Retired bishop John Spong on rediscovering Matthew’s Jewish roots

John Shelby Spong wearing the garb of his 21 years as an Episcopal bishop. (Photo by Dick Snyder; used with permission.)

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of www.ReadTheSpirit.com

Spring is the perfect season to explore John Shelby Spong’s new book, Biblical Literalism: A Gentile Heresy. First, look past the book’s title—those words are a publisher’s way of reminding readers of the controversy retired Bishop “Jack” Spong has sparked throughout most of his career. Yes, this new book is a provocative re-interpretation of gospel stories and some Christians will disagree with Spong, as usual.

But, there’s so much more than mere “controversy” in this book!

What’s so fresh and fascinating about this book is its in-depth look at the Jewish roots of the Christian gospel of Matthew. That’s perfectly timed reading for the season that includes Easter (Western Christians have celebrated; Eastern Orthodox will soon) as well as Passover. This is a time, each year, when interfaith relationships blossom. Most Jewish communities nationwide offer some kind of friendly outreach to Christians who want to understand the Passover seder from a Jewish perspective. Most Christians, after all, traditionally say that Jesus’s Last Supper was a seder meal.

“Book titles are funny things,” Spong said with a chuckle as he discussed this new book in a recent interview. “I guess I fight about book titles with my publisher more than we fight about anything. What I’m really working on in these books is ‘The Gospels as Midrash,’ but Harper doesn’t want anything to do with that kind of title.”

I asked Spong, “How many non-Jewish Americans know that term midrash? I’m not sure as a journalist that I’d be able to explain it fully in a sentence. I’d probably say: Midrash is a traditional Jewish process for interpreting scripture by exploring tangents and connections with the basic text. And that’s what you do with Matthew in this new book—it’s one of your best books, I think. But putting ‘Midrash’ in a title for general readers? As a publisher myself, I wouldn’t recommend that.”

And he chuckled again. “Yes, you’re probably right. And Harper was right. But we go round and round about titles sometimes. I am glad you understand what this book is about. I have written about this general subject before, but this time I really look at Matthew in a new way.”

If readers look beyond the front cover, they will find that the book has a second and more descriptive subtitle: “A Journey into a New Christianity through the Doorway of Matthew’s Gospel.” That gets closer to the unique look at Matthew Spong offers in these 400 pages, but not entirely.

This book really is a midrash on Matthew, connecting Christian readers with Jesus’s Jewish world in a new way. Spong ultimately draws a new kind of Christian message at the end of the book. But, he also draws on a number of notable Jewish scholars in his research and it’s likely some Jewish readers will be intrigued by the many connections Spong makes.

Cover of Biblical Literalism by John Shelby Spong

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

If you’re wondering whether such an ambitious idea makes sense—writing a book that might interest both Christian and Jewish readers—we can say: Spong knows knows something about his audience.

In fact, this particular book was born after Spong was invited in 2014 to present five days of lectures at the Chautauqua Institution in western New York. How many people showed up? Ten thousand!

By his estimate, about a quarter of those men and women who attended his lectures were Jewish. It was truly a five-day interfaith gathering. His subject that year was the Jewish context of the gospel of John. And the enthusiasm for his lectures led him to dig deeper into the other three gospels. The result is this book that walks readers through Matthew from a perspective most Christians have never considered.

Spong argues that nearly 2,000 years ago the gospel known as Matthew was written for early Christian churches to read and remember the key events in Jesus’s life—as organized in a pattern following the annual calendar of Jewish festivals. Spong credits the late British Bible scholar Michael Goulder with writing about this notion in a persuasive way—convincing enough to lead Spong to devote years of study to expanding on Goulder’s ideas.

“I’ve included ‘Michael Goulder (1927-2010)’ in my dedication of this new book,” Spong says. “Most Americans haven’t heard his name, but among Bible scholars, he was so important. I discovered his work back in the 1990s when I was doing research on the gospel birth narratives at Cambridge. I remember buying this massive book Goulder had published and it really was tough sledding going through his work. But one of his big contributions was this idea that the gospels were organized around themes in the Jewish year.”

What does that mean? Regular Bible readers know that there are many references to Jewish customs and festivals in the New Testament. What Goulder theorized and Spong now unfolds in detail for general readers is the idea that the actual order of the stories from Jesus’s life in Matthew are sequenced to be read against the backdrop of a Jewish calendar.

This new book is about 400 pages, describing how this connection between the faith traditions could help modern readers rediscover fresh inspiration from scripture. Some early Christians were gentiles, non-Jews who converted to the new faith and had no background in Judaism. But many early Christians were experienced in both religious realms. Imagine how much deeper some of Matthew’s stories would unfold if read against traditional Jewish reflections on the seasons and religious festivals.

JESUS, JONAH AND YOM KIPPUR

Here’s one small example: Christians reading about Jesus’s arguments with critics in the 12th chapter of Matthew are likely to read right over the scene in which Jesus tells his critics that they don’t fully understand the story of Jonah. Gentiles unfamiliar with Judaism probably recall Jonah as the ancient prophet who was swallowed by a big fish. Christians who regularly study the Bible may remember more about Jonah and his mission to make the wayward people of the town of Nineveh repent of their sins.

“But I’m sure most Christians reading that passage—or hearing it read—are thinking: What’s this sudden reference to Jonah? Why is Jesus talking about Jonah?” Spong says. “If we don’t understand the structure of Matthew, it’s just something we read and forget about, isn’t it?”

But in the middle of Spong’s book, readers will discover why that reference to Jonah is such a poignant moment in Matthew—and how that passage of Matthew must have sparked deep spiritual reflection in early Christian congregations with Jewish roots.

Jewish readers will know that the text of Jonah is read, each year, on Yom Kippur. In fact, it’s a common topic for Jewish inspirational writing and teaching each year. Here’s one example of a column from ReformJudaism.org, offered as inspirational reading in the High Holidays.

“When people read my book, they’ll learn that just before Matthew 12, where Jesus talks about Jonah and we get this connection with Yom Kippur—just before that in my book, I look at the ways Matthew 11 relates to Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year that leads to Yom Kippur,” Spong says. “And after that section of my book, then I write about how Matthew 13 relates to the Jewish harvest festival of Sukkot. These are connections that I think most Christians have never considered while they’re reading Matthew.”

Of course, there’s a lot more to Spong’s argument in this book, which takes all 400 pages to unfold. Step by step, his argument leads to his interpretation of the meaning of Jesus’s death—once again placing his theology in contrast to preaching about Jesus’s crucifixion that is more typical in evangelical churches. For many years, Spong has called for a rethinking of these basic Christian teachings.

