Meet Reasa Currier of the HSUS—a different kind of interfaith activist

By DAVID CRUMM, ReadTheSpirit Editor

What’s the mission of an interfaith activist?

Often, the vocation involves bridging religious barriers in our communities, combating bigotry, defending human rights, and courageously promoting peace in global hotspots (see InterfaithPeacemakers.com for more).

This week, we’re introducing a different kind of interfaith activist who is crisscrossing the nation on behalf of animals: the Humane Society of the United States’ Reasa Currier. Her title is long: Strategic Initiatives Manager for Faith Outreach, a division of the HSUS.

FAITH & PUBLIC POLICY UNITE

Reasa Currier speaking to a grup (1)

Reasa Currier of Humane Society of the United States speaks to a group.

Reasa Currier’s mission is clear: She connects with religious leaders and activists who are motivated by their faith to join in widespread efforts on behalf of animals.

She’s relatively new to the job, yet her potential impact also is clear: In June 2015, Tennessee enacted tougher penalties for animal fighting, a campaign in which the Southern Baptist Convention played a key role thanks to Reasa’s work on behalf of HSUS with Russell Moore, president of the influential Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

“It’s not just a step away from the cruelty and savagery of animal fighting; it is a move away from the exploitation of the poor through expanded gambling,” said Moore, who attended the June 11 signing of the legislation in Tennessee.

The anti-animal-fighting campaign is aimed at more than owners and promoters of animal fights. Reasa reminds faith leaders that this business represents a dangerous lure for poor Americans, often drawing them into ever-deeper cycles of gambling and also bringing their children into the bloody world of animal fighting.

Fighting rings are dangerous environments for vulnerable men and women, Moore and other religious leaders argue. In a public letter endorsing the Tennessee law earlier this spring, Moore warned that a “relationship between animal fighting, gambling and organized crime continues to grow.”

Are you surprised that kids are involved? One Tennessee newspaper featured a photo of a small boy proudly showing off his fighting bird.

Reasa says, “We’ve been involved in opposing dog fighting and cock fighting rings all across the country and we often find that children are present. We’ve found playpens set up near the fighting for small children. We’ve even seen children exchanging money as they gamble on the fights. That’s why we’re focusing on keeping children away—and we also support making it illegal for anyone to attend an animal fight. All too often, police raid a fight and nearly everyone walks away with no consequences.”

Many religious leaders find such a cause is in perfect alignment with their values. (Here is Baptist Press coverage of the Tennessee effort.)

WHY FAITH GROUPS CARE

Animal welfare and creation care may not be high priorities in your congregation—but they could be, Reasa argues. She can show teaching documents that span centuries and, in some cases, millennia.

Buddha receiving honey from a monkey (1)

Sacred relationships with animals run deep in the Dharmic religions, especially Buddhism. Buddhists are not supposed to harm any sentient being. Moreover, the Eastern idea of reincarnation means that an animal you encounter might represent a friend or relative you knew in another life or might know in the future. Plus, animals play a major role in sacred stories. In this painting from a monastery in Laos, a monkey brings the Buddha a stick containing a portion of honeycomb.

“Many Americans are aware of the ancient tradition of  compassion toward living things in the Dharmic faiths,” which include Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh traditions, Reasa says. “But, all of the world’s faiths have some teaching on animal stewardship—so I’m not trying to convince people to accept something new. It’s right there in their religious traditions. A lot of my work is connecting with faith leaders to lift up the teachings that they already have in their communities.”

The majority of Americans are Christians, although they may not often explore their teachings on animal welfare. The Christian connection draws on ancient roots of compassionate stewardship of land and animals in Judaism—a message of care for life that also extends into the other “Abrahamic” faith: Islam.

Many iconic Christian leaders—from St. Francis to the founder of United Methodism John Wesley—were famous for advocating animal welfare. ReadTheSpirit magazine has one of Wesley’s sermons on the topic. During his lifetime, some of Wesley’s harshest critics poked fun at his soft heart for animals and joked that they could spot a Methodist farmer’s barnyard by the kinder ways he treated his animals.

“Christians have a great and ancient history in understanding there is a sacred relationship between the farmer and the land, the land and the community and that includes the welfare of animals,” Reasa says. “There are so many scriptures that speak to this relationship.”

Given this deep consensus, Reasa says, “The easy part of my work is getting endorsements from faith leaders for issues the Humane Society is supporting. Sometimes it only takes a call or an email to tell them about an issue we’re working on—and they’ll want to be part of it. The hard part of my job is building community among the individuals we reach. We need to establish ongoing connections around animal stewardship.”

