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This 'Jane Eyre' enthusiast invites you to treat your favorite books as sacred text

Vanessa Zoltan's memoir is all about how she learned to read literature like sacred texts.
TarcherPerigree/Penguin Random House
Vanessa Zoltan's memoir is all about how she learned to read literature like sacred texts.

It was my mom's birthday the other day. She died 14 years ago of cancer. She would have been 74 years old. Every year I scan my bookshelves for her copy of "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" written by Richard Bach in 1972. It's a story about a seagull who defies the expectations society has put on him and learns to fly high into the heavens to reach his highest potential. It's not an explicitly religious book but there are some Christian undertones along with some Buddhist concepts of reincarnation.

I love this book because reading it makes me feel closer to my mom, but each time I read it, I also understand her a little more. And yeah, when I close the book on her birthday, I am also reminded how beautiful it is to fly. I never really thought of that ritual as a sacred practice but after talking with Vanessa Zoltan, I realized it is.

Vanessa is an atheist chaplain. She's also the author of a memoir, called "Praying with Jane Eyre," all about how she has learned to read literature like sacred texts.

Vanessa's family is Jewish - all four of her grandparents survived the Holocaust in World War II. Any belief in God was wiped out for her grandparents after that trauma. Vanessa still considers herself culturally Jewish, but she doesn't turn to the Torah for lessons on how to live a good life, or as a place to explore existential questions about why we are here. Instead, she extracts that kind of spiritual meaning from Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" and other beloved novels (she also co-hosts a podcast called "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text).

A professor of hers at Harvard Divinity School encouraged her to try to read secular works of literature this way, and it opened up something beautiful and profound for her - the ability to create deep spiritual meaning in unexpected places.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Vanessa Zoltan: We started sort of a Bible study with "Jane Eyre". We got together every week. It's different from a book club in that you're trying to learn from the book, not about the book. And you are actively asking the book questions about your own life. Just like you would with Torah, right?

As in, what does the creation story tell us about climate change today? What does, you know, Jane's relationship with her aunt tell us about toxic relationships today in my life?

Rachel Martin: Yeah.

Zoltan: A friend of mine said, "You should actually do this with Harry Potter, more people like Harry Potter." So we did that. And he was right. More people do like Harry Potter than Jane Eyre. And from that we met people all over the world who said things like "I reread this Harry Potter book every year on the anniversary of my mother's death." Or, "This is a quote that I have tattooed on me because it reminds me that I'm not alone." People were already treating secular text as sacred in really creative and beautiful and radical ways.

Vanessa Zoltan welcomes an audience for an event about treating romance novels as sacred text.
/ Vanessa Zoltan
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Vanessa Zoltan
Vanessa Zoltan welcomes an audience for an event about treating romance novels as sacred text.

Martin: What did those first few gatherings feel like when you first did this with "Jane Eyre"?

Zoltan: Oh, it was magical. It was terrifying because I was like, "I don't know how to do this." You know, just imposter syndrome about running a sort of Bible study. But it was amazing. It was four women who I'd never met before and they were all so game to jump in. It was like we were playing. I said, "Let's just pretend while we're together that this is a sacred book. We're just gonna pretend it's sacred and that nothing in here is an accident."

Martin: That's a really interesting word, why did you have to pretend? Couldn't you just say that it was sacred?

Zoltan: I mean, yes, but there are traditional ideas of what a sacred text is, right? And that there's like a body of priests that sort of decide it.

Martin: But isn't this the whole rub? Like what is sacred? Isn't it just that we decide to make something sacred when we hold it in that way, and with that reverence we imbue it with meaning?

Zoltan: Yes, but I think I only knew that later. I didn't want to insult anyone. I admire religious people and not in a patronizing way. I genuinely admire a lot of religious people. And so I take seriously their commitments to their sacred texts and the historic value of that.

Martin: And it'd be weird to be like, "You've got the Bible, and I've got Jane Eyre."

Zoltan: Yeah. And more sacrifices have been made protecting the Bible, it's just different. But on a personal level, it's not different. I don't think I love Jane Eyre less than a devout person loves the Bible.

Martin: So you found your way over your imposter syndrome in those first groups?

Zoltan: Oh no. I ignore it.

Martin: But you were able to have a plan. You read together. Did you pray together in those reading groups?

Zoltan: We tried. The closest that we've gotten to really praying together is that we bless characters. We bless characters as a way to really bless ourselves or someone in our life who we're thinking about. And I think that is like the most truly religious that we get. But prayer is something that I still struggle with.

Martin: Why do you feel compelled to do it at all? I mean, when you say you struggle with it, you're an atheist, why do you even feel like you need to know how to pray?

Zoltan: It just feels like the humblest thing that a person can do. And I want to be that humble. I'm just not yet, but I would like to be so humble that even though I don't believe in God, I just believe that things are out of my control, and I wanna name them.

Martin: May I ask what it sounds like when you bless a character?

Zoltan: Yeah, so let's use Miss Temple from Jane Eyre. If I were to bless Miss Temple today, I would bless her ability to hear. Not the words that people are saying, but their concerns underneath their words.

