Rediscovering Jesus with Amy-Jill Levine

Short Stories by Jesus by Amy Jill Levine front cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

THERE’S not a better Christmas gift for the Bible reader on your shopping list than Amy-Jill Levine’s new Short Stories by Jesus: The Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi.

From childhood, Christians grow up hearing the parables (the stories told by Jesus) so frequently that mentioning “the Good Samaritan” or “the Prodigal Son” is more likely to prompt a yawn than an inspiring reflection. But today, we promise you this: If you read this new book about Jesus’s parables, you will close the back cover with far more questions than you dreamed possible.

And that’s a very good thing. This highly esteemed Bible scholar, who is a veteran in opening up the minds of college students, clearly loves these short stories by Jesus and wants readers to treasure the mufti-faceted reflections that Jesus intended to provoke in his listeners.

Oh, one more thing: This book isn’t a bad Hanukkah gift, either. Amy-Jill Levine is Jewish and one theme running through this new book is the need to weed out mistaken, anti-Jewish interpretations that have crept in around Jesus’s stories down through the millennia. Jesus didn’t intend those dangerous mistakes to grow like weeds around his stories. After all, Jesus was Jewish himself.

The author isn’t arguing that Christian clergy harbor anti-semitism. The biggest problem, she argues, is that seminaries rushing to cover long lists of educational goals for their students have neglected to zero in on accurately teaching about 1st-century Jewish perspectives as the New Testament was being written. This leaves many preachers “unintentionally repeating anti-Jewish stereotypes,” she writes. “If the interpreter knows nothing about Jesus’s Jewish context other than the stereotype of ‘Jesus came to fix Judaism, so therefore Judaism—whatever it was—must have been bad,’ then the parables will be interpreted in a deformed way.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed her about this new book. Here are …


DAVID: Most of the New Testament Bible scholars we’ve featured in our online magazine have a Christian affiliation—not all but the majority of them. You bring an eye-opening perspective to your books because you are Jewish. Tell us just a bit about your perspective on Jesus and his stories.

Amy Jill Levine author of Short Stories of JesusAMY-JILL: I really like Jesus; I just don’t worship him as Lord and Savior.

As I say in the book, “I continue to return to these stories, because they are at the heart of my own Judaism. They challenge, they provoke, they convict, and at the same time they amuse. At each reading, when I think I’ve got all the details explained, something remains left over, and I have to start again. The parables … are pearls of Jewish wisdom. If we hear them in their original context, and if we avoid the anti-Jewish interpretation that frequently deforms them, they gleam with a shine that cannot be hidden.”

I find Jesus’s teaching compelling—his teaching is spot on. And, if I can see that from my perspective outside of Christianity—then how much more so can Christians appreciate these stories from within.

DAVID: Americans love the Bible. Every year, huge numbers of Americans tell pollsters that we own Bibles and read them regularly. On the other hand, when pollsters ask Americans to name the four gospels—the majority can’t name Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. So, clearly, we have a deep and widespread interest in Jesus’s parables, but most Americans need some help in remembering the details.

Our good friend Steve Klaper from The Song and Spirit Institute for Peace is a traditional Jewish “Maggid,” or preacher-storyteller, and he frequently talks to Christian audiences about the Bible. Steve describes Jesus as a brilliant Jewish teacher with a knack for teaching the Jewish tradition to people who were largely illiterate, 2,000 years ago, and who had little time to study scripture. You’re drawing a similar conclusion here: Jesus was a very gifted teacher with a talent for preaching some powerful religious themes to his listeners—in stories they could easily understand.

AMY-JILL: Jesus is saying to his listeners: Here are some stories that tell you what you already know deep down but you don’t want to acknowledge. He’s not presenting that much in these stories that would be terribly new to his listeners. What he’s doing is—he’s digging into people’s moral conscience. He’s hoping to open up their hearts. He wants people to respond by saying, “Yeah! I’ve known that all along. Yes, this is the way I should be living my life!”


DAVID: Jesus is doing something really wise here. He’s not telling people that they should change their lives because of some external rule book. He’s reaching into the very hearts of his listeners for self-validation of these stories. We are moved by the stories because we know, at a gut level, that they’re true. And, in the process, he’s often leaving his listeners more deeply disturbed than if he’d just read a list of rules, right?

AMY-JILL: Parables are not generally designed to comfort. They’re designed to challenge. That’s how they function as a genre.


DAVID: And with such a provocative genre, it’s possible to draw the wrong conclusions if you’re preaching or teaching about these parables. One of the running themes in your book is helping Christian readers understand the accurate Jewish context of these stories. Let’s talk about a specific example: The Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32.

