Happy Golden Anniversary NIV! (celebrate with holiday shopping)

Cover Christianity Today NIV Understand the Faith Study Bible (1)

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


You’re 50 years old—counting your birthdays from the 1965 commissioning of your creation. (The complete NIV didn’t appear in print until 1978.)

As a book, you’ve got a lot to celebrate! News reports regularly describe the New International Version (NIV) as the world’s best-selling English translation of the Bible, these days. More than 450 million copies of the NIV are circling the globe—or four times Harry Potter’s first novel (which has sold about 107 million) and three times The Lord of the Rings (about 141 million).

What is it exactly? It’s a translation of the Bible started in the 1960s by conservative Protestant Bible scholars (promoted especially by the Christian Reformed Church and the National Association of Evangelicals). Their aim was to produce an easily readable Bible in contemporary language. They were focused on Protestant churches, so they left out the 7 extra books included in Catholic Bibles—and the additional books included in Eastern Orthodox Bibles. (In contrast, the more mainline Christian translation team that produced the New Revised Standard Version in 1989 went on to complete both a Protestant and full Catholic and Orthodox Bibles.)

Is it universally accepted? No. Over the past 20 years, Christian bloggers have poured their energies into heated debates over various Bible translations—including the NIV. Bible scholar N.T. Wright, who occasionally appears in the pages of ReadTheSpirit magazine and is generally the darling of evangelicals, nevertheless infuriated many of his fans by condemning the NIV translation. Wright’s argument concerns the NIV’s rendering in English of key passages in the ancient Greek letters written by Paul about the process of becoming a Christian. In his analysis of Paul’s letters, Wright argues that the NIV translators wanted the English verses to line up more exactly with the way they teach about salvation today.

Meanwhile, one of Wright’s colleagues—another widely respected evangelical Bible Scholar, Scot McKnight—dismisses these debates about Bible translation as mere political posturing. McKnight says that choosing a Bible translation, these days, is like selecting a presidential campaign bumper sticker. Choosing to carry the NIV proclaims to the world that you’re a “conservative evangelical,” McKnight says.

Overall, McKnight argues persuasively that pretty much all of today’s best-selling Bible translations are superb, painstaking texts prepared by top scholars who labored for years over every line in the Bible. Plus, we know that most Americans who engage in serious Bible-study classes in their congregations typically own multiple translations and enjoy comparing the different versions.

So, debating the value of one translation over another may amount to a tempest in a teapot. However—compounding the issue of translation are the many very popular inspirational Bibles, sometimes called “niche Bibles,” which add lots of additional essays, words of advice and personal stories to the pages of the Bible. Now, millions of Bible readers have a lot more than the actual Bible within the covers of these thick books.

In honor of the NIV’s Golden Anniversary, as editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’m offering these tips for holiday shopping …


NIV Bible for Women

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

The NIV Bible for WomenFor a friend or family member who loves her evangelical Protestant church, this will be a welcome gift. The 1,800 pages are packed with extra inspirational stories and advice written by a Who’s Who of leading evangelical women—101 of them, including Rachel Held Evans who we featured in ReadTheSpirit earlier this year. What did Rachel and the host of other women add to this version of the Bible? In the New Testament, for example, there’s a two-page spread giving advice to readers about the importance of joining a church. “It’s impossible to be a healthy Christian” without belonging to a church, this two-page addition says. These writers argue that God intends for everyone to join a local congregation. They don’t exactly specify that everyone needs to join an evangelical church, but the writers use Protestant phrasing to describe what God wants to see in our church membership. In contrast, Catholic readers might find this passage roughly applicable to their church’s teaching on this issue, but they’re likely to find the evangelical language jarring—plus seven of their Catholic Bible books are missing from this Protestant Bible. So, choose wisely if you’re giving this gift. Overall, this Bible is a great Christmas present for the right recipient: the church-loving, evangelical woman on your shopping list who wants some fresh inspirational reading for the new year.

The NIV Bible for Men—Similar issues; similar advice. Once again, you’ll find a Who’s Who of evangelical men who have written inspirational notes and advice that is sprinkled throughout the Bible. The list of writers includes Shane Claiborne and Scot McKnight both of whom have been featured in ReadTheSpirit.


Christianity Today NIV study Bible (1)

The cover of the Christianity Today NIV study Bible is shown above. This two-page spread is an example of the many special charts and notes that explain the diversity in Christian teaching, based on Bible references. This particular chart explains four different Christian traditions of teaching about a “millennium” related to Christ’s second coming into the world.

The Christianity Today NIV Understand the Faith Study Bible: At ReadTheSpirit, our journalistic principles in covering religious and cultural diversity lead us to appreciate this 1,500-page study Bible created in cooperation with Christianity Today, a very influential evangelical news magazine. The editors of this volume think like journalists: What facts to regular Bible readers want to know? What questions do men and women ask about the Bible every day? And that prompts these editors to answer questions that are overlooked in most so-called study Bibles. Here’s one example: The “millennium” is a topic ignored in many Christian churches—but the idea is eagerly discussed in those congregations that focus their preaching on the end of the world. Millions of Americans have read the best-selling Left Behind novels, which dwell on the terrifying aspects of the end time. The “millennium” is an end-times issue that’s interpreted in at least four distinctly different ways by various Christian groups. Christianity Today editors understand that it’s a hot topic—so, they devote two pages to charts contrasting the different millennial ideas. Here’s another helpful example: Polls show that most Americans are confused about Christian teachings on what happens during communion (or the Eucharist). In fact, Christian history leaves us with at least four schools of interpretation from “transubstantiation” to “memorialism.” Buy this Bible, and you’ll find a concise two-page spread explaining all four ideas in everyday terms.

