Laurie Haller launches ‘Recess: Rediscovering Work and Play’

Launch of Recess by Laurie Haller in Birmingham Michigan

IN THE PHOTO: Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin reads from Laurie Haller’s ‘Recess’ at the launch event.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

One of the joys as Editor of ReadTheSpirit is helping our readers discover inspiring authors who are just launching their first books. As Editor, I’ve published nearly 400 in-depth interviews with authors since this online magazine was founded in 2007.

On Saturday, however, my role reversed and I appeared off-line as one of the “celebrity readers” at a spirited launch event for Laurie Haller’s Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose, the newest book from Cass Community Publishing in the heart of Detroit. Our national headquarters are here in the metro-Detroit area, so I was able to join with other media professionals—in person for a change—as we all helped Laurie literally take the stage and figuratively step onto the national stage, as well.

Cass Publishing, which is headed by the entrepreneurial pastor Faith Fowler, has a mission to transform lives among Detroit’s most challenged families. Faith works with folks who have lost their jobs and, in many cases, their homes; folks who never learned to read properly and finally are retraining themselves as adults; folks who have a wide range of disabilities and find themselves marginalized.

The launch of Laurie’s Recess represents the second major Cass Publishing campaign—and any authors or media professionals reading this column today should beat a path to Faith Fowler’s door (or at least the Cass Community website) for a chance to learn from a master.

Faith turns book launches into big, splashy celebrations of diverse regional communities. She requires attendees to put money behind their interest—she sells tickets to her launch events. And, the crowds always seem to enjoy the show—as well as the feeling that they are becoming a part of a far larger and very hope-filled story. (Here is our report on Cass’s first major launch, headlined “We’ve never seen a book launch like this!”)

The event on Saturday actually was the second event in the current campaign to celebrate the release of Recess. With each new book, Faith organizes regional appearances for her authors and a January 17 event already had taken place in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In advance of each event, Faith and her team reach out to media professionals in each city, inviting them to become a part of the program. TV, radio and print journalists are honored to be asked. They realize that a Cass launch event is, in effect, doing good for the world by raising awareness and funds to aid needy families.

Most importantly, these events are fun!

Attendees leave a Cass event wishing someone would provide a soundtrack recording they could play over and over again. Yes, the celebrity readers are terrific, but Faith always makes sure there’s a diverse showcase of local musical talent, as well. On Saturday, the musicians ranged from an a capella women’s quartet with a haunting version of a Dolly Parton song to a dozen women providing a meditative interlude on Tibetan “singing bowls,” and from rafter-rattling Gospel music to a stirring classical performance on pipe organ.

Why we need Recess …

Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal ProgramIf you are already are intrigued by this story, then you understand why we need a book like Laurie Haller’s Recess: Rediscovering Play and Purpose. On many levels, this is a perfect book to match Cass’s blend of creativity and hard work in helping men and women improve their lives. This memoir by Laurie Haller tells the story of a crisis in her own personal and professional life some years ago, when she decided to take three months away from her work as a pastor to travel in the hopes of reclaiming her original vocational passion.

This was made possible by a grant from the Lilly Endowment Clergy Renewal Program (which currently is welcoming a new round of applications, by the way).

Laurie Haller signs her book Recess at launch event

Laurie Haller signs books and greets her readers in a quiet alcove after the launch event.

On Saturday, the audience was reminded, again and again, of the widespread need for the insights in this book. Flipping opening the pages of Recess, readers found a personal note from former Michigan United Methodist Bishop Donald Ott, who writes: “Call it a book if you must, but for me Recess reads like a deeply revealing diary. Laurie Haller has a remarkable gift of linking everyday occurrences to her deep, yet always seemingly elusive desire to always, everywhere, and with everyone, live with and like Jesus.”

The emcee of the launch event—Alicia Smith, the 7 Action News This Morning anchor on one of Michigan’s major TV stations—talked about the widespread need for this kind of honest guide to renewal.

One of the readers finished an excerpt from the book in which Laurie describes her goal in her pilgrimage this way: “to listen to God, to discover who I am underneath all the crud and then become the person God wants me to be.”

As Smith returned to the stage as emcee, she talked to the crowd about the universal need to “discover who I am underneath all the crud.” Smith said, “Isn’t that something we all need to do sometimes?”

At another point, Smith asked men and women in the audience to raise hands if they have felt the kind of stress and burnout Laurie struggles with in this memoir. A forest of hands shot up.

“In this book,” Smith said, “you’ll find yourself taking this journey with Laurie.”

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

 

Comments: (0)
Categories: Author InterviewsChurch Growth

Remembering Bible scholar Marcus Borg (1942-2015)

Marcus Borg speaks to a groupBy DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Our worldwide circle of readers shrank by 1 last week with the January 21 death of Bible scholar and best-selling author Marcus Borg.

In addition to his tireless work and travels, Marcus found time to look at his weekly edition of ReadTheSpirit. Occasionally, he would send an encouraging email to the editor’s desk, usually expressing thanks for discovering a new author through our coverage. Every now and then, he also would share his latest discoveries among mystery writers with my wife Amy, who shared with Marcus a passion for murder mysteries featuring well-crafted, character-rich sleuths.

