Intro – Rev. Claire Klein
When I was in sixth grade, my mom brought home two books from a school book fair and left them on my dresser. “I hear they are big in England.” Little did I know that I would meet life-long friends when I opened these books. The Harry Potter series led me on fantastic journeys with dragons, wizards, and unicorns as well beautiful stories about friendship, reflections on how easily those in power can be corrupted, and the strength of love over hate.
One of the most fabulous things about Harry Potter is meeting other people who love Harry Potter and “geeking out” together. I am so happy that my fellow Lyndale Nerd Squad members have joined me in this joyful fandom and agree to explore these texts together month after month. Our small group is inspired by a podcast started by two Harvard Divinity school students, Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile, who took on the project of treating Harry Potter as “sacred.”
What does it mean to “treat something as sacred?” According to Zoltan, it means that:
- First, You have “Faith” in that something. You have faith that it will generate something in the world, you have faith that the text will continue giving you gifts and has something essential to reveal the more you return to it. This does NOT mean that we think the text is perfect. Indeed, we fully reject the biases and transphobia of J K Rowling that get woven into the text. And we seek to reclaim it in the full spectrum of humanity that we are. We notice and celebrate the larger themes of friendship and love in this text and know these stories will continue to be a gift to us.
- Next, We also treat the text with “Rigor.” We are committed to meeting monthly. We read slowly and deeply and with intention. We overturn certain words and delve into various passages. We treat the text seriously and with respect – yes, even a children’s novel about witches and wizards.
- Finally, we have formed “Community” around this book. We help each other see things we didn’t notice before. We take a simple phrase about a giant squid and turn into a call to action about caring for each other. We complicate things for each other. We lift things up in each other around the text so that we see sacredness in one another.
Harry Potter often has encounters where Faith, Rigor, and Community come into play. Sometimes there is an attempt to create sacredness, but applying these three tactics helps him see what is truly sacred.
In his first year at Hogwarts, Harry finds a magical mirror that can reveal a person deepest desire. For the orphan Harry, the image he saw was him surrounded by family. He had faith that this mirror was good, but when the headmaster, Professor Dumbledore, confronts him about him in community and shared the history of mirror that led people to waste their life gazing into the mirror, an act of rigor, Harry’s faith in the magical object wanes.
In another adventure, Harry finds an old text book inscribed with the signature of the owner – the Half Blood Prince. The text book has so many secrets and notes in the margins that he becomes the best potion maker in his class. His friend Hermione is skeptical and tries to introduce some rigorous research into the book, and when one of the spells in the margins causes harm to others in his community, he throws away the mysterious book from the Half Blood Prince.
It is in the final book that we see that sacredness was found not in magical mirrors or textbooks, but in his friends. The scene that Lillie read for us demonstrates the importance of strong community. That faith and creative energy we find in each other, the commitment to belonging with rigor, and the common mission of finding goodness in the world is what brings sacredness.
Rebecca, Luca, and Kathryn are going to share with us how our Harry Potter/ Lyndale Nerd Squad/ Slug Club group meets in faith, with rigor, and formed this lovely community.
Faith- Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
During the presidential campaign in 2015 and 2016, my daughter Shannon was eight and nine years old. And when Donald Trump was inaugurated, she was ten. We had gone to Washington, DC for the Women’s March and we had spent a lot of time talking about our values of love, equity, justice and community and the importance of resisting injustice and hatred through it all. But we were still shocked and somehow caught unawares when all of the Executive Orders starting coming out: the Muslim ban being chief amongst them, but each seemed a new horror.
As a parent, I was at a loss as to how to talk with my precocious ten-year-old about what was happening. But then Shannon started talking about Harry Potter Book Five: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I had started reading the Harry Potter books to her when she was six, making up voices for each of the characters. I read Books One through Three in this way. And then she was old enough and began reading them to herself. To date, she’s probably read each of the books about twenty times. She even joined the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text group for the first year or so.
So, when the Muslim ban came out, we returned to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix when Delores Umbridge is appointed High Inquisitor of Hogwarts and she, as a follower of Voldemort who believes in the lie of supremacy of “pure bred” wizards, starts issuing educational decrees which seek to ban and snuff out the life and connection of community. Educational Decree Number 23 begins: “All Student Organisations, Societies, Teams, Groups, and Clubs are henceforth disbanded.” It was such a relief to be able to talk about the Trump Executive Orders through the lens of the Umbridge Educational Decrees and then talk about what Harry and his friends did in response. They formed a model for what we might consider doing.
