Some religiously unaffiliated Americans are now looking to J. K. Rowling’s fictional Harry Potter series as a source of spiritual comfort and guidance. Earlier this week, hundreds attended a conference in Washington, D.C., hosted by two Harvard Divinity School graduates, who host a podcast called “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text.” Judging by comments from some of the attendees, it seems like the event was more of a secular tent revival.
“I feel like I’m born again,” one said.
According to the Washington Post, the podcast has “inspired face-to-face Potter text reading groups, akin to Bible study more than book club, in cities across the country.” At Harvard, the hosts lead “a weekly church-like service for the secular focused on a Potter text’s meaning.” Unsurprisingly, given that Millennials are less religious than older generations, the podcast and reading groups have primarily attracted younger Americans.
The podcast includes close readings of the Harry Potter books using methods like Lectio Divina, a practice of reading sacred texts that is most commonly associated with Benedictine monks. Despite the hosts’ claims that they do not want to start a religious movement, their summer tour “fill[ed] church and synagogue auditoriums with fans in their 20s and 30s, many of whom hadn’t set foot in a house of worship in years.”
There is nothing wrong with a group of Harry Potter enthusiasts getting together to appreciate the books and discuss deeper meanings of the text. But elevating the series to sacred status is another matter, and it illuminates the potent spiritual longings found even in secular-minded Americans.
Although a religious impulse remains strong among supposedly secular Millennials, some prefer cheap alternatives instead of revealed traditions. The latest example of vague spirituality derived from a children’s novel series places much fewer demands on a person than would Christianity or another religion. It’s easier to swallow: looser, less-restrictive moral claims, and no salvific pretensions that require real faith.
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis called this the “Fool’s Way” of responding to hope:
Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise.
Some respond to this inner longing for the infinite by denying the reality of the infinite. Others — the fools — try to satisfy it with earthly substitutes:
The Fool’s Way. — He puts the blame on the things themselves. He goes on all his life thinking that if only he tried another woman, or went for a more expensive holiday, or whatever it is, then, this time, he really would catch the mysterious something we are all after.
One of the Harry Potter podcast’s hosts seemingly recognized this, acknowledging that secularism “doesn’t speak to people’s hearts and souls.”
Of course, he’s right. Fabricated spiritual alternatives centered on novels only serve to foster a false sense of spiritual security by providing feel-good lessons and a contrived community. It is only useful as a therapy to ease the anxiety of spiritual disorientation.
It’s easy to rashly exclaim that “God is dead!” But now secular Millennials are left to answer the Madman’s query: “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers?”
The answer won’t be found in the Chamber of Secrets.
— Jeff Cimmino is an editorial intern at National Review.