The two of them discovered this connection a decade ago when we were enjoying dinner with Marcus before a public talk he was to deliver at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor on the campus of the University of Michigan. When this online magazine later was founded in 2007, one of the first stories was an interview with Marcus about his love of well-crafted mysteries.

In that interview, he explained in greater detail what he saw as a connection between mystery novels and the vocation of a religion scholar: “We are all living within a mystery, in a sense. Now, the difference between detective stories and religion is that in detective stories you typically find out in the end what happened, so the mystery is neatly solved. But that sense of living within a mystery touches something deep inside of us and, in religion, things do not get resolved so easily.”

‘Things do not get resolved so easily …’

Marcus understood that final phrase on a spiritual level, on the level of intellectual inquiry—and, most importantly, in the lives of countless Americans who remain inside a church, today, because of Marcus Borg’s books and public teaching. For decades, Marcus tirelessly barnstormed the country with his message that Christianity is not the enemy of rigorous intellectual inquiry. Both spiritual and academic disciplines are searches for truth and, he would tell crowds: People of faith know that we have nothing to fear from the truth.

That’s not to say it was easy. One of the most memorable experiences I shared with Marcus was literally being burned by enraged evangelical Christians in Indiana in 1993. The incendiary protest was covered by long-time New York Times religion writer Ari Goldman under the headline: “Burning Rage in Indiana”

Ari’s story said, in part:

An article about the Bible in a Gary, Ind., newspaper has so enraged some local evangelical churches that their members are planning to publicly burn copies of the paper after Sunday services on the day after Christmas. The churches are protesting the publication by The Post-Tribune of a front page article with the headline: “Biblical Scholars Take Words Out of Jesus’s Mouth—New Book Claims Jesus Didn’t Say 80% of What’s Attributed to Him.” The article … was published on Dec. 12. It reported on a book “The Five Gospels” that is the result of six years of work by a committee of liberal Christian scholars who tried to determine the authenticity of the more than 1,500 sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. …

Jerry Kaifetz, the organizer of the protest, said the decision to publish the article less than two weeks before Christmas was a “calculated attempt” to “insult and injure the faith of Christians at their most sacred and precious time of the year.”

As a religion writer for the Detroit Free Press, I had written that article, which then was carried in other newspapers nationwide. And one the most prominent voices in that “committee of liberal Christian scholars” was Marcus. It should go without saying that Kaifetz’s charge was flat-out wrong. Neither Marcus nor I were trying to “insult and injure” anyone.

Nevertheless, the Indiana Baptists went ahead and carried out their burning. News photos from the incident show angry men in dark suits torching newspapers in oil drums.

Marcus loved the church

What critics failed to understand about Marcus was that he loved the church. No, not the church of the Inquisition or the church of Fundamentalist hellfire condemnation. He saw those as tragic distortions of the truths that were sitting there just waiting to be discovered in the pages of the Bible—and in the compassionate interaction of people that truly, he believed, was the church at its best.

He worked toward this goal in so many ways! Just read this interview about Marcus’s book Speaking Christian and his public campaign to “reclaim” the powerful words of Christian tradition. Or consider his campaign to rethink the way adult education programs should explore the Bible. He even re-envisioned his own teachings in the form of a novel—because he was convinced that some men and women who didn’t like to read non-fiction would understand his ideas in that fictional form of storytelling.

Since 2000, Marcus has largely been lionized by his fans nationwide. He appears forever, now, in so many documentary films about religion, the Bible and the early church that it would be pointless to try to list them all. He and his good friend John Dominic Crossan (and often their wives as well) loved to travel together. In a series of educational tours to “Bible lands,” the two scholars would lead travelers into sun-baked settings that were crucial in the early Christian era. They might get down on their knees to examine an ancient artifact and, in the process, awaken in their travelers a fresh appreciation for the dawn of Christianity. (In 2009, for example, we published an interview with both Marcus and Dom about their collaborations.)

‘Take this with you …’

Through the decades, we crossed paths many times and I also got to know and admire the work of Marcus’s wife, the Rev. Canon Marianne Wells Borg. Certainly my warmest memory of Marcus and Marianne centers on the couple of days we spent together at their home in 2010 as part of the ReadTheSpirit American Journey project. I was traveling for 40 days and 10,000 miles with my son Benjamin, reporting for our online magazine as well as the Detroit Free Press and radio stations.

In their home along the Pacific Ocean, the four of us talked for hours, but we also found time to walk along the booming shoreline. Marcus enjoyed exercising his dogs along the shore and appropriately, the dogs are mentioned by name as part of the family in the official obituary from Marcus’s publishing house, HarperOne.

Marcus announced that he was staffing the kitchen during that visit—and he cooked as an evangelist. He wanted to show off to his visitors from the Midwest the good news of products produced by the Tillamook cheese company, which also is based in Oregon. And of course, the sharp Tillamook cheddar was as terrific as Marcus promised. He served some of the cheese with black-and-white Holstein-patterned knives that he had bought at the Tillamook Creamery.

When my son and I said our goodbyes, Marcus pressed a rectangular, gift-wrapped box into my hands.

“Take this with you as a memory of our time together,” he said.

