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The Philip Yancey interview: ‘The Question that Never Goes Away’

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

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

Where is God when … the next hurricane hits, the next wildfire rages, the next nuclear accident spews radiation, or the next civil war strikes down men, women and children?

As each tragedy erupts, people of faith rush to reassure the world that God remains a source of hope. But, sometimes, their well-intentioned messages do more harm than good. A deeper, haunting question remains unresolved: Why? Why did this disaster happen in the first place? Why were some spared and others destroyed?

Now, best-selling author and journalist Philip Yancey, whose books are read around the world, tackles that question. And he doesn’t chart an easy course for himself. He writes about that core question—Why?—in light of the Japanese nuclear disaster, the civil war in the former Yugoslavia and the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. He calls the book simply, The Question That Never Goes Away: Why?

If you are familiar with Philip Yancey’s Sterling credentials as a major evangelical voice in America, you may be surprised by the hard-earned honesty of this book. This is not a volume of pat answers. It’s not soft soap. In fact, the book opens with a heart-rending scene: the death of Philip’s own father in a tragic case of well-meaning Christians actually causing the death.

Throughout his career, Philip Yancey has written and spoken many times about the questions: Why do such horrible things happen? Where is God when they do? That has generated a constant stream of letters from readers about this theme until Philip finally decided that he should pull the most stirring letters from his files and revisit them. On this issue alone, he found that he had saved more than 1,000 letters!

What caused Philip to address this haunting cluster of questions right now? He tells us that it was prompted by three life-changing experiences in 2012. As a journalist, he describes them in detail in this new volume that is such a page-turner, you’re likely to read it in a single sitting. He summarizes the trio of experiences this way:

“In 2012, I spoke to groups … three times, in the most daunting circumstances. … In March, I stood before congregations in the Tohoku region of Japan on the first anniversary of the tsunami that slammed into land with the velocity of a passenger jet, snapping railroad tracks like chopsticks and scattering ships, buses, houses, and even airplanes across the ravaged landscape. In its wake, with 19,000 dead and whole villages swept out to sea, a busy secular nation that normally has no time for theological questions thought of little else.

“In October, I spoke on the question in Sarajevo, a city that had no heat, fuel or electricity and little food or water for four years while sustaining the longest siege in modern warfare. Eleven thousand residents died from the daily barrage of sniper fire and from the shells and mortars that fell from the sky like hail. …

“As 2012 drew to a close, I accepted perhaps the hardest assignment of all … in the sheer intensity of horror and intimate grief. The weekend after Christmas, I addressed the community of Newtown, Connecticut, a town reeling from the senseless slaughter of 20 first-graders and 6 of their teachers and staff.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Philip Yancey. Here are …


DAVID: In this book about vast tragedies, you begin by telling readers about 1 death: When you were an infant, your father was disabled by polio. He needed to use a breathing machine, what then was called an “iron lung.” But your family belonged to a Fundamentalist church that convinced him to quit using the machine, so that prayer could heal him. Instead, your father died. It was an agonizing experience that shaped your own life.

Philip Yancey author of The Question That Never Goes AwayPHILIP: This was foundational for me, in an indirect way. I have no conscious memory of it because I was just a year old when it happened, but the overflow of this experience did affect me every day of my childhood. What I learned from that experience was not that different from other things I learned from the rather rigid church in which I grew up. The people in that church had very good intentions. The people who removed my father from his “iron lung” had good intentions. They thought they knew God’s will, but in that case they were flat-out wrong. He died.

That’s true of a lot of things in church history, isn’t it? I learned early on that you couldn’t swallow everything the church tells you. You’ve got to figure it out yourself; you’ve got to investigate. This idea flowered as a teenager. I learned that some of the things the church was telling me were wrong, in particular the racism of the church. And, for a while in my life, I threw the whole idea of faith off. I look back on that experience as healthy. It would have been unhealthy if I had just kept believing and accepting everything the church was telling me at that point. This stimulated my journalistic instincts before I knew what to call those instincts.

DAVID: People who know about your books and your work around the world may think of you as an evangelist. You’re very popular as an inspiring speaker. But your true vocation is journalism and you’ve always insisted that this role as a journalist is crucial to properly understanding your work.

PHILIP: The reason I identify as a journalist is because a journalist doesn’t begin as an expert in any one field. A journalist is a generalist, not an expert. Let’s say I’m assigned to write an article about nuclear physics. I don’t know anything about that subject but there are resources available. I can go to libraries. I can go to the Los Alamos lab. I can talk to physicists. I can eventually write an article that explains physics to people, at least a general introduction. That’s going to be quite different than asking a research physicist to write an article about his work. A lot of the books that are sold as religious books are written by the physicists of the church, the scholars, the experts.

In my work, I begin talking to people about their life experiences. That’s how I report on subjects like prayer or the problem of pain. I approach those questions from the journalist’s perspective. That’s true of everything I write. I started as a magazine writer and editor and made my living as a journalist. This new book goes beyond the usual journalistic perspective, because it comes out of three concrete experiences in three real places: Japan, Sarajevo and Newtown. But I do follow journalistic style here in the way I open each section with a description of what happened, then I write about how people lived through these experiences, then I write about my own experiences looking into what happened in these places.

I am not just asking and answering my own questions. I want readers to try to understand what it felt like to have been living in Japan when suddenly your entire village was washed away, or what it felt like to be a parent in Newtown on the day of the shootings and afterward. I want readers to experience the stories of these people, because their real stories give passion, depth and reality to the questions we all are raising after such tragedies.


DAVID: You admit in the opening of your book that, all too often, people of faith wind up making things worse in their rush to reassure people after a disaster.

PHILIP: That is very true. And I do use the phrase “well intentioned.” One example: So many of the clichés you hear at funerals, or explanations given to children after a disaster, actually wind up making people feel worse instead of better. A common comment I heard, as a journalist talking to people who had survived terrible tragedies was: “The church made it worse.” Well-intentioned people show up hoping to help and share all sorts of theories about what had just happened. Many of those easy explanations were confusing and, in the end, made things worse.


DAVID: In your book, readers will meet a lot of very wise people. As a good journalist, you draw together lots of such wisdom in your reporting. One figure you include in your book, who we just profiled in our online magazine, is Victor Frankl, the Auschwitz survivor who wrote about the importance of finding meaning in life even in the most deadly circumstances. Tell us why you included him.

PHILIP: What struck me most, the first time I read Victor Frankl, was the idea that despair is suffering without meaning. The Nazis actually carried out experiments in having prisoners work without meaning. They might have someone move rocks across a field all day long. The next day, they’d move the rocks back. Over and over again. This would break the will of the laborers and, eventually, the meaninglessness would break them down completely. Frankl argued that the human mind can survive extremely severe experiences if we can find some meaning in what we are going through.

Now, you can carry this argument too far. It’s easy to misunderstand. Some people might read Frankl and think it’s just a simple formula: find meaning and you’ll survive. Well, that’s not true. A lot of people who did find meaning in Auschwitz died anyway. Most people who passed through Auschwitz died. The same is true in other great tragedies people face today. It’s not a simple formula that guarantees survival.

But it is true that if you can just find meaning in the suffering, you can endure in a different way and you can do this probably more effectively than someone who doesn’t find meaning. I believe that principle is the same principle that Jesus uses when he encountered people who were suffering. In John 9, for example, Jesus encounters a man born blind and the disciples immediately ask: Who sinned? This man? His parents? That scene shows you the absurdity of such questions. Jesus dismisses the questions. He didn’t offer neat, formulaic theories about why something happened. Jesus was focused on: Yes, something bad has happened here, but can something good come out of this? And the answer is always: Yes.


DAVID: So, a healthy “search for meaning,” to borrow Frankl’s phrase, often focuses on the way forward, the next steps, the individual and community response. You know from your own life, from your father’s death in particular, that God is not Superman. Here’s the lesson that I came away with most clearly from your book: If we doubt God’s reality in the face of tragedy, then we’re looking toward God with the wrong vision, the wrong set of expectations. God’s not hovering up there in a red cape and blue tights, ready to fly into our lives at a moment’s notice and rescue us. God is most present in the community that responds even in the face of evil and trauma.

PHILIP: That’s very true in the way you’re describing it. But this can be misunderstood. As you say that, people may think you’re saying: God is unable to solve problems, so God has to go with Plan B.

The way I say it is: God is Plan A from the beginning. God is not a muscle-flexing figure. God wants us to do in our admittedly inept ways, often, what God could do with a snap of a finger. Remember that God did not come to us as Superman 2,000 years ago but as a helpless baby in a very oppressed and problematic context. Jesus had many chances to snap his fingers—and didn’t. That’s what the temptation scenes in the wilderness are all about. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness to snap his fingers and do great miracles, yet he didn’t. And, in the end, he tells his followers: Now, it’s up to you to do the work here.