Yes, overall, this is a truly evangelical Bible from start to finish—just as the NIV team intended 50 years ago. Mainline and progressive Protestants are likely to be uncomfortable with some of the advice added to the inspirational (or “niche”) editions of this Bible. Most Catholics will feel like outsiders while turning these pages. Still, it’s a great choice for the right Bible reader—and we especially like this Christianity Today niche edition as a resource for anyone trying to understand the religiously diverse public square, these days.


Cover NIV Study Bible (1)

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

The NIV Study BibleThis is a great big door-stopper of a study Bible. It’s the kind of massive Bible with color pictures, color maps and a thick concordance (a Bible index) that devoted members of small Bible study groups love to own and consult for deeper discussions among friends. Everything we’ve said earlier in this column is true: It’s pointedly aimed at evangelicals. Mainly, this one is a lot bigger and focuses on evangelical scholarship more than on inspirational readings. The other Bibles listed here range from 1,500 to 1,800 pages but this massive volume tops them all at 2,900 pages! It’s nearly 5 pounds, compared with the Bible for Men, mentioned above, at less than 2 pounds. This volume’s 20,000 footnotes that help readers interpret biblical passages are written from a clear, strong evangelical Protestant perspective. The General Editor of the volume is the Canadian scholar and preacher D.A. Carson, who earlier wrote a book for Zondervan called The Gagging of God that explained his rejection of “pluralism.” Not only is Carson focused on maintaining the purity of the Reformed, Protestant tradition—but his earlier book even rejects other Christian denominations (for example referring to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as a “cult”). Readers beyond the Reformed-evangelical camp will feel like outsiders if they read much of the material added to this version of the Bible.

So, how do we wind up recommending this book? Americans own lots of Bibles. The latest American Bible Society research shows that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans say they own a Bible and, among Bible owners, most own several versions. In fact 1 in 4 Bible owners have more than five different versions at home! Regular Bible readers and members of Bible-study groups love to compare versions of the Bible. So, this giant NIV study Bible will be appreciated by many Bible readers on your gift-giving list. They may be perfectly in line with this brand of evangelical belief; or they may appreciate an NIV Bible as a way to further expand the diversity of voices they can consult when studying their scriptures.


Happy birthdiay, NIV! You’re not aimed at everyone, but your contribution clearly has inspired millions over the past half a century.

Comments: (0)
Categories: Uncategorized

Debut of ‘Jesus Christ, Movie Star’ by Edward McNulty

Cover Edward McNulty Jesus Christ Movie Star

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

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

ONLY ONE FIGURE rivals Sherlock Holmes and Santa Claus as the longest-running characters in world cinema. As veteran-faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty points out in his new book, that unique, history-spanning figure is Jesus Christ, Movie Star.

Right now, the top entertainment correspondents in news media are writing about the countless Christmas movies pumped out each year since late 1897 (when a short silent film, Santa Claus Filling Stockings, debuted)—and they’re also covering the explosion of films and TV dramas about Sherlock Holmes since 1900 (the premiere of another brief film, Sherlock Holmes Baffled).

The Hollywood record holder? “Since the first 5-minute Life of Jesus appeared in 1897, countless movies from around the world have featured Jesus or Christ figures either as central characters or a key part of the story,” McNulty writes in his new book. There’s an ongoing debate about whether Santa, Sherlock or Jesus has produced the most media revenue over the past century.

But, this is certain: “One thing investors have understood since the dawn of moving pictures is that portrayals of Jesus matter deeply to viewers,” McNulty writes.

Sound cynical? Well, the temptation to cash in on Jesus is as old as moviemaking. That very first mid-1897 premiere of a Jesus movie was the product of a mysterious Victorian-era media pioneer who also cashed in on the new movie craze by creating the world’s first pornographic films. He wasn’t particular about his subject matter.

Whatever the motives—Hollywood repeatedly has dipped into the Bible to create blockbusters that provided reliable revenue, if not reliable history. For example, “It’s not surprising that Jesus on the big screen tends to look a lot like the majority of European-American filmgoers,” McNulty writes. “That’s been a Hollywood truth for more than 100 years.”

What’s fascinating is that, despite the many media compromises that have put a huge array of Jesus figures on the big screen—millions of us have indelible and often fond memories of what McNulty calls Jesus Christ, Movie Star. Just close your eyes as you read this article, and you’ll likely summon scenes from a number of classic movies.

Producer and host of the Day1 radio program, Peter Wallace, makes that point in his Preface to McNulty’s book. Wallace writes in part:

As a person of faith, I have always enjoyed watching films that not only try to capture the grandeur and meaning of the stories of the Bible, but also those that say something about faith, or God, or how we live as human beings on this little planet in a more allegorical fashion. I’ve come to realize that sometimes you can discover very powerful truths in the most unexpected places—including films. Ed is way ahead of me on that realization.

There’s an even more urgent concern, these days, for exploring movie depictions of Jesus and that’s quite simply this: The whole world is watching!