‘TRANSFORMATIVE POWER OF CHRIST’S MESSAGE’

Some critics charge that Spong himself is a heretic—and no longer is a Christian. He rejects that charge and, in books like his latest, says that it is preachers who take the Bible literally who have abandoned their Christian roots.

“I simply want to help people see the truly transformative power of Christ’s message,” Spong says. “And, in this book, I point out that it’s right there in Matthew, if only we know how to read Matthew.

“The early followers of Jesus had to use words to describe and explain what really is beyond words,” he continues. “It’s our error today if we take those words, which can tell us so much, and force a literal reading that really imprisons Christ in a way that was never intended.”

And, in those words, Spong is echoing the final pages of his new book, where he writes in part:

The gospel of Matthew is about human beings discovering the divine that is always in our midst. It is about the divine calling and empowering human life to break the boundaries that imprison us in a warped sense of what it means to be human. It is about setting aside boundaries that we have created in our human quest for security. It is about stepping beyond those boundaries and into the meaning of God. It is about discovering the human in a boundary-free world.

In Spong’s new book, Christian and Jewish readers likely will find fascinating, fresh interpretations of these ancient gospel stories. Agree or disagree with Spong’s larger theological arguments, he says that nevertheless, “After you consider what I’m describing in this book, I don’t think you’ll be able to read Matthew in the same way, again.”

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleUncategorized

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.

‘PEACE WARRIOR’

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.

RIDING THE BUS TOGETHER

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.”

WHO ARE THE HEROES?

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.)

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Categories: Author InterviewsPeacemaking

Missy Buchanan helps us talk across the generations

Cover Missy Buchanan Voices of Aging

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

Missy Buchanan is the first person to point out that—despite her seven popular books and her national advocacy on behalf of aging Americans—she’s not an expert in traditional terms.

“I don’t have a doctorate. I’m not a university researcher. I’m not a medical doctor. I’m not an ordained pastor. I’m just—well, I’m just me,” she says. “But, you know what? Often that’s how God works: God calls unlikely people to go out and do the work that needs to be done.”

However, as her readers nationwide and viewers of Good Morning America know, Missy’s talents begin with careful listening—the main discipline she tries to teach to her ever-growing audience nationwide. When her own parents were in their final years of life, she listened attentively to them. She listened to their friends. And, as she began writing about the spiritual lives of Americans aged 80 and older, she found that older men and women were eager to give her an earful.

Good Morning America Robin Roberts talks with coauthor Missy Buchanan about Lucimarian 2003

Missy Buchanan on Good Morning America with Robin Roberts at the time of the book launch.

That’s how she wound up twice appearing on Good Morning America, after co-authoring the memoir of GMA host Robin Roberts’ mother Lucimarian Roberts.

A CALL IN THE NIGHT

One night, Missy was at home with her husband Barry in Rockwall, Texas, when the phone rang. “And there was this woman with the sweetest little voice, asking, ‘Is this Missy Buchanan?’”

Missy said, “Yes, ma’am.”

“And, is this the same Missy Buchanan who wrote the book Living with Purpose?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Missy repeated.

Then, Lucimarian Roberts said, “You don’t know me but I think you know my daughter, Robin Roberts of Good Morning America.”

That night, a two-year friendship began that extended through an emotional launch of Lucimarian’s co-written book, My Story, My SongMissy’s appearances on Good Morning America—and then, all-too-soon after the book’s debut, Lucimarian’s death.

Missy Buchanan with Lucimarian Roberts daughter of Robin Roberts of Good Morning America

Missy Buchanan and Lucimarian Roberts as their book was launched.

“As we began this book, she still was living in Mississippi close to Biloxi where she had moved with her husband, one of the original Tuskegee Airmen,” Missy says. “I would travel back and forth to Mississippi and would sit with Lucimarian in her living room. She would talk; I would listen.”

There was an urgency driving this project. “The week before the book launch in 2012, she had been in the hospital,” Missy recalls. “But that spring, we had such a memorable gathering of about 350 of her friends and family. She was able to sign books all one day and the next day, too. All of the people who came had wonderful things to say about her. Then, she died in August, that year.”

The sharing of stories is such a powerful experience, Missy says, “that Lucimarian Roberts really became a cheerleader for me. She had chosen me to help her tell her story because she found my first book Living with Purpose, so helpful in her own life. And, of course, when we began this new book, I showed up at her home for that first conversation with so many questions I had prepared. I didn’t need to ask a one of them—the stories just flowed and it became the book.”

Missy kept listening. “The most important thing was helping her to tell her story. And it was such a pleasure to do this. She was so encouraging to me. I remember she’d end every conversation with these words: ‘I love you. You keep writing and speaking. We need to hear this. We need it.’ Every time. And that’s what I keep doing.”

INVITING US TO TALK ACROSS GENERATIONS

Voices of Aging author Missy Buchanan author photo

Click this photo of the author to visit her website.

Now, in her seventh book, Missy invites adults young and old into dialogue, based on thousands of conversations she has experienced through the years. Voices of Aging is subtitled Adult Children and Aging Parents Talk with GodIn the book, Missy presents both sides of 20 conversations on topics including: “The Car” (and whether it’s still smart to drive), “Doctors and Hospitals,” “Money,” “Holidays” and “Boundaries.”

Recognize your own family in that list? If her book can help your family through even one of these 20 topics—you’ll be glad you discovered Missy’s book today.

This is an inspirational book, including recommended Bible verses and short prayers that families might use if faith is a daily part of your relationships. But—as important as talking with God is to most of Missy’s readers—the real power of this new book is that it gets both generations talking with each other!

And, believe it or not, this book is not a downer! There’s a chapter on “Laughter” that will be a welcome relief to readers, for example. Missy’s tone through all of her books (check out her 2013 book Joy Boosters) is relentless optimism. As Missy describes this, it’s the central value of hope that runs like an artery through her life of faith.

“What I’m trying to do is reconnect these millions of Americans who have been all but forgotten by their churches,” she explains. “That’s what got me started on this work.”

A CHURCH GROWTH ISSUE

As you will learn this week in an OurValues series from University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker: It’s time to stop thinking about “aging” as an issue affecting someone else. Right now we are meeting aging America—and “they” are us!

Nearly every congregation in America is eager to welcome more men, women and their families. Yet, most church-growth programs focus almost entirely on young adults—while congregations are abandoning countless older members because they can no longer drive, or need help perhaps with wheelchairs. In addition to exiling all of those men and women—congregations often are pushing away their adult children and who can’t find Sunday-morning options to cover their caregiving duties.

