Zoltan to share books shaping spiritual life


James Buckser
Staff writer

Texts have an influence on their readers, whether they’re religious or otherwise. In her book Praying with Jane Eyre, Vanessa Zoltan uses sacred reading techniques to study the classic Brontë novel.

According to the description of the book on Zoltan’s website, the piece is “informed by the reading practices of medieval monks and rabbinic scholars,” and Zoltan “reveals simple practices for reading any work as a sacred text — from Virginia Woolf to Anne of Green Gables to baseball scorecards.”

Zoltan will bring her perspective to Chautauqua at 2 p.m. today at the Hall of Philosophy to open Week Six of the Interfaith Lecture Series, with its theme, “Literature and Meaning-Making.”

Zoltan is an atheist chaplain, a podcast host and CEO of Not Sorry Productions, a “feminist organization producing podcasts, educational content, live shows and immersive experiences,” according to its website, with the goals of “addressing the spiritual needs of its participants.”

One of Not Sorry’s major outputs is podcasts, perhaps the most famous of which is “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text,” which Zoltan co-created with Casper ter Kuile, its first episode released in 2016. Zoltan co-hosts the program to this day, but she said it started by accident.

“We started a class called ‘Harry Potter and the Sacred Text’ and we got mentioned in an article about atheists going to divinity school,” Zoltan said. “We started getting emails from people asking if they could Skype in.”

Zoltan said she and her collaborators were hesitant to let people in to what she saw as intimate conversations. Then, her now-co-host suggested making a podcast. The original goal was just a proof of concept, though it soon expanded in scope.

“We thought we would make 19 episodes, which is how many chapters there are in book one of Harry Potter,” Zoltan said. “But we found an audience … so we kept making it.”

The podcast no longer focuses on any new material like the “Fantastic Beasts” films, Zoltan said, so as to avoid supporting J.K. Rowling financially after controversial comments she has made about the transgender community.

“It was heartbreaking,” Zoltan said. “Most of our audience is queer, so watching our audience get so hurt by this was obviously really hard.”

Zoltan and her collaborators were “ready to walk away,” she said, but a poll of their audience made them reconsider.

“About 68 percent of people asked us to keep making it, and that was across-the-board true, whether people identified as cis or nonbinary or trans,” Zoltan said. “We just made a really big effort to make clear that we’re interested in exploring the art rather than celebrating the artist.”

In addition to the popular “Potter” podcast, Not Sorry produces “The Real Question,” which Zoltan hosts, focuses on on holding “space for life’s tough questions,” and “Hot and Bothered,” currently co-hosted by Zoltan and Lauren Sandler, a podcast focusing on romance novels like Twilight and Pride and Prejudice.

In her book Praying with Jane Eyre and episodes of the current season of “Hot and Bothered,” which focus on Pride and Prejudice, Zoltan is engaging with classic texts as compared to more modern ones like Harry Potter or Twilight.

“I think for those of us who grew up sort of going to church or synagogue or mosque and dealing with an ancient text, it’s actually more familiar with us to try to do some of that historical critical work,” Zoltan said.

In addition to its podcasts, Not Sorry produces live events, virtual classes and programs where people can interact with each other and texts. These include Literary Chaplaincy, the Common Ground Pilgrimages, and Calling All Magnificent People (C.A.M.P.).

The group recently put on its first C.A.M.P., which Zoltan explained is a three-day gathering of fans from across the world meant to recur annually.

“It’s just about believing that gathering together in person matters,” Zoltan said. “We’re pretty intentional about trying to build a community over Slack and Discord and various online communities, and we have local groups that meet all over the world, but this was pretty special to have everyone in one place.”

Her talk will be a “spiritual autobiography,” Zoltan said.

“I will be talking about three books in particular that have really mattered to me over my life, what my current theology is, and how these books have sort of gotten me to my current theology,” she said.

Zoltan said she hopes people feel that somebody else cares about the things they do, and that she inspires people to treat things in their lives as sacred.

“We’re really hard on ourselves, and are like, ‘Oh, this doesn’t count as serious literature,’ or, ‘This doesn’t count this is a guilty pleasure,’ ” Zoltan said. “I don’t think that serves anything, and I think that we can develop values and live into our best selves through all sorts of things. If it gives you joy, it most likely can teach you something.”


The author James Buckser

James Buckser is a rising junior at Boston University studying journalism. At BU he works with The Daily Free Press and WTBU News, among other campus publications. He is very excited to be reporting on the Interfaith Lecture Series during his first season at Chautauqua, and for the opportunity to interview a wide array of interesting voices. While currently residing in New England, James grew up in Upstate New York, and is looking forward to returning. Outside of reporting, James enjoys going on poorly-planned runs and playing the guitar badly.