Every parent celebrates when their child takes a first step. Just this morning, I received a little movie clip from a woman whose grandchild had taken her first step. One response to such a video would be to email back and say: “What’s the big deal? There are billions of people in the world and most of them can walk.” But, if you’re a grandparent, it is indeed a big deal. In that way, God takes pleasure in seeing the world respond to rebuild after a tsunami or in seeing the community of Newtown come together to heal. This is not a case of an inferior Plan B—it’s what God had in mind all along.

DAVID: As I was reading your book, I kept thinking of Queen Elizabeth II’s famous words of wisdom after a great tragedy. She said, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

PHILIP: Absolutely. I had not heard that quote from Queen Elizabeth before, but I have spoken with so many people who tell me that grief is the place where love and pain converge.

DAVID: That’s a memorable line in your new book: Grief is the place where love and pain converge.

PHILIP: Yes, and I quote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who warns us not to think that we can fill that space. He wrote, “Nothing can make up for the absence of someone we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold out and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation. It remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap. God does not fill it, but on the contrary, God keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other, even at the cost of pain.”

This is such an important truth. When someone is lost, it’s important not to say: “You won’t feel the grief after a while.” Or: “You’ll get back to normal soon.” That loss may never go away. The parents who lost their children in Newtown can choose to fill their gaps in healthy or in unhealthy ways. They can become obsessed with questions or with bad advice they have been given.

I am saying: Grief itself can be a healthy thing. It’s a symbol of our love.

 Care to read more?

  • MORE FROM PHILIP YANCEY: Visit Philip’s own website where he offers columns and news about his ongoing work.
  • INTERFAITH PEACEMAKERS: Our Victor Frankl profile is part of a much larger effort—called Interfaith Peacemakers—celebrating the lives of men and women around the world whose faith leads them to risk crossing boundaries and making peace, often with others they never expected would help to form a new community.
  • OUR READ THE SPIRIT BOOKSTORE: We’ve published dozens of books on related themes. Please visit our online Bookstore.
  • WAITING FOR THE MOVIE VERSION? Our website now includes the work of long-time faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty—called Visual Parables—in which Ed shares more than 1,000 thoughtful columns on films that make us think about our faith in fresh ways.

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Great reading for the Lenten season

CLICK THIS GRAPHIC to visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

CLICK THIS GRAPHIC to visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

2 billion Christians around the world are in the midst of Lent, the season of prayerful reflection that leads to Easter. Whether you are a part of the Eastern Orthodox Great Lent, or the Western Lenten season, you’ve got more than a month—until Easter Sunday on April 20—to ponder your spiritual direction.

ReadTheSpirit highly recommends dozens of books, each year, from a wide range of authors and publishing houses. Today, though, we are asking our readers to help support ReadTheSpirit Books—our own circle of authors. Here are six great choices for Lenten reading …


ReadTheSpirit’s founding editor David Crumm wrote this popular 40-day Lenten devotional several years ago—and we have heard from individuals, from small groups and from entire congregations who have enjoyed this book. It’s now in an updated Second Edition, available in our bookstore (where we provide easy links to buy our books from Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other online retailers). In each of the 40 chapters, David takes a portion of the Gospel stories about Jesus’s final days—then,  he chooses an object in that day’s Bible passage that connects Jesus’s life with our contemporary world. In the course of these 40 days, you’ll meet everyone from John Lennon and poet Joesph Brodsky to the Cat in the Hat and the Lord of the Rings.


Sharing food is a cornerstone of virtually every faith on the planet. That’s why ReadTheSpirit online magazine includes our Feed The Spirit department with weekly stories and recipes. Our first major book on the connections between faith and food is Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. Chapters include the importance of food in strengthening American communities, plus a recipe from a beloved American poet, and the story of pretzels as both a symbol of prayer and an annual reminder of Lent—and so much more.


Our Interfaith Peacemakers department is a great place to sample chapters from Daniel Buttry’s popular books, especially his latest: Blessed Are the Peacemakers. In these pages, you will meet more than 100 heroes, but most of them are not the kind of heroes our culture celebrates for muscle, beauty and wealth. These are peacemakers—and the world needs to hear their stories now more than ever.


Today, you’ll find a fresh sample of the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt’s writing in our We Are Caregivers department. Ben also appears in the website of the Day1 radio network. His practical, compassionate wisdom has attracted readers nationwide. This Lenten season, remember that 1 in 3 American households includes a caregiver. Buy this book for yourself or for a caregiver you care about. Here is Ben’s ReadTheSpirit bookstore page.


Every week, author and journalist Suzy Farbman writes stories about the signs of God’s goodness that often surprise us—and may come into our lives in many forms. There’s not a better theme for the Lenten season! In her book, God Signs: Health, Hope and Miracles, My Journey to Recovery, Suzy invites readers along on a heart-opening journey through the many God Signs she encountered while struggling with one of life’s greatest challenges.


Jane Wells writes on many themes. She is the host of our colorful Faith Goes Pop department, which explores connections between faith and popular culture—and Jane also has developed the Bird on Fire department, which inspires individuals and congregations to get involved in combating modern slavery, hunger and homelessness. In working with young people, Jane became aware that the enormous fascination with science fiction books and movies, especially The Hunger Games, reveals a deep concern for many of the world’s most vulnerable men, women and children. Jane’s slogans include: “Hunger isn’t science fiction.” If you know a young person—or you are a Hunger Games fan yourself—there’s not a better Lenten book than Bird on Fire: A Bible Study for Understanding the Hunger Games.

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


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Categories: BibleGreat With GroupsHolidaysPeacemaking

Interview with Ken Wilson on ‘Letter to My Congregation’

Cover of Ken Wilson A Letter to My Congregation by ReadTheSpirit BooksAMERICAN attitudes toward our gay and lesbian relatives, friends and co-workers are changing so dramatically that the Pew Research Center ranked this shift as the first historic milestone among 13 changes that researchers identified over the past year.

TODAY, two major evangelical voices—and two highly respected observers of American religious life—are joining in the launch of a new book: A Letter to My Congregation. The four are …

  • KEN WILSON, author of this book-length letter, which he wrote to his large congregation in the Midwest to explain why even devoutly evangelical Christians should welcome gay, lesbian and transgendered men and women.
  • DAVID P. GUSHEE, based at Mercer University, where he is a theologian and author widely read in evangelical congregations. Most significantly, Gushee decided to publicly change his stance on this issue in the opening pages of Ken Wilson’s new book. (His Wikipedia entry.)
  • PHYLLIS TICKLE, a scholar and journalist who is highly respected for her books, magazine articles and lectures about trends in American religious life. (Her Wikipedia entry.)
  • And, TANYA LUHRMANN, based at Stanford University, where she is a leading anthropologist studying religious movements—including the Vineyard denomination in which Ken Wilson is a pastor. (Her Wikipedia entry.)

Tickle, Gushee and Luhrmann explain why they are supporting Ken’s efforts in a series of introductions to his new book—and you can read all three introductions on our new resource page for A Letter to My Congregation.

In this daring and compassionate journey of faith, the Rev. Ken Wilson apparently becomes the first pastor of a large evangelical congregation in America to so publicly reverse centuries of condemnation of gays and lesbians—and bring his congregation with him in welcoming gay and lesbian members at all levels of the church.

With the launch of this book, many people nationwide are asking: How did Ken Wilson do this?

In today’s interview you will learn: He did it by slowly and carefully studying the Bible, praying about these matters and talking with families in his congregation. The result, according to early online reviews of his book, “adds incredible freshness and insight” to a debate that threatens to tear churches and families apart. Reviewer David C. Sinclair writes that Ken “shows us a way forward that embraces our differences. … And, most importantly, he cogently argues for unconditional inclusion as we seek God together.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Ken Wilson in …


Photo of the Rev. Ken Wilson by Julia Huttar Bailey. Used with permission.

Photo of the Rev. Ken Wilson by Julia Huttar Bailey. Used with permission.

DAVID: The Pew Research Center reports that we’re at a historic turning point on this issue, based on their tracking of data nationwide. But, beyond all that data, what have you seen from a pastor’s point of view? Can you see and feel the change among the people you encounter everyday?

KEN: Yes, 10 years ago, as an evangelical pastor I didn’t know gay people and a lot of the people in my congregation would have said they didn’t know gay people—but that has shifted dramatically. Now, most people say they have at least one gay friend. And, even more importantly, for young people this is a non-issue. Of Millennials who leave the church, a large number leave over the church’s exclusionary stance on LGBT people. Young people just can’t understand that exclusion. They know plenty of LGBT people personally and they don’t want to be part of a church that excludes their friends.

Now, this has become a big issue for parents who have children who are affected by this in various ways. They’re losing their kids over this question, whether those kids are LGBT themselves or they know and care about someone who is. The question for men and women in the church becomes: Do I care so much about the ideology of this issue that I’m willing to lose my children over this? This is an issue where parents and their children are absolutely affected everyday in local congregations.

I had a small group of people from our church who reviewed an early version of this letter with me. We went around the room and asked each person to tell us: What’s my personal stake in this conversation?

Every single person had a gay friend or loved one or family member and each one told the group—often with tears in their eyes—how much this mattered to them. This included people who accepted gay relationships and people who still had moral questions about gay relationships. We all were affected. This really is a historic change.