In your book, you devote 45 pages to exploring this very short story as well as two others that appear just before it in Luke—the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Toward the end of the chapter, you even raise the urgent question of whether Muslims and Jews, the children of Abraham’s two sons (Isaac and Ishmael) might someday reconcile—as Abraham’s two sons finally came together to bury their father Abraham. There are so many questions worth exploring in this chapter that anyone with a Sunday school class or a small discussion group could spend a long time discussing all the issues.

But let’s talk about one point you raise in this chapter: Jewish fathers were not heartless, as some preachers suggest about the father in this story.

AMY-JILL: There’s nothing remarkable in a father welcoming home a son. Jesus’s listeners would have known: Of course this kid will be welcomed back! And we know he’s going to be welcomed because we’ve just heard Jesus tell the story of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. What’s surprising is that so many Christian biblical interpreters say that it’s surprising that the Dad rushes out to greet the kid. It’s not surprising at all.


DAVID: The larger context here is your argument that most Christian preachers have woefully little time to study the Jewish background of New Testament life, right?

AMY-JILL: I think the majority of anti-Jewish interpretations that we do find in contemporary preaching are not the result of anti-semitism. They come from ignorance.

DAVID: You’ve been in the forefront nationally in urging seminaries to devote more time to this subject.

AMY-JILL: That’s right. Ministerial candidates aren’t required to learn about avoiding anti-Jewish interpretations. So stereotyped images of scripture can find their way into sermons.

In the story of the Prodigal Son, some interpretations of this story can fall into the argument that sets up this figure of an “Old Testament, unforgiving God of wrath” against Jesus who comes to invent a new “God of love.” That’s a complete misunderstanding. We might hear a preacher telling us that we should be surprised when the Dad welcomes home the prodigal son. We might hear: “Oh, how surprising that would have been for a Jewish father to welcome home such a son.” But that’s nonsense! Fathers welcome home sons. And Jewish fathers at that time would have welcomed home sons.


DAVID: Within your own lifetime, Christian leaders worldwide have made a historic move toward improving relationships between Christians and Jews. In the wake of the Holocaust, the whole world could see the tragic result of preaching contempt. Next year, we all will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Vatican’s Nostra Aetate, a major milestone in healing Christian-Jewish relations.

AMY-JILL: I was pretty young during Vatican II and I only realize the importance of it retrospectively. What shaped me more as a kid were civil rights issues. My family knew what it was like not to have rights. So we knew that we should make sure that no one else was denied civil rights. We understood how dangerous this was. I had a cousin by marriage who was a freedom rider and who was killed in Mississippi. I remember Passover seder meals when we talked about what it meant to be slaves today. My parents had very, very strong moral values and those were values that they inculcated in me. Then, my father died when I was quite young so I lived with my mother and her mother–so three generations of Jewish women in one household. There was a great concern in our home for those who needed care, those who we should care for.

I grew up with great concern about what happens when you’re a widow. Growing up, I knew there were forms of unfairness that could arise when you were Jewish in a Christian environment or widowed in a largely married environment. I was well aware that there must be fairness and justice.

DAVID: You’re talking about the clarion call in scripture, from Isaiah and elsewhere, to care for the poor, the widowed, the stranger. And these themes show up in Jesus’s stories as well. What makes these parables so timeless—as you demonstrate in each section of your book—is our ability to raise so many different kinds of questions from each of these very short stories.

AMY-JILL: We need to remember that these are stories, not prescriptions. So, we can enter these stories at various points. Because we can do so—we can be challenged in various ways.

Particularly in some of the longer parables like the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan—we can enter as the person in the ditch, or the prodigal who is heading home, or the older brother who has done everything absolutely right and is feeling unacknowledged and uncounted. Or, we can enter as other characters in these stories. And, we can return to these stories and find ourselves entering through a different character with each new reading.

The Bible is not a one-size-fits-all answer book. The Bible provides us both comfort and instruction—and challenge as well.

DAVID: How do you hope this new book will affect readers?

AMY-JILL: I hope that, after reading my book, they’ll be able to read the New Testament in a way that gives them a different and a hopeful view of how they might understand the parables. And if they come away challenged and inspired and refreshed, that would be great.

Care to read more?

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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I’ll Light a Candle for You

“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
Dumbledore, The Prisoner of Azkaban, J.K. Rowling


Someone lights a candle in prayerIt arrived as a simple get-well card, a pot full of soft purple flowers etched on the front. Inside was her neatly inked greeting of warmth and comfort:

I need you next to me for comfort.
Come back real soon.
I have been lighting candles for you and praying.