A Bible perhaps? One of his books? As my son drove our van down the road, I tore off the wrappings. It was a boxed set of the Tillamook knives.

And that was a full circle in Marcus Borg’s remarkable life.

In our interview during that visit, he had told us this story about his feelings for America: “For me the two biggest holidays as I was growing up in the 1940s were Christmas and the Fourth of July. Christmas obviously is a big holiday when you’re a child, but the small community of 1,400 where I grew up was Park River in northeastern North Dakota. In that corner of North Dakota, the 4th of July was huge. There always was a parade with bands and color guards of veterans going back to the Spanish-American War at that time. I can still see in my mind the carnival that would come to town and food booths in the city park. My Dad was a creamery owner and ice cream maker so we always had a big tent in the park selling ice cream. I was too young to have to work in the tent, but I got to eat whatever I wanted all day long.”

Today, our circle of ReadTheSpirit readers diminishes by 1. But please help us remember Marcus Borg by sharing this story with someone you know might enjoy it—and, in doing so, send another little gift down the road to one more traveler.

2010 American Journey Marianne and Marcus Borg in their Oceanside Oregon home

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

Comments: (2)
Categories: Bible

Let PBS’s ‘Edison’ ignite your creative spark!

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Edison American ExperienceTHERE is no more iconic American pioneer than Thomas Alva Edison—although his bright light may have been eclipsed in recent decades by other celebrated American innovators: Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or perhaps in the realm of spiritual innovation Americans might name Oprah or Rob Bell or Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai.

In Edison’s prime, one poll of schoolkids found that Edison surpassed everyone else in America as the person they hoped to be like someday. Certainly, Edison was popular for his heroic rise to fame, his long series of startling inventions, not to mention the fortune he amassed. But the reason ReadTheSpirit magazine is highly recommending this two-hour PBS American Experience documentary about Edison is also the key to his worldwide celebrity as “the Wizard of Menlo Mark.”

Thomas Edison transformed our world.

Read the previous sentence again, because that kind of claim seems commonplace today, doesn’t it? Every day, headlines trumpet yet another “transformation” by Apple or the latest App developer with some new service that might range from finding a taxi to monitoring of our body’s vital signs.

What this PBS documentary shows us is that, by comparison with Edison’s milestones, most of these current “transformations” are trivial. And therein lies the deep spiritual and cultural questions raised by this fascinating video version of Edison’s life.

As an aside to our readers, in this review I want to properly credit writer and director Michelle Ferrari, who certainly has emerged as one of the most thought-provoking documentary filmmakers in America today. She also worked on two other documentaries that ReadTheSpirit highly recommended: The Poisoner’s Handbook and War of the Worlds. Bravo Michelle Ferrari for this intriguing body of work!

What Ferrari tries to convey to us in her story of Edison’s life is the earthquake-like changes he ushered into American life. Consider …

When he introduced the first device to permanently record sound—Edison took something that had been ephemeral throughout human history and, in one stroke, began the accumulation of audio in our worldwide cultural storehouse. Before Edison, music vanished as it was performed, great orations disappeared as soon as the speaker stepped away from the podium, and a host of historic events remain silent in our collective memories.

Think of the way our daily lives are surrounded by recorded sound in myriad forms! Before Edison, life’s soundtrack was limited to what happened within earshot.

When Edison introduced his light-bulb, Americans had been trying to claim useful hours after sunset through candles, oil lamps, gas jets and a handful of cities had tried using powerful outdoor arc lights. Edison safely tamed a permanent source of night-time illumination for our homes—and began the massive project of electrifying America—one city block at a time. Just imagine life before electrical outlets in every building!

Edison’s introduction of his first effective motion-picture camera was a turning point in global culture. Just as his audio recorder had suddenly allowed us to capture and preserve sounds—his camera let the world preserve motion! Before Edison, the world’s great dancers vanished with their last performance. Motion was ephemeral for thousands of years; now millions of movies surround every aspect of our lives.

If these Edison milestones intrigue you, then don’t miss Edison on PBS—or consider ordering a DVD of Edison from Amazon.

Care to see more from PBS?

This PBS American Experience website provides more background on Edison and includes a convenient option to find local broadcast times in your region.

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

Comments: (0)
Categories: Movies and TV

Ellen and Jane Knuth talk about ‘Love Will Steer Me True’

Cover of Love Will Steer Me True by Jane and Ellen Knuth

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

Relationships are like the flower bulbs we plant each autumn here in the Northern Hemisphere with the promise that they are living things and eventually will grow into a beautiful part of our daily journey. That’s the hope when we as parents meet our children again as adults. Whatever we thought these relationships were as we first nurtured them as children—they might someday surprise us in wondrous ways.

That’s the magic of Love Will Steer Me True, which Jane and Ellen Knuth have subtitled, “A Mother and Daughter’s Conversations on Life, Love and God.”

They’re talented writers and literally cut to the chase: The book opens with Ellen, as a young adult, on the verge of leaving her Mom behind in an airport in Michigan to start a new life in Japan as an English teacher. Jane bugs her daughter, as parents do, needling her anxiously until the two part.