DAVID: I’ve been a journalist covering religion in American life for nearly three decades and I believe it’s accurate to say that you’re the first pastor of a large, evangelical church to go public about such a dramatic change on this issue with your congregation coming along on the journey. Millions of readers know that Rob Bell and Brian McLaren have changed in their public stance on this issue, but that was after they had left their congregations.

For readers wondering about this claim, I want to clarify: We’re talking about large, traditionally evangelical congregations and pastors who have gone so public in reversing their LGBT policies with their congregations. I’m not seeing them, at this point. If you’re out there reading this, please email us at

But, having said all of that, let me ask: Are you aware of anyone else we should mention here?

KEN: I’ve been looking, too, and I am aware of some other evangelical congregations across the country that are moving in this direction. I don’t want to name them because they’re still on this journey and they’re not wanting to go public right now. And, just like you, David, I’d love to find and talk with others who are on this journey. I’d love to learn from them about how to do this—and how we can help others to do this.

‘The eyes of the world …?’

DAVID: Since David P. Gushee is also putting his name on the line with this book, the two of you were invited to speak at the California LGBT film festival, called Level Ground, last week. The festival was covered in the Los Angeles Times and other news media. Do you feel the eyes of the world are upon you?

KEN: No, I don’t feel that way and I don’t want to focus on the psychological pressure. My first responsibility is to lead my church through this transition successfully. Yes, I know there is a lot at stake here. There are many evangelical pastors out there whose hearts are inclined to go in this direction, but they can’t even begin to talk about this. I think once we can demonstrate that, yes, it can be done—then I think there are going to be many evangelical congregations that will follow. Before long, there is going to be a strong and growing expression of evangelicalism in America that is making space for gay people.

DAVID: How do they start? I can imagine a lot of readers of this interview—and readers of your book—wanting to know: How did Ken do it? How can I start this process?

KEN: The first thing is to convince pastors that they should give themselves permission to start asking the questions. There are so many pastors and other church leaders who want to do that, but they are inhibited from even starting the process. They see this as a “loser” issue for them. They don’t see any way to build a coalition around this—no way to build a consensus in their congregation. So, they don’t even start lifting up the questions that their hearts want to ask.

DAVID: You found the courage. Now, you have opened up the conversation in your church to a point at which you realize how deeply many families care about this issue. But we’re talking here about the very first, private steps—the first moral questioning. Give us a little sense of how that began for you.

KEN: Well, for me, I asked myself: Why am I willing to make so much space in the church for people who are remarried after divorce—despite the Bible’s very strict teaching against that—and I’m not willing to make space for gay and lesbian people? And I kept asking myself: Why does this particular moral stance of the church about LGBT people cause so much harm?

‘Is this really the teaching of Jesus …?’

DAVID: Let’s talk about the harm. In your book, you make an eloquent appeal: We can’t keep waiting on this issue. We can’t keep kicking these questions down the road. Every day, real people are being harmed by the church’s rigid condemnation.

KEN: When I started pondering these questions, I realized that this particular stance of the church really is harmful. When a married man in a congregation has an adulterous affair with another woman—and he’s confronted about it—we don’t have suicides as a result. But, we do have teenagers committing suicides at higher rates when they are part of congregations that have these exclusionary teachings about homosexuality. Is this really the teaching of Jesus when our exclusion of people is contributing to a rise in suicide?

DAVID: These are tough questions for evangelical leaders to ask. There’s a lot of fear around even raising the questions, isn’t there?

KEN: The church is an anxious system. It’s organized around the most anxious members, including those who threaten to leave if exclusionary policies aren’t upheld. In fact, pastors become so anxious about these members that we tend to overestimate how many in the congregation share these views.

‘My worst fears …’

DAVID: You were afraid, right?

KEN: I had a lot of fear about this! I dreaded it! And, you know what? My worst fears have not been realized. Not even close to my worst fears. Yes, I have lost some key people and, yes, we have lost some income over this and it has affected attendance—but not nearly as badly as I had expected.

If you’re a pastor, it’s easy to exaggerate the fear. As pastors, we have to find ways to duck out from under this big cloud of fear that surrounds this issue.

‘A healer’s heart …’

DAVID: This took time. This book describes a journey with your congregation that began years ago. How long ago?

The Divine Hours by Phyllis TickleKEN: Phyllis Tickle is a big part of this story from the very beginning. Our Vineyard church in Ann Arbor began working with Phyllis Tickle on prayer about 10 years ago. Our church helped Phyllis to promote praying The Divine Hours and we became an online host for the Divine Hours. She visited our congregation in 2005 and, as I got to know her, she became a personal confidant. I would send her prayer updates as I began experiencing a significant shift in my own prayer life. Eventually, my wife Nancy and I were invited to their home outside Memphis. And that’s how I met Dr. Sam Tickle, Phyllis’ husband, a leading doctor in the Memphis area and, some years ago, one of the first to begin treating people in the AIDS crisis.

A a result of all this, Sam and Phyllis had a lot of gay and lesbian friends and they took us to a church that was filled with gay and lesbian and transgendered people. It was as if someone had gathered a congregation of sexually excluded Christians and I was just taken aback by the clear presence of Jesus in that assembly of people. The cognitive dissonance I was experiencing—as a traditional evangelical pastor—was just through the roof! I credit Dr. Sam Tickle with really helping me in this journey. He was so obviously a compassionate and caring physician and Christian and he related to people with a healer’s heart that was just infectious.

DAVID: Everyone on the cover of your book played a role in this journey, including Dr. Tanya Luhrmann, the famous scholar and researcher. Tell us how your paths crossed.

When God Talks Back T.M. LuhrmannKEN: Tanya is a world-class anthropologist who had done research on how evangelical spirituality mediates an experience of God. She studied this in Vineyard churches and I became aware of her work. I read her book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and I thought it was brilliant. Her book helped me to be a better pastor and I got to know Tanya herself through a gathering of Vineyard scholars, where we both talked about her book.

‘Describing a journey
and inviting others …’

DAVID: You found many of Tanya’s ideas to be very helpful, especially the questions she raises about how a person can communicate a personal spiritual journey to others. You also worked with a prayer exercise Tanya provided and, in the midst of that exercise you found your method: writing a letter.

KEN: How would I communicate all of this? I thought a lot about that. And, I decided to write out the whole process of what I was going through as a pastor struggling with these questions. Through this letter, my struggle could become a representative struggle for others. I wasn’t writing an argument. I was describing a journey and inviting others to accompany me.

DAVID: Then, I also want to ask you about David P. Gushee, who dramatically decided to go public with his own change on this issue in the opening pages of your book. How did that come about?

KEN: I met David Gushee in 2006 through another issue we were working on. We were in a gathering of evangelical leaders with top-level environmental scientists—people like E.O. Wilson—to talk about climate change and environmental concerns.

So, I had known David and I had worked with him on that environmental issue. He is the co-author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, which is a top book in evangelical seminaries. I liked that book, too, but the one section I thought was weak in Kingdom Ethics was the section on homosexuality. I called David and I said, “I love your book, but I have questions about this one section. It feels to me like you’re just rehearsing the traditionalist views.” And I asked him, “Where are you on this—now?”

He told me that someone close to him had come out as gay and his views were changing. I sent him the manuscript of my letter, then, hoping that he might say something like: Well, I don’t agree with Ken’s conclusion, but this is a legitimate part of the conversation. That was as much as I could hope.

DAVID: Instead, you got a shock.

KEN: It was a shock! His reply was: “What can I do to help you?” And, then, he wrote such a powerful Foreword to the book. I mean, I was feeling way out on a limb here and it was such a blessing that he came forward and was so supportive of this. I’m a pastor. I’m not the kind of scholar that Dr. David P. Gushee is. And yet he stepped forward and has been so supportive of the whole thing.

‘Who wants to go up against 2,000 years …?’

DAVID: The Pew Research Center captures the historic opportunity we all have, right now, to help people make a transition on this issue. In just 10 years, Pew reports, Americans have gone from less than half of us saying “homosexuality should be accepted by society” to 60 percent today! Then, there’s another dramatic jump when the question is asked another way: “Is same-sex marriage inevitable?” Then, more than 7 in 10 Americans say: Yes.

Those two answers show us millions of Americans who are in turmoil on this issue. Millions know this change is coming—but still can’t find a way to accept LGBT people as a part of society. One of the brilliant strategies in your book is to say: Church members don’t have to be united in our personal moral conclusions—but we must unite in welcoming people into the church. Am I saying that correctly? You’re not demanding that everyone immediately agree on moral acceptance, but you are saying that it’s time for the church to fully welcome LGBT people.

KEN: Right. The problem is that so many people in the evangelical community—and in the faith community in general—want to find a way to accept and include gay and lesbian people, but they have serious questions based on their faith tradition. Who wants to go up against 2,000 years of Christian consensus on an issue? But, already, many people do know that our hearts are telling us something else. People are realizing that, even if they don’t fully understand how to think through this issue, there’s a more serious question we’re facing: the do-no-harm test.