While Reasa’s work is in the U.S., she points out to religious leaders that efforts on behalf of animals and the environment can build relationships in the burgeoning Southern Hemisphere, where Catholics, Protestants and Muslims all have been experiencing growth. Uniting North and South is a message championed this year by Pope Francis.

REFUSING TO SLIDE INTO DESPAIR

methodist-theological-farm-photo-by-reasa-currier

Click on this photo of the seminary farm to visit the United Methodist website where Reasa published her article. (Photo by Reasa Currier.)

As she travels, Reasa writes and speaks about signs of hope she sees nationwide.

“The news about climate change and the challenges of creation care can quickly turn to conversation about hurricanes and poverty and tragedies—and that can lead to a kind of helplessness,” she says. “The problems can seem to be of such magnitude that it’s just hopeless to try to make a difference as an individual.”

HSUS is well aware of that danger. That’s why the organization promotes lots of individual initiatives like The Humane Backyard, which people can work on wherever they live. Here’s how HSUS describes the idea:

In addition to providing food, water, and cover, a Humane Backyard gives wildlife a safe haven from harmful pesticides and chemicals, free-roaming pets, inhumane practices (such as wildlife trapping), and other dangers in our human-dominated world. Whether you have an apartment balcony, suburban yard, corporate property, place of worship, or community park, you can turn it into a habitat for wildlife, people, and pets.

For her part, Reasa lifts up small but significant examples she spots, while on the road. Recently, she published a column about a seminary that has established a community garden that is changing the way people think about the food they eat.

“I was impressed with their garden,” Reasa says. “They aren’t sinking into helplessness. They are doing something—planting a garden, harvesting vegetables and making a commitment that all their food is sourced in a sustainable and humane manner. They get their meat and dairy from local farms that have high animal-welfare standards. And the vegetables they grow are letting them cut back on the amount of food they’re buying that has to be transported thousands of miles.”

Want to get involved?

Learn about the Faith Outreach division of HSUS.

th Cover Dr Seuss What Pet Should I GetThis week, ReadTheSpirit is publishing several columns packed with ideas you can use with friends. If you found this story about Reasa Currier interesting, then you’ll also want to read our story about the importance of Pope Francis’s campaign on creation care—and you’re sure to enjoy the OurValues series exploring the historic release of a new Dr. Seuss book: What Pet Should I Get?

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

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Categories: Children and FamiliesChristianJewishMuslimNatural WorldPeacemaking

Celebrating innovation: New ideas in “children’s picture books”

Reviews by ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM

Red Clouds War by Paul Goble for Wisdom Tales Press

Click the cover to jump to the book’s page in Amazon.

The world’s first human media? Sketches on cave walls—and thousands of years later, humans still thrive on visual culture. In publishing, today, the crescendo of that age-old journey is a flood of graphic novels and children’s picture books. (The “Children’s/Young Adult” segment of American book publishing is growing faster than other genres at 20 percent last year.)

When did this “trend” start? You could argue that children’s stories are thousands of years old, dating back to Aesop and ancient religious storytellers. But historians say that our modern concept of children’s books didn’t start until people accepted the cultural idea of “childhood” in the 1700s. Then, the widely recognized Father of Children’s Literature came along: John Newbery, the namesake of the famous prize established by librarians in the 1920s.

So what can possibly be innovative in children’s picture books after all these centuries?

The answer lies in the secret behind great books for kids: They’re as much for the adults who love children—as they are for the kids. That’s why inexpensive Little Golden Books exploded after World War II. Mom and Dad were a soft touch when kids begged for a quarter (“Just 25 cents, Mom, pleeese!”) to bring home a brightly colored Golden Book.

But that was harmless kids’ stuff, right? The idea of adults reading children’s books on their own? For decades, adults who loved picture books tended to be fans of—horrors!—comic books. Then, in the late 1970s, as comic books were recovering from their long, dark era of shame, Will Eisner published the ground-breaking “graphic novel” A Contract with God—and the rest is, as we journalists like to say: History.

A secret no more, serious writers know that adults don’t need an excuse to enjoy “picture books”—and both genres (children’s and graphic novels) have been furiously evolving for years. As I’ve watched that evolution, I keep watching for innovative children’s books to recommend to readers. And, this summer, two titles are worth snapping up for your home library.

