of a theme, like rebellion, foresight, and hospitality.
Not Sorry Productions is inviting listeners to be present as they record their final episode on Thursday, March 25, live via Zoom. While Zoltan will continue to host the series (restarting from book one) with Harvard Divinity School associate professor Matthew Potts, ter Kuile will say goodbye after more than 250 episodes and 170 unique themes. The final episode will be released April 1, with Zoltan and ter Kuile circling back to the beginning: book one, chapter one.
The trio will continue to collaborate for their new podcast, “The Real Question,” where they respond to big questions through pop culture and academia. But for now, Zoltan and Nedelman sat down to discuss character flaws, J.K. Rowling’s controversies, and the impact of sacred exploration on their communities.
The ways Harry Potter — and J.K. Rowling — are seen have evolved and become so complicated since you started the podcast in 2016. What was that journey like?
Ariana Nedelman: At the beginning of the podcast, we were like, ‘J.K. Rowling, who?’ We were just going to focus on what we consider canon: the seven books, not the movies, not the expansions of the world. But in June, when J.K. Rowling wrote her screed, there’s been a lot of ‘Can we separate the author from the book?’ A lot of people now call her ‘the author who shall not be named,’ but our reaction has been the opposite. We didn’t think we could keep reading them without talking about her.
Vanessa Zoltan: J.K. Rowling is this in-between spot because the books preach the opposite of what she preaches — with the exceptions of things like ableism, giants, house elves. There’s an overarching point of love will win.
Nedelman: And stand up for people on the margins.
Zoltan: We did a call out to our readers asking what we should do and 70 percent told us to keep going [with the podcast]. And 70 percent of listeners who self-identified as trans or non-binary told us to keep going.
Nedelman: We were ready to stop, but our community said, this is a space that helps me heal. We featured voicemails of trans listeners and Vanessa and Casper walked through the things she wrote with [LGBTQ+ advocate and author] Jackson Bird.
Likewise, the world is such a different place than when you started. How did the last five years affect the way you pursued the project?
Nedelman: When we started the podcast, Obama was still in office, so it’s been a ride. At the start, we said we weren’t going to do a political show, we won’t talk about J.K. Rowling. But as the world evolved, we evolved with it. We were like, ‘Actually, if we name and live our values, we should speak out against what Trump is doing. We should be speaking out against J.K. Rowling.’
Zoltan: We were like, ‘Yeah, [expletive] that. Trump is in office and this is a book about a kid no one wanted, who the system failed. Let’s do a campaign to raise money for separated families at the border.’
What are the big takeaways you see after spending so much in-depth time with the series?
Zoltan: My big takeaway is how much we have to invest in systems. Individual people fail in the books, but it’s really the systems that fail — Snape is able to get away with abusing Neville and Hagrid goes to prison when the minister knows he’s innocent. There’s one respected newspaper and that’s a media failure. It made me believe in infrastructure in a really big way.
Were there any themes that you explored that made you look at the world differently?
Zoltan: When we did fear, Casper invited us not to judge the Dursleys, but instead, see the Dursley-ness in ourselves. That’s when I was like, ‘Oh, this will be an interesting podcast.’ The books want you to hate the Dursleys, but Casper was like, ‘They’re just scared. And when we’re scared, we can become horrible.’
One thing the podcast did for me was shift the way I view Dumbledore. I always thought he was great, but now I’m like, he’s awful!
Zoltan: The biggest complaint [I hear] about me is that I’m too hard on Dumbledore and Ron. I think he’s a dude in an imperfect world, but people worship him and we should always be wary of false idols. But what I love about him is that he’ll say, the buck stops with me, which I admire in a leader. I hate that he stands by while Hagrid gets arrested, but I appreciate that he witnesses it.
Nedelman: My professional question with these books is, ‘What’s the fantasy?’ And the fantasy is an adult who knows everything and is 10 times smarter than you can ever be and that’s the protection.
Another thing that I tend to forget is that the characters are, for the most part, children doing these really dangerous and extraordinary things. Did that play into how you looked at the text?
Nedelman: As they’re turning 18 — and adulthood is arbitrary — and Draco started to do things we wanted to condemn, we had to think about whether we still considered him a child. Or do we give them slack for growth? Or is this an in-between moment when we consider them as kids who have gone through traumatic events? Or adults who hold up a standard.
Zoltan: I am reading book four with a class and we’re at the chapter that shows Dumbledore as someone who gives people second chances. He gives Snape a second chance and Hagrid a chance. We want to give everyone a chance to change by creating a system that should not involve prison, but instead healing and reconciliation. With kids, we should hold them accountable. But as adults, you get second and third chances, and with kids, they get all the chances. That’s the difference.
At the end of the day, Harry Potter is a Hero’s Journey. But who do you consider to be the real hero of this series?
Zoltan: Obviously I want to say Hermione, but it has to be Molly Weasley. She makes sure everyone is fed...
Nedelman: And she’s the one who sees Harry on the platform [in the first book] and says, ‘That kid needs help,’ and ‘To my kids, don’t be gross.’
Zoltan: She meets Harry once and is like, ‘OK, great, you’re my son.’ She comes to the Triwizard Tournament and takes money out of his vault for him. The argument of the book is that a mother’s sacrifice can change the world. And we know Lily and Neville’s mom do, too, but Molly is the only one we get to see. When Hermione and Ginny are fighting [Bellatrix in book seven], she’s like, ‘Get out of the way, I’m fighting this woman.’ The buck always stops with Molly.
“Harry Potter and the Sacred Text: Final Episode” will air live on Zoom on March 25 at 7 p.m. Visit harrypottersacredtext.com/online-events for tickets and more information.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Rachel Raczka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org