We’re in an era when all forms of global media are vying for control of powerful, religious narratives. Just pick up The New York Times any morning and religious conflict figures in the news. This is a vital conversation because billions of men and women around the world care deeply about religion. All around the earth, beloved sacred stories are fueling social and political movements.

In the new book, media scholar Ken Chitwood writes a Foreward that circles the planet in making this point. Chitwood writes in part:

There is no better historical moment than the present to be having these exchanges. Biblical movies and Christian films are big money right now. Toss in Bollywood’s Hindu epics, Muslim comedies and documentaries distributed on Net-flix—plus other films with religious/spiritual themes—and the category “spiritual movies/TV shows” makes up a significant slice of the film and television industry.


For many years, Edward McNulty has criss-crossed the United States presenting programs on faith and film. For a quarter of a century, he has been the popular founding editor and chief writer for Visual Parables. Currently, that’s the name of his website with more than a thousand of his free-to-enjoy movie reviews and it’s also the name of his monthly journal, available for a subscription fee, that adds complete study guides for small groups that enjoy discussing spiritual themes in movies.

Cool Hand Luke Broadway Danny Rose Babettes Feast Baghdad Cafe

CHRIST FIGURES? Can you think of Jesus-related themes in these four movies? “Cool Hand Luke,” “Broadway Danny Rose,” “Babette’s Feast” and “Bagdad Cafe.” You’ll discover intriguing answers in Edward McNulty’s new book, “Jesus Christ, Movie Star.”

He also has published a series of books, which are widely read by individual film fans, teachers and small-group leaders. This is his first new book in nearly a decade.

He divides Jesus Christ, Movie Star into three main parts:

  • Life of Jesus Films—McNulty is a leading expert on the century-spanning history of Jesus movies. This section of the book includes six chapters, including complete study guides that provide readers everything you’ll need to start discussing some of the more traditional Hollywood depictions of Jesus’s life. Viewers may think of these movies as “swords and sandals” films, claiming to stick close to biblical accounts.
  • Jesus Transfigured Films—These two chapters of the book explore Jesus of Montreal and Jesus Christ Superstar, both of which leap from the pages of the Bible to transform the depiction of Jesus in dramatic ways. These chapters also serve as study guides.
  • Christ Figure Films—These four chapters are guaranteed to spark spirited conversation about movies that readers may not regard as having anything to do with Jesus. In these films, McNulty poses provocative arguments for identifying “Christ” as a major theme: Cool Hand Luke, Bagdad Cafe, Broadway Danny Rose and Babette’s Feast.

In describing the book in an interview this week, McNulty said, “I’m fascinated by all of these depictions of Jesus because making movies like this is a minefield for Hollywood. One reason it’s a big challenge is that Jesus stands for opposite values to what Hollywood tends to stand for in our culture. The idea that bigger is better and that we all should be chasing fame and fortune—that’s not Jesus’s message.

“That’s why it’s such an irony that Cecil B. DeMille gained his fame by making big biblical epics. He was a master at mixing a heady brew of sex, violence and piety and coming up with blockbusters. Personally, I prefer the depiction we see in what I call the Christ-figure films. In many cases, these are the movies that really get down to the level of what Jesus was trying to show us about life.”


The most intriguing argument McNulty poses in this new book concerns the very nature of our moviegoing experiences. Most Americans may think about a night at the movies as escapism and pure entertainment.

“But movies are much more complex than that in the way we experience them and the way they stay with us over time,” McNulty said. “When I lead groups, I start by reminding them that—when we step into a theater—there’s not one movie being shown. There are as many movies as there are viewers watching. We all bring to the experience of art—whether that’s film or music or a painting or poetry—our own values and our own way of looking at things. So, actually watching a movie is only half of the film experience. The other half is our own individual reactions, insights, confusions and questions.

“That’s why people love talking about Jesus movies. Once we start talking, we discover there’s so much to talk about!”

Most importantly, as an ordained pastor himself McNulty believes he is truly working through his religious vocation when he inspires people to watch and discuss Jesus movies.

“Two thousand years ago, Jesus himself asked his followers to talk about these questions. The Bible tells us he asked: ‘Who do you say that I am?’ ” McNulty said. “Jesus wants people to talk about the nature of his ministry and purpose. Even Jesus’s disciples often got this wrong. That’s why he asked them to engage in this kind of conversation.

“After reading this book, I hope readers will ask themselves: What kind of Jesus are we looking for today?”

Comments: (1)
Categories: Uncategorized

10 years in research, 2,000-page ‘Study Quran’ is a religious milestone

Editor of ReadhTheSpirit

HarperOne The Study Quran

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

FOR YEARS, millions of Christians have opened their thick “study Bibles” for personal inspiration and for discussion in the millions of Sunday School classes and small Bible-study groups nationwide. Now, an equally substantial Muslim volume, The Study Quran, joins the groaning shelves of “study Bibles” as a resource for Muslims—and for Christians who want to learn more about this closely related sister faith.

The completion of this decade-long research-and-writing project comes on the heels of a newly released Pew study of Americans’ religious lives that shows a significant rise in scripture reading and small-group studying among men and women who are affiliated with a religious group. The HarperOne publishing house is assuming that readers of this new book will cut across religious lines, generations and settings. The book soon will show up in libraries, schools, congregations and homes. Debuting just before Thanksgiving, it’s possible that copies of this book might even wind up under the Christmas tree for Christians who enjoy exploring interfaith issues.