And one of the things that Harry, Hermione and Ron did was to not allow the understanding of what was faithful, honorable, just and loving to be distorted by the lies Umbridge was seeking to enforce. One of those lies concerned a traumatizing experience that Harry had in Book Four in which his friend is killed and Harry is tortured by Voldemort. When Harry narrowly escapes, being led by the love of the ancestors guiding him and returns to Hogwarts, many people do not believe him that Voldemort is alive and did this to Harry. The experience of having been deeply traumatized is even more painful because so many do not believe him. But he refuses to stop telling the truth and he is punished for it by Umbridge. But Harry is undeterred. He keeps telling the truth. And the only way he is able to do this, is that his friends believe him. They have faith in him. They have his back. They stand and act in solidarity with him.
It was to this faith that Shannon and I turned during the Muslim ban and so much of the Trump administration’s Voldemortian and Umbridgian moves, including the family separation policies.
Our ancestors in faith have told us that “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” For our family, that assurance and conviction that love and friendship, justice and community are what’s real have been articulated through the lives and stories of Harry and his friends in powerful and life-saving ways.
Rigor– Luca Cowles
The first thing I did to prepare for speaking about rigor, and how rigorous we are, in the Lyndale Slug Club, in our engagement with the Harry Potter books, was to look up rigor in the dictionary. The results from the Merriam Webster Dictionary were disappointing. Rigor refers to hardship, rigidity, lifelessness, and exacting precision. Even when I think of rigor my first thought is of forceful effort, and then my first reaction to the use of forceful effort in approach to anything—Harry Potter not withstanding—is that working harder does not mean working better. With all gratitude and respect to Vanessa Zoltan and Casper ter Kuile (the creators of the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, whose reading style is a template for our own), I suspect that their use of rigor is a way to add validity to the Harry Potter books themselves, because the books, being written as popular novels for children, might not be perceived as serious enough to be used as a sacred text.
I want to stay with this train of thought because it feels important to resist the idea that an unfeeling, exacting pursuit of knowledge—a rigorous approach— is the most valid way to uncover wisdom. And it also feels important to resist the idea that children’s literature isn’t serious enough on its own—without a rigorous approach—to be considered sacred. We know that human beings’ brains grow more neural connections before the age of 25 than any other time in our lives, so kids books leave deep impressions in our psyches (if we read them when we’re kids), if only because of what’s going on in our bodies when we encounter them. These books have a serious impact on our brains, so why do we resist taking them seriously? I grew up reading the Harry Potter series, and my connection to the books is emotional first: I find these stories comforting if imperfect. They are the stories I read or listened to during summer vacations and on road trips as a kid, and they feel to me like an old, supportive friend. I take them seriously because they have been an unlikely source of support in my childhood and adulthood and I don’t think I need rigor to justify the validity of that attachment, given that it’s there.
So,back to the Lyndale Harry Potter group, and to rigor. Another way I hear rigor is to thorough and sincere effort, and I do think treat our chapters of Harry Potter each month with a thorough and sincere effort. But I still prefer to think of Lyndale Slug Club meetings in relation to ritual rather than rigor. Ritual is defined (by Merriam Webster) as a “series of acts regularly repeated in a set manner,” and I think the predictability of ritual allows our minds to relax and bring more presence and playfulness to the chapters of Harry Potter that we’re discussing. The ritual of our meetings goes like this: each month we read a few chapters under a chosen theme. When we meet we summarize the chapters’ contents, name problematic parts of the text, discuss how the theme relates to what we read, engage in a sacred reading practice, and each offer a blessing to a specific character. Then we select the chapters and theme for our next meeting, and wish each other well.
One of the sacred reading practices we use in our meetings is Ignatian reading, developed by St. Ignatius while he was recovering from an injury. We choose a passage from the text and while one of us reads it, the rest of us imagine ourselves as a character in the scene and use all of our senses to transport ourselves there, as if we were living and experiencing the fictional events. We did this practice for a scene in book 1, where Harry, Ron and Hermione confront a troll in the bathroom. I’ve read that scene many times before but it’s now seared into my mind as an experience- it’s a much deeper and visceral connection with the text.. St. Ignatian reading has helped me understand what embodied reading feels like-and how intimate it can be, and how much compassion it evokes- as compared to the experience of reading with my intellect, which is what I do most of the time. Doing Sacred Reading with Harry Potter has also helped me to imagine how unendingly fruitful sacred reading of commonly held sacred texts might be, like the Bible. It has helped me to practically imagine how those texts might feel more alive to me, and how I might feel more personally or viscerally connected to them.