Jane gets really mad, and rather than hearing Jane's anger, she hears Jane's fear that is under her anger, and that is a capacity that I wanna grow in myself. I often just hear the words people are saying and don't reach for what they're saying underneath. And so I want to bless her skill and dexterity in that, and pay attention to that so that I can work on that in my own life.

Martin: That is really beautiful and has a lot more meaning than I pulled from that section. So yeah, I get it. I get how you could find those nuggets in this story.

Zoltan: The sacred reading practices like these two that we do the most are Lectio Divina and Pardes. They're developed practices from medieval monks and rabbis that are all about getting you deeper and deeper into a text and paying closer and closer attention, even just to one word.

These are practices that Bible study groups use, and we've just adapted them for secular uses and doing them weekly for almost 10 years now has changed my brain chemistry.

Martin: How?

Zoltan: Well, with Lectio Divina you start by reading the text literally, and then you think allegorically. What other stories does it remind you of? And then you think about yourself and what it reminds you of in your own life. And then you think about what it makes you feel called to and do differently.

And so I will read a sentence that sparkles up at me, like I am currently obsessed with Emily Dickinson, and so the lines, "I am nobody. Who are you? Are you nobody too?" I'll immediately think, "What else does that remind me of?" You know, what does "nobody" mean to people? I'm thinking about everybody in this world who feels isolated.

We know that there's an epidemic of isolation and loneliness in this country, especially for adolescents, right? And so I start thinking about that and then I also immediately start thinking about moments like that in my own life and therefore treating my life and my memories as sacred in conversation with Emily Dickinson. And then I wonder what that should make me feel called to. And does that mean I should text my stepdaughter just telling her I love her for no reason?

And in that way a poem can very quickly just go through my head into action. It has really changed the way I read.

Martin: Even you admit that "Jane Eyre" isn't perfect as a piece of either sacred text or something to hold in this way because it falls short for you in some ways. Can you talk about that and that feeling of like, "Ah, dang it."

Zoltan: Ah, dang it, the man who I've been in love with since I was 14 sure did lock his wife up in an attic.

Martin: He sure did. We're talking about Bertha, the character of Bertha, and you spend a lot of time in your memoir talking about that character, and she's just not in the story for very long.

Zoltan: And you read more closely and Bertha is definitely coded as at least partially Black Caribbean. We know that she's been sent from the Caribbean to be married to Rochester. And so, you know, learning to decode the way that things were written in the 1840s. There are things that we wouldn't necessarily know to pick up on today. And having studied the book more closely, I was like, "oh, Bertha is Black, and this white man marries her for her money and then locks her in an attic and tells everyone she's crazy. Like, that's sure convenient."

Charlotte Bronte was one woman, you know, she was one teeny tiny woman. She was not perfect, and her theology was not perfect. And I do think that she ends up sacrificing Bertha, um, as a plot device and as a totem of baggage.

Martin: And does that diminish your perception of the book as sacred?

Zoltan: No, I love that it's messy in such an obvious way. It's not pernicious. It's not sneaky about how messed up it is. You know? I love "Pride and Prejudice," but it's so good that you can let some of the messed up stuff sort of slip by, whereas "Jane Eyre" is like the Bible in that it's messed up in a really obvious way that you have to deal with.

I mean, so is America, so is my family, right? Like everything I hold dear is messed up in a really big way and I have to figure out how to love it with criticism. So I'm grateful because I feel like it's a great place for me to practice loving and cherishing something and being like, "You need to do better."

Martin: You write that you are committed to resisting finding meaning in life other than the meaning that we create. But with literature, you try to "drown yourself in meaning." Why not treat life more like literature?

Zoltan: I think it's okay for me to treat my own life like that. I think it's really dangerous to make meaning of other people's lives, including our partners and parents. You know, Virginia Woolf often wrote about how we're unknowable to ourselves, let alone to one another. And I think that trying too hard to make meaning of other people's actions actually erases the complexity of their actions.

Martin: I mean, don't we just do that all the time? That's hard not to do.

Zoltan: Oh yeah. It's impossible, but in theory that's a chaplain's job, right? Is to sit not in judgment, to offer sanctuary to the person who's just committed the sin and is in the midst of self-loathing and say, "I still love you."

Martin: But then that's totally the opposite of what you do with books and with literature. I mean, you're dissecting every line, every word, trying to like, squeeze out every bit of meaning from those words.

Zoltan: Yeah because nobody gets hurt. Like if I read Bertha wrong, I am not now a bad chaplain to Bertha. Bertha does not actually exist, contrary to what I would like. And what she does is give me a way to talk to people as I'm trying to offer options of language that they can use to write the stories about themselves.

I think I should be writing a kind of story about myself in order to create an identity that I am proud of in the world and some sort of cohesive narrative so my children know who is coming through the door when I walk through the door every night. And I think that looking closely at literature and doing that in conversation with literature gives me a location to reflect on. But I think it's dangerous when we do that to each other.

This interview was part 2 of a conversation with Vanessa Zoltan. Read and listen to part 1 here.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.