New Podcast Tackles Religion, Romance Novels

By Winston, Kimberly | The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV), August 25, 2018 | Go to article overview

New Podcast Tackles Religion, Romance Novels


Winston, Kimberly, The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, WV)


Can novels where bodices rip and manhoods throb be considered sacred?

The creator of a new podcast says the answer is an emphatic, "Yes! Oh, yes!"

"For something to be sacred, the way we think about it, it has to teach you to be better at loving," said Vanessa Zoltan, the 36-year-old who created the podcast, which will be called - ahem - "Hot and Bothered."

The show encourages listeners to write their own romance novels as a sacred practice.

"This will be a place where people can think out loud about what love is. Romantic love or friendship or hospitality - whatever. It will be a place of imagination, and I think that is a virtuous thing," she said. Then she added: "And romance novels are more fun to talk about than Leviticus. I have done both and I stand by that."

The podcast will premiere in October and appear weekly through the end of the year. And while some traditional believers may roll their eyes, Zoltan and the band of twenty- and thirty-something wanna-be writers she has lined up to contribute to "Hot and Bothered" say it is another example of how their millennial generation is breaking with traditional religious practices to create meaning in new ways.

"The church for many people is a gift, but for others it is a place of trauma, a place where they have been told that not all of their identity is welcome," said Zoltan, a graduate of Harvard Divinity School. "Those people are leaving the church, and we need to come up with new spiritual technologies."

Culturally Jewish and a self-identified atheist, Zoltan herself could be a poster child for the new millennial brand of spirituality.

At Harvard, she studied Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre" as a sacred text. Then she co-founded "Harry Potter and the Sacred Text," a podcast exploring the meaning of friendship, power, grief, integrity and other themes through the J.K. Rowling novels. It is now one of iTunes' most popular podcasts, with nine million downloads a year.

Her new podcast project was born after the 2016 election, when Zoltan found herself obsessing over the news to the point of sleeplessness. The only thing that offered relief, she found, was reading romances - novels whose lurid, louche covers open upon worlds where everyone is beautiful, the good always triumph, the bad are always punished and, above all, love always wins. She read 27 of them in 60 days.

Then she started writing one.

That led to deep conversations with friends about the nature of love, the value of fidelity, the power of sacrifice and more. It wasn't long before she thought, "This would make a good podcast."

But can writing a romance be a sacred practice? "In order for something to be sacred it needs three things," Zoltan said. "It needs faith, rigor and community." Faith that the act of writing can bring real blessings, rigor in the commitment to write regularly and community in the podcast's listeners and team.

Brent Plate, who teaches courses on religion and popular culture at Hamilton College, says "Hot and Bothered" is a good example of how millennials are redefining religion for themselves. …

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