Years later, the two women would look back over what happened in those years of separation, drawing from letters and journals and other records, and reconstruct chapter by chapter how they survived everything from a nuclear disaster in Japan to Jane’s sudden celebrity as a Catholic author back home. Perhaps more importantly, the book is about how they overcame Jane’s anxiety that Ellen wasn’t becoming a proper young Christian—until the two finally manage to meet again and regard each other for the first time as mature adults. Are you a parent? You’ll put down this book with a hopeful sigh.

And if that description doesn’t make you want to order a copy of this book, right now, then perhaps you haven’t stopped to think hard enough about the way that relationships in your own life have developed—and can develop—over the years. That’s really the second narrative in this book for each of us as readers—a host of personal echoes you are likely to hear in your own memory as you experience the words, the conversations and the experiences in the Knuth’s journey.

Here’s another reason to buy this book and support their work: The majority of people who read books with real-life spiritual themes are women, yet major publishers insist on pushing a majority of male writers our way. Some of those books are terrific. But, often, those books repeat our all-too-common pattern of a man standing up in a pulpit telling everyone how we should live our lives. It’s refreshing to discover such talented women writing such an engaging spiritual memoir—and, as readers, we should support these discoveries.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed both Jane and her daughter Ellen Knuth. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH JANE AND ELLEN KNUTH
ON ‘LOVE WILL STEER ME TRUE’

Jane and Ellen Knuth with their book Love Will Steer Me True

Jane and her daughter Ellen Knuth with their new book.

DAVID: You two are so talented! Jane, you’re a math teacher and a community volunteer, and Ellen, you worked as a teacher in Japan for years. But you’ve also developed very compelling voices as writers. I’m not alone in saying that. Jane, your first book, Thrift Store Saints, was published while Ellen was in Japan and won praise nationwide. A lot of our readers would love to be able to write like you two. What’s your secret?

ELLEN: My mother always has been a storyteller. We were raised in the grand Irish tradition of telling stories around the dinner table. She had been writing magazine articles and other things like that for years before her first big book. I was in Japan when it was published, but when I got my copy of her book, I realized that these were the kinds of stories I might have heard around the dinner table. My mother just writes like she talks to people.

JANE: That first book did change my life and Ellen was on the other side of the world when it happened. The interesting thing is that both of us were teaching eighth graders when a lot of the events described in this book took place. One way we bonded was over our work as teachers.

As you’ll see in the book, we were not communicating very well in the beginning. I was talking on one level and she was talking on another level. This is the story of how our conversations became real again, how we could talk openly, authentically and come to a healing of hearts and relationships over several years. Finally, I asked Ellen if she would be willing to write a book with me and the experience really was fun.

‘I’ll PRAY FOR YOU’
(FOR BETTER OR WORSE)

DAVID: Here’s a good example and, I’ve said this to people myself: “I’ll pray for you.” As a Mom, Jane, I know you meant this to be reassuring. But as a daughter, Ellen, when you were younger and you were getting ready to head to Japan, this often sounded more like a threat than reassurance.

JANE: Before Ellen went away to Japan, we were able to talk on some levels. But if I mentioned God or I would say, “I will pray for you,” she would tense up.

She told me: “You don’t think I can handle this. You don’t think I’m an adult.” And I didn’t realize she was taking it that way. My religious language was placing a barrier between us that I didn’t even realize was contributing to a distance between us.

ELLEN: That’s true. When I was younger and Mom said, “I’m praying for you,” I equated that with worry. I realize that I tend to pray about things that are stressing me out—and when Mom would say that to me, it actually led to more stress in my life.

I would actually draw away from what she was saying. But then, when I moved to Japan, I came into my own adult life and I began to realize that prayer is another way of saying, “I love you.” Prayer is more than just worry and anxiety. As I began to understand prayer as an expression of support, I became more open to welcoming that. And that ties into the title of our book, Love Will Steer Me True. It’s thanks to love in many forms that we finally take our feet as adults and find our path.

One of my favorite Bible teachings is the one that deals with the difference between praying on street corners and praying in private. I’ve always defined religion as very private and personal in my own life. That’s where my prayer and meditation takes place. People who spend more time alone praying or meditating ultimately understand themselves better—and it allows us to look outside of ourselves in new ways. You can more readily identify with others and you can begin to see more ways to help and assist others. You’re more empathetic.

JANE: Christianity teaches us that we should spend private time with God and absorb that strength and wisdom and then that can flow through you.

DAVID: Prayer in families is very common. Our colleague, journalist David Briggs, recently reported in his column about research into religion that nearly 9 out of 10 Americans who are involved in their churches also regularly pray for their families. And among all American parents with teens, 8 out of 10 pray for their teens at least a few times a week.

JANE: That report doesn’t surprise me. I know that it’s easy, these days, to get the impression from TV that people aren’t praying anymore. But when I think about it: Every parent I know prays for their kids. I think most people are hopeful about their families and they pray about that. It’s nice to see a report like this one that confirms that lots of people are still praying.

ELLEN: And I’ve come to see that prayer as an act of love is very helpful. That’s different than prayer just as an act of worry. And it’s not good to get into an argument and threaten a person by saying: “Well, I’m going to pray for you!” That’s using prayer as an enforcement tool.