Fondly, Gloria.

At 86, Gloria is the oldest member of our Pilates and Yoga classes. She never misses unless she has driven 500 miles to care for an ailing sister in Connecticut or she is organizing the kitchen staff at the Senior Center. Our mats are always next to each other in the classes, so we can tease and urge each other on during the difficult drills. I’ve known her and her husband for years. He died three years ago, and their son died nearly twenty years before that. She has shared her pain of these losses with me as we have sat recovering from the rigorous exercise.

Gloria attends 6 a.m. Mass. She is a Catholic firebrand, fiercely independent, abundantly compassionate, vocal and active against social injustice toward the least, the lost and the marginalized of our society.

I was deeply touched by the gift of her note, her personal expression of concern for my health, and the affirmation that my presence added safety to her life. My eyes became moist with the knowledge she was lighting a candle and lifting me to God in prayer. Her gifts brought hope to quiet my fear and loneliness; her love extended me into a larger circle of faith while her trust gave me courage. Her light diminished the darkness in my own dreary days of slow healing.

She even made me laugh. She told my wife that she had accidentally put $20 in the candle box, far more than the normal price for a candle. So she lit a few candles for me that she considered pre-paid. She said, “That explains why your recovery was so slow…the church expects payment each time.”

I receive prayer and the lighting of a candle as actions of trust and concern, be it from one person or from a prayer circle. This gift deserves great respect for it crosses miles and untold barricades to stifle loneliness, sadness and despair.

Recently, I had the experience of one of my medical doctors turning to me as he was leaving our appointment. He said something I seldom expect from the buttoned-up, tight-lipped medical professional, “Please pray for me. Life has been rough for me lately.”

I didn’t need to know the details. I simply responded, “Thank you for your trust. I shall definitely hold you in my prayers.”

Ian Fleming, the scribe who crafted the James Bond, 007 tales, is seldom thought of as a religious person. Your opinion may shift when you read my book on Fleming and Bond. While Fleming was not a regular church goer, he often visited old stone churches. When asked about Christianity, he quipped, “You can’t grow up in the English school system without it having an effect on you.”

During a visit with his friend, Ivar Bryce, in Vermont, Fleming had such a serious kidney-stone problem that he was rushed in agony to New York’s Presbyterian Hospital for treatment. While there, he was visited by his long time Catholic friend, Clare Blanshard. She recalled times when other friends had teased or demeaned her for her religious beliefs, while Fleming had always treated her beliefs as sacred.

While lying in the hospital bed, Fleming surprised Blanshard by requesting that a candle be lit for him in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. She was puzzled, but Ian insisted. Blanshard called publisher Naomi Burton, whose office was near the cathedral, to accomplish Ian’s request. In true ecumenical style, Naomi’s Jewish secretary performed the request.

Ian Fleming was extremely pleased but insisted he know the time the candle had been lit. When he learned that it was at four o’clock, he declared that was exactly the time his pain had lifted. Fleming informed his wife, Ann, that “the Stone Age at least is passed and now to strangle Dame Sciatica.”

In a world filled with violence, rudeness and disrespect, it is a gift to know that someone cares enough to say a prayer or light a candle to invoke love, healing and compassion into our world.

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Rob Bell and Kristen Bell bring ‘The ZimZum of Love’

Rob Bell in OPRAH magazineROB BELL has reinvented himself yet again, thanks to his new friend Oprah Winfrey. Rob began the year as the subject of a long story in OPRAH magazine, featuring a big photo astride his surfboard looking more like an action-movie star than a pastor. Then, Rob appeared in various Oprah TV shows and public events. He is closing the year by publishing his first book with his wife Kristen Bell, who is emerging as an eloquent, wise and often downright funny co-author.

The OPRAH photo isn’t a fanciful illustration. Rob actually is an avid surfer now and that photo serves as an apt metaphor: Once again, Rob has landed squarely on his feet, surfing deep waters of cultural change.

For those readers who have forgotten the early history of Rob Bell: As a young man, he was restless and even performed, for a while, with a punk-rock band. He studied at the famous evangelical college, Wheaton. He left Wheaton with a classmate (Kristen) at his side and with a desire to bring fresh energy into the Christian pulpit.

After a sojourn at another big church, Rob eventually founded the Mars Hill megachurch in Grand Rapids that, for a time, held the record for weekend attendance among Michigan congregations.

His creativity didn’t stop there. Rob wanted to pioneer new formats for bringing his Christian message to millions of un-churched Americans, so he launched the best-selling video series, Nooma. For several years, “Noomas” became the trendiest multi-media shown in mainline churches nationwide.

