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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Review: ‘Cold War Road Show’ will make you feel safer now

REVIEW BY DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit.com online magazine

PBS American Experience Cold War Road Show DVD documentaryHere’s something to feel truly thankful for this year! Watch The Cold War Roadshow on PBS’s American Experience this week and you will feel safer about our world in just 1 hour.

Global warming? Ebola? The ruthless armies of ISIS? Sure, they’re all critical global concerns we must address as concerned humans. But half a century ago, American life was transformed by the first visit of Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. As a population, “we” lined the streets to see his entourage pass through our nation. What is most remarkable about this? We stood along his motorcade route in stunned silence.

As the documentary about this world-changing 1959 visit explains: Americans were so terrified by the power of this man to touch off a global nuclear war that we didn’t know how to respond.

Khrushchev intended this visit to serve as a full-scale public relations campaign to win over American public opinion. He grinned almost constantly. He showed off his own family and warmly hugged any American children who came within arm’s reach. But his short temper often trumped his charm offensive.

When the mayor of Los Angeles insulted him at a public banquet, Khrushchev exploded. He roared back that Soviet factories were pumping out missiles like sausages and, if Americans wanted to go toe to toe with the USSR, they’d find themselves in a war to end all wars! The film footage from that day shows the mayor’s face going from a confident grin to a jaw-dropping expression of fear at what he had touched off.

One of the best things about this fascinating documentary is the decision by filmmakers Robert Stone and Tim B. Toidze to include interviews with two adults who were children on the front row of this first visit by a Soviet leader to American soil. Susan Eisenhower is Ike’s daughter and now is a highly respected consultant on international commerce. Sergei Khrushchev is the son of the former Soviet leader and an author and consultant as well. These two “kids” provide revealing commentary on what was taking place in that often shocking tour.

One insight? Khrushchev’s son admits that his father had a very short fuse when confronted with insults. At the infamous Los Angeles banquet, when he began boasting about turning out missiles like sausages, the Soviet leader was flat out lying. It was just angry bluster, the son tells us. In fact, the Soviets had produced very few missiles at that point. Of course, that angry exchange left Americans quaking in our boots—and led to increased spying and a dramatic escalation of Cold War confrontations into the early 1960s.

Any American who was a child in that era remembers the “duck and cover” drills we all learned in public schools. This documentary shows a brief clip of the way we did it: Boys and girls all dropping to the floor of our classrooms, crouching under our desks and covering our heads with our hands. Today, the idea seems like the darkest of comedy.

But then, when it comes to global issues right now, Pew reports “Americans don’t care.” Nearly 4 out of 5 Americans told Pew pollsters this year that they want our leaders to focus on domestic issues and stop worrying about global concerns. However, national security remains an almost universal concern and 3 out of 4 Americans told Pew that “preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction” should be a top national priority. However we may balance those two attitudes—Pew reporting does show that Americans are no longer worried about a worldwide nuclear war ending life as we know it. And that certainly wasn’t the case when Khrushchev flew back to Moscow in 1959!

Watching this hour-long snapshot of America’s nuclear anxiety half a century ago is certain to make you feel more thankful this month!

WANT TO SEE THE FILM?

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

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The David Gushee Interview on ‘Changing Our Mind’

David P Gushee Changing Our Mind front cover

CLICK THE COVER to visit our Bookstore, learn more about the book and order a copy from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other retailers.

NEWS already is spreading that America’s leading evangelical Christian ethicist, Dr. David P. Gushee, has reversed his traditional opposition to LGBT relationships in a landmark book called, Changing Our Mind. One online news report about his new book racked up 42,000 mentions on Facebook by readers who understand the significance of this new stance by Dr. Gushee.

After 20 books—including the award-winning volume that now is a standard reference book for evangelical leaders, Kingdom Ethics—Dr. Gushee is completely rewriting his ethical and biblical approach to gay and lesbian men and women. The news has been welcomed by families, teachers and religious leaders who realize that traditional evangelical teaching has hurt countless men, women and teens. Predictably, the news also has sparked opposition from traditionalists.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed David P. Gushee about his book. But before we bring you that author interview, here is a convenient outline of other resources you’ll want to consider:

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ETHICIST DR. DAVID P. GUSHEE
ON ‘CHANGING OUR MIND’

CRUMM: Let’s start with the most obvious question: Why now? You are a devout Christian, a serious scholar and you’ve already written enough books to fill a shelf in the library. Now, mid-career, you’ve chosen to reverse yourself on one of the most important issues dividing thousands of churches and millions of families. This is a rare reversal for a scholar of your stature.