Actually, it can get into a situation in which people are praying counter to each other. In our family, we often pray: “May this come out as it should come out.” That acknowledges that often we cannot even fathom the best outcome in the situations in which we find ourselves.

INTO THE DISASTER AREA

Japanese government locator map of the region

The Japanese government posted this locator map of the region. As time passed, the government posted further detailed maps of villages where people should not live and others in this region where people could remain despite the disaster.

DAVID: Let’s talk about a situation in which you found yourself, Ellen. You were working in Japan during the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. First of all, the town in which you lived and worked as a teacher was not in this part of Japan, but ironically your family background led you to want to help people remaining in that region. You volunteered to join one of the teams going into the disaster area to help out.

You bravely made a commitment that you would volunteer in that region, but then you admit in the book that you grew nervous as the trip approached. In one of the chapters you wrote for this book, Ellen, you say: “Now that a volunteer organization had agreed to take us on, the work boots have been purchased, and the departure date has been set, I’m pretty nervous. It has only now occurred to me that I have no experience, and by extension, no useful skills that can be applied to a disaster zone. What am I going to do? Emote over rubble? … For the first time ever, I regret not taking a single welding class. I’m also worried I won’t be able to handle being in an area of devastation. I’ve never had to face such a situation before.”

Then, after your chapter, Ellen, I had to chuckle at the chapter written by Jane, who was safe and sound back in Michigan. Jane says, “I am lighting a ton of candles this week.”

Then back to Ellen in the book: As it turns out, you quickly find useful work that you can do in that area. You and your teammates take on tasks like hauling fresh, safe water to people inside the zone. Can you tell us a little more about this—first Ellen?

ELLEN: The area in which we worked was not at the epicenter of the whole disaster. But we were in a devastated area and it was very tense to go through this whole experience. It’s hard when you’re inside a disaster area to be clear about the information coming in all around you. I had to chart my own course through this.

JANE: I was back here thinking: Oh my! You train your kids to be concerned about others and to help others and then your kid contacts you from Japan and says, “Mom, I’m going to volunteer to go into the nuclear zone and help out.”

Of course I had always wanted her to become a volunteer—but I was envisioning something like a nice safe soup kitchen! This was something so different than what I ever expected!

DAVID: In that volunteer effort, the real challenge turned out to be getting along with the other volunteers. I won’t spoil the book for readers, but the whole journey turns out to be tougher than Ellen imagined.

JANE: We were proud of her and amazed to learn about all she went through in that process. It was neat to see her come to a realization of why trying to work with a community of people can be so difficult. It’s not that people are bad; it’s just that relationships can be difficult and especially so under difficult circumstances. She began to understand something about why her father and I are still so involved in the church and in Christian community. It’s sometimes difficult, but we’re committed to it.

ELLEN: That experience was a turning point in my life in being able to make my own decisions, to chart my own course. It also was a big step in the process of my parents coming to respect my decisions as an adult.

JANE: Ellen never was what you’d call a rebel and we always loved each other, but there was a distance between us. This book is about the journey we were on together until we came to understand each other again as adults.

For me as a parent, it used to be that I would think about Ellen and that meant: I’m anxious! I’m worried about what is happening in my daughter’s life.

And now? I’m not worried when I think about my daughter. I’m curious.

ELLEN: In the end, one of the most important lessons we learned is that we all need to spend more time carefully listening to each other, rather than getting hung up on the differences we think we have. I hope this book will be read by people my mother’s age and people my age, too.

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

Comments: (0)
Categories: Author InterviewsChildren and FamiliesGreat With Groups

Marc Bekoff says the world’s future turns on ‘Rewilding Our Hearts’

Cover of Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff

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

If you recognize Marc Bekoff’s name then you probably know he’s the scientist who voraciously collects news stories about animal life around the planet—especially research into the psychology and sociology of animals—and then spreads that news through his popular online columns and occasional books. ReadTheSpirit has featured many stories about his work over the years, including this interview about his book Animal Manifesto and this more recent interview about his book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.

Most Bekoff books fill us with so much gee-whiz news about animals that we are eager to share the stories over coffee or dinner with friends—which is precisely Marc’s intention in publishing them.

So, there’s a big difference in tone when you begin reading his latest book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.

This is a short book with a big message. It may remind readers of the work of environmental activist and author James Gustave Speth, who shows up in many forms of media these days, including National Public Radio. Speth is a secularist with little personal interest in religion and yet he closes his eloquent book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, with this surprising admission: “I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”

Essentially, that’s the departure point for Bekoff’s new book. How do we kick off the “spiritual and cultural transformation” that Speth and many others say we need to save our planet? Bekoff says we can start simply with daily steps to reconnect our consciousness with all living things on the planet—especially all forms of animal life from pets to the world’s wildest creatures. This expansion of our daily awareness, Bekoff argues, will bring with it a deeper compassion for animals (other humans and also non-human animals). If we can increase the world’s compassion—step by step in one life after another—then we have a chance to save Earth from a host of ecological dangers.

“Rewilding our hearts is about becoming reenchanted with nature,” Bekoff writes in his opening pages. “It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism. … It means thinking of others and allowing their needs and perspectives to influence our own.”