Then, Rob began moving with his pulpit! In addition to preaching at Mars Hill, he began touring the world doing long, stand-up performances about Christianity in comedy clubs and theaters.

Eventually, America’s self-appointed evangelical gatekeepers had enough of his inclusive preaching. Various yellow flags were thrown as Rob wrote and preached and toured, including a major controversy over Rob’s suggestion that people who are not Christian may wind up in heaven along with born-again Christians. Evangelicals called, “Foul!” and sought to drum him out of the evangelical camp.

Rob Bell book cover The ZimZum of Love

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

The Bells moved from their home in the conservative-Christian heart of northwest Michigan to southern California where their circle of friends dramatically expanded. With that trans-continental move, they also signaled their decision to step away from the controversy over whether Rob truly is “an evangelical.”

Today? When Rob and Kristen are asked about the evangelical bubble in which they once lived? “We’re really out of that world now,” Rob says. They’re still devoutly Christian; they’ve just left the trenches of what amounts to an evangelical civil war.

What Oprah has given to Rob Bell is confirmation that millions of Americans really do want to hear about the life-affirming joy represented in Christianity’s core teachings. When Rob appears in Oprah’s programs, he is identified as a Christian pastor. He preaches that hope and joy is possible in our lives, today, if we allow faith to lead us into a larger, more compassionate awareness of our world.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Rob and Kristen Bell about their new book on marriage, The Zimzum of Love: A New Way of Understanding Marriage. Here are …


DAVID: As usual, you’re very timely with the subject of this new book. According to Pew, Americans’ attitudes toward marriage are deeply ambivalent, these days. Pew says that the percentage of American adults who’ve never been married has hit an all-time high of 20 percent. Beyond that, half of American adults now say that marriage isn’t necessary to have a happy life.

Even worse from the viewpoint of religious leaders, most Americans don’t look to clergy for advice on marriage. Most Catholics don’t like their church’s policies on divorce and remarriage. Many couples are annoyed that both Protestant and Catholic clergy tend to require marriage counseling before setting a date. The New York Times reports that it’s trendy simply to have a friend perform your wedding with a quickee Internet diploma as a “pastor.” All in all, the church’s relationship to the institution of marriage is pretty troubled right now.

Rob Bell and Kristen Bell on The ZimZum of LoveROB: “The church” is vast and complex. That phrase can mean lots of different things and some churches are better than others in helping people with marriage.

We do have lots of people today who grew up in a culture where there were lots of things called “marriage” that were not beautiful, giving relationships of love. Lots of people grew up in homes where their parents wore rings and seemed to do all the right stuff associated with a marriage—but there was no spirit to the relationship, no flow, no ZimZum to the marriage. If that’s your experience, then marriage isn’t a big deal.

But relationships are a big deal in our lives. Lots of people are looking for guidance in trying to share their lives with someone. And most people understand that they are spiritual beings and there is something spiritual about marriage. That’s what we’re writing about.

KRISTEN: There are so many people who’ve seen what they don’t want in marriage—but that can be a good thing, too. It can lead you to ask: What do I want?

When I was in high school, I read Bill and Lynne Hybels’ book about marriage, Fit to be Tied, and that was very powerful for me because they talk honestly about their struggles. I began to think a lot at that point about what I wanted in marriage and that was good timing for me in those dating years.

Rob and I like to tell the story about the six weeks of pre-marriage counseling we had before we got married. We went to see someone who was about an hour’s drive away. Each time as we made that drive, we would try to come up with all the topics he would ask us about—and then we’d try to talk through everything because we wanted to be the best couple ever. What was interesting about that experience was—it set the tone for our relationship. We decided, right then, that we would be intentional about our marriage.


DAVID: One thing I like about this new book is that it draws on a very old idea that you’ve borrowed from medieval Jewish mysticism: tzimtzum, or as you spell it zimzum. This is an idea associated with the great mystical teacher Ha’ARI or Isaac Luria, who is one of the major figures associated with Safed in northern Israel. On two trips to Israel, I’ve been able to spend time in Safed and I’m enjoying your very contemporary approach to reviving marriage drawing upon something so steeped in Safed’s mystic traditions.

For the readers of this interview, can you explain a little bit about what you call zimzum?

ROB: For a number of years, I studied and read about the ancient Jewish masters and I stumbled across this concept. I love strange words that unlock a new depth of meaning. And, of course, I realize there is much more to this idea than what we touch upon in our book. It’s a giant idea and many traditions and teachings now stem from this.