In his Foreword to your book, best-selling Christian writer Brian D. McLaren calls this a historic moment and compares your new stance to some others that made headlines. Brian writes: “Older readers will remember when Billy Graham shocked American evangelicals—first, by refusing to segregate his evangelistic crusades, and then, by working with Roman Catholics. Younger readers will remember when Pope Francis shocked Catholics by washing the feet of a Muslim woman, or by refusing to condemn gay Catholics.”

So, David, the first question is: Why now?

Gushee author photo

David P. Gushee

GUSHEE: More with this book than with any other book I’ve written, I have a sense of being carried along by a power that goes beyond me. It’s like these ideas have been germinating underground for a long time.

Now, I feel compelled to do more to address this issue in a public way. I feel that this is the issue of the early 21st century in the way that race was the issue of the 1960s and, in my evangelical world, the way that women’s roles became the issue of the 1980s. By God’s grace, I have evolved into a leader in American Christianity and I feel like I have not met my responsibility up until now to lead on the LGBT issue. Now, I’m ready. It took me a while to get here.

CHRISTIANS ON A JOURNEY

CRUMM: That sense you describe of “being carried along by a power that goes beyond me.” Some of the early endorsers of your book are making this same point. One of the most inspiring, I think, is the strong endorsement by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America from 1994-2011. He calls  your new book “courageous, clear, balanced and … grounded in biblical faith.” And then he writes that your book “will be a challenge to some, an inspiration to others, but a gift to all who find themselves at some point on this journey.”

What he’s saying—and many other Christian leaders are saying, too—is that this is a moment of historic change.

GUSHEE: For a long time as evangelicals we made it impossible for LGBT people to exist around us in an honest way. We allowed no recognized space to be an LGBT Christian. Of course, we know that there are millions of LGBT people in America, but in the spaces we controlled? There seemed to be zero. Of course that means LGBT people were hiding. We were forcing them to remain invisible. That’s a form of marginalization that’s as acute as it gets. We have been saying: In our world, you can’t exist. You can’t exist as a devout Christian. We have been trying to create and enforce environments where it’s impossible for you, as an LGBT man or woman, to exist.

We made people suffer through what we said and taught and, by enforcing this kind of environment where people had to hide, we made people suffer even more.

AN EMERGING JUSTICE ISSUE

CRUMM: One thing that’s important to understand about your response is: You’re not saying, “Well, the culture is changing and we should change, too, to remain relevant.” What’s driving your new work is really an awareness of the suffering that traditionalist Christian preaching and teaching has caused among countless families—not only LGBT men and women but their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

In the opening pages of your new book, Jane Clementi writes about the importance of your book to families who have gay loved ones. Jane and her husband now have co-founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation after their son Tyler was lost to suicide in the wake of that infamous case of cyber-bullying at Rutgers University. Jane concludes her note to readers this way: “Praise God for patiently guiding each of us to this place of new understanding as God moves the Church into the 21st century.” Unless your heart is made of stone, you’ve got to be moved by the Clementi family story.

So, your critics may accuse you of just surrendering to popular culture—but anyone who reads your book will realize that’s not the case. This is a theme that runs throughout your career as a scholar: In each time and place, we must look for those who are suffering and reach out to help.

GUSHEE: You’re right. Popular culture is not my prime motivation.

The prime motivation in all of my work is to help Christians discern what it means to follow Christ faithfully. Just because culture may be moving in one direction does not mean that we should just go along. My doctoral dissertation was on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust where millions in Germany simply went along with the dominant culture.

This is difficult to discern. Sometimes the culture is leading the way in a good direction; and sometimes culture is moving in a direction where the church should dig in its heels. My book addresses that issue directly: Is this change I am describing a surrender to sexual libertinism in our culture? Or is this an emerging justice issue for Christians who want to faithfully follow Christ? I don’t have any doubts about it anymore. This is an emerging justice issue for Christians who want to be faithful to where Christ is leading us.