If you think of “wild” as dangerous and predatory, then you are already missing Bekoff’s startlingly hope-filled message. After decades of studying the science of consciousness, psychology and sociology in the world’s animal populations, Bekoff believes strongly that sustainable coexistence really is possible in our world. We don’t have to collapse into an apocalyptic state of savagery because of global warming and other looming ecological disasters. We don’t have to turn the world into a Hunger Games horror story. And in making this claim, Bekoff lines himself up with the likes of Speth and also the teachings of Pope Francis, as well. (You’ll enjoy reading Marc Bekoff’s sidebar to this interview in which he explores Francis’s recent off-the-cuff statement about animals.)

Want something fresh and hopeful, inspiring and also very practical, to read in this New Year of 2015? Order a copy of Rewilding Our Hearts right now. Bekoff closes the book by selling his argument on the basis of his own experience. He has drawn thousands of readers to his work, all around the world, and the reason we keep returning to his columns and books is this: He’s so darned hopeful about our future!

He writes: I have often wondered why I haven’t burned out despite many decades as an activist working for other animals. The reason, I have come to realize, is that I’m constantly rewilding. Every day I connect with nature and the animals around my home, and I hold to the unwavering belief that I’m doing some good in the world. I work really hard on a lot of “ugly stuff,” but I nurture the resilience to keep at it by making sure my life is balanced: I’ve learned how to “get away from it all” for a while and return fully recharged. I believe in what I do, even if there isn’t a gold star at the end of that day. Indeed, I may not live to see the fruits of my labor, but that’s just fine.

Isn’t this an intriguing fellow? Consider inviting friends to read this book and discuss it with you.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Marc Bekoff. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVEW
WITH MARC BEKOFF ABOUT
‘REWILDING OUR HEARTS’

Marc Bekoff and a friend.

Marc Bekoff and a friend.

DAVID: Americans are deeply divided on climate change: whether our climate really is changing, whether human activity is causing it, and whether we should enact legal limits to curb its effects. University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker has reported on these divisions in his OurValues project. What’s your sense, Marc, of why we are so divided on an issue that most scientists tell us is settled by the data?

MARC: Mainly, a lot of people are unaware of the science. Americans lead very busy lives and don’t have time to follow the latest news in science.

We also have this incredible ability to look at something that is staring us in the face, actually impacting our senses, and we deny that it’s there either because we don’t want to believe it’s there—or we don’t believe the data. Some political groups have complicated the problem by telling people that this is a political issue. It’s not. It’s really a-political.

My new book is really an attempt to get people to reconnect with themselves, slow down, pay attention to what is happening and realize these challenges we are facing really are a-political. We’re all affected by this. We can’t put reality aside simply because we heard this from a Right-Winger or that from a Left-Winger.

DAVID: Your central point—that we need to “rewild” or reconnect ourselves with the larger natural world—suggests that we have lost that connection.

‘THIS IS EASY TO DO …’

MARC: We become unwilded due to education and lifestyle and the busy kinds of lives we lead. What I’m trying to show people is that it’s good for them and good for the world to become reconnected and re-enchanted with nature and other animals.

I stress in the book that this is easy to do. You don’t have to be so rich that you can fund an entire movement. Even if you live in New York City, you can rewild in the middle of Central Park as I’ve done just going into the park, for example, and watching the squirrels and the birds. My message in this book is multilayered, but we can start to rewild our hearts with simple steps that reconnect us to nature and other animals.

DAVID: When I read your book, I thought of the work in recent years by E.O. Wilson and James Gustave Speth. Let me use Speth as an example—he’s certainly not a religious leader and in fact he is a secularist in his personal life. Yet, Speth says: Science is not enough. We’ve got to change hearts.

MARC: When I say that science is not enough, you have to remember that I love science. I’ve spent years studying the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. I write about science all the time. What I mean is that science is not going to make us more compassionate. So, rewilding is a personal transition, a spiritual transformation. By rewilding we will encounter feelings that some of us may never have had. It’s those feelings that can reinforce the need to make change and motivate action.

DAVID: This idea of each person doing a little bit each day sounds good, although I’m sure critics will complain it’s too little too late. I think that a lot of our readers from various religious and cultural backgrounds will agree with you. I am continually surprised by news reports that show incremental changes growing into huge movements. National Public Radio recently reported about the trend toward removing the grassy lawns that take so much water in dry regions of the U.S. That started with just a handful of people and now it’s transforming millions of acres and is saving lots of water.

‘HOW OFTEN DO YOU GO OUT FOR A WALK?’

MARC: That’s right. Maybe more people will realize that a green lawn is nice but it’s too costly in the resources it takes to sustain that. Many people around the world still love ivory jewelry—so we still need to reach a point where people realize that the price of ivory’s beauty is the slaughter of elephants as a species.

The problem is that we treat our own homes better than we treat the earth as a home. What I’m talking about is the process of coming to realize that the earth is our home.

Ask yourself: How often do you go out for a walk? How often do you look at the plants and animals where you live?