RED CLOUD’S WAR

By PAUL GOBLE and WISDOM TALES

As a student at the University of Michigan in the early 1970s, I discovered the life of the brilliant Oglala Lakota leader Red Cloud and that contributed directly to my life’s vocation as a journalist connecting people across diverse cultural lines. 100-QA-Native-American-Large-Book-120x180I am proud, today, that we publish 100 Questions, 500 Tribes: A Guide to Native America along with Native American journalists and the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

So, I was pleased to see Indiana-based Wisdom Tales release a gorgeously illustrated picture book on one of the great moments in Red Cloud’s career: the strategic defeat of an encroaching cavalry force in 1866. The new book is called Red Cloud’s War and the battle is best known today as the Fetterman Fight, the cavalry’s worst defeat until the Little Big Horn a decade later.

Wisdom Tales says the book is for kids aged 6 and older—but is aimed at a 5th-to-6th-grade reading level. This truly is a war story, told from the Native American perspective. Many died in the battle—and that bloodbath led to far more horrific violence in the decades that followed. So, this certainly is not a book for preschoolers. In fact, adults who read this book with kids will need to share the larger context—which fortunately is a fairly easy matter now, given all the films and books about American Indian history. (Hint: Click the 500 Nations link, above, and buy a copy of the MSU book, too.)

Red Cloud’s War really is a cross between a graphic novel and a children’s picture book. What makes the account of the conflict so gripping is the style of these illustrations that seem to race and leap back and forth across the pages.

At the end of the book, I appreciated finding a final acknowledgment that Red Cloud ultimately decided to stop fighting—a heart-breaking acknowledgment of the force of U.S. military expansion. He was a courageous, strategic genius. But, he also was a wise and philosophical leader of his people. In recent decades, he has been inducted into the state of Nebraska’s Hall of Fame. He has been honored on a U.S. Postal Service stamp and millions of Americans, like me, have been inspired by his story.

JUST FOR TODAY: SAINT JOHN XXIII

By BIMBA LANDMANN and EERDMANS

Just for Today John XXIII by Bimba Landmann for Eerdmans

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

It’s fair to say that more than a billion people around the world have been inspired by the late Pope John XXIII, who is featured in an equally innovative book from Eerdmans, a publishing house far better known for serious books about theology than for its series of books for young readers.

If you’re Catholic, you know all about St. John XXIII. For non-Catholics, here is his Wikipedia biography. The key thing you need to know: John XXIII trusted that God’s spirit was moving throughout the entire worldwide church. He opened the Second Vatican Council, which revolutionized the world’s largest church. And he is best known for saying he wanted to “throw open the windows of the Church and let the fresh air of the spirit blow through.”

Many Catholics view the new Pope Francis as more akin to the spirit of John XXIII than to either of Francis’s immediate predecessors. After all, it was Francis who insisted that John XXIII would be named a saint, in April 2014, at the same time John Paul II was canonized. Francis didn’t want anyone to mistake the iron-willed John Paul II as the only spiritual guide for the worldwide church. The spirit of John XXIII still is blowing through the Vatican!

What Eerdmans has brought us is a slice of John XXIII’s core spirituality—the text of his famous “daily decalogue.” The Vatican provides the whole text, but in a somewhat different English translation than Eerdmans uses in this picture book, illustrated by Bimba Landmann. I like the reworking of the text in this picture book and I was thrilled to see this lavishly illustrated picture-book design for John XXIII’s meditation.

In the late 1980s, I traveled with the press corps covering John Paul II’s two-week tour of North America and, in that era, the only papal “picture book” was a short-lived series of—you guessed it—comic books. I can’t imagine many American families still have the 1987 John Paul II comic book on their shelves—but I can envision this new Eerdmans book read on a daily basis in many homes.

Whatever your faith, if you find yourself looking for more spiritual meaning in your daily life—buy a copy. Have no children at home? Who cares? You’ll still love this picture book.

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

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Categories: Children and Families

St. Walt Disney: ‘There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow …’

Walt Disney from the US Postal Service stampWe made a spiritual pilgrimage to Disney World.

Three generations of us, led by our matriarch who was determined to visit Orlando one last time with her family. Her late husband, a Midwest dairy farmer, hated leaving the farm for any vacation except—the fantasy lands where he could truly relax and laugh with characters he loved!