I would say at the cultural level, while the conservative branches of the church are losing substantial numbers of people and substantial cultural ground on this issue, the responses I’m hearing from the cultural Right demonstrate they’re digging in their heels in a very strong way. Some on the cultural Right are going to be digging in their heels until the very end.

DISCERNMENT TAKES TIME

CRUMM: As a journalist, I’ve devoted my career to covering religion around the world. I’m fascinated by religious leaders who break with tradition on justice issues. Recently, we published an interview with biographer Charles Marsh about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer became one of the first Christian leaders in Germany to publicly oppose the Nazis—way before other Christian heroes followed his example.

I always wonder: How did these heroic Christian leaders decide to step out into the forefront and take such courageous positions? What fueled their decisions? Another example: I’m fascinated by the life of John Wesley who took decades to figure out that slavery was wrong, that it was a Christian justice issue—but finally Wesley became a leading abolitionist and published a stirring anti-slavery pamphlet in 1774.

GUSHEE: It took me basically 20 years to reach this point: 20 years and 20 books before I reached this point of discernment on this issue.

I think that no human being has the bandwidth to reconsider everything at the same time. John Wesley didn’t. Discernment takes time.

In the context and pace of global change today, it may seem as though we’re reconsidering everything every day. But, as a Christian, you inherit paterns of belief and ways the Bible has been traditionally interpreted on dozens and dozens of issues—money, environment, war, human relations, on and on—and something has to arrive in our lives to crack open a settled pattern of interpretation. Usually that takes the form of a transformative experience with people who are negatively affected by that traditional pattern of interpretation. If we encounter the humanity affected and suffering because of a particular pattern of teaching—then our lives begin to crack open and there is space to reconsider.

If you’re a Protestant, then the Bible is your main authority in life. And, if you’re an evangelical, you want to be sure you have a solid biblical base to your thinking. So, I needed to revisit the Bible passages that have been the main cluster of passages raised when this issue is discussed in evangelical circles.

When I began that careful study, I realized that I should have been clued into the flaws in the traditional analysis long ago. None of the passages cited in the traditional arguments about gay and lesbian relationships is a central passage on which we as Christians normally base our lives. Think about what we consider central as Christians: passages like John 3:16 and the parables of Jesus and Jesus’s own teachings. So, I should have realized that there were flaws in that traditional biblical analysis when it rests on passages like the one in Leviticus. Where else in contemporary life do Christians quote Leviticus as a guide for daily living? Yes, there are a couple of passages in the New Testament that are often cited as well, but they’re not the core passages of the Bible on which we rely every day.

The more I studied this, the more I realized: What a disaster! We have allowed a traditionalist reading of a small cluster of relatively marginal passages in the Bible to trump the heartbeat of Christian morality, which is based on the teachings of Jesus. I feel the scales have fallen from my eyes on this. I’m saying we need to treat LGBT people like Jesus commanded us to treat everybody we meet.

A HUMBLE APOLOGY

CRUMM: I was moved by your book, especially the final chapter. You close this book with a humble apology “to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue.”

And that passage made me look back earlier in your career to the years of research you conducted into courageous Holocaust rescuers—men and women who now are called “righteous gentiles.” These people risked their lives, and many actually died, because they were convinced that they should reach out and help the suffering during the Shoah.

I  pulled off my shelf your book, based on those years of research, titled, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation. And, toward the end of that book you write: “Most rescuers … believe that their actions were in fact both morally obligatory and not especially commendable. Their obligation to help Jews seemed perfectly clear to them, and from their perspective a person deserves no praise for fulfilling an obvious obligation.”

Now, years after first publishing that book, you’re publishing Changing Our Mind and you close this new book on a similar note. You’re not asking people to praise you as a great hero. You’re humbling yourself at the end of this book. You’re publishing this book because it’s the right thing to do.

To echo a famous evangelical line: Here you stand; you can do no other.

GUSHEE: I’m really glad you discovered that quote in Righteous Gentiles. You’re right, I was deeply shaped by that research. I spent three years day and night reading about rescuers and researching in Holocaust archives—immersing myself in all of these hidden stories. That was my dissertation and the deepest I thought I’d ever go on researching any topic. Studying these rescuers set my course. I have been attempting to live up to what I learned from them ever since.