That’s the truth Missy discovered a decade ago, when she began her nationwide mission by simply writing devotional readings for her own parents, adding them page by page to a home-made notebook and eventually making copies for an ever-growing circle of friends.

“This was born out of my own experiences with my parents,” she says. “When I began, I had no intention of becoming a national advocate on these issues. But I discovered that there were all of these people out there who had invested so much of their lives in their communities and their churches—then, once they had trouble attending regularly—their churches forgot them.”

At first, Missy thought of buying some inspirational books for older people, then using them to help lead devotional experiences among her parents’ friends. “But what happened at the bookstores really surprised me! I asked, ‘Do you have any inspirational books for seniors?’ And, they would lead me to the graduation section!”

She laughs. “So I would have to redefine what I wanted. And I would hear, ‘Well, there are all sorts of books written about senior citizens–but something inspirational?’ ”

She found shelves groaning with books about the problems of aging, how to avoid the effects of aging, financial planning—”but nothing inspirational written in language that speaks to their hearts, especially the hearts of men and women who are 80 and older.”

A former teacher armed with a masters in education, Missy began writing and sharing her own inspirational readings. Her first short prayer-poems were voiced from the collective experiences of older adults she met through her parents.

“I wrote them in the first person as if the person reading them was talking to God,” Missy says. “That’s the book that Lucimarian Roberts found and often liked to read from.”

Younger adults might think that older men and women would be experts at prayer, but that isn’t the case as they live through the often disorienting experiences of advanced age. “I regularly talk to older people who tell me, ‘As I’m getting older, I can’t pray the way I used to pray.’ ”

And Missy always asks, “Tell me what you mean.”

She listens. “Often they tell me, ‘I can’t formulate the words. I can’t make the words come to say what’s on my heart now.’ So, that’s what I try to do through all of my books—help their voices rise.”

She says, “You may think these books aren’t for you right now. But you may not realize that you can become the companion for someone on this journey by making time to talk, to share—and to listen.”

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

Care to read more?

VISIT MISSY—Click on her photo, above, to visit her web page, but you’ll hear most frequently from the author by following her on Twitter or connecting with her on Facebook.

Logo of We Are Caregivers online magazineEXPLORE OUR RESOURCES—ReadTheSpirit publishes a wide range of resources on aging, coping and caregiving. We publish the online magazine known as We Are Caregivers; and our ReadTheSpirit bookstore features a number of books of special interest to caregivers and senior citizens. This week, Dr. Wayne Baker’s OurValues project also is publishing a special series on Aging America, looking both at the emerging facts—and hopeful trends.

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

100 Questions & Answers about (our millions of) Veterans

Cover of the MSU 100 Q&A Veterans Large Book

CLICK this cover to visit the book’s website, learn more about it and find links to purchase your copy.

ACROSS America, May is a special time for honoring our American veterans and their families. Already, Americans have marked VE (Victory in Europe) Day on May 8, Military Spouse Appreciation Day on May 8, Armed Forces Day on May 16 and soon the month will culminate in one of the biggest national observances: Memorial Day, covered by Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton.

At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we are celebrating the students from Michigan State University’s School of Journalism who have just released 100 Questions & Answers about Veterans—which includes videos of veterans produced by Detroit Public Television.

Detroit News columnist Neal Rubin already has reported on the book’s release. Neal wrote, in part, that such a book is helpful to “to correct misconceptions, connect cultures and make potentially awkward conversations more comfortable and more frequent.” Neal continued:

America’s 21 million veterans “are a cultural group all by themselves,” with customs and terminology frequently unfamiliar to outsiders. “Ask us questions,” wrote actor, Army veteran and Dancing With the Stars winner J.R. Martinez in the book’s foreword. “Listen and try not to judge or to let your perceptions get in the way of our answers.”

ReadTheSpirit magazine invited the director of this MSU journalism project, Joe Grimm, to tell us more …

By JOE GRIMM

Americans like to recognize veterans, but don’t always see them for who they are.

The fog of stereotypes and the knowledge gap between veterans and civilians can obscure our view.

MSU students Tiara Jones Madeline Carino and Lia Kamana work on the veterans book

MSU journalism students Tiara Jones, Madeline Carino and Lia Kamana work on the new veterans book.

A new guide clears some of the fog.

100 Questions and Answers About Veterans: A Guide for Civilians answers basic questions that former service men and women say they hear all the time. With a little basic knowledge, civilians will understand how much there is to learn. This start gives us the confidence we need to talk without worrying that we will embarrass ourselves or offend a veteran.

This is the basic premise behind the series of cultural guides to which this veterans guide belongs. It is the eighth in the series, which ReadTheSpirit helps the Michigan State University School of Journalism publish. The guide, in print form and digital, includes video interviews with veterans recorded by partner Detroit Public Television.

Ron Capps

Ron Capps

Ron Capps, who wrote the guide’s preface, served in the Army and Army Reserve for 25 years. He is a veteran of the war in Afghanistan and of other conflicts. His passion is the Veterans Writing Project VeteransWriting.org, which he founded. For this new book, Capps wrote in part:

Soldiers come home and get lots of “Thank you for your service” and recognition at baseball games, but rarely have the chance to tell their story. This lack of communication leads to a lack of understanding.

Veterans can become isolated, and keep to themselves. And this is wrong. We all have a responsibility to share the experience of our military even if only vicariously, through a telling or a reading.

JR Martinez is in the MSU veterans book

JR Martinez

Army veteran J.R. Martinez wrote in his foreword, “Let yourself learn from us. Ask us questions. Listen and try not to judge or to let your perceptions get in the way of our answers. And in turn, we will allow ourselves to understand that it is our duty to teach. It’s a partnership we will all have to agree on to shorten the distance between our two worlds.”

Martinez was in a Humvee that hit an improvised explosive device in Iraq, burning him over more than 34 percent of his body. He is an actor, motivational speaker and the author of Full of Heart: My Story of Survival, Strength, and Spirit. You might have seen him on Dancing with the Stars. He wound up winning Season 13 of that series on Nov. 22, 2011.

The messages from Capps and Martinez are similar and echo many heard by the Michigan State students who interviewed veterans for the guide. These are some of the 100 questions the guide answers:

* Why do some veterans prefer not to have people thank them for their service?
* How are commissioned and noncommissioned officers different?
* How common is it for veterans to be homeless?
* What is the GI Bill?
* What are the meanings of Memorial Day and Veterans Day?