To me it is the predictability and the invitation of ritual that creates a container for sacred connection in our meetings. Structure is not the opposite of feeling or messy abstraction- it does not have to be rigid to provide security. The ritualized invitation to look for fundamental themes of human experience—like Betrayal, Choice or Mystery—in these stories about adolescent witches and wizards feels like an invitation to bring my whole, fully perceptive self into our conversation, and that invitation is where, I think, ritual opens a door into connection when we meet and “geek out” about Harry Potter.
Community– Kathryn Lee
I’ve always enjoyed the Harry Potter series. When it first came out, we’d read one thick volume and eagerly await the release of the next. Then we read the first books to Keegan until he took off reading them himself. My nieces and nephew, of varied ages, were always huge fans, and we had a wonderful day with my brother’s family at Harry Potter World. So when I was asked about a group considering Harry Potter as Sacred text, I was…. curious. And hesitant. Great fun, but how could we look at a text written by one person, without the test of time, as sacred? But what I found, was that as in so many communities that meet together regularly based on a theme, and a commitment to spend even that small part of our lives together, that a sacredness develops. For this time, we are connected, and that connection grows the more we gather together, whether via zoom, or in a backyard, or streaming a movie with the text chats flying wildly.
In this small community, some of the participants I have known for years, one I have had the opportunity to see grow up from afar, as she joined Lyndale on camp outs when she was young. Others I still barely know, yet I look forward to seeing, listening to their insights on a simple phrase or passage, experiencing their compassion for the characters, experiencing their thoughtful intensity and warm smiles. I look forward to Max’s wonderful laughter, or Allison or Luca’s “considering something” look, with head tilted to the side and a slight smile (remarkably, they both do this and I delight in it from either one). There are people from Lyndale I get to know better (I was aware before, but am now 100% convinced that Pam is one of the smartest people I know!) and many of you know Claire’s bouncy smile, but who knew about her ready notebook? I could go on.
In the books, The Hogwarts and Wizarding community are so large, and the characters so unique, or diverse, that they represent a smorgasbord of human nature, including our better and worse selves. They are fallible, and fanciful, and relatable. Which means we are able to see connections to our own lives. I am not sure if it’s from the writing, that we gain such insight, or from the people interacting with it, discussing good and evil, human faults and depth, connections to nature, symbolism, and more, but it is magical, and meaningful, thanks to the community that comes together and reads, and laughs, and blesses. Lyndale, helping to get the word out, has helped form these deep connections.
Who knew that two chapters at a time could reveal so much about human lives, about spirit, and more? It makes me wonder about the community that originally chose the texts for our own sacred Biblical Cannon. Were these books considered sacred at that time? Were they studied and discussed in groups such as ours? For better or worse, they have survived, with huge questions about translation and context and missing passages with some seeming more meaningful than others, – we tend to glide past Bible passages recommending hair length or rules about how many animals to sacrifice. In similar fashion, our Harry Potter group cringes and abhors JK Rowlings’ transphobia and some racial nuances. (Or the fat-phobia Claire noted earlier.) Some of of us acknowledge we did not recognize these on our first read through. Clearly, we as a broader community have changed over the years.
If we had a modern Cannon, what works would we chose? And Who would chose? This work is Eurocentric, as is our particular group. Does it make a difference that there are millions of people who have read a book, who grew up with it shaping their world view, is that a type of community or is that just marketing? The number one read work in the world is Chinese. Another ranked high is by Agatha Christie. Perhaps, more important to such as decision, would be to ask if the work has the ability to bring people together, to form community? And what does it offer that community?
Seeing what a small community of caring individuals can glean from these books, and how it has connected us, tying ancient themes together while inspiring imagination and deep thought, perhaps this series would deserve consideration. Regardless of canonical merit, Harry Potter books have inspired us to laugh, to ask deeper questions about life, to listen deeply and to express compassion aloud when we ask what character needs a blessing, acknowledging in that act not just the character, but in a sense all those in similar situation in our lives. I thank the broader community of Lyndale for offering this fun and meaningful escape during these trying times. May you all recognize yourselves as part of the body, and may you all feel blessed.