I’ve often talked about trying to follow a “rescuer Christianity” rather than a “bystander Christianity” or—even worse—a “perpetrator Christianity.” So, yes, I totally resonate with that quote you just read.

What I’m trying to do is to let Christians know: Here’s an idea. Treat gay and lesbian people just like you’d treat anyone else. Welcome them. Show them hospitality. That’s what we as Christians are supposed to do for everyone. This isn’t rocket science.

And, I don’t deserve praise for having taken 20 years to figure this out. Now that I have, I plan to stand in solidarity with the people we have made to suffer for so long—for the rest of my career. It is the least that I can do.

(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 FamiliesChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

Why David P. Gushee represents hope for the Church

By KEN WILSON
author of A Letter To My Congregation

A Letter to My Congregation cover with Ken Wilson

Click the image to learn more about Ken Wilson and his book, which includes an opening written by David P. Gushee.

David Gushee is arguably the preeminent Evangelical ethicist of our time. Until this book, that is, which is more than a book. It is an event and it is one that will propel Gushee outside the camp of approved Evangelical scholars.

But this is where Jesus did his best work. It is the place where the gospel first happened for all people. Gushee’s book will draw many Evangelicals to find Jesus outside the camp with his vulnerable gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender followers, those who have suffered in exile for a very long time.

The thing you will notice in Changing Our Mind, beyond the faithful scholarship, is Gushee’s voice. Words do matter and the thoughts they convey. But the good shepherd is known primarily by his voice. Gushee’s voice is by turns warm, pastoral, prophetic, irenic, careful, authoritative, humble, sorrowful, repentant and even occasionally funny.

Gushee’s new book is a great read.

But his mission is deadly serious. Gushee is out to save the lives of people living with the stigma of sexual minority status. And he is out to save the soul of the Evangelical church, so that it can be good news for all people again.

I met David at a retreat sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals in 2006. Five years later, I was on a writing retreat—gathering my troubled and troubling thoughts on a way to fully include people in same-sex relationships in the church. I had just finished reading Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics and found the few pages on homosexuality wanting. Those pages didn’t live up to the approach to ethics that Gushee and his co-author presented in the book. With trepidation (Who was I to criticize Gushee in his own field?) I told him so. And to my surprise, he responded with what I now know to be characteristic humility.

He said, “I’m rethinking that section too.”

That’s when I knew that evangelicals are able to—and will—change their minds on this issue for the sake of the gospel. That’s when I felt hope for the evangelical church—that guided by our passion for the gospel, we could find a better way. Today I am aware of several evangelical churches in the dicey, messy, difficult process of changing their minds on this issue.

When I telephoned Gushee that day, I couldn’t imagine such a thing. When I hung up the phone, I could.

So read this book—but only if you are willing to venture outside the camp of modern-day evangelicalism for the sake of the gospel. There you will enjoy sweet fellowship with Jesus that is available nowhere else. And you will discover again the thrill inherent in the goodness, the sheer, stupefying goodness of the gospel for all people.

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Categories: Children and FamiliesChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

Miller Elementary School builds a ‘Fence of Friends’

Teacher Krista Jewett and Principal Aimee Bell at Miller school lead an anti-bullying assembly

USING VISUAL AIDS TO PREVENT BULLYING: At a Miller Elementary School assembly, teacher Krista Jewett (left in gray sweater) and principal Aimee Bell (at right) work with groups of children to discuss the best responses when bullying arises.

Hundreds of children agree:
Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

By DAVID CRUMM, Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“I was lonely, when I first came to Miller as a teacher. I didn’t know anyone! I was new here. I didn’t have any friends,” music teacher Mary Manier told hundreds of children in two assemblies at Miller Elementary School in Canton, Michigan. Behind her was a huge screen displaying the simple outline of a picket fence. Inside that outline were sketches of smiling people holding hands.

Miller teacher Mary Manier shows how to form a Fence of Friends

‘FENCE OF FRIENDS’ BEFORE & AFTER: In this photo, Miller Elementary music teacher Mary Manier talks about arriving at the school and meeting her first new friend. In the photo below, Mary Manier’s story ends with a long ‘Fence of Friends.’ (Photographs by Becky Hile for www.ReadTheSpirit.com)

“But do you know what happened on my first day? Someone greeted me and that made me feel a lot better,” Mary Manier said, inviting that first friendly teacher to walk to the front of the assembly, stand beside her and link arms to show their friendship. Then, Manier recalled a series of simple, kind actions by other teachers—and invited them to stand side by side. Soon, teachers had formed a long “Fence of Friends.”