We’re certainly not alone in feeling this way. GodSigns author Suzy Farbman also writes, this week, about her family’s love of Walt’s inspiration. And here’s a fun challenge for you: Suzy shares her favorite quotes from Disney characters—and asks you to share your favorites, too. Add comments to these columns. Or, on Twitter, mention #ReadTheSpirit, or just email us: ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

‘A PILGRIMAGE’ …. REALLY?

You might call our family’s trip—just a typical American “vacation.” As you read my story here and Suzy’s too, you’ll probably recall your own vacation to a Disney park. After all, Walt’s worlds far outshine any other chain of amusement parks with more than 130 million men, women and children walking through Walt’s gates every year. Major League Baseball has been called a kind of American religion, but all teams combined last year drew an attendance that was half of Walt’s crowd. Or, you might ask: What about the size of the world’s bona fide religious pilgrimages? Mecca hosts 2 million Muslims a year; tens of millions of Hindus bathe in sacred waters during Kumbh Mela; but only the total Chinese homecoming migration at the Lunar New Year tops the vast tide of humanity flowing in and out of Walt’s worlds.

But, did our family really make a spiritual pilgrimage?

The Gospel According to Disney by Mark PinskyThat’s the question Mark Pinsky asks on the opening page of the defining book on Disney and spirituality, The Gospel According to Disney. Researched and written while Mark was the religion writer for the Orlando newspaper, he wrote:

Mickey Mouse and faith? The world’s most famous rodent and his animated friends say more about faith and values than you might think—they’re not just postage stamps. Peter Pan taught us that “faith, trust, and pixie dust” can help you leave your cares behind. Jiminy Cricket showed Pinocchio—and millions of moviegoers—that “when you wish upon a star” dreams come true. Bambi stimulated baby boomer support for gun control and environmentalism. Cinderella became a syndrome. The Little Mermaid illustrated the challenges of intermarriage. The Lion King hinted at Hindu tradition in the Circle of Life. Walt Disney wanted his theme parks to be a “source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” Some have compared them to shrines to which American families make obligatory pilgrimages, parents reconnecting with their own childhoods while helping their kids experience a cartoon fantasy Mecca. Even Disney’s detractors see tremendous symbolic value in his cartoon characters.

Mark wasn’t kidding! I saw proof of Walt’s inspiration first hand as our matriarch—Joan Weil—led me and my wife (her daughter Amy) and her grandchildren (our daughter and son in law, the Revs. Megan and Joel Walther, and our son Benjamin) on this five-day pilgrimage: a day to arrive, a day to return and then one day each at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Sure, we missed Animal Kingdom—but this was a journey to revisit places where our late patriarch and founder of the family dairy farm, Leo Weil, had grinned broadly, often breaking out into laughter and later reminding us, “Now, that was good!”

Since our matriarch was “Grandma” to three of us, for this trip, she was Grandma to all of us.

PILGRIM BADGES & WRIST BANDS

Shell symbols the Way of St John Mickey wristbands Disney World

ABOVE: Some of the old and newer scallop-shell symbols along the medieval Way of St. John pilgrimage route in Europe. BELOW: The latest Mickey wrist bands and the way they light up special brass milestones around Walt’s realm.

Before we boarded our flight, a special box arrived with our high-tech equivalent of medieval pilgrim badges.

No, a traveler’s symbol wasn’t one of Walt Disney’s many innovations. Pilgrim badges were mass produced across most of the last millennium in Europe. To this day, more than 200,000 Christian pilgrims annually look for centuries-old, scallop-shaped symbols to guide them to the shrines along the vast Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. John) across Europe.

Here in our American home, we snapped on our chip-equipped Mickey-shaped wrist-bands and headed to our own version of beloved family shrines: It’s a Small World After All, the Hall of Presidents, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Carousel of Progress, plus Spaceship Earth at Epcot and the Wizard of Oz realms recreated inside the Hollywood Studios ride.

Not spiritual? Then you haven’t stopped to ponder the cultural connections within these rides.

ST. WALT THE CONNECTOR

Our first stop was the often-maligned It’s a Small World After All, a multi-media ride originally designed by Disney for the UNESCO pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. The Orlando version of the show obviously has been updated in many ways—the figurines are squeaky clean and the sets look freshly painted for the most part. And before you deride that song—you know the one you can’t get out of your head—consider this:

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I snapped a photo of Grandma looking fondly at the colorful children singing in the show—then I posted that snapshot to social media and I got 24 likes right away. (So there, detractors!)