“It’s a huge project and I’m so proud of it,” HarperOne Publisher Mark Tauber said this week. In 2005, Tauber’s staff began the project with Editor-in-Chief Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the highly respected Islamic scholar who was then in his 70s and now is 82. “Dr. Nasr brought together the editorial board for this project. Then, they added two dozen more experts around the world to write essays and cover topics throughout the book. The result is more than 2,000 pages.”

Why did Tauber’s team believe they could tackle this challenge? “Our publishing house has tremendous experience in making and selling Bibles for every slice of the population. But no one had tried to do something like this for the Quran as far as we know.”


Birmingham Quran manuscript

A page from one of the world’s oldest Qurans, from the collection of the University of Birmingham. After new scientific research in 2015, scholars are confident now that this page comes from the era of the Prophet. One Birmingham scholar said, “The tests carried out on the parchment of the Birmingham folios yield the strong probability that the animal from which it was taken was alive during the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad or shortly afterwards. This means that the parts of the Qur’an that are written on this parchment can, with a degree of confidence, be dated to less than two decades after Muhammad’s death. These portions must have been in a form that is very close to the form of the Qur’an read today, supporting the view that the text has undergone little or no alteration and that it can be dated to a point very close to the time it was believed to be revealed.”

How different is this new Quran? The short answer is: This is a historic turning point in publishing the Quran for English-speaking readers.

This edition is translated and explained through commentaries prepared by a broad range of Islamic scholars. It’s a cooperative, peer-reviewed project with the goal of accurately summarizing many centuries of Islamic thought. In contrast, until now, most English renderings of the Quran have been prepared either by a single writer—or were promoted with a specific political agenda.

Why is it important to choose a balanced edition of a Quran translation and commentary? Because there are lots of poor choices among the available versions—some of them quite tempting because they are given away free of charge.

Problems arose when earlier editors tried to influence their readers by adding notes to the Quran’s text either emphasizing points or drawing conclusions that are not in the Arabic text itself. One prominent example is the Quran’s warning against “those who have incurred God’s anger” or “those who have been led astray.” Many Islamic leaders regard these as warnings against idolaters and hypocrites. But, some editions of the Quran add notes telling readers to interpret these phrases as refering to Christians and Jews.

Two widely distributed versions of the Quran are now considered biased against other faiths because of additional notes in the books—notes that the editors drew from Medieval Islamic writers who stressed anti-Christian and anti-Jewish themes that were popular in that era. One of these free-of-charge editions is the thick, green-cover volume that is usually titled The Holy Quran: Translation and Commentary by Abdullah Yusuf Ali. Millions of copies of this 1934 version have been given away around the world thanks to Saudi funding. When he prepared his book a century ago, Yusuf Ali carried the Medieval biases against other religions into his edition.

For years, the Saudis were aware of problems with Yusuf Ali’s translation, including the old-fashioned tone of its English translation. So, the Saudis funded and promoted a 1985 translation, The Noble Quran by Muhammad Muhsin Khan and Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din al-Hilali. Once again, the Saudis flooded the world with this new version, which readers agree has a more contemporary feel to the English than Yusuf Ali’s rendering. However, the Muslim traditionalists working on this 1985 edition continued to stress anti-Christian and anti-Jewish themes taken from the Medieval scholars.

Around the world, other individual experts prepared more progressive translations, often in pointed contrast with the two Saudi versions that were flooding the planet. One single-author version that is widely praised for its balance is The Qu’ran by Muhammad A.S. Abdel-Haleem, published by Oxford University Press. Writing in The Middle East Quarterly a few years ago, Khaleel Mohammed reviewed many English translations and concluded:

“If any Quranic English-language translation might stand to compete with the Saudi-financed translations, this Oxford University Press version is it. Nevertheless, the field remains open for future attempts to reflect the true meaning of the Quran because this mandates not only translation but also a better understanding of context.”

In other words: The time had come for a better version. Cue the HarperOne team led by Dr. Nasr.

The world needed a major new rendering of the Quran with extensive commentaries produced by a team aimed both at accuracy, clarity in explaining various interpretations, and at a contemporary understanding of world religions. Mark Tauber and his staff are correct: We haven’t seen anything like this rich new volume!



Qurans have taken many forms over the centuries. This edition is from about 1,000 years ago. This octagonal book, now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum, folds up like a small accordion.

Why is a Quran translation different than a Bible translation? “We” know the Bible. Most Americans tell pollsters they own a Bible; most Americans say they read it. But, polls also show that most Americans don’t know much about the many ancient languages found in the Bible. Christians consider their Bibles to be sacred texts in whatever language or translation they prefer to read.

The Quran is a different kind of scripture. The only true Quran is in what Muslims consider to be the original Arabic revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th Century. This new book’s General Introduction puts it this way:

The Quran is for Muslims the verbatim Word of God, revealed during the 23-year period of the prophetic mission of the Prophet Muhammad through the agency of the Archangel Gabriel. The meaning, the language, and every word and letter in the Quran, its sound when recited, and its text when written upon various physical surfaces are all considered sacred. The Quran was an oral revelation in Arabic first heard by the Prophet and later written down in the Arabic alphabet in a book consisting of 114 surahs (chapters) and over 6,200 verses, arranged in an order that was also revealed.

All Qurans have 114 surahs. That’s in sharp contrast to the Christian world where Bibles range from the 66-book Protestant Bible to the 73-book Catholic Bible to some Eastern Orthodox Bibles with more than 80 books.