‘What is the Good News of Jesus?’

DAVID: Yes, Pew explains this shift in American experience. This has become personal for Americans nationwide. Pew reports that a huge number of people—7 in 10 Americans—say they know “some” or “a lot” of gay or lesbian people. In other words, we know who we’re hurting if we condemn gay and lesbian people. They’re our friends, our family.

KEN: Right, we’re talking about a lot of people! And, this issue is the tip of a much, much bigger iceberg, which is the branding of Christianity—ever since the rise of the Religious Right—as this movement of people who primarily are “against things” and, even worse, as a movement that is “against people.”

Christianity is losing followers in America because of this. What’s at stake is more than just individuals with gay friends. What’s at stake here is how Americans make friends with Jesus. The bigger question is: How can the church promote human flourishing? Have we reduced the message of Jesus to a rigid list of things that people are forbidden to do—or, worse yet, to a list of people we’re mad at? Are we just a movement that stigmatizes and excludes people?

We’re really asking is: What is the Good News of Jesus? What does Jesus stand for?

DAVID: These are the emotionally wrenching questions you’re hearing from families, as a pastor, right?

KEN: Exactly. I began to realize this when parents started coming to me privately as their pastor, telling me that a teenage son or daughter thought they were gay. I saw how much fear, how much distress—and how much harm—was happening in these families. I began to realize: Something is wrong with this picture.

Parents were having to choose between their faith and their own children. This was a profound problem! Of course, some parents tried to adopt the approach of “loving the person but hating the sin,” and that might sound like a nice bromide if you’re not actually living in these relationships. In real lives, in real human relationships, that is such an alienating thing to say.

The truth is: There are gay young people in all congregations, whatever the congregation teaches about homosexuality. So, we’ve got a dangerous situation here when we condemn and exclude people. Just look at the data on suicide rates. As a pastor, I began to realize: This can’t be the fruit of the Spirit. There’s something wrong here.

‘The Gospel is an invitation.’

DAVID: You’re sure to draw a lot of criticism, along with all the appreciation that’s sure to come your way, as well. What final thought do you want to leave with readers—critics and supporters of your work?

KEN: I hope that people who care about the church will ask themselves: Don’t we care about the harm being done to vulnerable people? Do we really want to sacrifice our children? Is that the message of Jesus? Or, is the Gospel an acceptance of us that is so powerful that it is life changing? And, as a result, we want to invite others into the company of Jesus. I think the Gospel is an invitation.


CLICK THIS COVER to learn more about the book and order a copy in print or digital formats.

CLICK THIS COVER to learn more about the book and order a copy in print or digital formats.

VISIT our resource page for the new book, which includes all three introductions by Gushee, Tickle and Luhrmann … plus much more! Order a copy of the book, right now, from Amazon (via links with this interview)—or use the links in the resource page to order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other online retailers. Bookmark our resource page for the book, because—in coming weeks—we will be adding free Discussion Guides.

PLEASE share this interview with friends. You are free to republish this interview as long as you include the credit line (see the italic line at the end of this post). Or, you can share this by using the blue-”f” Facebook icons or the tiny envelope-shaped email icons.

ALL THIS WEEK, read more about the latest research into changing American attitudes on these issues in the project, hosted by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker.

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleChildren and FamiliesChristianChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The N.T. Wright interview on the inspiration of Paul and Psalms

Cover Paul and the Faithfulness of God by NT Tom Wright

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

N.T. Wright is writing like a man on a mission, now that he has left his role as bishop to devote his remaining years to producing books that he hopes will inspire individuals and strengthen congregations. At the moment, he is publishing his longest book (1,700 pages bound into two volumes weighing in at 5 pounds) and one of his smallest books (a mere 200 pages, less than 10 ounces and small enough to tuck into a coat pocket).

Both books will be eagerly snapped up by the host of N.T. Wright fans around the English-speaking world.


Paul and the Faithfulness of God:
Rowan Williams, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the worldwide Anglican Communion from 2002 until his retirement in 2012, describes this massive work with these words: “N.T. Wright’s long-awaited full-length study of St. Paul will not in any way disappoint. From the very first sentence, it holds the attention, arguing a strong, persuasive, coherent, and fresh case supported by immense scholarship and comprehensive theological intelligence.

David Crumm, Editor of ReadTheSpirit, adds to that review: “Rowan Williams’ praise is well founded, although not every reader will find the entire book exciting from the first sentence. Certainly—clergy, educators, small-group leaders and men and women who love Bible study will enjoy this landmark in scholarship. More importantly, Wright uses this book to argue against those evangelical activists who use Paul as a source of one-line ‘proof texts.’ Today, Paul would be shocked by some of the ways his letters are quoted out of context, Wright tells readers. Paul never intended to serve as a finger-wagging disciplinarian. His vision was far, far larger, Wright argues.”


The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential:
Once again, let’s turn to Rowan Williams: “A characteristic blend of learning, personal insight and spiritual perception. This book will be of enormous help to Christians who want to know how to make fuller use of one of the greatest scriptural resources for prayer.”

Cover The Case for the Psalms NT Tom Wright

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

David Crumm of ReadTheSpirit says: “Buy this for your friends who rarely set foot inside a church—and for your friends who flock to megachurches with an electrified sound track of pop praise songs. Both will discover the world’s greatest collection of sacred hymns with a friendly yet passionate guide—Wright himself—to make the introductions.”

Tom Wright’s opening lines in the Psalms book: “This book is a personal plea for the Psalms, which make up the great hymnbook at the heart of the Bible, have been the daily lifeblood of Christians, and of course the Jewish people, from the earliest times. Yet in many  Christian circles today, the Psalms are simply not used. And in many places where they are still used, whether said or sung, they are often reduced to a few verses to be recited as ‘filler’ between other parts of the liturgy or worship services. In the later case, people often don’t seem to realize what they’re singing. In the former case, they don’t seem to realize what they’re missing. This book is an attempt to reverse those trends. I see this as an urgent task.”

David Crumm spoke with Wright via telephone during one of Wright’s recent U.S. tours …


DAVID: The story behind this big new book on Paul is as dramatic as the arguments you make in the book itself. You gave up being a bishop to finish this book! Tell us about the decision.

NT Tom Wright Bible scholar and authorTOM: That was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make professionally or personally. It was a huge joy to be the Bishop of Durham. That’s where I come from and I really loved being back there. I loved doing that work. Then, in 2009, I had a four-month sabbatical and went to Princeton to finish writing this book on Paul. I thought I could finish most of the book during the sabbatical, then I could go back to Durham, be bishop for another four or five years—and retire at that point. But, by Christmas of 2009, I had written a lot and researched a lot—and I was thoroughly enjoying the work—but I wasn’t able to get far enough toward completing the book so that I could just keep being Bishop of Durham and then expect to wrap up the final parts of the book in a weekend here and there.

The choice was very difficult. My wife and I were aware that this huge project was just sitting there unfinished. I either had to decide that this project was just a hobby until I later would retire as bishop—or we were going to have to consider moving elsewhere, soon. At the same time St. Andrews was knocking at my door, looking for a senior New Testament person for their staff. All the lights turned green in that direction and we were astonished at how well everything worked out. I know my decision shocked a lot of people, including some of my friends. But the move enabled me to finish this and other writing, as well. (For more on the chronology of these moves, see our N.T. Wright Resource Page.)

DAVID: So, the next question is: Can readers dive into this book on Paul, or do they have to read the three previous books in this overall series? Starting with this book, they will miss the full sweep of your previous three volumes in the series, but they clearly can find a lot of new insights here with Paul. What do you think?

TOM: Yes, I think someone can pick up this book and read it from start to finish, without first reading all the others. Think about it! (laughing) It’s enough to ask someone to read these 1,700 pages! It would be just too daunting to suggest that they have to start by reading a couple thousand pages of other books before they can even open this one on Paul. Sure, this book stands on the shoulders of my earlier books. But this one, I hope, is worth reading even as a freestanding book.


DAVID: There are sections of this new book that will be daunting to general readers. But there also are sections that are very quotable. I marked a lot of them in my copy of the book. Let me zero in on one immediately. You take aim at proof-texting evangelicals who want to chop up Paul into a set of individual rules to be followed one by one.

Let me read a section from your book. You write, “I marvel in particular that many commentaries, which one might suppose to be committed to following the argument of the text they are studying, manage not to do that, but instead to treat a Pauline letter as if it were a collection of maxims, detached theological statements, plus occasional ‘proofs from scripture’ and the like. I take it as axiomatic, on the contrary, that Paul deliberately laid out whole arguments, not just bits and pieces, miscellaneous topoi which just happen to turn up in these irrelevant ‘contingent’ contexts like oddly shaped pearls on an irrelevant string.”

That’s fairly pointed language. Proof texting isn’t the way to read Paul!

TOM: Well, of course, we can say that there are places in Paul’s writing where you can put in a thumb and pull out a plum. There are lines in Paul where he sums up some of his arguments, for example. But the point I am making in that section you just read is: Let’s be sure that, if you’re reading one sentence, that we also see the context of the paragraph, and the context of the entire letter. By relying exclusively on a single verse, we can tend to distort the big picture. And the big picture is that Paul was developing a whole new way of looking at the world, at God and at everything else.