Those are very small ways you can begin this process. Set a little time aside at lunch for a walk. If you’ve got a dog, take your dog along as your companion and pay attention to what interests the dog as you walk. (He laughs.) If you don’t have a dog, then take your cat! Seriously, some people do walk their cats. Try it!

There are lots of small changes you can make right now: Do you have an errand you need to run this week? If it’s less than a mile away, try walking. I keep a backpack always ready with anything I might need for a walk or a ride on my bike. Plan ahead and make it easy to spend time outside.

I’m not against technology. I use my computer and iPhone a lot. But I also take time to set them aside during the day.

WATCHING THE SQUIRRELS

DAVID: As I read your book, I thought of something my son Benjamin started a year or so ago. He put a bird-identification book and a pad of paper near the big window at the back of our house and he challenged us to write down which birds we spotted right in our back yard. Very simple. Our backyard is quite small—but we’re now much more aware of the diversity of birds out there.

MARC: Yes, I love that idea! I’m writing it down right now so I can share that idea with others. As I’m thinking about that, you could also start a list of the kinds of flowers you can spot in your regular walk through your neighborhood. Or, here’s another one: If you regularly pass a stream or river, make a note each day about the water level and the state of the stream—make a list of plants you see growing there each year.

The whole point of this is to learn about the many cycles going on around us all the time. If you live in an apartment in New York City, go watch the animals in Central Park. I do that.

One day I was in Central Park, watching some squirrels and this family came upon me and the mother asked what I was doing.

I said, “I’m watching squirrels.”

And the mother said, “But they’re just squirrels!”

And I said, “No they interrelate to each other. They play. Their families relate to each other.”

And what happened? The mother’s children very quickly got enchanted with this idea and began paying attention to the squirrels.

BIOPHILIC CITIES

DAVID: There’s a lot more readers will discover in this book. Let me just take one example from the middle of the book: Biophilic Cities, in other words cities that are friendly to a diversity of natural life. First, you cite a study by cognitive researchers on the beneficial effects of simply living near a park; they document lower levels of “mental distress” if you happen to live near a park.

Then, you give examples of projects that some people are undertaking right now to make their cities more “biophilic.” The goal, you explain, is to make sure that our urban landscapes “include more natural areas and take practical measures to protect wildlife from human impacts.”

MARC: This plays off the idea that biophilia is in our genes—we’re born with an attraction to nature. We need to make our cities more attractive to people, to be more like Mother Nature. Again, I’m calling attention to practical ways we can make changes where we live and then it will be easier to “rewild” ourselves and feel an even greater connection to the other animals and the flora around us.

There are so many things that can be done. We need to stop building buildings that mask sounds or that set up reflections so that animals are unable to navigate properly. We keep building too many buildings that cause birds to crash. We lose a lot of animals every day because of the thoughtless way we build skyscrapers.

DAVID: Some cities are getting this right—and attracting residents who care about these things. You mention projects in Vancouver, Chicago and Amsterdam.

MARC: Look at Amsterdam. The city actually has corridors where it’s easy for birds and animals to move through the city and also for people to sit down and appreciate nature. Central Park in New York is a good example, too.

DAVID: Readers who are curious about the ideas you are describing don’t have to simply take your word for it. Like your earlier books, you devote a lot of space—almost 30 pages—to detailed notes so your readers can find out more information about the many topics you cover. You list books, web sites and specific articles.

MARC: Thank you for mentioning that. I’m really proud of the fact that as a scientist, I write about topics that most scientists don’t write about. I’m very careful in noting my sources. People may criticize the idea of rewilding—and critics may say it’s a little bit of a fluffy idea—but I’ve never been criticized for my science. I’m absolutely solid on my scientific sources and I always cite those sources. I want people to know that my claims are credible and it’s important for them to be able to follow my notes if they want to read further.

DAVID: You’re hoping readers will be moved to action, right?

MARC: Yes, rewilding is possible. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s a personal journey. It’s contagious. I like to think of “rewilding” as a meme that will spread.

If someone gets involved in rewilding and, because this feels good to them, they wind up doing something great for the world—then so be it. I’m happy.

DAVID: Let me close with a question about Pope Francis’s recent off-hand comment that our pets may one day be in heaven with us. He isn’t the first Catholic leader to say such a thing, of course. Pope John Paul II made some similar comments, but the fact is: Most people around the world thought it was a surprising thing to hear from the pope. That story went viral. What do you think? Is the pope rewilding?

MARC: I’ll have to think about that. Let me write something about this, after I’ve studied it more.

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

 

Comments: (3)
Categories: Author InterviewsNatural World

Marc Bekoff: Is Pope Francis contributing to ‘rewilding’?

Just What Happens to Animals In the Afterlife?

By MARC BEKOFF

Pope Francis in a public appearance

Pope Francis in a public appearance in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. Photo by Alfredo Borba, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.

As someone who has been interested in, and written about, nonhuman animals for decades, I was keenly interested in Pope Francis’s recent comments about animals and the afterlife. They were interpreted in many different ways, but he did indeed leave the pearly gates open, as discussed in an essay in the New York Times (11 December 2014) by Rick Gladstone titled “Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis Leaves Pearly Gates Open.”