Other than the opening surah of the Quran, which is very short, the rest of the surahs are organized from longest to shortest length of text. That’s in contrast with the Bible, where the books are organized generally in chronological order.

The Quran’s text is poetic and many Muslims spend a lifetime studying the meaning and context of the stories and messages contained in its often very concisely expressed lines. That’s in contrast with the Bible, which contains poetry, history, codes of law, letters and documents from many genres. The entire text of the Quran is shorter than the Christian Bible’s New Testament, so there is less to read in this holy book—yet many students reading the Quran argue that its poetic format makes it a more challenging scripture to understand.

The single most surprising thing Christians discover as they begin reading the Quran is that they already know many figures in this sacred book: Adam, Abraham, Isaac, David, John the Baptist, Jesus’s mother Mary, Jesus—and many more. The Muslim accounts differ from Jewish and Christian accounts in crucial ways—including the spelling of names—but the Quran’s overall ensemble of main characters tends to surprise Christians. We discover lots of familiar faces!


Mark Tauber of HarperOne. (Photo courtesy of HarperOne.)

Mark Tauber of HarperOne. (Photo courtesy of HarperOne.)

In many ways, this big, expensive new book is a tough sell.

Millions of men and women who are interested in Islam—either as their own chosen faith or in an effort to foster cross-cultural understanding—already have copies of the Saudi-financed volumes. Many have free versions on their computers or smart phones. A new English rendering isn’t something most readers will feel they need. Plus, most Muslims around the world do not speak English as their native language. (Contrary to popular assumptions in the U.S., most Muslims don’t speak Arabic. Only about 20 percent of the world’s 1.6-billion Muslims live in Arabic countries.)

There simply isn’t as large a market for English-language editions of the Quran as there is for the Bible. (No one knows precisely how many Bibles are distributed each year, but common estimates place the number at 100 million copies per year in hundreds of languages. Portions of the Bible, individual books or collections of books, are distributed in more than 2,000 languages. Overall, English is the most-preferred language in Bible sales, accounting for tens of millions of copies every year.)

Nevertheless, at HarperOne, Tauber said, “We’re thrilled by the pre-orders we’re getting for this new Study Quran.” 

Prior to the Nov. 17, 2015, release date, Tauber is seeing thousands of pre-orders. “We know this isn’t like a John Grisham best-seller. But, in terms of general trade books we publish, we sometimes struggle to get 500 early orders before a book is released. So, we’re thrilled with what we’re seeing for The Study Quran.”

The book is expensive. HarperOne’s list price for the hardback is $59.99 and $99.99 for a leather-bound edition. Of course, the hardback is discounted on Amazon; and so is the Amazon listing for the leather edition.


Ingrid Mattson

Ingrid Mattson

Muslim scholar and leader Ingrid Mattson wrote a very helpful 16-page introduction for first-time Quran readers, called “How to Read the Quran.” Her overview in The Study Quran says in part …

The reading of scripture can be intimidating. At the very least, we know that the sacred texts of each of the world’s major religions are revered by millions of people. Authored books—novels, poetry and plays—might also have coteries of passionate readers, but scriptural communities are invested more deeply and comprehensively in the meaning they ascribe to their texts than the most devoted readers of any secular book. When we open scripture, we realize we are entering a universe of meaning fraught with spiritual, emotional, historical, and even political dimensions. Knowing this, some might be tempted to stay away from such contested territory. But we also know that those who have not as yet delved into sacred texts will encounter new and challenging experiences through which they will grow, that travel and adventure beyond familiar territory are enriching, and that knowledge is the best antidote to fear and uncertainty. All those who embark on reading the Quran—Muslims and non-Muslims, religious and secular people—can learn something about the world and about themselves through engagement with it.


Comments: (2)
Categories: Uncategorized

Interview with Bill Tammeus: Can Jesus bring Catholics and Protestants together?

Cover of Bill Tammeus book Jesus Pope Francis and a Protestant walk into a bar (1)

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

The joke in this new book’s title is funny. But, the point of the book is earnestly serious: This is a historic moment when Pope Francis and Protestant leaders might finally complete the mission of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s and link hands as Christians. The new book says: If our leaders aren’t ready to do that, then we as ordinary men and women can start the process of making friends across the great divide of the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.

That message comes from one of the nation’s most-respected religion writers, journalist Bill Tammeus, and his friend—a leading pastor in Tammeus’ hometown of Kansas City, the Rev. Paul Rock.

“For a long time, I have been concerned about the divisions within Christianity,” Bill Tammeus said in an interview. “In some ways, these divisions are perfectly understandable and the different worship styles are generally to be encouraged. But in too many instances this has degenerated into vitriol and prejudice and bigotry against one another. There’s no cause for that. It’s time for everybody under the Christian umbrella to recognize that we are all drawn toward the same center. There’s no reason to treat each other as enemies. The time for this great division to exist between us—is over.”

What great division are we talking about?

Most Americans still say they’re Christian but, each year, a majority of Americans can’t name the four Gospels when asked to list those books of the Bible by pollsters. So, considering our collective lack of knowledge about Christianity, delving into church history is a stretch.

“As Christians, we don’t know our own faith well enough,” said Tammeus. “Many things divide us as Catholics and Protestants, but we should realize there is much common ground we share. If Protestants understood our traditions better and our own theological center, then we might see the possibility of some real movement in closing this divide.”