DAVID: The larger argument that runs through these 1,700 pages is that Paul was a theologian, not just a finger-wagging problem solver. Even though Paul didn’t sit back and write out a huge theological masterwork—you argue that Paul really did see himself as revealing a much bigger picture of Christian theology. People who are obsessed with the individual rules miss the bigger picture.

TOM: One of the great strands that runs through this new Paul book is that Paul was launching Christian public theology. This was not a private project. He was launching a worldview that could hold its head up so that people could look deeply into this theology and say, “My goodness. This makes sense.”

DAVID: Here’s another shocker for some of your evangelical fans: You argue very strongly in this new book that Paul was not a world-rejecting theologian. In other words, Paul believed that this world is the one God is perfecting. Christianity is not about simply saving your soul, grabbing a ticket to heaven somewhere over yonder—and this world be damned. That wasn’t Paul’s viewpoint.

TOM: It’s ironic and amusing to me that some American evangelicals have this as a cultural marker. It’s ironic because America—of all the countries in the world—is so wonderfully supplied with resources and has so many rich people living there. The evangelical community itself has often been quite well to do and powerful. Yes, there are many poor evangelicals, but there also are many wealthy and influential ones as well. So, why reject this world? To me, that’s an irony.

But, you are correct: I want to say very clearly to readers that, no, we are not merely passing through this world. That idea is a complete misunderstanding of the whole New Testament. That idea of rejecting this world goes back to the Middle Ages when this present world was a dark and gloomy and terrible place and the only thing you realistically could do was to say your prayers and hope for a better world elsewhere. But why should this remain a 19th or 20th century evangelical hangup?

If people are still claiming that God is not interested in this world, then I say that kind of preaching would leave Paul wringing his hands! God’s purpose is to renew the world—not to replace it!

DAVID: Let me read a few lines I marked, sprinkled through this book. Here’s one: “The reign of God’s restorative justice and healing peace is meant for this world, not for some other.” Here’s another one: “Paul believes that he is living in the world over which Jesus, the Messiah, already reigns as Lord.” And here’s one more, even stronger: “Paul did not see himself as simply snatching souls out of this world’s wreck in order to populate a Platonic heaven. In the light of Paul’s statements in various places about his hope for the whole creation, we should take seriously what he says about God reconciling ‘the world’ to himself.”

In one of my favorite passages in your new book, you use the British metaphor of teatime. You say that faith is not about dreaming of teatime in heaven, somewhere else. It’s about actually getting out the china and preparing the tea and sandwiches, every day, in this world.

TOM: That’s exactly right.

Now, the danger of saying this is that people must see what I’m writing here in the context of the entire New Testament. People may think I’m preaching the old Social Gospel. “We’ve heard that and it didn’t work,” they will say. “Oh, he’s just saying we should be nice to each other and take care of the poor.”

I want to say to them, “Well, one reason the old approach to the Social Gospel didn’t work is that we tried it in the wrong framework. If we let him, Paul will show us a far larger framework of what we should be about in this world.”

Actually, one of the most exciting things I experienced as Bishop of Durham was to work with people in ordinary churches who were out in their streets and community doing the things the church should be doing. I’m talking about ordinary little churches on the street corner—sometimes with just 50 people on a Sunday morning. But they were true followers of Jesus and they were doing things because that’s what followers of Jesus do: They were helping out in old people’s homes, they were visiting prisoners, they were feeding people.

It’s when people gather and follow Jesus like this that other people begin to ask: Who are these people? Why are these people doing these things? Why aren’t they just sitting at home and watching the television like other people?

This is how Christianity spread two millennia ago. It happened when people began asking these very questions: Who are these people living like this?

The thing that really matters is the actual transformation of human communities by the self-sacrificial love of those who are grasped by the sacrificial love of God in Christ. That’s the inauguration of God’s new world. I’m certainly not preaching an old line about shining a little candle in the darkness to make one feel better. I’m talking about something bigger: Rays breaking through in our world that show the sunrise is coming.


DAVID: I’ve been asking you about provocative passages in your book, but it’s easy to see that you really do intend this new book on Paul to serve as a healing manifesto. In asking these questions, I’m pointing out what I see as a major opportunity with this book: Sure, your more conservative American fans will invest in this big new book. But I think there’s a whole lot of refreshing, deeply insightful analysis here that mainliners and Catholics will find fascinating, as well. I think, at this point, your—shall we say—your religious-political viewpoint is beyond the typical American categories. To some, you continue to read like a conservative; to others, you read like an American liberal.

I think the foundational touch points in scripture are fascinating, too. One of the passages from Paul that you refer to at least a half dozen times through this new book is Romans 14. This is where Paul urges Christians not to let disputable issues divide them.

TOM: Romans 14 is addressing the Christians in Rome, knowing that there are several different house churches there, quite probably from different cultural backgrounds. Some were Jewish Christians who believed that they must keep every detail in the Torah and that they must not keep company with people who didn’t see it that way. Then there were Gentile Christians who were saying: Well, this is a whole new thing, so we can ignore those Jewish Christians down the road. In Romans 14, Paul is skillfully addressing these issues.

DAVID: You make several references to the way you translate 14:1. In your own earlier book, called the Kingdom New Testament, you translate it as: “Welcome someone who is weak in faith, but not in order to have disputes on difficult points.” This is part of an argument that comes full flower, later in Chapter 14, when Paul writes—and, again, this is your translation: “Do not, then, pass judgment on one another any longer. If you want to exercise your judgment, do so on this question: how to avoid placing obstacles or stumbling blocks in front of a fellow family member.”

TOM: In Romans 14:1—and I do have the Greek in front of me as we are talking—Paul is describing disputes about matters with different judgments in the community. The point he is making is that people should get together and not use differences of opinion as a point of squabbling.

Now, I need to say: For Paul there are some lines in the sand, or red lines we might call them, but part of the tricky thing in reading Paul is finding where he actually says there is a line that no one can cross and remain within the fellowship of the Messiah people.

In this section of Romans he was more concerned about ending divisions that came down to squabbling and discrimination over differences of opinion. He wanted people to see beyond those squabbles.

NT Tom Wright cover The Resurrection of the Son of GodDAVID: In this book on Paul, I should point out: You don’t really dive deeply into these specific disputable issues. In other words, in these 1,700 pages, you don’t go on to sort out the further interpretation of these passages as it relates to Paul’s specific moral code. That’s for another book. This book is about Paul’s larger theological worldview. He wanted people to stop squabbling about disputable issues because Paul’s goal was a far larger community coming together as, to use your phrase, “Messiah people.” The first step, in Paul’s view, was welcoming people so they could form this people Jesus was calling into being.

Now, I also need to step back for a moment. I know you’ve got at least a couple more big volumes in this overall series yet to come. And, we should mention, as well, the first three books in this series. Let’s do it as three short questions and answers. So, give us a little summary of Part 1, which was The New Testament and the People of God, back in 1992. It still gets rave reviews from your readers. There are now 40 reviews on Amazon and 38 of them give it 4 or 5 stars. And—this is key—people are still posting glowing reviews on a book that’s been out for more than 20 years! So, in a line or two, what’s it about?

TOM: In that first book, I tried to cover things I wanted my students to know before they started a serious study of the New Testament. This book is a sketch of 1st century Judaism and what early Christianity was all about.

DAVID: Part 2 was Jesus and the Victory of God. Again, rave reviews on Amazon: 50 out of 52 reviews give it 4 or 5 stars. Summarize it?

TOM: This is a full-scale attempt to put Jesus of Nazareth in a historical context and to ask the questions: What were his aims? What did he think he was supposed to be doing? Why did he die? What did he mean when he said God’s Kingdom is arriving?

DAVID: Part 3 was The Resurrection of the Son of God. This time 62 of 69 reviews are 4 or 5 stars. Again, can you give us just a line or two describing it?

TOM: This book asks: What exactly happened on Easter morning? But in order to address that question, we have to look at beliefs about what happened across the ancient world, the ancient Jewish world and the emerging Christian world.


DAVID: Finally, I want to ask about the new book on Psalms. I think this little book is going to be very popular with a lot of readers. But the most striking quality in this book is passion. You really are pleading for the Psalms here, right?

TOM: I have been shocked over the last decade or two because in my country and I think in yours, too, some of the most vibrant and lively Christian churches seem to be giving up on the Psalms. Some of these churches have very lively worship songs they like to sing. But, in my view, biblically rooted Christians should place the Psalms absolutely at the center of worship. Yet, Psalms are nearly forgotten in many places.

I like creative new music and it’s wonderful when churches have people writing these new songs, but I don’t think there’s ever been a serious Christian movement in the last 2000 years that didn’t place the Psalms at the core of worship and devotional life. I look at the present context, which is Psalms missing in many churches, and I am saying to readers: What is wrong with this picture?