Then, Manier turned to the hundreds of children sitting in rows on the gymnasium floor. “You all have people who care about you, too. You all have friends. Who is in your Fence of Friends?”

The school is racially, ethnically and religiously diverse, posing an ongoing cross-cultural challenge to the school staff. This year, the entire school—children, teachers, office staff and even janitors—are helping the children to understand how to build safe relationships at Miller. A school-wide survey of students alerted the staff that some children were anxious about the possibility of bullying. No major incidents have surfaced, but Principal Aimee Bell and her colleagues want to be proactive.

In early October, Bell, Manier and 4th grade teacher Krista Jewett invited me, as the head of ReadTheSpirit Books, to brainstorm ideas for engaging children in the effort. ReadTheSpirit publishes two helpful books: Michigan State University’s The New Bullying (for parents and teachers) and also Bullying Is No Laughing Matter (for adults to use with kids).

Miller teacher Mary Manier completes her Fence of FriendsThe Miller team especially liked the “Fence of Friends” activity, based on the Dennis the Menace comic strip. That activity guide is one of many that we provide in the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter website.

Last week, Miller held two assemblies, separating the students by age. The assembly for older students was longer and involved more talks by teachers, student skits produced by Krista Jewett’s students and brief videos on the big screen. The assembly for younger kids was geared for a shorter attention span. The high point for both groups was Mary Manier—with help from the school’s faculty—demonstrating the Fence of Friends.

“In the next week or so, you’re all going to get a chance to draw your own Fence of Friends,” Aimee Bell told the students.

The staff has duplicated hundreds of fence outlines on 8-by-11 paper, awaiting these student drawings. Teachers know that some students immediately will fill their fences with sketches of friends. Other children will sit quietly with a nearly empty fence. That’s when teachers will encourage students to look at the drawings that are emerging around the classroom—and students will be invited to “draw themselves in” to those fences that are still quite empty. In doing so, children commit themselves to being good friends for others throughout the school year.

During the assembly, Aimee Bell and Krista Jewett often turned the microphone to the children to get their responses. They asked: “Why is this so important?”

A boy named James said, “If somebody wants to bully you—you have someone to guard you.”

A girl named Julia said, “You know someone will stand by your side—they’re part of your fence.”

Through their short talks, student skits and short videos, the Miller staff stressed the nationally accepted definition of bullying (that definition is included in the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter book), then they demonstrated several strategies kids can use for quickly responding, and also they emphasized the need to alert adults if bullying persists.

Aimee Bell closed the assemblies by encouraging the students: “We’re going to talk a lot about how to respond to bullying this year. Now, we all know what bullying is—and we all know what to do when we see it.”

As children make their own Fence of Friends drawings in coming weeks, Miller teachers plan to post those drawings side-by-side to form a very long Fence of Friends around the walls of the school.

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Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With Groups

Good News from Detroit: We’ve never seen a book launch like this!

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit

DETROIT, MI—Think book publishing is fading in the face of new media? Think the City of Detroit is “bad news”? Need some good news today?

We’ve never seen a book launch like this in the city of Detroit! Nearly 1,000 men and women from across Michigan bought tickets to Detroit’s Orchestra Hall on Saturday (September 27) to celebrate the launch of the city’s first ecumenical publishing house in 200 years, headed by one of the city’s most accomplished pastors: the Rev. Faith Fowler.

In a lengthy Detroit Free Press column, Mitch Albom writes: “Faith Fowler, 55, is not your typical pastor. She is funnier. And more blunt. And, Lord, does she get things done. … She is the most important currency of our city, a loving, egoless, inspiring leader who doesn’t see color, doesn’t see class, who looks at our poorest, most neglected citizens and sees only hope and opportunity.” At the Orchestra Hall event, Mitch showed up in person to further praise Faith’s work.

And Mitch was not alone! The launch was a symphony of community connections, orchestrated by Faith.

THE REAL REASON THIS LAUNCH WAS UNIQUE?

William Jones of FocusHOPE and Laurie Haller of Birmingham First United Methodist read at the Cass launch event

A SIGN OF UNITY: Focus:HOPE’s William Jones reads with Birmingham pastor the Rev. Laurie Haller.