So, to recap the great divide—here’s a 60-second overview:

German Peasants War (1)

16th Century wood-cut illustration of the German Peasants’ War in 1524-25, a rebellion touched off partly by the Protestant Reformation that resulted in tragic loss of life. This was just one of many examples of deadly conflict between Protestants and Catholics over the last five centuries.

Back in the era of Martin Luther, John Calvin and other European leaders who had grown restless with the Vatican—a “Protestant” movement finally reached enough critical mass that it broke away from the Catholic church. Down through the next five centuries, this sparked violent clashes, including here in the United States. Then, in the 1960s, John Kennedy was elected our first Catholic president. Later, conservative evangelicals found they could score political points by joining with Catholic allies on hot-button issues. The great Protestant divide seemed to be narrowing into a handful of trivia questions.

But not so fast! In 2000, the man who would later become Pope Benedict XVI issued Dominus Ieusus, or “Lord Jesus,” and once again made it crystal clear that the Vatican believes Protestant churches “are not Churches in the proper sense.” Many Protestants were offended. If they read the Vatican declaration carefully, they found words that seemed to hold open a doorway that “Christ” still might be “using them as a means of salvation.” But the overall tone was like a 2-by-4 smashed into the Protestant forehead—and the Vatican’s underlying rebuke was intentional. The Vatican was re-emphasizing its traditional view that Protestants are wrong and the poor souls in their congregations are sadly deluded. If that 2000 rebuff wasn’t clear enough, Benedict doubled down on this point in 2007 in a fresh Q&A published by the Vatican—repeating the same points.

The great divide yawned, once again.

The inspiring vision you’ll discover in this book

Bill Tammeus - hi res (1)

Bill Tammeus

In this story, we won’t spoil the punchline of the joke in the book’s title—but we will share the book’s main point. Rock and Tammeus challenge all of us loudly and clearly. In the final pages of the book, you’ll read:

Today, the Spirit is once again blowing and stirring and calling out to the church. At a time when the U.S. president is black and when the pope, whose throne sits in the center of the Northern Hemisphere, comes from South America and when the greatest male athlete of the 1976 Olympics is now a woman named Caitlyn Jenner, we are hearing the voice of God call out to the world that no matter our prejudice or taste or inclination, all are invited—male and female … slave and free, Left and Right, gay and straight, North and South, Protestant and Catholic, you and me. All are invited because all are one in Christ Jesus.

In your family, in your neighborhood, in your workplace, in your community, who has been left out? Whom do you need to extend an invitation to today?

Sound like a book you might want to read? Or, better yet, a book that might stir Spirited discussion in your congregation?

This book arose within a church. It began as a series of sermons preached in Kansas City by several pastors—most of the sermons by Rock himself, said Tammeus. “When the opportunity arose to work with Paul on this book—I leaped at it. Paul began doing this because he was fascinated by the response Pope Francis was receiving around the world. Then, Paul did a lot of study and marinated on these ideas for quite a while. Paul believes ecumenical/interfaith understanding is really important.”

Then, full disclosure: Tammeus is a member of Rock’s congregation at Second Presbyterian Church of Kansas City. “The church is celebrating its 150th anniversary. We started in 1865 with a few folks who were anti-slavery and broke away from the old First Presbyterian church, which was pro-slavery. The Civil War was ending and these anti-slavery folks decided they’d had enough! They didn’t want to hang around those folks who had been supporting slavery right through the war. So, this church has in its DNA the practice of engaging the community on all kinds of social-justice issues.

“We are most concerned about how we can move a church that has been collapsing for quite a while out of its walls and out into the world to do the work of the church. In Francis, Paul and I recognize someone who shares that goal.”


Pope Francis in his element—among the people crowding into St. Peter's Square at the Vatican. Photo by Edgar Jiménez of Portugal, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Pope Francis in his element—among the people crowding into St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo by Edgar Jiménez of Portugal, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

Does anyone care? It’s a valid question, Tammeus acknowledged after a lifetime of covering the impact of religion in the U.S. and around the world. When Benedict was elected in Rome, American newspaper and magazine stories explored the idea that, in this new millennium, popes might be irrelevant figures.

“Religion has taken a lot of hits in the last 20 or 30 years and not simply because of terrorism. We’ve also seen declines in mainline churches and the growth of the ‘Nones,’ ” Americans who answer pollsters’ questions about religious affiliation with the option None, Tammeus said.

“Then this new pope really surprised a lot of people with his personality, his tone—and clearly: The pope matters again,” Tammeus said. “In the public eye, he’s making religion itself more respectable again. And on a personal level: He’s this energetic older man who seems to love life and he clearly loves his faith tradition. He’s not crazy theologically. He’s a rational, wonderful human being and he’s helping people think again: Hey, there might be something to this faith stuff, after all!” (Care to read more on this? ReadTheSpirit earlier published an analysis of Francis as a new kind of inclusive religious leader.)


This little black book is small. It fits comfortably into a jacket pocket, a purse or shoulder bag. The whole thing is less than 100 pages. You can read it in a single evening—or day-by-day over in short segments over a week.

What could it do?

“I hope that this book gives people tools to start asking some questions,” said Tammeus. “And I’m not necessarily talking about challenging questions. I’m more interested in encouraging people to talk appreciatively to one another about our different religious traditions.