DAVID: In the book, you describe it as “a Hebrew word used in the rabbinic tradition to talk about the creation of the world.” You explain that the term describes how God—at the very beginning of the Creation—realized that God needed “to create space that wasn’t God” so that other things could fill the universe and thrive. Sometimes this is called God’s decision to “contract” to make room for creation to thrive independently.

ROB: When I talked to Kristen about this idea, we both had this reaction: God creating space for the creation of the universe sounds like marriage–the way we create space for another person to thrive with us. We create space in our lives for someone we love and they do the same in making space for us.

DAVID: You could have subtitled this book: “A Metaphysics of Marriage.”

ROB: Yeah. And I love that word, too: metaphysics. But if we used that word, a lot of people would keep asking: What are you talking about?! We’re already introducing the unusual term “zimzum.” We’re talking about the space that two people create between them in a marriage. And this space between us has an energetic flow to it. When you first meet someone, you have your own center of gravity—your own dreams and goals. Then, as you fall in love, there is this shift in your life. Your center of gravity expands and you find yourself making space for this other person.

KRISTEN: If you stop and think about the depth of what is happening between you and your spouse, it helps you to appreciate it, to treasure it and to act for each other’s well-being in a new way.


DAVID: Kristen, that touches on another idea in your book that may seem strangely old fashioned in our self-centered culture. You write about the power of making sacrifices in marriage.

KRISTEN: You’ll find that, when you give something to the person you love and it costs you something, it actually brings you great joy. Some people may be experiencing marriage as a constant power struggle, always trying to get out of it what you want. But, we’ve found in our marriage that, when you’re willing to let things go and you have this mutual love—you find that things come back to you.

ROB: What we are describing is someone in a marriage choosing to place the other person’s well-being ahead of your own. When that happens, it can move and inspire us. We’re still telling stories about what firefighters did on 9/11 because their sacrificial actions filled us with hope.

What we’re not talking about in this book is the old suggestion that we have to suffer in marriage. In fact, we’re turning that idea on its head. We’re saying that it can be an exhilarating move toward the other person—if you choose to put their well-being first. If you listen to people talk about their marriages, you realize that the really great marriages involve two people committing themselves to each other. We’re talking about making a conscious decision that you want to do something for the other person.

We want people to pick up the idea that there are a thousand little moves back and forth between us in our relationships, every single day. We want people to be asking: What am I doing today that will help the other person? Can I pick up something on the way home? Can I take the kids for a while so you can do that thing you really want to do? It’s a constant process—a thousand little moves.


DAVID: Ultimately, you write that a way to test the health of your marriage is to consider: Do you still appreciate that there is a fascinating mystery in the person to whom you’ve committed yourself? Have you turned your partner into an opaque, two-dimensional figure—or can you still appreciate the deeper mystery in your partner? My father recently died in his late 80s and, even in his final year of disability, I was amazed at how eager my parents were to spend each day together. Even in that final year, I could see them discovering new things about each other.

I think that’s one of the best lessons in your book: Rediscover the mystery in your partner.

KRISTEN: One thing that’s happened to me recently is that, with the writing and publication of this book, I’ve joined Rob’s world. Now, I’m part of all of these experiences that he’s been having for some time, but that are new to me.

DAVID: For example …

KRISTEN: Feeling the nerves before an event starts. Or the way you think about an event when it’s over. There are numerous times in recent weeks when I’ve looked at him and said: You’ve felt like this? I have a whole new appreciation for what he has experienced.

ROB: So much of how you understand marriage flows from your understanding of what it means to be human. For a lot of people there isn’t much curiosity about life or about other people. So, if you don’t have much interest in other people, then you can stop trying to learning about the other person in your marriage. You’ll find that people in thriving marriages live with the assumption that this other person in your life is endlessly interesting.


Rob Bell appearing on Oprah Winfrey's OWN network Help Desk show

CLICK on this image to watch two short clips of Rob Bell appearing in Oprah Winfrey’s “Help Desk” TV series.

DAVID: Rob, tell us about your work with Oprah. This year, you appeared as part of her The Life You Want Weekends. You’re among her “Life Trailblazers.” How is this changing your professional role?

ROB: I’m doing what I’ve always done. I’m a pastor. And, I help people see that everything is spiritual. I do my best to let people know: Your life matters. I’m in a new setting and I love it and I get to talk to a lot of people I’ve never talked to before.

KRISTEN: They always introduce him as Pastor Rob Bell. When he speaks, he gets down to real issues. It’s very convicting and pastoral. He states the truth and he invites people to make a shift in their hearts. And then at the end he does a benediction. I agree that it’s definitely the same trajectory he’s always been on. Rob has always had a passion for communicating. And his intention has always been to help people connect with God, to remove barriers people might have. He just keeps giving and it’s really fun to see him on that bigger stage, now.

