Zoltan shares ways to read secular texts through sacred lens

Vanessa Zoltan, CEO of Not Sorry Productions and author of Praying with Jane Eyre, opens the Interfaith Lecture Series Monday in the Hall of Philosophy. Jess Kszos/Staff Photographer

Mariia Novoselia
Staff writer

Vanessa Zoltan is the author of Praying with Jane Eyre, a podcast host, as well as the CEO and founder of Not Sorry Productions. All this may not have happened if she hadn’t burned her hands in a cooking accident. 

“Serendipity happened in the fourth grade,” Zoltan said. 

She was making dinner for her family, and so severe were the burns that she was advised against bending one of her hands and had to wear gauze for weeks. 

The silver lining, she said, was the accident happened at the same time as her class was taking California state tests. Instead of filling out Scantron sheets, Zoltan was told to “sit there and read books quietly.” Caddie Woodlawn, written by Carol Ryrie Brink in 1935 and given to Zoltan by her teacher, was one of them. 

“This book saw me like no one, other than my best friend, did. It saw my rage because Caddie, (who) was also around 10 years old, was a furious child. She was tired of being told to be ladylike and stay clean when the boys were allowed to go get dirty. She resented having to stay inside when the boys got to do whatever they wanted – inside or out. She was angry at the world that she was expected to conform to,” Zoltan said. “It was the closest thing to experiencing God’s love that I had ever known.”

Zoltan now considers Caddie Woodlawn be one of the “sacred texts” that have shaped her life. She discussed those books, and how to apply sacred reading to secular texts, at 2 p.m. Monday in the Hall of Philosophy to open the Interfaith Lecture Series Week Six theme of “Literature and Meaning-Making.” 

Zoltan said she lent the book to her mother, who pointed out a dialogue between Caddie and Caddie’s mother in the story. 

“It was the conversation that meant the most to me – when Caddie sobbed and couldn’t help but tell her mother all of her feelings and her mother rubbed her back and listened and understood, which meant that my mom understood,” Zoltan said. 

That moment, she said, made her realize the power of reading. 

“I didn’t have words for it then, but that was the first time that I knew in my bones what I can articulate now: … Reading can be a sacred experience, an experience that makes you feel loved and makes you feel better about and braver in loving,” she said. 

The second book that Zoltan found had sacred powers, despite being secular, was Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë. 

“If Caddie Woodlawn was the book that got me through childhood, then Jane Eyre was the one that I felt most ecstatically seen by as an adult,” Zoltan said. 

At that time, Zoltan was studying at Harvard Divinity School, where she went after three years of teaching and five years of working in education policy. The former, she said, made her aware of the flaws that prevail in the education system, while the latter made her realize that “we know how to fix our education system.”

“It’s not easy, but it’s simple. We just don’t want to … offer poor, Black or brown children the chance at a decent education, and that seems to me to be a social problem. There is something broken in us that we do not believe that all children are our responsibility,” Zoltan said. “I think that our souls must be broken if we can know how to fix certain problems but actively don’t want to fix them when they only impact other people, but not us.”

During her time at Harvard, Zoltan said she encountered a problem. Perhaps later, rather than sooner, well into her second semester, she realized she was an atheist. 

“My father once told me that if there was a God, he hated us, so that no matter where my family had hidden over the generations, people found us to burn our house down and to try to eradicate us,” she said.

Still, coming to divinity school to address the “soul problem,” Zoltan said she reached out to one of her professors in an “overly-apologetic” three-line email, asking to help her read Jane Eyre as a sacred text. The professor, she said, agreed and taught Zoltan spiritual tools of close reading. 

“We weren’t studying Jane Eyre from an academic point of view,” she said. “I was asking Jane Eyre to help me create who I wanted to be.” 

Bertha from Jane Eyre —  known as the mad woman in the attic through just a surface-level read, but much more nuanced and sympathetic upon closer critique — became the “patron saint” of her work, and is an example of how close reading changed Zoltan and the way she sees the world.

“She symbolizes everyone and everything for me that is not accounted for in the church,” she said.

After reading the novel for a semester, Zoltan and her professor “codified” what it means to read a secular text as if it were sacred. There are three main components, she said: faith, rigor and community. 

Faith, she said, means one has to believe that more time spent with the text leads to more gifts received from this text. Zoltan said she promised to stick with the book even when she was not sure “what Brontë was up to.”

“The problem was with me and not necessarily with the book,” she said. “The book might need to be criticized, but was never going to be written off.” 

Rigor, Zoltan said, means “you keep at it even when your heart isn’t in it,” treating the journey as “commitment, not a hobby.”

“The best secular example I can think of rigor is the way that my brothers look at a baseball scoreboard,” she said. “We see the same numbers, but they keep looking and looking until it becomes clear to them what pitch the pitcher is going to throw next, and they are usually right.”

Finally, Zoltan and her professor determined that community and the sense of accountability it provides was the final factor of such close reading. A companion, she said, can “force you to go do your sacred reading,” for example. 

“Other people’s points of view will blow your mind open to things you never would have seen in the text. Speaking out loud to someone who you respect will help you find your own voice,” Zoltan said. “Engaging with others in secular, committed, rigorous spaces also allows you to treat them as sacred, which is the point of all of this anyway.”

Zoltan created a group to read Jane Eyre and sent out a newsletter to invite people to her reading. One time, Casper ter Kuile, a friend from divinity school and an Interfaith Lecture Series speaker earlier this summer, decided to stop by. After the reading, Zoltan said he gave her notes with feedback. 

“He said: ‘I think you’re onto something beautiful here, but I think it would be better if you did it with a book that people actually wanted to read,’ ” Zoltan said. 

Together with ter Kuile, Zoltan started reading the Harry Potter book series. The discussions went so well, that one of their mutual friends suggested they turn their readings into a podcast. That’s how “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” was born. 

“Over the next few years, thanks to a tremendous amount of luck, we found an audience and became a community of more than 70,000 people, with over 40 million downloads,” she said. 

Zoltan said she did not stop working with her professor on Jane Eyre after Harry Potter emerged in her life. In fact, along with other friends and colleagues, she has created a “pilgrimage project,” called Common Ground.

“By pilgrimage, we mean a time set aside for reflection and deep change while walking in the footsteps of things we find sacred,” she said. “Part of the point of these pilgrimages is to humanize the writers of the books that we read – it’s hard to romanticize someone when you’ve seen how small their shoes are.”

As more crises in the world and her personal life arise, Zoltan said she has moved on to treating more texts as sacred. Additionally, she said she has been working on a podcast that talks about treating writing, not just reading, novels as a sacred practice. 

“I want us to all feel empowered to use the text that we love, to make us feel seen and less alone, so that we can feel more embedded and more entangled with one another,” she said. “I want us all to be able to pull up texts when we are at a loss and pull them up from our hearts.”


The author Mariia Novoselia

Mariia Novoselia is a senior at Western Kentucky University studying journalism with a minor in political science. Born and raised in Odesa, Ukraine, she previously attended Odesa I. I. Mechnikov National University. She has experience writing for student publications and interning at a local newspaper in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Summer 2023 will be her first season on the grounds of Chautauqua, where she will be covering environmental issues. Mariia is also a music enthusiast, and when not writing, she enjoys singing and playing the guitar.