It’s accurate to call this launch “unique.” The crowd was enormous. The landmark setting was inspiring. Detroit hasn’t seen a publishing house like this in two centuries.

But the real reason this launch was unique? It was not all about Faith Fowler. In fact, she appeared on stage only briefly. It’s a rule in American publishing that book launches are a showcase for the author—but not this one!

Faith made sure that this launch was all about the community. And that is Faith’s most important talent. The Orchestra Hall stage was filled by musical groups from her congregation, singing such stirring selections that people in the crowd leaped to their feet, hands waved and “Amen! Amen!” echoed through the auditorium.

Everyone at Orchestra Hall felt the electricity when a beloved sports legend, retired University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, took the stage.

Anyone who cares about the city of Detroit was moved when the Rev. Laurie Haller, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, took the stage to read one of Faith’s stories with William Jones, the head of Detroit’s famous Focus:HOPE. In the crowd, minds silently flashed the connections: Suburb and City. White and Black. Female and Male. Church and Nonprofit.

Together, Haller and Jones read a moving story from Faith’s book. But they did more than read to the crowd. The sparked possibilities. Their appearance alone was good news to many.

TOURING MICHIGAN:
SEE FOR YOURSELF!

ReadTheSpirit reaches readers around the world—but if you are in Michigan this week you can catch this infectious spirit. Come and see! Faith and friends are touring Michigan all this week.

Detroit Orchestra Hall ready for Faith Fowler launch of Cass Community PublishingOn Sunday, September 28, Fowler and the Cass musical group, the Ambassadors, begin a week-long, statewide tour. All events begin at 7 p.m. except the Gaylord event, which begins at 6 p.m. Admission to these tour events is—free! Books and Cass Green Industry products will be available for purchase. Profits from book sales benefit the work of Cass Community Social Services.

Come on!
Get involved!

Wherever you live in the world, you can catch the fire of this amazing “good news” campaign.

The crowd at Orchestra Hall was as diverse as Michigan, but United Methodists were were especially well represented—because Faith herself is a United Methodist pastor. Just as this was a historic day for those who love the city of Detroit, this was a proud milestone for Michigan United Methodists.

“It was such a great day!” said the Rev. Marsha Woolley, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Northville, MI. “I brought with me some women who are native Detroiters and who, these days, are feeling really good about what is happening in Detroit. Experiencing this launch was just so inspiring—about the city of Detroit and about ministry in Detroit and about all those of us who want to work with the city’s very diverse people.”

“Inspiring! Uplifting! That’s what I felt,” said Maggie Hakala, a member of First United Methodist Church in Plymouth, who also went to the launch with a group of friends. “The readings from the book were so great. We all got our books as we left and I’m really looking forward to reading it, now. And I have to say: We appreciated the visit from Mitch Albom, too!”

Learn more about Faith’s book and buy a copy right now.

(SPECIAL THANKS: Becky Hile and John Hile took the photographs published with our coverage of this book launch.)

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Categories: ChristianChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Marcia Falk interview on ‘The Days Between’

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

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

Whatever your faith and whatever the season, Marcia Falk has blessings, poems and spiritual guidance to help you through a time of reflection and renewal. Her new book is called, The Days Between: Blessings, Poems, and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season.

As the subtitle indicates, this is a series of reflections, readings, blessings and prayers appropriate to each day from Rosh Hashanah through Yom Kippur. But this book also is full of timeless spiritual wisdom, eloquently signaled in these concise lines. Consider this eight-line reading that Falk calls “Turning the Heart.”

Slow spin of earth
against sky—

imperceptible yet
making the days.

One stone tossed
into the current,

and the river, ever-
so-slightly, rising.

.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcia Falk. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH MARCIA FALK ABOUT ‘THE DAYS BETWEEN’

DAVID: Your website, MarciaFalk.com, describes you as “Poet, Painter, Judaic Scholar.” We will include a photo of your book’s front cover, which features your watercolor-and-pencil work, called “Gilead Apples.” Your career is so varied. How do you describe your overall body of work to audiences, when you tour and talk about your new book?

Marcia Falk, photo used with author's permission.

Marcia Falk, photo used with author’s permission.