DAVID: It’s more than a matter of history. Most importantly, as you point out in your book, the Psalms contain the whole range of human emotion—crying out toward God in all conditions of life, right?

TOM: There’s no emotion we can feel that the Psalms don’t already have in spades. This allows us to bring anything we can conceive in our human lives today—whatever challenges we face—and find them voiced in the Psalms long before us. If we forget the Psalms, we are aiming toward shallow, transparent Christianity.

DAVID: Well, our readers will get the point after that kind of comment. You feel very strongly about this.

TOM: My publisher at HarperOne, Mickey Maudlin, says we should be asking: What would Jesus sing? Maybe we can get more people asking: “WWJS?” I’ve actually used that line in talks. The Psalms are Jesus’ hymnbook. These Psalms are songs Jesus would have sung and that Jesus wants us to sing with him, today.

DAVID: Finally, I’m sure our readers would like to know: What’s next?

TOM: Well, I still haven’t finished what I regard as the backup book for the Paul project, which also will be from Fortress Press: Paul and His Recent Interpreters. I was going to finish it this past summer, but the copyediting for this massive 1,700-page book took all summer. There already are references out there to this next book, but the truth is: It isn’t finished yet. That will come soon, but it’s been delayed.

Then, I’m supposed to be doing a commentary on Galatians for Eerdmans. There are a whole lot of things I’m hoping to do further down the track.

DAVID: Well, we’ll keep in touch. Our readers will stay tuned.

Want more on N.T. Tom Wright?

Visit our extensive N.T. Wright Resource Page for summaries of his earlier books and links to earlier interviews with the Bible scholar.

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With Groups

VeggieTales reminds kids of Chrisian reason for the season

VeggieTales Merry Larry Christmas video

FROM TOP: The DVD cover. Second, a scene from the new movie showing the Narrator mopping up at the mall as he talks with viewers. Third, the real Silas Merritt “Uncle Si” Robertson.

Either you’re a VeggieTales family—or you’re not. That’s certainly true, after more than 40 original Veggie Tales videos and a host of other TV shows featuring these big-eyed, big-hearted vegetables. This year, VeggieTales is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its first direct-to-DVD film, Where’s God When I’m S-Scared?

Most families know what to expect: Lots of colorful vegetables bouncing around on their rear ends (everyone knows that vegetables don’t have legs!), singing silly songs in high-pitched voices (hey, millions love it when the Muppets do it, right?)—and drawing biblical lessons at every turn of the plot (they’re such universal Christian lessons that it’s hard to imagine any denominational friction).

What’s new in the 43rd VeggieTales?

The producers have convinced the bearded old “Si” from the super popular Duck Dynasty TV series to appear as the on-screen Narrator in VeggieTales: Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas. Overall, he’s an odd casting choice—certainly not as memorable as Burl Ives as the Snowman/Narrator in the original TV special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The bearded Narrator aside, Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas is a pitch-perfect slice of VeggieTales silliness. Sure, the jokes are puns worthy of groans—the Veggies themselves are in on the joke. After about the third “turnip” joke in this new movie, even the turnips are groaning. Sure, the songs verge on nonsensical, but they’re called Silly Songs.

In this new tale, the conflict turns on which is more important for Christmas: Glitzy lights at a shopping mall—or the love of God as shown in Jesus’ birth? It’s hardly a “spoiler” to tell you: Jesus wins.

One of the sung refains starts:

“Oh, Christmas shines most bright and true.
“When you give the love God gave to you.”

The Silly Song in the middle of the video is about Larry managing to completely cover himself in Christmas wrapping paper. The refrain:

“Somehow when I was packin’
“I got caught up in all the wrappin’”

No, it’s neither Cole Porter nor Elton John—but I defy you not to start tapping your toe halfway through the Silly Song.

Have you got children—or an entire family—on your holiday gift list that would enjoy such high-spirited, goofy fun? Click on the image with today’s story and visit the movie’s Amazon page.


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Categories: BibleChildren and FamiliesMovies and TV

Jane Wells on Hunger Games: ‘Hunger isn’t science fiction!’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Jane Wells reading from Bird on Fire

JANE WELLS reads from her new book, Bird on Fire. (CLICK THIS PHOTO to visit our Bookstore, learn more about the book, and order a copy via Amazon.)

WANT to help the most vulnerable in your community? Want to do it by energizing teens and young adults to work with you on goals that most congregations already share? Read on …

THIS WEEK, millions of Americans will buy tickets to Hunger Games: Catching Fire. If you missed it, see our extensive story last week on the huge popularity of this book-and-movie series by Suzanne Collins. That story also includes an interview with author Jane Wells, who wrote the new book Bird on Fire, an inspiring Bible study that shows you how to take the fiction-fueled excitement in your community—especially among young people—and refocus that energy on goals we share: Combatting hunger, homelessness and violence against society’s most vulnerable.

A few days ago, in southeast Michigan (where Jane Wells lives and our ReadTheSpirit home office is based), Jane demonstrated how this kind of outreach can work in any town. She was welcomed by the very active Monroe Family YMCA to host a public forum on three tragic problems facing communities nationwide: Hunger, homelessness and contemporary forms of slavery.

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I attended and am reporting, here, on what happened. (All of today’s photos were taken by ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile. If you care to share this story with people in your area, you can feel free to share these photos, as well.)


LOOK BENEATH THE SURFACE: Human Trafficking is Modern-Day Slavery,” was the warning splashed across leaflets and posters distributed by Michigan State Police Trooper Tresa Duffin. She works statewide on campaigns to end forced labor and related forms of abuse enslaving thousands of men, women and children across the U.S. (Worldwide, our earlier story reports, there are millions of slaves.)

“Trafficking” does not refer to transportation, Duffin explained, although victims may find themselves shuttled between cities. The term refers to people bound into labor, often in the form of prostitution. Merriam-Webster defines “human trafficking” as “organized criminal activity in which human beings are treated as possessions to be controlled and exploited as by being forced into prostitution or involuntary labor.”

Michigan State Police Trooper Tressa Duffin talks about the challenges of combating modern slavery.

Michigan State Police Trooper TRESSA DUFFIN talks about the challenges of combating modern slavery.

There are slaves in every major metropolitan area, Duffin said, so people in the Midwest should not assume that this isn’t a local issue. “In fact, Michigan is ranked No. 16 in the United States for human trafficking,” she said. Why? “There is a major highway hub in southeast Michigan. There are international borders with Canada. We have a lot of agriculture and that also attracts people trafficking in forced labor.”

There are many ways that individuals, congregations and community groups can get involved in stopping slavery—and in rescuing men, women and children caught in the system now, Duffin explained. In one program, for example, money is raised to buy hotel-sized bars of soap with a toll-free hotline on the wrapper that reaches a national anti-slavery help center. “We distribute these to hotels before big events come to town like a Super Bowl or other major event—times when we know that girls will be sent into hotel rooms. About the only place these girls have privacy is in the bathroom. We’ve had a number of girls call for help—and they’ve been rescued—because of the soap program.”

Wherever our readers may live across the United States, Duffin urges you to learn more at the nationwide anti-trafficking website, based in Washington D.C.

What else can congregations do to combat slavery? Lots! Read our earlier interview with David Batstone, a pioneer in the Not For Sale campaign that draws thousands of volunteers from college campuses and congregations, each year. Want to attract more teen-age and young-adult involvement in the life of your congregation? Get Jane Wells’ Bird on Fire now and organize a discussion group this winter.


Jeff Weaver talks about changing "the face of hunger in America" from the stereotype of an old man to that of a hungry child.

JEFF WEAVER talks about changing “the face of hunger in America” from the stereotype of an old man to that of a hungry child.

Jeff Weaver, president of GodWorks! Family Soup Kitchen, told the audience about taking on hunger in Monroe. This is one of Michigan’s oldest small cities with significant blue-collar neighborhoods and also rural areas surrounding the town’s historic downtown. Hunger is a dire problem, even in such a well-established community.

Helping to combat hunger is easier than most people may realize, Weaver said—that is, if people organize their congregational and community-wide efforts in smart ways.

In this process, Job No. 1 is debunking the myth that soup kitchens are needed mainly for older men with chronic problems. “The face of the hungry in our area? It’s a family portrait,” Weaver said. “Now, more than 65 percent of the people who come to our soup kitchens are families. One of our biggest challenges is—we continue to run out of high chairs at some of the places we serve meals. That image right there tells you why you should get involved.”


Brad Schreiber, who works with programs to help the homeless, stressed the same point. He held up a photo of one homeless man in southeast Michigan—an elderly man with a shaggy gray beard and a baseball cap. “If you think that this is the picture of homelessness, you’re wrong. The picture you should have of homelessness is a 7-year-old girl,” Schreiber said.

He listed alarming statistics about the growing wealth gap in America and the rise in poverty to such an extent that many families find themselves homeless, sometimes quite unexpectedly and even if someone in the family has a job. America’s growing wealth gap and the plight of our “working- poor” families is a topic often covered in the OurValues project, a department within ReadTheSpirit magazine headed by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker.

BRAD SCHREIBER talks about homelessness and the big difference congregations can make.