DAVID: So, let me ask you the question I’ve asked you in our many interviews over the years: Should you still be described as “evangelical”? For a while, some of your critics wanted to debate you and eventually wanted to kick you out of the evangelical camp for some of your more inclusive teaching.

ROB: I don’t follow all of that anymore. We’re really out of that world now. I would say, if “evangelical” means hope in this buoyant announcement that we all, together, can do something about the problems in this world because there has been a Resurrection—then, yes, absolutely. But if “evangelical” means a particular sub-culture that has no larger cultural relevance anymore—because it’s focused on fear—then, no, that has no interest for me anymore. If you use “evangelical” in its original meaning—proclaiming good news—then, yes.

DAVID: OK, so a good example of taking good news into the public square is your appearance on Oprah’s Help Desk series. Clips from that episode are all over the Internet. You’re good at it. We’re going to show our readers a couple of examples from that show.

Then, let me close our conversation today by asking: What do you hope readers will do with your new book?

ROB: We hope that people will see they have tremendous power to change their relationships. In a marriage, you have way more power to affect the space between you than you may think. We hope it’s empowering and illuminating. And secondly we don’t want anyone just to settle. If you’re going to spend your life with someone—don’t settle. Marriage should be great.

KRISTEN: We hope that people will rediscover the mystery in their marriages—so that their marriages will bring them great joy.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsChildren and FamiliesGreat With Groups

See Rob Bell on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN-network ‘Help Desk’

ROB BELL has appeared in the Help Desk series on Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network. (That’s at 12-Noon Eastern and Pacific time on Sundays.) Some YouTube clips provide highlights of Rob’s episode. In various episodes, Help Desk features a wide range of counselors, including Deepak Chopra, sitting at a desk in a public place—much like Lucy used to do in the Peanuts comic strip. Men and women sit down opposite the counselors and ask for advice.




These video clips are posted as part of our new interview with Rob and Kristen Bell, discussing their book, The ZimZum of Love.

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A Mother’s Plea

Urban Leage women protesting in Ferguson Missouri

MOMS on the MOVE in FERGUSON. Have you noticed how many of the peaceful protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, are women? Many of their signs and slogans indicate that they are mothers. The photographer known as “LoavesOfBread” has been chronicling the demonstrations and uploading photos into Wikimedia Commons.


Protests in Ferguson Missouri photos by Loavesofbread via Wikimedia CommonsI’ll never forget July 20, 2014.

None of us knew Michael Brown at that point. He was just another 18 year old, getting ready to pull on a green graduation robe, zip up the front and add a red stole. He already was talking with friends about the start of a training program on August 11. With his diploma in hand, Michael would soon be learning how to repair heating and air conditioning systems.

He was on his way like millions of other young men and women.

On July 20, my wife and I were in Orlando, Florida. We strolled into the entrance portico at the Holiday Inn Universal, thinking about our own family. Two benches faced each other across a 12-foot-wide, slightly sloping concrete sidewalk.

A middle-aged father was meticulously loading, cleaning and sorting his white SUV with Georgia plates as his wife and another younger woman sat talking on the bench closest to their car. They seemed in no hurry to depart from their vacation.

My wife and I sat down on the facing bench.

Suddenly, the automatic door to the hotel opened and four children rushed out. The youngest girl, about 4, was crying and rushed toward the two women on the bench, cradling herself in the older woman’s arms. A young boy, perhaps 6, was holding his mouth and whimpering as if he had been hit and might be bleeding.

Two older boys, perhaps 12 and 13, stood attentively as the two younger children were comforted. They had opinions they wanted to voice! The father joined the circle; an interrogation began. The focus narrowed, the voices and tears quieted, and finally attention zeroed in on the two taller boys.

The verdict was announced: first, they evaded telling the truth, and second, they were responsible for the tears.

After a few minutes of total silence, the mother began to speak. She spoke directly to the two older boys—a come-to-Jesus plea. With each word the boys became more straight-backed, more rigid but with heads bowing more and more as each word was uttered. She named their infractions: lying, attempting to mislead and not represent their actions accurately.

Then she emphasized carefully their absolute need to be honest, to work hard and have faith in God. Her words developed a cadence as she reinforced each point. Then she paused. They didn’t move a muscle. She was sure she had their attention.

“How many times do I have to tell you? You started this life with two strikes against you! You are black and you are male. If you want to make it in this world—if you want to stay alive in this world—you will need to live with integrity, be honest and be faithful to God every minute of every day.”