“If you’re a Protestant, then we suggest that you ask a Catholic friend to take you to Mass and, then, agree to sit with you so that they can explain what’s going on. The idea is not to convert people, but to understand more about each faith tradition. We need to know—and to be known. Going to Mass with a friend is just one idea. We suggest many activities you can do with friends. This can change your life.

“I believe we can learn a lot more about our own faith by learning about the faith of others. I know that we’re not going to get rid of all the ignorance and bigotry that still plagues us—but if our new book helps people take a few steps in the direction of understanding, then we will be very happy.”

Care to read more?

They Were Just People cover by Bill Tammeus and Jacques CukierkornFROM TAMMEUS ON THE HOLOCAUST: Last year, ReadTheSpirit published a column by Bill Tammeus about a new book related to the Holocaust. Working together with a rabbi friend, Tammeus published They Were Just People: Stories of Rescue in Poland During the Holocaust.

MORE ON THE POPE’S GOOD HUMOR: Last week, we published a story about Rabbi Bob Alper winning an international contest to be named Honorary Comedic Advisor to Pope Francis.



(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Comments: (3)
Categories: Uncategorized

Meet Pope Francis’s new Honorary Comedic Advisor: Rabbi Bob Alper

Rabbi Bob Alper wins Joe with the Pope contest as Honorary Comedic Advisor to Pope Francis (1)

WANT TO KNOW MORE ABOUT RABBI ALPER’S WIT AND WISDOM? Click on this Joke with the Pope image to visit Bob’s author page, where you’ll learn more about his books—including one that already is a big hit with Catholic readers.

How funny is Rabbi Bob Alper?

Bob-Alper-winner as Honorary Comedic Advisor to Pope Francis (1)

RABBI BOB ALPER. (Click on the image to learn more about him and his latest book.)

Well, he just beat out Bill Murray, Jimmy Fallon, Conan O’Brien and 4,000 other comedians from 47 countries—to win an unusual new international contest. A Bob Alper line—less than half a minute long—topped all others to win Alper the title: Honorary Comedic Advisor to the Pope.

And that’s no joke!

Seriously, folks: This is a real-deal program that is part of the Vatican’s new effort to use social media and send positive, uplifting messages around the world—and, if possible, help the world’s neediest people at the same time. This particular program was developed by the U.S. arm of the worldwide Pontifical Mission Societies. The organization also is known to many Catholics and social media users as Missio, which now is an app that provides helpful information about Catholic relief efforts worldwide.

Alper says he wasn’t even aware of the contest until a neighbor in his small Vermont town pestered him about it—more than once. Billed as America’s only practicing rabbi who also is a full-time standup comic, his neighbors in tiny East Dorset, Vermont, are well aware of his comedic talents. Finally, Alper did as the woman asked—and uploaded a video of his newest joke.

“When I called her to tell her that I had won, I think she wet her pants,” Alper says. “This is really exciting!”

Why did the rabbi cross the finish line?

You can see Alper tell the joke by visiting the Joke with the Pope website and then clicking on “Watch the Winning Video Below.”

The text is: “My wife and I have been married for more than 46 years and our lives are totally in synch. For example, at the same time I got a hearing aid—she stopped mumbling.”

Alper says, “It’s my newest joke. And it’s real. I actually got a hearing aid in June and this happened. Then, my wife and I were driving to Cape Cod and we were working on different phrasings for the joke in the car. You know in humor every word is critical and that version of the joke was the end result.”

Modesty aside and the honorary prize in hand, Alper says: “It’s probably the best joke I’ve ever written. And it’s only 11 seconds long.”

That’s why the joke won, says Father Andrew Small, OMI, the head of Pontifical Mission Societies in the U.S. and the creator of the Joke with the Pope program. News now is spreading around the world. In The Jewish Week, staff writer Steve Lipman quoted Small:

“We picked the person who fitted the role” as the Pope’s humor advisor, Fr. Small said. He called Rabbi Alper’s joke “original … situational …gentle … self-effacing.” And it is family-focused. “The Pope is talking all the time about the family. The Pope would like it,” Fr. Small said.


“For me, Joke with the Pope was doing good while having fun,” says Alper. Everyone who contributed a joke also urged global support for an important cause. In the rabbi’s case, he highlighted a program to house the homeless in Ethiopia. “It’s the joy of the mitzvah,” Alper says.

In addition to showing a warmer, gentler face of the Catholic church, the Vatican is using social media to highlight programs where people can pitch in to make a difference. Father Small says he’s pleased that these jokes also wind up shining spotlights on corners of the world that often are ignored.


Rabbi Bob Alper cover Life-Doesnt-Get-Any-Better-Than-This

Catholic readers have been special fans of this book by Rabbi Bob Alper.

There’s a long connection between Alper’s work and the Catholic church. When Alper talked with Small about winning the contest, they immediately connected on several levels. The stories in Alper’s newly released book, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This, originally appeared in a paperback released by the Catholic publisher Ligouri Publications.

“Years ago, when I did the first version of that book, my editor was Pat Kossmann who much earlier was an editor for Bishop Fulton Sheen,” Alper says.

Since Pope John Paul II made improving Catholic-Jewish relations a major priority for the worldwide church, many interfaith and cross-cultural programs have been sponsored by the church from concerts and educational programs to pilgrimages and exhibitions.

Alper still recalls a warm reception he was given by a large audience of Catholic women in Albany, New York. “Catholics are wonderful audiences—and these women were terrific,” he says. “When I showed up, I found that every single one of them had these little smiley faces on sticks to show how much they were enjoying the show. They were great!”