The notes included University of Michigan campus minister Bob Roth, who told us all that “riding this at Disneyland in California in the 1960s sparked in me some kind of global perspective early on.” The veteran leader of spiritual retreats Dee Chapell called it “one of my favorite rides.” Free Press senior writer Patricia Montemurri added a triumphant: “After all!” The comments kept rolling toward me across the Internet for days—in many forms.

Walt knew how to inspire. Walt also knew how to connect.

Everyone we met inside Walt’s worlds was happy to share inspirational moments: A family from Louisiana holds its reunion in Orlando every year and, this year, 16 men, women and children were in the parks for a week. “When I think of our children growing up and our parents growing older—I think of them here,” a Mom in that family told us, becoming quite emotional as she described their many pilgrimages.

Gutenberg looks over a proof

Gutenberg snapshot I Tweeted from Epcot.

Want to talk more about this? Come follow me on Twitter. I have devoted my adult life to exploring the cutting edge of media that lets us connect our diverse cultures to build healthier communities.

Every year, I give talks to groups with titles like, “500 Years after Gutenberg—Still Revolutionizing Media.” So, as we started our day at Epcot, I snapped a photo of the animatronic Gutenberg checking over a proof page from his famous Bible, produced with the world’s first moveable type five centuries ago. I Tweeted it out with this message: “Epcot’s Spaceship Earth shows us Gutenberg starting our modern cycle of innovation, which we’re part of right now.”

Tarcher-Penguin Editor in Chief Mitch Horowitz immediately made that Tweet a “favorite” and I returned my appreciation: “Thanks Mitch! It really is true: We are Gutenberg’s grandchildren and need to dream big.”

And so it went. Our pilgrimage connected with a national conversation.

THE FINAL SHRINES

After their long journeys across Europe, the strongest and luckiest of pilgrims along the Way of St. James reach the thousand-year-old shrine of St. James the Great in northwest Spain. Our little band of pilgrims reached two final shrines—and watched our matriarch visibly light up at both.

Carousel of Progress in the 1920s kitchen

The 1920s kitchen and in Disney’s Carousel of Progress at Disney World.

One was the Carousel of Progress—the other exhibition Disney helped design for the 1964 World’s Fair. An animatronic American history lesson, the Carousel of Progress also has a catchy theme song written by the Sherman brothers—the same guys who wrote the Small World tune and music for Mary Poppins, the Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well. The brothers knew Walt very well and described their Carousel song as “Walt’s theme song, because he was very positive about the future. He really felt that there was a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.” Other Disney associates called it simply, “Walt’s anthem.”

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day.
There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away.

The Carousel theater moves in a circle around four animatronic panoramas of everyday family life in a typical American home in 1904, on July 4 in the 1920s, Halloween in the 1940s and, in the current rendition of the Carousel, Christmas around the year 2000.

Grandma’s face glowed. She grinned. This was a time machine, whisking her back, back, back. As we toured the 1940s, she exclaimed: “That refrigerator! That’s the same refrigerator my mother ordered for us from an ad in the newspaper when they first became available. That was the first time we ever had an electric refrigerator.” That exhibit and its jaunty music was like a tonic, connecting her with a whole circle of lives now long gone from our visible world.

Overall at 88, Grandma is in good health, but her increasing fragility is obvious. She still can walk, but usually she waivers, needs a cane and only walks short distances. In Disney World, we pushed her in a wheelchair.

She planned for this journey as a last big, daring adventure—and a reconnection with her fondest family memories. As we took our journey through Disney realms and family heritage, we wheeled her into every shrine she had hoped to revisit.

Only one eluded us for a couple of days. She kept saying, “I do hope we see Mickey.” And the elusive Mickey never was within our grasp.

But good always triumphs in the Disney cosmos if we only wish steadfastly enough—and she certainly did! Late on our last afternoon, we learned that Mickey was appearing in a kind of Oz-like throne room, minus an actual throne. He simply was standing there, wearing his blue hat from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, grinning and waving at a long line of families queued up to greet him.

My adult children simply pushed their Grandma’s wheelchair into the throng, taking a place at the end of the ropes. At first, Grandma didn’t realize what was happening, but finally she caught on that this throng was patiently awaiting an audience with Mickey.

“Oh, I don’t need to be here,” she said. She looked at other parents and grandparents, most of them with children in strollers or in hand. “Let’s leave. Can we? I’m going to take up someone else’s time. I shouldn’t do that.”