“Yes, Ma’am,” they responded.

She continued pleading. Her words were a prayer. She was proclaiming her truth until tears came in her eyes.

As I stood to leave, she looked at me and said, “I apologize that you had to hear that family turmoil.”

I responded, “Don’t apologize. You were speaking a painful truth—a truth I’m sorry to admit is still a part of our society. We all wish it weren’t so, don’t we?”

“Thank you,” she said.

I walked away thinking: What a powerful plea! And, how tragic it was to recognize that painful truth!

We were 1,000 miles from Ferguson that morning. No one had heard of Michael Brown.

Twenty days later, the whole world knew his name.

Looking at the photographs of the peaceful protests in cities across the U.S., I’m haunted by the faces I see: Mothers. Marching.

(Originally published at, an on line magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

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Categories: Children and FamiliesPeacemaking

We enjoyed this Season of Gratitude. (And you can, too.)

Season of Gratitude in Belfast Maine

JUST JOINING THIS STORY? Click on this snapshot of Duncan’s earlier column—and you’ll enjoy the whole story about the Belfast, Maine, Season of Gratitude.


Rich in gratitude, Belfast men, women and children gathered for the first annual Season of Gratitude dinner and time of sharing with each other.

We owe more to present-day Detroit than to long ago Pilgrims and Indians on Cape Cod. The story of the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit is slowly becoming known here: how that diverse Detroit network formed the model, last year, of this year’s reformation of our Thanksgiving story and gathering.

In our town, we gathered at round tables and square tables and rectangular tables on the high school basketball court. We ate and we actually shared in facilitated conversations about what sparks our feelings of gratitude.

The biggest applause came when we reported feeling grateful for Belfast itself, our little “City of Compassion” on the shores of Penobscot Bay.

Our steering committee tried to reach out to the Native American people in our area. We were told that, in our region, our Native American neighbors find even the word “Thanksgiving” to be an unwelcome term. That’s part of the learning process as we all make room for the minority stories of other people’s experience. (If you doubt the healthy power of simply getting to know each other, read Joe Grimm’s story in ReadTheSpirit this week about his team of “Bias Busters.”)

Those of us in the mainline faith communities of Belfast, who helped to organize this event, also discovered that we are more isolated than we thought. We found it very hard to make contact with evangelical and conservative Christian groups.

Yet we were able to do what we came for—to learn about other people’s experiences and to be grateful together. I, for example, had a long conversation with a young man who was there helping as a part of his court-ordered community service. For him, this was a Thanksgiving “service” different from last year’s church service. He came to us through a very successful program called Re-Entry House. Restorative Justice is big here—group meetings to talk about the crime with the criminals and victims in order to reach understanding, healing and justice. Learning how to re-enter society with renewed mental health and community connections is one gift this man is grateful for.

I had on my suit jacket. He had his tattoos. We enjoyed meeting each other.

So also, it seems, did the Methodists, the Baptists, the Quakers, the Buddhists, the United Church of Christ people, the Unitarian-Universalists, the Episcopalians and the agnostics.

We had place mats with prayers for all of us printed—for Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Native Americans. We also printed out Lincoln’s Proclamation. (Click on the image of Duncan’s earlier story to learn more about the Lincoln connection.)

When I introduced Lincoln’s words I was able to call attention to the fact that he called us not to houses of worship but to moments in time, for gratitude, for praise to the Almighty, and for humble penitence. He called us to do all of that—even if we were “sojourning in foreign lands” or among those “out at sea.”

Being a coastal town it struck our imagination to think of those at sea celebrating Thanksgiving, then, during the Civil War, and now. The Marine Maritime Academy is up the coast from us.

It took Lincoln’s contemporary, the magazine editor Sarah Hale, years to finally get the attention of our 16th president to institute a single national, one date, holiday.

It is still taking us a long time to become one nation. It will take a long time to change our national story from the temporary dream-peace of Pilgrims and Indians to a permanent peace of Shalom, in Belfast, in Detroit, in America, in the world.

You can see our first annual Season of Gratitude Pot Luck Dinner with local interviews in this video clip.

2014 Season of Gratitude Potluck Dinner from Belfast Community Media on Vimeo.

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MSU ‘Bias Busters’ sort out the mysterious realm of religion

Front cover MSU guide 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

CLICK this cover to visit our Bookstore and learn about ordering your copy.


The MSU Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence embarks on a new direction this week: We’re heading into the realm of religion.

The series, from the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Journalism, started in 2013 with 100 questions and answers to everyday questions about several groups. There are now guides for Indian Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, East Asian cultures, Arab Americans, Native Americans and, to help international guests, Americans.

