How to Read Any Book as a Sacred Text
Vanessa Zoltan Guests on the Book Dreams Podcast
Book Dreams is a podcast for everyone who loves books and misses English class. Co-hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Each episode explores book-related topics you can’t stop thinking about—whether you know it yet or not.
Vanessa Zoltan, author of the recently published Praying with Jane Eyre: Reflections on Reading as a Sacred Practice, is not your usual chaplain. She is an atheist who produces podcasts about treating Harry Potter, Twilight, and romance novels as sacred texts, and she runs pilgrimages and walking tours that explore sacred reading and writing. In this episode, Vanessa talks with Eve and Julie about what on earth (or in heaven or hell) drew her to attend divinity school despite being a devout atheist. She explains how her spiritual education led her to find sacred engagement in her favorite secular books and how, particularly in the case of Jane Eyre, textual examination helped her navigate (but not forgive) problematic, contradictory, and racist narratives. Vanessa also shares advice for how we can read any book as a sacred text.
From the episode:
Eve: It was during your time at divinity school that you decided to try treating Jane Eyre as sacred. I have a bunch of questions. The first is why? Why then? Why do it? What does it mean to treat something as sacred?
Vanessa: What happened? I had mono, so I had a fever, but my favorite professor was preaching really close to my dorm room, and so I was able to walk even with my fever. She was preaching on the Song of Solomon, and she was preaching specifically on the piece of text that love is stronger than death. That moment of text reminded me of Jane Eyre—in particular, Rochester saying, “Be my best earthly companion,” which is a line that I love a great deal from Jane Eyre.
I was sitting in this church thinking about “best earthly companion,” which I would say is quite an atheist way of looking at marriage. And nothing negative was triggered for me, right? Whereas when the Shema is sung in temple, I picture all of my relatives who were saying the Shema as the gas came out of the showers. It is just a very unfortunately triggering prayer for me. And so I was like, “Ooh, I only have positive associations with Jane Eyre.” And so I wrote to that professor, Stephanie Paulsell, “Hey, this sounds weird, but can you please teach me how to pray but instead of with the Torah with Jane Eyre?” And I think that’s actually a very Jewish instinct. Rather than try to learn how to pray extemporaneously, learn how to pray with the text.
And she’s a Christian minister, but she said yes. And so we really spent a semester rereading Jane Eyre quite rigorously and doing some close reading. And then she just kept assigning me books to try to figure out what it meant to treat a text as sacred.
Perhaps best known for her podcast Harry Potter and the Sacred Text, which has more than 16 million downloads, Vanessa Zoltan also hosts the podcasts Twilight in Quarantine, which was named one of The New York Times’ “Podcasts for the Pandemic Era”; and Hot & Bothered, which explores reading and writing romance novels as a sacred practice.