Then, someone else’s Mom leaned across the ropes and touched her shoulder. “You stay put. You belong here. Take as much time as you want.”

Meeting Mickey Mouse as Sorcerer Apprentice at Disney WorldBefore long, she was rolled toward Mickey in his sorcerer’s robes. And then, she confidently rose out of her wheelchair, walked without her cane to stand proudly beside Mickey.

I could argue that she had a kind of healing in Orlando. With family around her for five straight days, more well-balanced meals than she normally makes herself at home, exercise in the sun and of course Walt’s relentless inspiration—it was a healing.

Then, after our return flight landed and we decided to have one last meal together at a nearby restaurant before driving to our separate homes—this woman who previously would totter as she walked slowly across a room suddenly stood up. She strode confidently along a sidewalk, strolled into the restaurant and ordered another great big wonderful dinner!

Tomorrow? It’s going to be beautiful.

Thanks, Walt.

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

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Categories: Children and FamiliesMovies and TVUncategorized

‘Teach Your Children Well …’ Books to help kids fall in love with nature

Covers Just Like Me Climbing a Tree and The Olive Tree and Welcome to the NeighborwoodKIDS love our world—and expect those of us who are adults to take care of the planet until they are old enough to fully enjoy the Earth. One poll after another confirms that truth—and that’s a huge responsibility as Earth Day 2015 rolls around.

As adults who love kids, the first challenge is convincing children to open the door and explore our natural world. A nationwide study of kids by The Nature Conservancy concluded: “There is a growing disparity between the time kids spend indoors wired to technology and the time they spend outside enjoying nature. The vast majority of today’s kids use a computer, watch TV, or play video games on a daily basis, but only about 10 percent say they are spending time outdoors every day. Why? Lack of access to natural areas and discomfort with the outdoors are two primary factors.”

HOW WE’RE HELPING

‘JUST LIKE ME, CLIMBING A TREE’

OUR 1st OF 5 RECOMMENDATIONS—Kids have been climbing trees for thousands of years—so the appeal of Durga Yael Bernhard’s book will be almost universal among the kids you love. It’s also true that trees are endangered ecological engines that continually clean the air we breath, retain soil from erosion and provide all kinds of useful products: fruits, nuts, syrups, oils, wood for building shelters and fibers for a wide array of other materials that make our world a better place to live. But that’s not the primary story this artist and author tells us, as her readers. Oh, you’ll learn a whole lot about the huge range of trees around the world! I have a life-long love for Gingko trees and, in my own lifetime, I have planted a few gingkos in various towns. And, mid-way through this book, I smiled when I met a little Chinese girl high in a majestic Gingko with its fan-shaped leaves. I love olive trees, as well, and we meet a girl high in an olive tree in Israel. The author also tells us more about each kind of tree in the back pages of this large-format picture book—so there is real educational value here. But, as I say, that’s not the main storyline here. This book’s appeal is as simple as our timeless desire to look up into the trees around us—and dream of climbing high into those branches. That’s why Robert Frost’s Birches became an American classic. Before you close this book, you’ll see girls and boys in a dozen countries around the world scrambling into these leafy limbs. This could become a family favorite on your bookshelf. And, Just Like Me, Climbing a Tree: Exploring Trees Around the World is now available from Amazon.

‘THE OLIVE TREE’

THERE is a no more potent tree on Earth than the noble olive. In dozens of languages around the world, an “olive branch” means peace. Olives and olive trees are a part of the scriptures in millions of homes and communities, whether families are reading from the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian Bible or the Quran. And, the ownership and treatment of olive trees are matters of deep international concern. Author Elsa Marston understands all of that. She has a life-long fascination with the ancient world as well as the modern Middle East. She knows her history and, in 2013, she released another book that I heartily recommend, The Compassionate Warrior—Abd el-Kader of Algeria, also published by Wisdom Books. Her latest book, a collaboration with illustrator Claire Ewart, is a wonderfully engaging picture book about The Olive Tree. The tree in question has been growing, and producing olives, for more than a century on the property line between two families’ homes in Lebanon. Throughout that long and turbulent history, the families have separated and now they are trying to restore their neighborhood. The trouble is—that olive tree. And, the hope for their future? Yes, it lies in that tree, as well. The Olive Tree is available from Amazon.

