'Not Sorry' for Bringing New Meaning to Beloved Books

April 18, 2019
Zoltan and Nedelman
2019 Gomes Honoree Vanessa Zoltan, MDiv '15 (left) with collaborator Ariana Nedelman, HDS '19

Vanessa Zoltan is not sorry for co-founding a podcast that treats J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books as sacred texts. She’s not sorry for her new show, “Hot and Bothered,” which encourages listeners to write and find meaning in romance novels. Most of all, she’s the founder and CEO of Not Sorry Productions, the feminist production company that creates these shows.

“The idea is that we are trying to treat things that we already love as if they were sacred,” explains Zoltan. “Whether it’s Harry Potter or romance novels, it's really about kindness and empathy. Because, while loving your neighbor is one of the most important things we can do, it can be hard. So, we practice with easier things, like the books that we love.”

A writer, entrepreneur, and humanist chaplain, Vanessa Zoltan, MDiv ’15, is the modern embodiment of the 200-year-old vision of HDS graduates as ministers who “exhibit religion in an interesting form.” For this work—and particularly for revealing the sacred in the books and places that millions of listeners love—Zoltan’s fellow HDS alumni will celebrate her on Thursday, May 2, as a 2019 Peter J. Gomes STB ’68 Memorial Honoree.

“HDS taught me that I don’t need to be sorry for saying things that I know are true and to say them boldly,” she says. “And it gave me the gift of my colleagues and mentors. I’m very humbled to be recognized by them and I will endeavor throughout my career to deserve this honor.”

“Sacred is an act, not a thing”

Not Sorry’s flagship podcast is “Harry Potter and the Sacred Text” (HPST), created by Zoltan and classmates Casper ter Kuile and Ariana Nedelman, the show’s co-host and producer, respectively. She says that the show grew in part out of the frustration she felt initially as a student in Harvard Divinity School’s ministry education program. An atheist from a Jewish family, Zoltan found herself unable to “be vulnerable” with the sacred texts she encountered in the School’s curriculum. When Professor Stephanie Paulsell suggested she study the Torah with a rabbi, Zoltan stiffened. “All four of my grandparents are holocaust survivors,” she says. “My parents are refugees from communist Eastern Europe. Traditional Judaism has not treated my family well, although we're very proud Jews who practice in a lot of ways.”

On the other hand, it wasn’t difficult at all for Zoltan to open up to her favorite books. They felt sacred to her. Why not treat them that way?

“I believe sacred is an act and not a thing,” she says. “I could have ancient copy of the Quran and not know what it was and just be like, ‘Well, this is in a language I don't understand,’ and treat it as a door stopper. I don't believe in the magical power of an object. I think that it is about the relationship that that object has to humans.”

With this realization—and some guidance from HDS faculty including Paulsell and Professor Matt Potts—Zoltan, ter Kuile, and Nedelman developed an approach to the sacred that has three pillars: faith, rigor, and community.

“Faith is trusting that, the more time you spend with a book, the more gifts it will give you—even when it's frustrating you,” she explains. “Rigor is about commitment. ‘I'm going to read Proust for five minutes every morning.’ You do it even when you're not inspired to. Community makes it all possible. Alone, you can become despondent at the tough parts of books. You can lose faith. Your rigor can lapse. In community, right when you're in a moment of doubt, somebody else is in a moment of optimism. You need that symbiotic relationship to keep you going.”

Applied to Rowling’s wildly popular novels, this framework has made HPST something of a sensation. Now in its fifth season, the show has been downloaded over nine million times, at one point becoming the second most popular podcast on Apple’s iTunes platform. Zoltan and ter Kuile even take HPST on the road, doing the show live for overflow audiences around the country.  

“Casper and I were both in proctor training in the Yard and refreshing on our phones as we climbed up the iTunes charts,” she remembers. “You're just watching yourself beat Nate Silver and beat Katie Couric, and you're just like, ‘What is happening?’ We never beat Malcolm Gladwell, though, so I still don't know that I've made it!”

Branching Out

Encouraged by her success, Zoltan and Nedelman, Not Sorry’s chief creative officer, are now applying the HPST approach to romance literature. “Hot and Bothered” is a new podcast that brings together 10 of Zoltan’s friends and colleagues and treats writing romance novels as sacred practice. In the current #MeToo moment, she says that it’s a radical act for women to imagine the men they deserve—and a radical act for men to practice listening to women. She also says that genre provides an experience that can be quite spiritual.

“There's true rapture and forgiveness modeled in romance novels,” Zoltan says. “We’re talking about radical consent and love and going through despair to get to hope. Because romance novels have a guaranteed ‘happily ever after’ in the genre definition, you can go to risky places with the characters because you know everything will end well. That's a lovely theological argument to have people in conversation with.”

Zoltan’s also extended Not Sorry’s programming beyond podcasts. Common Ground is a “pilgrimage project” that integrates “reading, walking, and chaplaincy so participants can make space for wisdom and meaning in their lives,” often with an HDS faculty member as companion and guide. The trips began last summer with Sussex, England, the home the author Virginia Woolf. Paulsell, author of a new book about Woolf, led the walking tour.

“The truth is that I wanted to get Stephanie to go on vacation with me, so I offered to do a trip based on her favorite book, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” Zoltan jokes. “It ended up being this incredible experience. We had 15 pilgrims. We walked where Woolf walked: from her sister's house to her house; to the river where she committed suicide. You realize that she was a real human being in a way that’s incredibly humbling and meaningful.”

With success and notoriety has come criticism, particularly from religious and political conservatives. Some call HPST “faux religious” or “pseudo spiritual.” One noted that “the hosts of the show are great on quips but not so good on metaphysics.” At one point, users of the right-wing website 4chan directed anti-Semitic hate speech at her and her HPST cohorts. She takes most of the pushback in stride. Not Sorry isn’t trying to replace religion, she says, just to conduct a new sort of chaplaincy that meets people where they are.

“What we’re doing is a ministry of presence, of empathy, and of radical hospitality,” she says. “We read every email that we get. We listen to every voicemail that we get. We do as many live events as we can. We're trying to be new kind of ‘Sunday service,’ and any good preacher isn't preaching about obscure theology from the pulpit on Sundays.”

-Paul Massari