Beyond the honorary title, the comedy contest has no specific prize within the Catholic church. However, Small told The Jewish Week:

A meeting with the Pope is not a prize, but, said Fr. Small, “I don’t think it’s crazy at all. The Lord works in mysterious ways–Rabbi Bob has a bright and holy future in front of him.”

Alper says: “I’m letting Father Small and the Vatican know that, if they want to do more with this, I’ll get on a plane and fly to Rome.”

Alper also will be packing for New York City soon, because the prize does include two tickets to attend a taping of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, who was a prominent supporter of the contest.

“It’s two seats in the audience—but who knows?” Alper said. “Anything’s possible.”

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Comments: (1)
Categories: Uncategorized

Peacemaker Daniel Buttry publishes his best inspirational true stories

We Are The Socks book large (1)

Click the cover to learn more about this new book in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore (including a convenient Amazon link to order your copy today).

What a strange name! We Are the Socks

So, first, you may want to hear and see Daniel Buttry tell the surprising story behind this book’s title in a YouTube video that we are sharing with the world. (Although very busy with his global peacemaking work, Dan also occasionally is available for public appearances. The new video gives you a good feel for his lively speaking style.)

What will you find between these covers? Here is how Dan’s colleague in peacemaking, Ken Sehested, describes this new book:

What Dan Buttry does in We Are the Socks is what he does better than anyone I know: Write vivid, easy-to-read narratives that are hopeful but not sentimental, honest but not cynical, revealing without being voyeuristic, personal without being self-serving, sometimes humorous but never silly. And the people he writes about …mostly are commonplace folk, drawn from every sort of circumstance.


Dan sometimes describes himself as a “peace warrior.” One meaning of that phrase is Dan’s ongoing struggle with perceptions of global threats and violence from Hollywood, TV networks, newspapers and magazines. He’s not a media basher, but he says, “So much of what we see and hear and read, these days, is governed by fear and is trying to set people up in adversarial situations.

“We need to discover the counter-narratives—news about the many ways people are building up communities and bringing hope to the world. Our traditional media isn’t all bad; sometimes we do get these more hopeful, positive stories. But we need many more of these stories from many parts of the world to give us hope—especially in places where conflict seems intractable. I think readers will be surprised to learn that there are stories of hope even in the middle of the toughest conflicts around our world.

“Many of the stories in this new book are unknown. They’re not in the spotlight. I worked hard, in planning this new book, to give readers stories of hope from all around the world.”

Here’s how singer-songwriter and author David LaMotte describes the new book:

As Dan so compellingly shows us, there is more than one kind of hope. Yes there is naive hope, based on inexperience with hard realities, but there is also a thicker, richer hope that is born of knowing those hard realities intimately, and experiencing the light that can shine in those dark places.


Throughout his life, Dan has followed a number of customs that also are part of Pope Francis’s life. In following recent coverage of Francis’s life and teachings (check out our cover story on Francis to read more about the pontiff), Dan was struck by the fact that they both share a commitment to using public transportation.

“Before he was the pope, he made sure that he was close to ordinary people on a daily basis. Instead of driving to his office as a bishop, he would take mass transit,” Dan says. “I remember when I was a denominational executive for American Baptists, directing peace programs, I went to work by bus and usually I could tell that I was the only executive on the bus. I shared seats with hotel workers, laborers—working people, nearly all of them. That daily experience created a different mindset about the community around me.

“So many of our global leaders end up isolated from people. And that isolation isn’t bridged by occasionally going out and glad-handing or showing up at a barbecue to win votes. I’m talking about actually spending time with real people. That kind of closeness changes the way you perceive the world.

“That’s one reason Jimmy Carter worked with Habitat for Humanity, hammering nails up on the roof with other volunteers. (check out our earlier interview with Carter for more) Working with other people to build houses helped to change the way Carter saw the world.”


While Buttry now is well known around the world among activists working to foster peace in hot spots where men, women and children are suffering—he has one last point he wants to clarify about this book.

“I’m not the hero of this book,” he says. “This isn’t about what a great guy I am. The real heroes you’ll meet in this book are the men and women from many different countries who give voice to the lives of people we usually aren’t even aware are out there. These folks have been pushed to the margins in our world. This book bears witness to people who dare to give voice to the people on the margins. Some of the people you’ll meet in this book are incredibly courageous peacemakers.

“Many of their stories are unknown—until now. But, do you know that the difference between a hero and an unsung hero? It’s the singing. So, let’s get together and sing the stories of some heroes who aren’t well known—until now. That’s what this book is about—and that’s how people, by reading and sharing this book, can play such an important role. They can join me in the singing.”

(Originally published at www.ReadTheSpirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

Comments: (2)
Categories: Author InterviewsPeacemaking

Daniel Buttry explains the story behind ‘We Are the Socks’

FIRST, you may want to check out our ReadTheSpirit Cover Story about the release of Daniel Buttry’s newest book We Are the Socks. That Cover Story includes an interview with Dan and perspectives from a couple of other global peacemakers on the importance of this book.

AND, you’ll also enjoy this 8-minute YouTube video in which Dan tells the story behind his new title: We Are the Socks. If you care to use this video in your small group—or to repost it in your website or newsletter, here’s the direct link to the YouTube page.

Comments: (3)
Categories: Uncategorized