Traditional contemplative practices are in right now—and not only with the religious and pan-spiritual types you’d expect. Some self-professed humanists are also taking up forms of “secular spirituality” for holistic health. In the UK and abroad, Sunday Assemblies At Harvard, the Humanist Hub hosts “secular meditation” events. Now there’s even a spiritual practices group for…Harry Potter fans?
It’s no parody:is a popular podcast that uses “traditional forms of sacred reading” to discover the “hidden gifts” of Rowling’s beloved books. At the close of the first episode (each show treats a single chapter from Harry Potter), listeners get a taste of what podcast hosts Casper ter Kuile and Vanessa Zoltan are up to:
CASPER: Each week we’re going to use a different traditional sacred practice to engage with Harry Potter, and this week we’re going to do Lectio Divina: a traditional Christian practice that literally means “sacred reading” in Latin.
VANESSA: So, we have sort of put our own tweak on Lectio Divina in order to use it for our own devices. This is a traditional Christian practice — this might not be exactly the way that people do it in your local Bible study, but this is how we’re going to do it.
CASPER: Now the idea is that you flip through the sacred text, and wherever your finger lands on the page, you engage that word or phrase at four different levels of reading. The quote we found this week is right in the middle of Chapter One: “‘You flatter me,’ said Dumbledore calmly, ‘Voldemort had powers I will never have.’” So, what’s the first level at which we’re going to engage this phrase?
Here Casper and Vanessa initiate a four-stage, semi-Benedictine reading of Rowling’s single sentence—combing the text, allegorizing it, meditating upon it, and considering its implicit invitation to better living. Careful as Carthusians, they savor individual words and ponder personal applications. They squeeze the text like a wet sponge, attempting to drain every drop of implicit meaning.
Does faux religiosity characterize the entire program? Thankfully, no. Much of the pseudo-spiritual material transitions easily to traditional close-reading. At one juncture, Vanessa offers a thoughtful reflection on Rowling’s use of the future-tense “will” and the life-challenge of being a consistent and committed person. Then Casper riffs on the word “flatter,” contemplating the fine distinction between adulation and affirmation. In brief, by the end of the episode, I was wary, but intrigued.
Admittedly, it’s fairly easy to make fun of this kind of thing. What’s more amusing than a bunch of thirtysomethings corporately hymning Queen? Only, perhaps, a havruta session with Snape. The whole HPST project rests on a few slapdash axioms that really don’t hold up under scrutiny. “We believe ‘sacred’ is an act and not a thing,” Vanessa asserts in one promotional video. Well, OK. But why should we agree? Listeners won’t find many answers. It seems that the hosts of this show are great on quips, but not so good on metaphysics.
At the same time, not every note here is dissonant. All silliness aside, much of HPST is simply an exercise in thoughtful reading—the kind of joyful reflection that draws avid readers and makes avid readers, that reminds us how great books comes alive when we trust them to teach us something. Casper and Vanessa model fruitful forms of close-reading. They talk about being “humble readers” and remind listeners that they can always learn more from a good book. This kind of reading challenges those of us raised on a chiefly analytical model of literary studies: Anybody can learn to map The Goblet of Fire on Freytag’s pyramid, but only the reader who loves The Goblet of Fire will deeply learn from the story.
Now in the case of Harry Potter, who do you think loves the books more—the hosts of HPST or the scholars who wrote these titles?
Gendered Representations of Speech: The Case of the Harry Potter Series
The Wizard, the Muggle, and the Other: (Post) Colonialism in Harry Potter
Sexual Geometry of the Golden Trio: Hermione’s Subversion of Traditional Female Subject Positions
Casper and Vanessa view the Harry Potter books as avenues to wisdom, but the scholars above treat the texts as data for their own preformed social agendas. The hosts of HPST understand themselves to be disciples, while these critics see themselves as activists. To be clear, the point here is not to put down the project of literary criticism or literary analysis. Rather, it’s to underscore the need for a new kind of literary culture in which criticism and analysis can finally thrive: one that lives with and loves books for their “hidden gifts.”
HPST has its problems, but it also contains some wisdom. Give me the choice between a book club with the Humanist Hub and an MLA panel on The Half-Blood Prince, and I’ll take the former every time.
Josh Mayo is an assistant professor of English at Grove City College.