September 6, 2019 - 10:27am

I was listening to an episode of one of my favourite podcasts recently, which had the cheery theme of Apocalypse. Harry Potter and the Sacred Text is presented by Vanessa Zoltan and Casper Ter Kuile, two non-religious Harvard Divinity graduates, who discuss the Rowling books as though they were sacred texts. 

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – Part 2

For them, it is how a text is read that makes it sacred, not its literal content. So if we can read a book expecting it to help us get better at loving — with rigour and within a community —  it can be sacred. Their podcast provides a space where, they hope, a generation of millennials — millions of whom know which Hogwarts house they belong to but feel no affiliation with organised religion — can find a way to make meaning.

It shouldn’t work. The podcast should be childish and lightweight, or pretentious and annoying, but (aside from the irritatingly perky and irksomely American first few episodes) I’ve found it really helpful. As well as provoking me to think about the things that make life meaningful (grace, forgiveness, courage, joy) I have learned more about sacred reading practices such as lectio divina, havruta and floriliegium than I ever did in church.

One of the questions the Apocalypse episode asked, and the question I’ve been asking since, was “What kind of people are we going to be at the end of world?”.  This prompted Vanessa to take a break from Harry Potter to explore how she, as an atheist, is finding reading religious sacred texts really helpful as she wrestles with her fear that the world is ending. 

Most religious sacred texts are eschatological — meaning orientated or building towards the end times in some way. So those of us immersed in the stories of the Abrahamic faiths should not, in theory, be shaken by the idea that the world might not continue exactly as we’ve known it. Upheaval and change is baked in to these texts.

Most traditions, certainly my own, are partly orientated around helping us grow in courage, virtue and usefulness no matter the climate of the times. They can help us take the time we do have seriously, rather than living in a slightly suspended state of low level panic at all the things we cannot control. I’ve found that rather than freaking out, or asking ‘is it the end of the world?’ (it probably isn’t, but it might be), the question of ‘what kind of person do I want to be now, in response to all this?’ is a great relief, and restores a sense of purpose.

Elizabeth Oldfield is the former head of Theos. Her writing has appeared in the FT, Prospect and The Times. Her Twitter handle is @esoldfield