‘WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORWOOD’

Honeybee pop up from Shawn Sheehy Welcome to the NeighborwoodYOU won’t believe the wonders inside this picture book! That is, you won’t believe it—unless you’re already an avid collector of contemporary Pop Up books by the likes of master book builder Robert Sabuda. In our family, we’ve been collecting Pop Up books since relatives returned to the U.S. from Japan in the late 1940s and brought back a miraculous Pop Up book that showed the colorful daily life of a typical family in scenes that literally sprang from each opening page. We’ve been hooked on the genre for 60 years, raising kids on the surprises within this picture-book genre. Perhaps you’ve never heard of Shawn Sheehy, but he is following in Sabuda’s path. Sheehy is turning his own his brilliant talents as a paper-and-publishing artist toward the natural world in his various projects. At the moment, his crowning accomplishment is this book. After this, I’m sure there are many wonders yet to come from Sheehy’s studio. I know I’ll be watching for more. No question, if you love Pop Up books and the natural world—grab a copy of this book now. It’s sure to be a classic! And, Welcome to the Neighborwood is available from Amazon.

Want to see for yourself? Click to watch the pages open in this video:

‘EVERYONE PRAYS’

Covers Everyone Prays by Alexis Lumbard and Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth GrahamAS a journalist for U.S. newspapers for 40 years, I specialized in covering issues of global diversity. That’s why, I fell in love with Alexis York Lumbard’s book Everyone Prays the moment I saw it. This book belongs in every home where parents value religious freedom, diversity and the hope that world peace is possible if we focus on what unites us. There are very few words in this gorgeous book—but the words and the colorful scenes chosen by illustrator Alizera Sadeghian convey an entire library of truth about the world’s great faith traditions. I guarantee this: Even the adults who read this book with the kids they love will learn a thing or two about the nature of prayer before they close this picture book. Everyone Prays: Celebrating Faith Around the World is available from Amazon.

‘NIGHT SKY DRAGONS’

OUR final choice among these five books that will inspire the children you love to open new doors into our world is Night Sky Dragons by Mal Peet and Elspeth Graham. This is both a “picture book” and a “story book” that adults will want to read to kids, at first. Eventually, you’ll find, this will become a family favorite and the kids will read it back to you. The story is set centuries ago in the heart of the Silk Road that connected East and West for trade in some of the world’s most valuable commodities. The main characters are a family charged with defending a safe town along that famous route. When a deadly gang of bandits besieges the town, the adults are paralyzed and desperate. That’s when a little boy named Yazul has a brilliant idea to use the kites that he loves to build with his grandfather to peacefully scare away this terrifying force encamped outside the town’s gates. Anyone who has traveled across Asia knows the timeless ritual of greeting the spring with kites. In Western culture, you might fondly recall “Let’s Go Fly a Kite” from Mary Poppins. What this husband-and-wife writing team has achieved in this book, though, transcends those spring rituals and gives our love of kites in the blue spring sky a whole new meaning. There is a much deeper tale here—a message that our love of the seasons and the natural world, coupled with timeless wisdom like the ancient talent of building sophisticated kites—holds the promise of saving our troubled world. And, Night Sky Dragons is available from Amazon, too.

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

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Categories: Children and FamiliesNatural WorldPeacemakingUncategorized

What stories make a difference? ‘Bambi, a Life in the Forest’

First US edition 1928 of Bambi a Life in the Woods by Felix Salten

This was the first U.S. Edition of Bambi, published in 1928. Click this cover to visit Amazon for a current edition of the book.

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Worldwide, Christians and Jews are celebrating the stories that have defined and directed our lives through the centuries. Easter was Sunday and Passover continues through the evening of April 11 this year.

If you need fresh evidence of the worldwide love for these ancient religious stories—just open your eyes. Director Ridley Scott already has earned about $300 million for his recent Exodus: Gods and Kings. The movie was just released on DVD and millions of Americans are snapping it up. Then, last week, The National Geographic Channel set new viewership records for its TV drama, Killing Jesus. CBS retold the tragedy of the Jewish confrontation with the Roman army at Masada in The Dovekeepers and there’s more: After A.D., which debuted Sunday night on NBC is projected to continue through 12 episodes!

Stories are powerful! We know ourselves by our individual stories. Stories bring us together around tables and connect us with others who have gone before us as well as those who will come after us.

MY STORY; MY CHALLENGE

Recently, I published a challenge related to a prose-poem I wrote, called “The Two of Us.” I asked readers to identify the author and the title of the original book that inspired my contemporary story. I promised to mail a personally dedicated copy of Short Stuff. And, today, we have a winner!