Of course, we all know there is a difference between Memorial Day and Veterans Day. But how do veterans see that difference? If you’re a civilian who is not sure, you have time to go into this year’s Memorial Day more informed. Get this helpful new book in paperback or as an ebook. Read it and watch the DPTV videos. It won’t take long for you to be able to have better conversations with veterans, confident that the baseline knowledge you have will lead to a better understanding.

Joe Grimm is series editor for this series of guides published by the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

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Categories: Author Interviews

The Martha Spong interview about her book and RevGalBlogPals

Theres a Woman in Pulpit cover book edited by Martha Spong

CLICK this cover to visit the book’s page at the publisher’s website: SkyLight Paths.

A HOST of women have led religious movements.

Ancient Jewish heroes Esther and Judith risked their lives to save their people. At the dawn of Christianity, it was a woman (Mary Magdalene) who preached the first Christian message that Jesus was risen from the grave. Through the centuries, St. Teresa of Avila and St. Catherine of Siena shaped the Catholic church so profoundly that they now hold the esteemed rank: Doctors of the Church. In colonial America, Lady Deborah Moody established a early community with interfaith freedom and Mother Ann Lee founded the Shakers. A host of church women led campaigns against slavery from the Grimke sisters to Harriet Tubman, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Sojourner Truth.

In May, Americans celebrate the holiday originally envisioned by churchwomen Ann Reeves Jarvis and her daughter Anna Jarvis as a time for honoring women—and performing community service. In fact, if the elder Ann Reeves Jarvis had her way, spring would be a time for what she liked to call Mothers’ Day Work Clubs. Women led the way, rolling up their sleeves and tackling the toughest problems faced by poor families, especially TB and other life-threatening diseases in her era. When her daughter Anna finally achieved a nationwide holiday, Anna was horrified to see it transformed into a commercial bonanza devoid of its original faith-based mission.

Even conservative popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI each promoted a woman to the rarefied status of Doctor of the Church. John Paul added St. Thérèse of Lisieux and Benedict promoted Hildegard of Bingen. The latter news surprised and pleased theologian Matthew Fox, one of Hildegard’s biggest cheerleaders. Fox admits he was surprised that Benedict let this feminist “Trojan Horse” into the highest ranks of the church.

So, why do most of the world’s 2 billion Christians refused to let ordained women into their pulpits? (That phrase “most of the world’s Christians,” of course refers to the roughly 1.5 billion Catholic and Orthodox Christians plus millions of evangelical Christians as well.)

Entire library shelves groan with books and journals arguing this issue, so we won’t repeat the classic pros and cons. In fact, what’s so delightful about Martha Spong’s new book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit, is that she lets a little girl make the case in the book’s opening chapter written by the Rev. Ruth Everhart. Indignant at the injustice of her family’s church leadership refusing to ordain her mother—or any woman—young Hannah Everhart declared to her mother:

“Even a first grader knows you’re a good minister. Stupid-heads!”

In fact, if you buy a copy of Spong’s marvelous collection of nearly 70 true-life stories written by 52 clergywomen from 15 denominations, you may close the book repeating what Hannah’s Mom tells her family after the little girl’s outburst: “Hannah’s right. They’re stupid-heads!”

Lest long-time ReadTheSpirit readers object that we are unfairly criticizing traditionalist churches, we point out that American polling over the past decade by Gallup and Pew and other researchers clearly shows that even a majority of American Catholics support the idea of women’s ordination. Currently, about half of Catholics think the Vatican isn’t likely to make this change in their lifetimes—nevertheless, most Catholics say they like the idea of women in the pulpit. (Pew provides a helpful score card on what denominations are—and aren’t—ordaining women, as of late 2014.)

Whatever your opinion on women’s ordination may be, we guarantee that you’ll enjoy these inspirational, often downright funny and sometimes emotionally stirring stories. Read one a day for a couple of months. Martha Spong has found some terrific storytellers to share their real-life experiences in this volume.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the co-writer and overall editor of this new book. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH THE REV. MARTHA SPONG
ON ‘THERE’S A WOMAN IN THE PULPIT’

DAVID: Help me introduce you to our readers. You have so many talents and projects! How do you typically describe yourself, when you step out to talk to a new audience?

Martha Spong from her website

CLICK this photo of Martha Spong to visit her website and learn more about her many projects, including the Reflectionary columns she writes.

MARTHA: I usually say I’m a United Church of Christ pastor. I’m a Mom. I’m a wife. I grew up Baptist and became United Church of Christ. I’m a writer, an editor—and a rather obsessive knitter, too.

DAVID: You’re best known as the director of the large online community known as RevGalBlogPals, which describes itself as “a supportive community for clergywomen since 2005.” This new book really is a collective creation from network of women writers. First, tell our readers what they’ll find if they visit RevGalBlogPals.

MARTHA: What they’ll find is both a collection of resources aimed at clergy and, as we say on the website, a supportive community for clergywomen. This all started as a group of bloggers but it’s not limited to bloggers anymore. There are many people who visit with us, participate in our preaching discussions and share comments. We’re also very active on Facebook where clergywomen from dozens of denominations all around the world participate. Facebook is a good place place for people to come with questions, prayer requests and stories from ministry and find support from others. We’re also active on Twitter. We’ve even gotten involved in Pinterest—and Tumblr, too. We’re all over the place now, wherever women gather.

DAVID: There’s a wonderful story in the book about ministry in the devastation of Hurricane Katrina by the Rev. Sally-Lodge Teel. In 1978, she was the first Presbyterian woman ordained in the state of Mississippi and, as you point out in the book, she was really the catalyst that got RevGalBlogPals started 10 years ago, right?

MARTHA: That’s right and for a while we mainly had a web ring that allowed us to connect our blogs into an internet circle. People continued to join and we decided to write a devotional book as a fundraiser after Hurricane Katrina. We formed a 501c3 and I was one of the original board members. About two years ago, the board began talking about creating a more professional role in the organization. So, at this point, I’m the part-time director, running our web activities and I organize and administer our continuing education events, which we’ve been doing since 2008. Today, there are about 40 women who contribute directly to our blog and more than 300 bloggers who are in our web ring.

A FAMOUS FAMILY

DAVID: Our readers are also likely to recognize your family name. For about 30 years, I’ve maintained a warm professional friendship with now-retired Bishop “Jack” Spong. I first got to know him when I served as an American newspaper correspondent in the UK in 1988 at the month-long Lambeth Conference where the world’s Anglican leaders debated women’s ordination. He was very active in that campaign. (NOTE: Interested in our past ReadTheSpirit interviews with Bishop Spong? A few of our more popular conversations were in 2009 talking about Eternal Life—A New Vision, in 2012 talking about Reclaiming the Bible, and in 2013 talking about The Gospel of John.)