Why did our MSU team decide to start this new series on religious minorities? Because such guides are needed by so many men and women, these days. Americans in countless neighborhoods and professions need to know how to interact with our neighbors and co-workers from minority faiths and cultures.

Why did we start this new series with Muslims? Because these men, women and children face the greatest misunderstandings right now, according to nationwide studies.

Recently, Pew researchers reported that prejudice against Muslim Americans is “rampant among the U.S. public.” The Pew team added: “We have a long way to go in dispelling prejudice against Muslims. Muslims were the group rated most negatively of all religious groups.”

Can our guide books really make a difference? Yes!

Here’s the goal of our overall series of 100 Questions & Answers guides: We answer the questions that real people ask every day wherever Americans gather. We answer the questions that no one else is answering in such a convenient and authoritative form. We have blue-ribbon readers across the country advise us as we answer these questions for readers—so you can trust what we’re telling you in these pages.

In your hands, these guides will help you get to know co-workers, neighbors or fellow students in your school. And that process of getting to know each other, concludes the Pew team, is the way to build healthier communities.

The Pew team used a thermometer chart to show Americans’ relatively warm vs. chilly attitudes toward minorities. The team’s report concludes: “Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group. Those who say they know someone who is Jewish, for example, give Jews an average thermometer rating of 69, compared with a rating of 55 among those who say they do not know anyone who is Jewish. Atheists receive a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they receive a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist. Similarly, Muslims get a neutral rating (49 on average) from those who know a Muslim, and a cooler rating (35) from those who do not know a Muslim.”


MSU Bias Busters Class works on 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

PHOTOS OF THE MSU BIAS BUSTERS: TOP PHOTO shows an MSU editing circle—clockwise from front: Arielle Rembert, Julia Gorman, Sarah King, Cheyenne Yost, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan and Kate Kerbrat. MIDDLE PHOTO shows our editors Amanda Cowherd and Kyle Koehler collaborating on the new guide. BOTTOM PHOTO shows class members—front from left: Lia Kamana, Stacy Cornwell, Arielle Rembert and Julia Gorman. Second row, from left: Kate Kerbrat, Amanda Cowherd, Kyle Koehler, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan, Cheyenne Yost and Sarah King.

The full title of our newest book, as listed on Amazon, is 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans with a Guide to Islamic Holidays: Basic facts about the culture, customs, language, religion, origins and politics of American Muslims.

These guides are designed to answer the everyday questions that people wonder about but might not know how to ask. The Muslim-American guide answers:

* What does Islam say about Jesus?
* What does the Quran say about peace and violence?
* What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?
* Which countries are predominantly Shia and Sunni?
* Do Muslims believe in heaven and an afterlife?
* Do Muslims believe that non-Muslims are going to hell?
* Is the Nation of Islam the same as Islam?
* Are honor killings a part of Islamic teaching?
* What does Islam say about images of God?
* Do women who wear the hijab play sports or swim?

The guide’s Foreword is by John L. Esposito, professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and author of the popular book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.

Esposito wrote, “The Muslims of America are far from monolithic in their composition and in their attitudes and practices. They are a mosaic of many ethnic, racial and national groups. As a result, significant differences exist in their community as well as in their responses to their encounter with the dominant religious and cultural paradigm of American society.”

Esposito was one of 20 experts who helped MSU students in one way or another through the creation of our new guide. The students began by interviewing Muslims, and consulting with our experts, to determine the 100 commonly asked questions we would answer in this book. Then, the students researched the answers and, once again, consulted with our experts to verify the entire guide.


Another new feature in this new book is a nine-page guide to Islamic holidays. Written by Read the Spirit’s Holidays & Festivals expert Stephanie Fenton, it explains their timing, meaning and significance.

The guide also has a recording with American Muslims pronouncing Arabic words such as Muslim, Islam and Allah. Muslims told students that these are often mispronounced and the audio addresses that. (Visit the ReadTheSpirit bookstore now to learn how to order your copy of this inexpensive new book. When you get your copy, the first thing you’ll want to do is listen to this helpful audio track. In most e-readers, the audio plays within the digital book; in the print edition, a QR code lets you click on that page—and play the audio on your smart phone.)

The series is evolving and becoming more elaborate.

The next guide will focus on Jewish Americans and is expected to have videos.


JOE GRIMM is visiting editor in the Michigan State University School of Journalism. In addition to the MSU series, Joe has written two books about careers in media. You can learn about all of Joe’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

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Categories: HolidaysJewishMuslimPeacemaking