Sunday September 18, 2016

How to read Harry Potter — or anything else — as a sacred text

Listen 24:41

The sacred texts — they're the guiding documents of the spiritual world. Even if you've never read them, you know them....

The Bible. The Torah. The Qu'ran. The Vedas. And now … Harry Potter?

Casper ter Kuile

Casper ter Kuile

Casper ter Kuile is a Harvard-educated minister for non-religious people and Harry Potter is his prayer book. His new podcast, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, treats J.K. Rowling's beloved books not just as novels, but as instructive and inspirational texts that will teach us about our own lives.

It might seem strange, silly, or even sacrilegious, but Casper ter Kuile argues that the definition of a sacred text is open to interpretation and that Harry Potter meets the (dark) mark.

"What makes a text sacred is not that it was given to us 'by God' or that it has some extra layer of authority … it's the fact that people have come around this text in community over centuries, over millennia, and have mined it for meaning, and invented beautiful, imaginative practices that help us dig in that juiciness."

Each episode of the podcast is devoted to a chapter of the Harry Potter series. Co-hosts Casper ter Kuile and and Vanessa Zoltan mine the passages for meaning, using a mix of traditional sacred reading techniques and personal interpretation.

"It might be that you started with a sentence about quidditch and you end up thinking about your relationship with your siblings and the fact you really owe your sister a call and that you should get together sometime. It starts on the page but it ends up with reflections about our own life."

So, why Harry Potter?

"Really one of the big reasons is that it's so ubiquitous. I'm 29 and for the generation of my age and younger, this is a text that nearly everyone has read. I think it's the best selling piece of fiction in history and has been translated into more than 80 languages or something … so there's a kind of cultural norm about the story. Which means that if I say I'm in Slytherin house, people kind of know what I mean!"

Can you read anything as sacred?

"If we brought rigour and discipline and did it in community with a milk carton, I think we could treat a milk carton as sacred!" - Casper ter Kuile

What would you read as sacred? And why? A book, a film, a piece of music — maybe your favourite beverage container? Let us know!

tapestry@cbc.ca | @CBCtapestry

There's more to it than the Harry Potter series being a bestseller … the books have a nearly unparalleled fan culture. By using Harry Potter, ter Kuile hopes to reach people who don't feel comfortable stepping into a traditional religious setting, but are still hungry for spiritual conversations. Also, he says the books are go-tos in times of difficulty which means readers don't just love, but trust them.      

"We've chosen Harry Potter for a reason, because we really love the value of what's in the story. It's so much about love and friendship and family and loss, in a way that is very inspiring to talk through life's big questions. It's often a text that people turn to in real times of trouble. We've heard from so many people who go through a breakup or the death of a parent … it's the third most requested text in Guantanamo Bay after the Bible and the Qu'ran."

To hear the full story and learn some traditional sacred reading techniques, listen to the full interview.​