MARTHA: Yes, we are related. Jack and my Dad are first cousins. We’re happy to claim each other. Jack baptized my oldest child and was at my wedding two years ago.

IS THERE A DIFFERENCE?

DAVID: I’ve already described the book, to some extent, but tell us more about what readers will find if they get their own copy.

MARTHA: The book contains stories that each are about 800 words long, so they’re perfect if people want to read one a day. They could be daily devotional readings for a couple of months. All of them are real-life stories by women who are juggling the work of ministry with the work of child rearing. Some of the stories tell what happens when these clergywomen go out into the community to do something not church related.Some of the stories are funny. Some are heart-wrenching. Each story puts the personality of the writer at the forefront.

DAVID: Let me ask you a question that, as a journalist specializing in reporting on religion, I’ve been asking for many decades now: Are women different than men as clergy?

And before you answer, let me tell you: Some famous women have either refused to answer the question or have objected to it. One of them is retired United Methodist Bishop Judith Craig who, for a while back in the 1980s, was the only woman bishop in a mainline denomination in the world.

When I asked Bishop Craig that question, she told me that she thought the question was a trap. If she said that women are different, that would label all women as identical in their talents and personalities. If she said women aren’t different, that would deny that women generally have developed some talents that may give them fresh insights into church growth. She didn’t want to group women as a homogenous gender.

I’m asking it because it’s obviously a common question, especially in churches that still refuse to ordain women. Are clergywomen different than clergymen?

MARTHA: You could say yes to that, because society expects women to have different skills and to fulfill different roles than they expect male clergy to fulfill. And people ask us questions they wouldn’t expect to ask male clergy.

But I agree with what you’re telling me about Bishop Craig. I don’t think the question of our gender or orientation is the significant one in terms of defining how we operate in ministry. If we assume clergywomen are different than clergymen, then that question presumes that we’re alike as women—and that’s not true.

‘A GENERATIONAL SHIFT’

DAVID: I’ll never forget the month I spent in Canterbury covering the Lambeth debates on women’s ordination. The whole world was represented there—even Archbishop Desmond Tutu—and the debates became very emotional. Flash forward 30 years, and I don’t think it’s as a big a deal in American culture to see clergywomen participating as local community leaders. Once it was so rare, it was surprising. What do you think? Are we seeing progress?

MARTHA: I think it is a generational shift. My own childhood denomination was the Southern Baptist Convention. But then, in February of this year, I was invited to come back and preach at the church where I grew up.

The pastor I knew years ago as a young man today is over 80 and he’s still preaching there. He invited me back to preach and he introduced me by saying to the people, “You may have heard that Southern Baptists don’t allow women preachers, but that’s not true.” And then he reeled off the names of a number of women who are serving Southern Baptist congregations—and he complimented their leadership and he finished by saying, “In the Baptist church, there are no absolutes.”

It was wonderful to go home to that church and to stand in the place in that church where I had never stood before. It was a tremendously positive experience.

DAVID: It may seem surprising to our readers that women do preach and serve in at least some Southern Baptist congregations, but I know that’s true. Southern Baptists are so loosely organized that there is more variation nationwide than people may think.

MARTHA: The problem is that, even in churches that ordain women, clergywomen often are limited to smaller churches or to part-time churches, because there’s still a demand for male pastors to serve larger churches. It seems like a no-brainer to me that women have the gifts for ordained pastoral leadership at all levels—but we still see resistance at the local level in a lot of congregations.

‘YOU ARE NOT ALONE’

DAVID: If our readers do get a copy of your book and start reading—what do you hope they’ll find between the covers of this book?

MARTHA: I hope this book will encourage women who are considering ministry to continue on in their dream. I also hope that it will show doubters how faithful women can be in ministry. And, I hope that it will show women in ministry that they have a lot of friends out there who are having similar experiences. I hope clergy women will realize: You’re not alone!

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

The Eileen Flanagan interview about her memoir ‘Renewable’

The Cover of Renewable by Quaker writer Eileen Flanagan

CLICK this cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

“The renewable energy we need most is people power!”
Bill McKibben

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”
Frederick Buechner

AN EARLY SIGN of spring’s renewing power is the rise of common violets, pushing heart-shaped green leaves through even the thickest thatch of winter-mottled lawns and fields. And just in time for spring, Quaker writer and activist sends us all Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope.

This is a book about time and travel—and much like The Wizard of Oz, which we just wrote about recently, Eileen’s memoir carries us around the world yet brings us inevitably home again with a renewed love for our own back yard. She carries us through time, as well, greeting us in the opening pages at age 50, then looping us back through the decades to her days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana. As we travel with her through the times and places that represent milestones in her life—she is inviting us as readers to reflect on the many twists and turns in our own lives.

You’ll walk away from this book less afraid of the future—and you may find yourself swept up in Eileen’s enthusiasm for rediscovering and renewing her life’s vocation in the second half of her life.

Mid-way through the book, she quotes Sue Monk Kidd’s description of this process: “When change-winds swirl through our lives, especially at midlife, they often call us to undertake a new passage of the spiritual journey: that of confronting the lost and counterfeit places within us and releasing our deeper, innermost self—our true self.”

That’s the hope that will rise through the winter-mottled thatch of your own life as you enjoy this new memoir.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH EILEEN FLANAGAN
ON ‘RENEWABLE’

DAVID: Let’s say I was introducing you at one of your public appearances. How should I describe you?

Quaker writer Eileen Flanagan author of RenewableEILEEN: “A Quaker writer and activist.”

DAVID: Quaker first?

EILEEN: My hope is to reach a broader audience but I’ve decided “Quaker” is such an important part of my identity that I want to include it.

DAVID: Your website describes Quakers this way:

Quakers (also known as Friends) often speak of “that of God in everyone” to sum up the idea that each of us is connected to the Divine Spirit and can feel its guidance in our lives directly, without the need of a priest or minister. Quakers have also long held that faith should be expressed in the way we live, not just our words.

I think that’s a helpful description and it positions Quakers, or Friends, among religious groups in America as a very welcoming spiritual community—something lots of Americans are searching these days.

EILEEN: When I talk about being Quaker, I often joke that we’re not Amish because that’s a common misconception.

DAVID: I’m chuckling as you say that, because that’s a telling detail late in your new book. When you’re getting ready to take part in this big protest with Robert Kennedy Jr., the actress Darryl Hannah and the activists Julian Bond and Bill McKibben—you remember to put on mascara. Why? You tell your colleague it’s so they’ll know you’re not Amish.