BRAD SCHREIBER describes a growing problem with homelessness and urges congregations to get involved.

Schreiber is now a successful graphic artist, but he shared his own story of finding himself homeless earlier in his life. Through no fault of his own, his income ended and, like millions of Americans, he was living paycheck to paycheck. He suddenly found himself without a place to stay. “This can happen so easily these days,” he said. “People who never expected to be homeless can find themselves in this situation.”

He described four pillar institutions in the Monroe area that shelter various populations of homeless people, each night. Relying on data mainly from those organizations, local leaders in this effort now have calculated that “35,191 nights of shelter were provided in the last two years in this area. Now, that’s a staggering number!”

The evening ended with Jane Wells reminding the audience of ancient calls to help the vulnerable—coming from Isaiah and other passages in the Hebrew scriptures as well as coming from Jesus in the New Testament.

“I hope you will find a way to take action,” she said.


GET STARTED! Get Jane Wells’ Bird on Fire now and organize a discussion group this winter. Her book connects the extremely popular novels and movies with biblical stories. Jane Wells makes it clear to her readers—young and old—that some of the terrible conditions they learn about in the dark, fictional world of the Hunger Games echo real-life experiences, today, for millions. Drawing directly on faith traditions, men and women can tackle these injustices, right now.

If you do use this book to spark renewed energy in your congregation, please email us about it at and tell us what you’re doing. We want to share these stories with our readers to inspire others to take action.

This week, as millions enjoy Hunger Games: Catching Fire in movie theaters, remember Jane Wells’ slogan:

“Hunger isn’t science fiction!”

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

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Categories: BibleChildren and FamiliesGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Jane Wells interview on how a Hunger Games Bible study can fire up your congregation—and help others

Click the cover to visit its Bookstore page, where you can learn more about Jane Wells' new book and can order copies.

Click the cover to visit our Bookstore page, where you can learn more about Jane Wells’ new book—and order copies.

Where are The Hunger Games taking Americans?

TO THE MOVIES: On November 22, a tidal wave will overwhelm movie theaters for the second blockbuster in the film series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. How big is this? In a word: Huge.

  • Ticket pre-sales are massive: Catching Fire tickets are a lion’s share of all tickets people are pre-purchasing this month. Fandango reports the sales pattern is record setting.
  • The first week will be enormous: In its 2012 opening weekend, the first Hunger Games movie zoomed to third place in all-time U.S. rankings of opening-weekend ticket sales.
  • And, this series has staying power: Since 2012, that first Hunger Games movie has shot past Spider-Man, Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings and now is No. 14 in all-time total ticket sales in the United States. (The top three on that list are Avatar, Titanic and Avengers.)
  • Millions still are reading: The three novels remain extremely popular. The first volume remained on the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists for two years! With new movies, book sales will rise again.

WHERE else can The Hunger Games take Americans?

TO CHURCH and INTO THE WORLD to help the most vulnerable men women and children among us. That’s if author and columnist Jane Wells succeeds in her new campaign. Today, through this author interview, we’ll tell you how to join in the movement.

In Jane Wells’ new book—a Bible study for congregations, called Bird on Fire—Jane explains why The Hunger Games is such a hit with readers and moviegoers. Themes in this series of novels and movies tap deep into biblical history, including the lives of Esther, Gideon and David. The main symbols in Hunger Games echo powerful images established hundreds of years ago when mainline congregations first were sweeping across the American landscape. Bringing this new Jane Wells Bible-study series into your congregation not only will draw a crowd—but also can energize young and old to pitch in on popular campaigns to help our world, today.


DAVID: Who are these millions of fans? I expect that a lot of our readers are going to be very interested in organizing a group to go through your Bird on Fire book, but their first question will be: Who should we invite to get involved?

JANE: The movies and books first were popular with teens—teenage girls specifically—but now they also have crossed over so that a lot of adults have read the books and are planning on seeing all of the movies.

DAVID: The first Hunger Games was classified as Young Adult, or YA, fiction. How can such a genre make the leap to adult fans?

JANE: Here’s the key—YA novels leave out the gratuitous sex and violence, but the best of YA novels still deliver all the depth of character and drama we expect in great novels. So there are huge numbers of adults who love these stories—and welcome a chance to enjoy a series without the more explicit sex and violence. A lot of readers not only don’t miss the gore that we find in a lot of crime and suspense novels today—they actually welcome a chance to avoid it! I love well-written YA books for that reason, and I’m certainly not alone. Now, I do realize that a lot of YA fiction doesn’t live up to the standards set by authors like Suzanne Collins. But, in the best of this genre? It’s terrific reading.

DAVID: Well, we just published an interview with HarperOne’s Mark Tauber, who is expecting to rack up serious sales this winter with C.S. Lewis editions. And, of course, a lot of Lewis books are what we would call YA today, although a lot of the people buying and reading those books are adults.

Given the super popularity of R-rated books like 50 Shades of Grey and thrillers oozing blood and guts, what’s the appeal of books that are only PG-13 at most?

Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire-movie-posterJANE: It’s all about the characters. And that’s why, in my new Bible-study book, I connect readers with similarly strong stories about heroes from the Bible: Esther, Gideon, David and more. Millions of us love The Hunger Games, because we care so much about these characters! When we first meet Katniss Everdeen—the main hero in these stories—we care about her immediately.

DAVID: Suzanne Collins’ fictional world is usually called “dystopian”—the dark opposite of a utopia. For a long time, such stories have been extremely popular—and some of these novels are now literary classics: George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are two great examples. These dystopian tales also are gripping on the big screen. Think of Blade Runner, which still has a vast cult following more than 30 years since its original release. In The Hunger Games, we meet Katniss in the middle of a similarly unjust and terrifying world, right?

JANE: We do. We learn that, when she was only 11, her father died in a mine explosion. After that, her mother sinks into this deep depression. Her family is on the verge of starving to death. Katniss learns to hunt and gather food just to keep her family alive. Then, she winds up having to compete in this life-and-death competition—the “hunger games” that become the series title—in which young people fight to the death for the viewing pleasure of the powerful people who run this terrible world.

DAVID: Once again, Suzanne Collins is borrowing this whole plot from thousands of years of literature. We only have to think back to the ancient tales of Theseus—stories that suddenly are getting a revival this winter thanks to JJ Abrams (see Jane’s Faith Goes Pop news item on Abrams’ new project). In one version of the Theseus myths, the evil King Minos of Crete conquers the Athenians and orders that, every nine years, seven Athenian boys and an equal number of girls must battle the Minotaur—which meant certain death for the king’s viewing pleasure.  Theseus is the hero who agrees to risk life and limb in these deadly games. That’s just one direct parallel to Collins’ tale and there are many more similar tales through the history of world culture.

In fact, Collins has been widely accused of borrowing the plot of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, which was translated from the Japanese into English in 2003—five years before her first book was published. She denies that she borrowed his plot—but, her novels are so similar to events in Battle Royale that the accusations continue to be raised. I noticed that Target stores just started selling DVD sets of the Battle Royale movies, with English subtitles, just in time to cash in on the latest Hunger Games movie craze.

JANE: Yes, these kind of stories have found audiences for thousands of years.

The best thing Suzanne Collins did in writing The Hunger Games was the creation of Katniss Everdeen as her main character. I’ve read a lot of books in this genre and I don’t recall a character quite like her before this. Yes, there have been lots of girls as main characters and even girls as heroes. But, here, it’s almost coincidental that Katniss is a girl. In this kind of novel with a girl as a main character, we usually see the writer paying a lot of attention to the hero’s gender. But, Katniss isn’t “girly” at all. And, Katniss doesn’t use her femininity to “play” anybody. She uses her skills, her mind, her strength. She really doesn’t spend any time thinking about what it means that she’s a girl. She’s a person who simply refuses to put up with the kind of hazardous, scary, unjust world in which she finds herself.

DAVID: There are some distinctive issues concerning her gender, though.

JANE: Yes, one way that she is distinctively female, as a character, is that she is motivated by not wanting to bring her own children, someday, into the world she finds around her. Her gender also shapes her story because the laborers who must work in the mines do appear to be mostly men in Collins’ world. But overall, Katniss is this very strong hero who goes out and risks her life for justice. I think that Katniss—as this bright and heroic and skillful and motivated young woman—is a different kind of character than we’ve seen before.


DAVID: Katniss may be unique in contemporary YA fiction. But, as you point out immediately in your book, Bird on Fire, there are ancient heroes who mirror Katniss’ courage and wisdom. One of them was Queen Esther, the starring hero of the Bible’s Book of Esther.

JANE: Yes, as I thought about Hunger Games and my strong response to these stories, I remembered that this is the same basic skeleton of Esther’s story. According to the Book of Esther, a decree goes out in the ancient Persian empire for a high-stakes competition that the king stages to show his power over the people. He calls for beautiful young girls from across his empire to come before him in this competition to find a new wife.

DAVID: Our readers probably know the basic story. For centuries, Esther was a classic subject for painters. Then, Hollywood produced at least four different movies from this story; and, now, there’s even a VeggieTales version for kids. This story also is retold each year in the Jewish festival of Purim.