Mr. Gladstone wrote, “During a weekly general audience at the Vatican last month, the pope, speaking of the afterlife, appeared to suggest that animals could go to heaven, asserting, ‘Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us.’”

My own research on animal cognition—animal smarts—and animal emotions is grounded in Charles Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity, a tenet that is well accepted among evolutionary biologists. Basically, evolutionary continuity means that differences among various species in anatomy, physiology, behavior, and emotions and sentience, are differences in degree rather than kind.

What this boils down to is that differences among species are shades of gray, rather than black and white. The bumper sticker for evolutionary continuity is, “If we have something, other animals can have it as well.” So, for example, if we have rich and deep emotional lives, so too do other animals. Much research has shown this to be true, including the fact that animals such as rats, mice, and chickens display empathy, many animals love to play with family members and friends, and some suffer from severe depression and PTSD when they are traumatized. I write about much of this research in Rewilding Our Hearts and other books and essays. And, we must remember that human beings are animals—big-brained mammals—and that what applies to us also applies to “them,” other animals.

Dogs maybe, but what about mosquitoes?

While it remains unclear as to how the Pope meant his comments to be interpreted and implemented—according to Mr. Gladstone, some theologians claimed he was speaking casually, rather than making a doctrinal statement—the words he spoke surely have opened up a much welcomed and needed debate. While we humans are truly exceptional mammalian beings, other animals as well are exceptional in their own ways. And, of course, it’s not clear just how many other animals are included in the Pope’s statement.

As Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster, a professor of religion and environmental studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, aptly asked, “Where do mosquitoes go, for God’s sake?”

How exciting it is to ponder this question and many others. Of course I welcome Pope Francis’s comments and look forward to how they are used to welcome other animals even more into our human-dominated world, and how his sentiments will be translated into how other animals are treated. His comments can, and I hope they will, foster considerably more rewilding of our hearts (and less alienation from other nature) and result in much better treatment of our animal kin and their homes.

There’s a lot of room for improvement and nothing is to be lost be expanding our circle of compassion to other animals. We suffer the indignities to which we subject other animals and also feel better when they are treated well and live at peace and in safety.

So, do dogs and other animals go to heaven? We really don’t know, but I have to admit I hope all of the dogs with whom I shared my home are somewhere with all of their friends, nonhuman and human. It brings on a warm and good feeling when I imagine that they are happy and frolicking here and there as they did when they lived with me. I wish the same for all other animals, including wild beings and those who have had the benefit and luxury of living with caring humans and who had many nonhuman and human friends bless their lives.

(Published with the permission of Marc Bekoff.)

Care to read more?

You’ll enjoy our ReadTheSpirit interview with Marc Bekoff about his new book Rewilding Our Hearts.

Comments: (0)
Categories: Uncategorized

Wake up! ‘How far the unknown transcends …’

By BENJAMIN PRATT
Author, columnist and teacher

José de Ribera Jacob's Dream

DETAIL from “Jacob’s Dream,” a painting by 17th-Century Spanish painter José de Ribera.

I have had surgery three times in my life. In my first two experiences, I was a reluctant child and the anesthesia had already sent me to sleep prior to entering the operating room.

In my most recent experience I was taken into the surgery fully awake, wholly reassured and comforted by the caring nurses. I looked around in awe at this inner sanctum of medical toys as the efficient nurses attended to the tasks of preparation.

As if taken by the hand, I was gently led to sleep, scarcely knowing if I wished to stay in awe of the objects of this unknown world or go into the darkness.

Darkness came quickly and without awareness. I surrendered, the mystery of trust mingling with sleep.

Then, suddenly, I was in an unexpected place, a familiar but long ago place. Chattering voices and gentle laughs formed the image of children standing in front of an ice cream truck, eagerly trying to place an order for their own frosty delight.

Groggy. Confused. I heard a warm voice proclaiming, “You did so well.”

I raised my hand and garbled, “At what?”

The woman with the welcoming voice gently took my hand and leaned down to give me a tender hug.

I blubbered: “Are you an angel?”

She laughed and continued to caress my hand. Slowly, I began to see, to understand, to remember. I started to smile, then to laugh and feel giddy. A deep gratitude filled my soul!

Even in this now commonplace experience, awakening from anesthesia, I imagined I had  experienced the miracle of grace that holds the mysterious promise of a time beyond my final sleep.

When our toys of life are taken away and we face the eternal sleep we are entering a realm that Longfellow once tried to describe as a powerful and progressive matter of “Nature.” With a glimpse of that journey in the surgery—gratitude shivers my aching bones.

Awakening is a grace-filled miracle.

NATURE

By HENRY WADSWORTH LONGFELLOW

As a fond mother, when the day is o’er,
Leads by the hand her little child to bed,
Half willing, half reluctant to be led,
And leave his broken playthings on the floor,
Still gazing at them through the open door,
Nor wholly reassured and comforted
By promises of others in their stead,
Which, though more splendid, may not please him more;
So Nature deals with us, and takes away
Our playthings one by one, and by the hand
Leads us to rest so gently, that we go
Scarce knowing if we wish to go or stay,
Being too full of sleep to understand
How far the unknown transcends the what we know.

.

Comments: (2)
Categories: Great With Groups