EILEEN: When people hear the word “Quaker,” they think we’re associated with some bygone day. A lot of people think of the Amish.

To me the exciting thing about Quakerism is that we believe God’s guidance is continuously revealed. And, I think it is a very contemporary faith.

What’s really core about Quakerism? The direct relationship with the divine and that we experience that and test God’s guidance in community. In many religious traditions, if you feel you’re hearing some guidance from God, then you check that guidance with church leaders or with the Bible. In Quaker tradition, the community is really the check and balance with our religious experience.

‘THE EXPERIENCE OF BEING THE MANY’

DAVID: That’s a central theme in this new memoir—community. Again and again, you emphasize that, even though you have experienced a few shining moments with celebrities, this effort of raising awareness and changing our lives is really about—to borrow your phrase—“ordinary people” working in communities.

Here’s a passage I like from late in the book. You’re describing what you discovered in this long, reflective journey you’ve taken:

From Africa, to Appalachia, to Alberta, and right around the world, there were ordinary people stepping up to defend the future. Like the crowd that encircled the White House that February day, we were pouring forth—past the view of the Lincoln Memorial, where Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken at the 1963 March on Washington, past the White House gate where Alice Paul had stood for women’s rights, past the wrought iron fence where I had stood a few days before. We were the many, emboldened by the realization we were not alone, and we were moving forward with hope.

And I have to say about that passage: That truth you were glimpsing is powerful stuff. And it’s not a foregone conclusion for most people. Just read James Gustave Speth’s Bridge at the End of the World to see how he prioritizes the most serious questions about the Earth’s future. One of the biggest questions Speth raises is: Do human beings care enough about the planet to act as a global community?

Your book is a resounding message: Yes, ordinary people can act in concert, if we recognize and act on that possibility.

Eileen Flanagan right with George and Ingrid Lakey

Author Eileen Flanagan, right, with George and Ingrid Lakey representing their nonprofit activist group: Earth Quaker Action Team. Eileen’s new book includes the story of their work together.

One of the people who makes this point in your book is the famous activist and teacher George Lakey who says: “We need to have the experience of being the many.” George is a friend and mentor to peacemaker Daniel Buttry, who created the Interfaith Peacemakers project. I know you work regularly with George, Eileen, and I was so pleased to see him in this book.

EILEEN: George is a very strong proponent of the idea of focused, long-term campaigns. You pick a target and then you work on a long-term strategy for your campaign. That’s different than the kind of activism in which people decide to go to one big event a year and then go home.

So, a national march was happening and I said, “Let’s go to the march as a group.” Then I wondered: But, is this the sort of thing we should do? Are we tired of going to marches on the Mall? And, George got behind the idea.

George said, “We’re doing our work on our own, so it’s important to connect with others doing this kind of work.”

I hope readers understand this combination. It’s not just glorifying national marches. I’m writing about this combination of doing very focused work and then also deciding to be with other people doing focused work. When you do that, you realize that your own work is part of a growing movement—a global movement—and that helps us not to get stuck in despair about whatever we’re facing in our own work.

SEEING OUR WORLD THROUGH OTHERS’ EYES

DAVID: One of the central messages of this book is: Age doesn’t matter. We can renew our vocation at any age and find good work, even close to home. The first sentence of your book identifies you as a woman who had reached the age of 50, at that point. This book really is both a summing up of the first half of your life—and a look ahead toward the good work you’re hoping to do in your life’s second half.

EILEEN: My experience is as a woman who put child-rearing first. Timing in life can be different for women and men, in general. A lot of men go full throttle in their careers from their 20s through their 40s and then their 50s is a time when they want to step back. I made choices in my life as a woman to put parenting first and, in those years, I wrote part time, in the cracks of my day. I chose to spend time with my children in the schools, with my congregation and I hit the age at which this book opens. I realized that I wanted to do more work in the world.

For some people, mid-life is a time when we want to let go of external work. For me, it was the opposite. I felt there was something I was meant to do in this world that I hadn’t done yet.

DAVID: Part of that decision, for you, involved travel. Your book encourages people to get out and about—to move around our planet.

EILEEN: It’s not the distance you travel that’s important. What’s most important is experiencing other cultures, and you don’t necessarily have to travel very far to do that. Within a five-mile radius of almost any American city, you can find cultures that you’ve never experienced.

I am a great advocate of travel, but it’s not just the miles you travel that are important. You could travel all the way to Botswana and go on safari there—yet you might never actually experience the lives of the people who live there. We need to see our world from the perspectives of other people who live here on this planet with us.

‘INSPIRED TO TAKE ACTION TOGETHER’

DAVID: Give me an example of a cultural difference you’ve seen that could help us here in America?

EILEEN: One example is the way we think about community. I grew up in the suburbs in an apartment, where we didn’t think about our neighbors in the way people in Botswana think about community. Let’s say you’re cooking dinner in a suburban home and you realize you don’t have an onion you need to finish what you’re making. Most Americans would drive to a store and buy an onion. In Botswana, neighbors walk next door and ask if they can have an onion.

Lots of church people here in the U.S. are willing to share when they know someone is in need. But, we find it hard to ask for help.

DAVID: And you connect this kind of idea with your goals of simplifying life in general—and helping to combat climate change, right?

EILEEN: The connection I make is that, if we’re going to strengthen our communities by living more simply, then we have to find out what we truly need in our neighborhoods. Do we all have to go out and buy every gadget that’s ever been invented for taking care of our homes? Could neighbors share a lawn mower, for example?

This will become more important in the years ahead if we are going to survive climate change. We’re going to see more severe storms. In a hurricane, it becomes very important to know your neighbors and to depend on each other.

I had to go far away to see that value of community sharing in action, but you don’t have to travel that far to rediscover it. Sharing really is a core human value and we find it running through all kinds of cultures around the world. It’s just that in the suburban America of the late 20th century, the place I grew up, that value had been diminished in a lot of ways.

DAVID: So, what’s your hope for readers of this book. What do you hope they’ll experience?

EILEEN: I have two hopes that reflect the two themes of the book. One is that I want to encourage people to live their own purpose to the fullest. I’m telling people: Don’t wait. Whatever it is you want to do—do it now. Use the gifts you have in service to others.

Secondly, I would love to see people doing more on climate change, after reading this book. A growing number of people of faith are already thinking about this. And, in this book, I’m telling readers: I found that I couldn’t do this all by myself. I would love to see more people of faith inspired to take action together.

Care to read more?