JANE: In the first part of Esther’s story, she wins this competition. But the story doesn’t end there. She is chosen to be a wife for the king, but then the question becomes: What will this woman do with the power she she got through these experiences? That’s where we find Katniss in this second movie, Catching Fire. In the first book, she won her competition. She survived. She could, then, fade into the background and enjoy everything she has won. That’s the same moral question Esther faces: When she sees great injustice taking place around her, can Esther sit back and remain silent and live in comfort for the rest of her life? In Esther’s case, if she remains silent, her uncle will die and a lot of other innocent people along with her. Katniss faces similar moral choices.

DAVID: There are a lot of reluctant biblical heroes. In  your book, you also compare Katniss to Gideon, among others.

JANE: Yes, you’ll find a lot of Bible references in Bird on Fire. I liked drawing comparisons with Gideon because, like Katniss, he was this young person from this small town who was called to face a challenge. Eventually, he did it—Gideon went out and destroyed some idols in his town—but that wasn’t the end of his story. Like Katniss, he was called on to face bigger challenges after that. I like Gideon’s story, because he answers the question: Can one little person make a difference in a big world? Gideon also reminds us that, just because we win one battle, that doesn’t mean God is done with us.


JOHN WESLEY carefully chose the limited number of symbols that would appear in his 1778 chapel. His Protestant sensibility disdained rich ornamentation. He called his new London base of operations “perfectly neat but not fine.” So, the choice of the dove-and-snake relief, which was repeated all around the balcony of the chapel, was quite intentional. This building, now known simply as Wesley’s Chapel, replaced his other famous house of worship, The Foundery, which stood about 200 yards away. Today, this chapel is regarded as one of the most important architectural gems in London. This was the first Methodist Church built specifically for both communion and for preaching services. (THESE PHOTOS show an overview, then two details from the façade that runs all around the U-shaped balcony.)

JOHN WESLEY carefully chose the limited number of symbols that would appear in his 1778 chapel. His Protestant sensibility disdained rich ornamentation. He called his new London base of operations “perfectly neat but not fine.” So, the choice of the dove-and-snake relief, which was repeated all around the balcony of the chapel, was quite intentional. This building, now known simply as Wesley’s Chapel, replaced his other famous house of worship, The Foundery, which stood about 200 yards away. Today, this chapel is regarded as one of the most important architectural gems in London. This was the first Methodist Church built specifically for both communion and for preaching services. (THESE PHOTOS show an overview, then two details from the façade that runs all around the U-shaped balcony.)

DAVID: Even the Hunger Games symbol of a bird in a circle resonates down through religious history, right?

JANE: I love this part of the story. When I was writing this book, Bird on Fire, I was remembering the logos on the novels and the pictures associated with the movies, too. The movie images add flames with the bird. And I realized that these symbols are from my own denominational background: the Church of the Nazarene. Our logo shows a bird with a flame behind it. There are lots of similarities in these images. In both Hunger Games and my church, the bird represents freedom. In my church, we say it’s freedom through the Holy Spirit. There are other similarities, too—including the flame that represents purifying fire. I was amazed as I got to thinking about this.

Then, David, you and I got to talking about these themes—while I was still working on this book—and you pointed out that John Wesley used a bird-and-encircling-snake symbol to decorate his beautiful chapel in London. It represents a verse that I don’t think many Christians recall out of Matthew 10, when Jesus tells his followers: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

I don’t remember seeing any churches that kept the snake symbol that Wesley used, but I think Wesley was right to display it in his chapel. It’s such a wonderful reminder that, as Christians, we are not supposed to turn off our brains. We are given minds to think; it’s a God-given gift. We’re supposed to be analytical and critical of the world around us and to carefully evaluate what we see around us in light of truths we see in the Bible. Very powerful.


DAVID: There are stark moral questions in The Hunger Games. One of them is the question of what it truly means to be bringing peace into the world. Today, we have a great deal of respect for men and women who agree to be what we call “peacekeepers”—folks who put their lives on the line in some of the world’s most combustible hot spots. But in the novels, “peacekeepers” are bad.

JANE: In The Hunger Games, peacekeepers are just tools of the Capitol, the evil force ruling the world. The peacekeepers are concerned with maintaining the status quo, which means keeping people compliant. The peacekeepers keep President Snow in power and, if that means shooting some people to accomplish their mission, then so be it. For these peacekeepers, the classic excuse is: “We’re only following orders.” Their power is absolute and deadly.

I think it’s fascinating to discuss how “peacemakers” can be quite different than the “peacekeeper” model we find in The Hunger Games. I would recommend that readers look at the books by Daniel Buttry, especially his Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Dan does a great job in that book of reporting true stories about people who have taken huge risks to make peace. Some of his stories come from the civil rights era, when people literally were willing to lay down their lives.

I want people to realize: Yes, the civil rights era is now a generation or so removed from our time, but there still are huge gaping holes in society that we need to address today.

DAVID: I’m impressed with the guests you’ve invited to take part in your book launch this week, here in Michigan. (Care to go? See information below for details.)

You could have planned all sorts of things for the book launch, but you’ve deliberately chosen to highlight contemporary slavery and hunger issues, including food insecurity, at your launch event. Our readers know—from our past coverage including our interview with David Batstone of the “Not for Sale” campaign—that many congregations nationwide already are joining in the grassroots movement to end modern slavery.

JANE: The message is simple and powerful: If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games, you should realize that these problems exist in our world, today. Millions of American children face hunger every day. Millions live in “food insecure” households, meaning that these families struggle to put enough food on the table and don’t always have enough to provide meals.

A large portion of children across the country now are signed up for free or reduced-price school meals. Think about the heartbreaking situations in homes each summer or over holiday periods when these kids don’t have those school meals and may be making do with one meal-a-day at home—or less. It kills me as a mother myself to think about my own kids. How can we stand by and know that there are so many kids out there living in homes where parents can’t provide food?

The demand on food pantries and feeding programs is growing. We all need to ask: How can we help out? Yes, we can donate bags of food occasionally. But there may be other ways we can help. This isn’t a novel. It’s real life today for too many families.

Hunger isn’t science fiction.

DAVID: I love that line and I think it could make a terrific handbill or poster for a small group planning to discuss your new book. Take a color picture of your book cover, put it on the handbill, then headline the page: “HUNGER ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.” Then, invite people to the discussion series. Or, you could make up handbills with the other theme: “SLAVERY ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.” That’s also something you’re urging people to discuss.

JANE: Slavery isn’t directly in the title of Suzanne Collins’ series, as “hunger” is, but forms of slavery also run through her novels. And, as a lot of congregations already know, slavery is still a problem in our world today.

DAVID: According to Wikipedia’s overview of “contemporary slavery“—the United Nations estimates that there are 27 to 30 million slaves in today’s world.

JANE: When I began looking into this problem, I was shocked me to discover that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before in history.

DAVID: The sheer numbers are enormous and the forms of slavery are many. There are child slaves, sex slaves, huge mining and industrial operations in many parts of the world that are run entirely with slave labor—the list goes on and on.

JANE: Most slaves today are laborers and, by the nature of their work, they’re not tied up in closets or locked away in secret places. They’re often working in plain sight. I live in a farming area of Michigan and, even in our state, there are questions about how migrant farm laborers may be used or abused. In some cases, farm laborers can find themselves financially bonded in such a way that they’re powerless. They can become slaves, even in the middle of America. That’s why I invited a Michigan State Police officer to speak at my launch event, a woman who works on new laws and regulations to help combat human trafficking.

When you finish reading The Hunger Games—or when the movie is over—I want you to ask yourself: What am I called to do in our world right now?


We welcome many perspectives on The Hunger Games. In coming weeks, we will be establishing a Resource Page to help our readers find a wide array of thought-provoking materials on this theme. One of the first additions is a sermon by the Rev. Bob Roth, a peace activist and campus minister, titled Redemptive Violence? An Alternative Perspective.




FIRST, please support Jane’s work by buying her book. Learn more and find easy links to purchase the book in our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

DO YOU LIVE NEAR SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN? Jane is devoting her book launch to helping fans see the connection between Hunger Games and dire needs in our communities today. She is pulling together the YMCA—as well as advocates of combating both contemporary slavery and hunger. From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, November 14, Jane Wells will appear at her local YMCA along with one of Michigan’s leading investigators into patterns of modern slavery—and a regional leader in interfaith feeding programs. The event is free and open to the public at The Monroe Family YMCA, 1111 West Elm Avenue, Monroe, MI.

AROUND THE WORLD: We know that, since we began ReadTheSpirit in 2007, our active readers circle the globe. You live in communities from Australia to Panama, from New England to Los Angeles. If you purchase Jane’s book and organize a local discussion group, please email us at and tell us what you’re doing. We’d like to share your news with the rest of our worldwide readership. AND, if you’d like to arrange to bring Jane to your corner of the world—email us and we’ll be happy to put you in touch with this author. Please note: Her schedule fills quickly, so plan ahead!

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

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