Could Harry Potter become a spiritual leader?
A Cambridge podcast treats the boy wizard's story as holy and reflects on life's big questions using the seven-book series by J.K. Rowling as a guide.
The online show, "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text," currently holds the number one spot on iTunes's religion and spirituality charts, ahead of best-selling author and televangelist Joel Osteen. Launched in May, the 25-minute Potter-cast draws about 100,000 listeners a week.
Cohosted by Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, graduates of Harvard Divinity School, the podcast is resonating with fans, many of whom fell for the books as children and have always felt a special kinship with the characters.
"A lot of what we've heard [from listeners] is that this validates the way many people have always felt about Harry Potter," said Zoltan, 34, assistant Humanist chaplain at Harvard and the Humanist Hub. "But they've never felt comfortable articulating it."
The show is recorded weekly at Harvard as the hosts thoughtfully examine passages from the text. Among the questions the podcast seeks to answer: What would Harry Potter do?
They are quite sincere. Part of their weekly practice is to check cynicism at the door and encourage listeners to live with compassion and joy.
"We say 'sacred' is in the act of treating something a certain way — not the thing itself," Zoltan said. "That said, 'Harry Potter' is unique in its amazing ability to touch people. . . . But also, it has a moral agenda that it isn't shy about: love first."
They discuss a chapter each week. Now 17 chapters into "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," the first book in the series, the hosts have already discussed bullying, regret, and white privilege.
It isn't the duo's first time reading the series. Before it was a podcast, it was — and continues to be — a book club in Harvard Square held every Wednesday night at 7 p.m. in the Humanist Hub off JFK Street. The book club started last fall and weekly drew between 20 and 30 attendees.
This year, Zoltan and ter Kuile, 29, passed the torch to four eager Potter-heads while they focus on the podcast.
"We've really tried to stay away from preaching," said Ariana Nedelman, who produces the podcast. "It's just an honest discussion between the two of them."
In the podcast teaser, ter Kuile, a Ministry Innovation Fellow at the Divinity School, makes a poignant statement. Aside from the Bible, the Koran, and a few classic novels or biographies, "Harry Potter" is one of the most requested book series of Guantanamo detainees. It's also considered the best-selling series of all time with more than 450 million copies sold.
The listener demographic runs the gamut of age, gender, and background.
"This morning, I started to wonder whether I can attribute any of my recent peaceful, steady, relatively unflappable attitude towards my life and children to listening to this podcast," said Heather Fleming, 42, of Boxborough. A mother of two, she has a PhD in Immunology and works at MIT. "It's hard to put into words . . . the best I have so far, is that it feels to me what yoga or meditation seems to be for others who find peace in those practices."
On social media, conversations based on the podcast are ongoing.
". . . Your podcast has given me the opportunity for self reflection, which I don't do frequently enough. You've created conversations around our dinner table and at my office," commented David Earl on the podcast's Facebook profile page.
"Decided 'Harry Potter and The Sacred Text' is my religion," @annadarria tweeted.
Jenn Stark, 32, of Brookline, says she finds a safe haven and community in "Harry Potter."
"Not everyone can find themselves in the Bible or the Torah or the Koran," she said. Finding a spiritual connection in secular fiction is "unorthodox and radical and something there's been a real need for."
The podcast conversation usually isn't planned. The hosts have employed the Jewish practice of Havruta, in which a religious text is interpreted by two people asking a question and discussing possible answers. They've also invoked the devotional practice of a 12th-century Carthusian monk that involves choosing a line from the text, reading it four times and asking questions of it.
They recently focused on what Hermione was thinking when she was cornered by a troll in the 10th chapter of "The Sorcerer's Stone." Many months from now, they will discuss one of Zoltan's favorite moments: when Harry walks the woods to confront the evil Lord Voldemort in the final book. There, as Harry contemplates his mortality, the 17-year-old wizard stops to smell the grass.
"It's such an amazing moment," Zoltan said. "Harry realizing how beautiful the world is and the ability to smell grass is almost a Buddhist meditation on being present."
And as for Rowling's new plays, "Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts I & II"? They're not included in the podcast.
They're not canonical.