VISIT HER ONLINE HOME—You’ll find lots of resources at EileenFlanagan.com, the author’s online home. That includes an “Epilogue” post she wrote shortly after we completed this interview. If you buy her memoir, you’ll want to read that Epilogue after you’ve finished her book. It contains some additional “good news” about her efforts. You can also find out about her public appearances across the U.S.

READ HER EARLIER BOOK—Eileen’s earlier award-winning book The Wisdom to Know the Difference was endorsed by the Dalai Lama. In 2009, ReadTheSpirit interviewed Eileen about that book. You also might want to explore her Amazon author page, where you’ll also find recent updates.

GET INVOLVED—Climate change is a central concern in Eileen’s work. One of the best places to learn about her work on climate change is this 2013 story she wrote for The Christian Century. (Of course, there’s much more about this issue in her new memoir and on her website, as well.)

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsNatural WorldPeacemaking

The Rachel Held Evans Interview on ‘Searching for Sunday’

Rachel Held Evans book cover Searching for Sunday

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

FEELING a bit battered and blue after Easter? Every year, Easter is the single biggest day in churches coast to coast, a celebration of resurrection and new life.

Overall, however, attendance is down in the U.S., fueled by an exodus of younger adults. Yes, “Christians” are on the front pages of newspapers coast to coast, these days, but the news isn’t about inspiring growth. News reporters are covering “Christians” who are playing political hardball to try to maintain traditional bias against LGBT men and women in places like Indiana and Arkansas.

This isn’t shaping up like a hopeful springtime celebration of Christian renewal.

If this describes your attitude today, you should immediately order an antidote to these spiritual blues: Rachel Held Evans’ new book, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church. The book releases on April 14, 2015, but Amazon is taking orders now for delivery next week.

In her book, Rachel uses her considerable talent as one of the nation’s best spiritual storytellers to explore the great treasures people still can discover within the church. At their best, congregations can draw on the ancient tap roots of Christianity: love, compassion and hope for the world. If that doesn’t sound like your version of “church,” at the moment, then give Rachel a chance. You’ll get hooked on her real-life stories from the trenches of congregational life. In some cases, you’ll find yourself smiling broadly—maybe because you recognize your own story in Rachel’s stories.

By the end of the book, if you have given up on “church” until now, you’re likely to nod your head and say: “Hey, I’m going to give it another shot. There are a lot of treasures in this tradition.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RACHEL HELD EVANS
ON ‘SEARCHING FOR SUNDAY’

DAVID: Rachel, you have so many talents—writer, speaker, teacher and you even appear in videos, as well—so, how do you introduce yourself to groups?

Rachel Held Evans author of Searching for SundayRACHEL: Yes, I’m a writer, a blogger, a speaker. But, when I introduce myself, I usually begin by saying that I grew up in the Bible belt and that as a young adult I grew up in a nondenominational evangelical church. Then, as a young adult, I had questions about what I believed. I went through–and I’m still going through–a lot of doubts.

I tell people: You’re not alone if you have doubts and questions. I do, too.

Oh, and I usually say I’m married—and a huge Alabama Crimson Tide fan.

DAVID: That’s a great introduction to this book, which begins with your baptism by full immersion at the age of 12. Readers who grew up in an evangelical church will think of their own early experiences; readers who’ve never stepped into the doors of such a church will be fascinated by the scene you paint. And—the Crimson Tide? You describe, in your home church, the “red-and-white hair bows, neck ties, sports jackets, and blouses—the sacred accouterments of Alabama’s second region.” That was, at the time of your baptism, the University of Alabama football team under Gene Stallings.

And then, toward the end of that chapter, you mention the real doubts that can pop up even in the midst of a perfect moment like your own baptism. After the ritual,  you write: “I remember wondering why I didn’t feel cleaner, why I didn’t feel holier or lighter or closer to God when I’d just been born again.”

Honesty—even about your doubts—is a hallmark of your writing.

RACHEL: My writing seems to attract people who are in some sort of religious transition. They may be going from one kind of Christianity to another kind of Christianity–or they’re moving from Christianity to some other faith entirely or to no faith at all. I seem to attract readers who are on a journey–reflecting on what they once believed and trying to figure out what they now believe.

‘THE CHURCH WELCOMES US’

DAVID: One of the best passages in your book appears right away in the prologue “Dawn.” I think you should ask a graphic designer to blow this up into poster size with the cover of your book—and offer it as a free download for people to print out and hang on a wall. I bet a lot of people would want to hang this poster.

I”m talking about the passage where you summarize the entire book. It goes like this:

“The church tells us we are beloved (baptism).
The church tells us we are broken (confession).
The church tells us we are commissioned (holy orders).
The church feeds us (communion).
The church welcomes us (confirmation).
The church anoints us (anointing of the sick).
The church unites us (marriage).”

This new book really is about reminding us of that core power within our religious traditions and communities, right?

RACHEL: I’m glad you like the way I wrote that introduction. Yeah, you’re right. Those lines are a summary of the book. What I’m trying to say about this whole list—who some readers will recognize as a list of sacraments, depending on their Christian tradition—is that you actually don’t have to use sacramental language to describe those seven things. Millions of Christians don’t use the word “sacrament” to describe all of those things. At an evangelical church, for example, people might not acknowledge anointing of the sick as a “sacrament,” but we do see people caring for the sick and praying with the sick every day. The behavior is there even if it’s not described as “sacrament.”

This is important for me to communicate to readers in this book: I’m not saying we all have to use the same language to describe these things we do in the church—but these seven behaviors are there.

Then, I arranged the book around seven sections that correspond to these things: baptism, communion, marriage and so on. When I first decided that I wanted to write a book about “church,” and about my own experiences—experiences that a lot of other people have had as well—I wasn’t sure how to organize the book. Then, I came up with the idea of arranging my thoughts around the sacraments. So, as you’ve said, I start with baptism.

And, as I tell my stories, I also write about the questions we have about these things. So, I was baptized—but what does that mean about my identity now? A lot of people are asking that kind of question, including a lot of people who have left church entirely.

‘YOU’RE THE EXPERTS! DON’T YOU KNOW THIS?’

DAVID: Here’s one reason I love your book: You fully recognize all of the problems church leaders have caused and all of the mistakes they’ve made. But, nevertheless, you flat-out love the church. And if I had to explain one of the central appeals of this book, I only have to look at prime-time TV this spring.