The answer to my first challenge? Bambi, a Life in the Forest. The story first was published as a serial in Vienna’s most influential newspaper and finally was released as a book, in German, in 1923 by the Jewish writer and Zionist activist known by his pen name Felix Salten. Born Siegmund Salzmann in Hungary, Salten became a leading literary figure in Vienna and also devoted his talents to encouraging Zionism.

Felix_Salten_1910

Felix Salten in 1910.

Right now, Ohio State University professor Paul Reitter is working on a book to be titled Bambi’s Jewish Roots. Reitter outlined some of those roots in the Jewish Review of Books this past winter. One theme Salten seems to have been exploring, when he wrote this forest story nearly a century ago, was whether European Jews should try to assimilate into popular culture of their day. In the novel, one question comes up again and again: Could the deer living in a forest ever trust that human hunters would let them live in peace? That echoes a haunting question for Jews in Europe in the 1920s, Reitter argues.

If you love the classic Disney movie, don’t worry. I’m not suggesting you can’t enjoy the beautiful cartoon feature that has caused millions of us to laugh—and to cry. What I am suggesting is: Stories are powerful and they shape lives in many ways, sometimes in ways we never imagined!

When the English translation of Bambi was published in 1928, The New York Times published a lengthy book review, praising the novel as a literary milestone—a deep reflection on the meaning of life. Reviewer John Chamberlain wrote in part:

“Felix Staten, in Bambi, takes you out of yourself. He has the gift of a tender, lucid style. His observation is next door to marvelous, and he invests the fruits of this observation with pure poetry. His comprehension makes his deer, his screech-owls, his butterflies, grasshoppers and hares, far more exciting to read about than hundreds of human beings who crowd the pages of our novels.”

Felix Salten eventually had to flee to Switzerland to escape the rise of Naziism. He died at age 76 in Switzerland just five months after VE Day, the end of the Third Reich.

Chapter 8 of the original Bambi novel is about two oak leaves facing the onset of winter. The entire dialogue in that chapter is from the perspective of those two final leaves, clinging to their branch after the others have already fallen. In that winter scene, the two leaves raise questions of mortality and afterlife: “Why must we fall?” and “What happens to us when we have fallen?”

My prose-poem, “The Two of Us,” which was written to honor Salten and his deeply moving eighth chapter, is rooted in my own life experiences. My story reflects the musings of my wife and me over the recent loss of a friend, the birth of a loved one’s child, and the awareness of our own mortality.

THE WINNER AND A NEW CHALLENGE

And, we have a winner to my first challenge! Many people tried to guess the title and author—but only one person, Andy Britt, correctly identified Bambi as the story I was reading that inspired my own poem. Andy tells me that he instantly recognized my source. He had read Bambi in college, loved and was moved by the story, and wrote two papers as reflections on his reading. He said he recently watched the film version, which is quite different than the novel, because he and his wife are expecting a child. Congratulations, Andy, and Blessings to you and your family. Your signed copy of Short Stuff from a Tall Guy shall arrive soon.

THE NEW CHALLENGE—What stories have made a difference in your life?

These two columns I have written are the start of a series in which we invite readers to tell us, like Andy did in his note to me, about stories they’ve remembered all their lives. Andy continues to be shaped by Bambi. How about you? Perhaps the story that shaped your life was also “a children’s book.” Perhaps you remember enjoying it with a parent. Or, perhaps it’s a book you read as a teen-ager, a college student or a young adult. Maybe it’s a book you read to youngsters as an adult.

It’s your turn. Stories are powerful—and shape our lives in many unexpected ways.

th-Short-Stuff-from-a-Tall-Guy-CoverWhat stories have made a difference in your life?

Email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

BENJAMIN PRATT is the author of three books. The most recent is “Short Stuff from a Tall Guy.”

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Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jane and her daughter Ellen Knuth with their new book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

INTO THE DISASTER AREA

Japanese government locator map of the region

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsChildren and FamiliesGreat With Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rob Bell book cover The ZimZum of Love

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

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

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

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

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

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ROB AND KRISTEN BELL
ON ‘ZIMZUM  OF LOVE’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ZIMZUM OR TZIMTZUM?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MAKING SACRIFICES IN MARRIAGE

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

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

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

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

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

ENDLESS MYSTERY OF MARRIAGE

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

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

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

DAVID: For example …

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

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

OPRAH AND ‘HELP DESK’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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