I often meet with community leaders, including religious leaders and media professionals. Among media professionals, everybody’s talking about the explosion of these big-budget biblical-themed productions on TV this spring: “Killing Jesus,” “The Dovekeepers,” “A.D.—The Bible Continues.” In fact, the debut of Bill O’Reilly’s “Killing Jesus” just set new viewership records for the National Geographic Channel. Secular media professionals are buzzing about how we haven’t seen this many swords-and-sandals epics since the 1950s.

But Christian leaders? They’re still down in the dumps about all the Americans who are turning away from organized religion. Before Easter, when I did meet Christian clergy, I told them: “On Easter morning, just stand up in the pulpit and say: ‘You’re seeing the story on TV every night. Now, you’ve come to the place where we live by those stories you love so much. Welcome home!’ ” Now, that’s one way to preach the Easter message.

I was thinking about your chapter “Wind” in which you talk about the powerful, timeless flowing of the Spirit. And you describe Jesus’s encounter with Nicodemus. This is the story where Nicodemus seems confused by what Jesus is preaching and Jesus finally gets fed up with the older man’s stubbornness in refusing to believe what Jesus is saying. As you retell the story, you put Jesus’s response to Nicodemus this way: “You’re supposed to be the expert! Don’t you know this already?”

I feel as though that exchange, deep in your book, is really a strong message to readers who have forgotten the true spiritual power of the church to foster love and compassion and hope and healing in the world. “You’re the experts! Don’t you know this already?”

RACHEL: Yeah, you’re right. Now, I also have to say: Yes, I get people’s discouragement. I get that numbers are down and people aren’t going to church like they used to. But you know what? We follow this God who knows a thing or two about transforming the layout of the grave—and God’s not ready to give up. So, we shouldn’t be ready to give up.

The truth is: People will always be interested in Jesus. Just stop for a moment and think. These days, we fret so much about what clothes we wear in church and what music we use on Sunday mornings and—well, we fret about so many things that distract us from what we need to remember: Jesus is present where two or three gather in his name. We know that Jesus is present in communion in some way—and I know that the words we use to describe communion are different, depending on our Christian tradition—but we know that Jesus is present in it.

In the church, we are supposed to be the people who know how to introduce people to Jesus—and you know what? Millions of people want to meet Jesus. Yeah, Christianity may be losing some of its influence over the culture, but that may be a good thing.

Now, we have to ask ourselves: What does it truly mean to be influential? Does it mean having political battles go our way? I think we need to look back to what’s most important. And I think the most important signs are the fruits of the spirit.

‘NEVER IN MY LIFE HAD I BEEN SO ANGRY’

DAVID: And the truth is that church life—in fact, congregational life whatever your faith might be—is hard! Americans are among the most religious—and also the most outspoken—people in the world, according to the World Values Survey. So, it’s natural that congregations are hotbeds of both wonderfully compassionate spiritual growth—and sometimes big, emotional fights, right?

RACHEL: So many of us have experienced church burnout, and you’re right: It’s not just among evangelicals. If you’re invested in a congregation, then I’m certain that you’ll be disappointed big time at some point. It’s a part of being in a community–people will let you down. I reached a point a while ago when I got burned out because of the culture wars in which so many Christians are invested. This came to a head for me when the World Vision story broke—Christians refusing to give money to World Vision because the non-profit was going to allow people in same-sex marriages to work in its U.S. offices.

DAVID: You recently wrote a column for CNN about that turning point, headlined: “Are Culture War ‘Victories’ Worth the Casualties?” You really poured out your fury in that column, asking how Christians could celebrate a loss in donations to World Vision that cost thousands of children and their families the food, health care and other services they so desperately need. When you saw so-called Christian activists proclaiming victory, you describe your reaction this way: “Never in my life had I been so angry at my own faith tradition.”

RACHEL: I got so burned out at that. Christians battling a culture war were willing to let thousands of children go hungry because they wanted to punish World Vision over welcoming gay and lesbian men and women. It’s hard for me to even understand how people can think like that! Not only were children victims, but so were all the LGBT Christians who got caught in the middle of this culture war.

DAVID: You were angry—and yet you couldn’t abandon Christianity.

RACHEL: Like it or not, I’ve got skin in the church game.

th Sunday headlinesDAVID: I want to stress to readers that your viewpoint on LGBT inclusion isn’t shocking. You’re not even in a prophetic minority on this issue. In fact, most Americans are moving in this direction. You’ve only got to read the latest column by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker to see the dramatic shift in public opinion. In Dr. Baker’s words: “I’ve been following and reporting these trends for quite a while.”

RACHEL: You’re right. Study after study is showing this to be the case. Barna has done research on this, too. For young adults this is a huge reason that they’ve abandoned church. I have beat that drum so many times. It’s so frustrating to go to an evangelical conference and tell pastors straight-up: This is really driving people away from your churches.

And they say, “No, that’s not the problem. We’ll just bring in a better class of band to perform better worship music.”

And I go: “Ohhhhh, yeah. Like that’s going to make a difference.”

DAVID: I am amazed at how many seminaries and universities and other groups are welcoming Dr. David P. Gushee to talk about his book Changing Our Mind. Gushee also is shouldering a backlash from conservatives for his new stance on welcoming LGBT Christians. But, to borrow the headline from the Detroit Free Press on Sunday, Gushee’s on “The Right Side of History.”

RACHEL: What Gushee is doing is such a huge deal. I know so many gay friends who were just thrilled when he spoke out and published that book.

‘CHANGING HOW WE SEE OUR NEIGHBORS’

DAVID: At the end of author interviews, I usually ask a “walking away” question. As an author, envision readers walking away from having read your book. What do you hope they carry with them?

RACHEL: Every author I know has this hope—that their work helps people pay attention to the world around them in new ways. We need to pay better attention to God working in the world and in the church.

I hope that people make new connections. I hope this book changes how we see our neighbors. I hope that I can help readers pay more attention to the Spirit moving in our world.

I hope that readers will see themselves in my stories. I hope they’ll realize: Oh, somebody else has experienced these questions, and these doubts, I’ve experienced. I especially hope that when people finish reading my book, they will feel less alone.

Care to read more?

BUY THE BOOK—Click on the cover photo with this interview to visit the book’s Amazon page. Here’s her Amazon author page.

VISIT RACHEL ONLINE—She’s everywhere. Visit her main website, which is the mother ship for everything Rachel is doing from publications and public appearances to her latest blog posts. You’ll also find her on Twitter, where you can join her more than 60,000 followers, and on Facebook, too.

GET THE VIDEO—Rachel also appears in the very creative Animate Bible-study series. In her portion of that series, Rachel talks about “how the Old Testament and the New Testament relate to each other for Christians.”

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

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