MARCIA: I would say that I am a creative artist, a poet and a translator with a strong scholarly background in the work I do. I’ve brought together the literary world and the world of scholarship in my work interpreting and recreating Jewish liturgy from a non-hierarchical perspective. I don’t just sit down and write liturgy. Everything I do is based in the tradition.

DAVID: Evidence of your very thoughtful process is that your books take many years to complete. Probably your most famous book—at least one that has been on my own reference shelf for many years—is your rendering of The Song of Songs.

MARCIA: That has been in print for almost four decades and it has migrated through a number of publishers over the years. It is available today from Brandeis University Press. I began that work when I was a graduate student in English and comparative literature at Stanford, independent studies in three different areas at once: I was in a poetry translation workshop and I was doing an independent study in American poets and then—and this is the most important thing—I had decided to go back and study the original Hebrew Song of Songs, which of course I had known since childhood in my Jewish background.

I remembered The Song of Songs as very musical and lyrical and I already loved the book but I had never studied it. It is an extremely different book linguistically. I worked with a Bible scholar, sitting together and reading this book. I researched every word and phrase and never thought about translating it. I was just absorbing the book. And then one night my translation workshop had an evening when we were sharing our work. When my turn came, I said, “I don’t have anything to show. I’ve spent all my time studying this wonderful book and it’s completely taken over my life.” I began to talk about The Song of Songs and how they couldn’t understand this aspect of it from the King James Version or they would miss this aspect in the Revised Standard Version. I was talking to them about what’s in the original Hebrew.

That’s when I realized that I really should translate this book that had become such a big part of my life. And, that took me years. I went to Israel. I wanted to study at the feet of the great Bible scholars there. I wanted their approval that I was on the right track. Eventually my translation became my doctoral dissertation, the translation accompanied by a commentary.

DAVID: That’s a terrific story because it conveys to our readers the great care and the long years you spend on your work. Let’s point out that I’m certainly not alone in praising The Song of Songs. A very long list of great literary lights have praised that book, including Nobel Laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer who wrote about your book, “I thought until now that the Song of Songs could not be translated better than the King James Version. Marcia Falk really managed to do an exceptional poetic job. She has great power in her language.”

So, then, leaping forward to the mid 1990s, you produced the big Book of Blessings.

MARCIA: I actually began writing that book in 1983. It was a 13-year project; The Book of Blessings finally came out in 1996. That book is a recreation of prayer for Shabbat, the Sabbath, and for weekdays. My impetus for doing that book was a deep frustration with the patriarchal focus of traditional prayer that was so unsatisfying to the point of being painful for many Jewish women and, it turns out, many Jewish men as well. When it was published, that book created a pretty big stir in the Jewish world.

Then, in 1996, I thought I would dive right into the next volume, which would be for the high holiday season, because that is the time of year when more Jews enter the synagogue than at any other time of year. But The Days Between, which just was published, took another 18 years.

DAVID: I’ve been a journalist covering religion and cross-cultural issues for 40 years now and I am fascinated by this thoughtful, long journey represented in your work. There is a great deal that evolves and matures in us as we go through the years. I talked about this issue, this spring, with the writer Barbara Brown Taylor and asked her why five years had passed between books.

Barbara laughed at that and said: “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

MARCIA: There are many reasons it took me so many years: raising a child, needing to make a living as a professor and many other things. But the main reason was that this needed to evolve in my mind and heart. I needed to really grapple with what this very difficult liturgy was all about. The themes of the high holidays are extremely profound and they are at the core of all of human endeavor.

It took this many years to complete, really, because I needed to live long enough in the world—and needed all of the experiences that come with birth and grief and growth and renewal and all the things that make up a human life through those years. I needed to grow through all of that. My living was seeping into my poetry all that time.

DAVID: I hope that readers of this interview understand that, while your book is Jewish and ideal for Jewish readers, this book also can be appreciated as an inspiring and spiritually challenging reader for non-Jews as well. As I was preparing for our interview, Marcia, I was also balancing hours of visiting my father in hospice care. He’s at the very end of his long life, now, and I found many passages in your book just electrifying.

Let me read one prose passage from the opening of the book that really helped me in my own reflections right now. You write: “Positioned between dawn and dusk, dusk and dawn, we live between past and future because we cannot live in them; we cannot act in them or change their outcomes. In this sense, past and future don’t exist for us: only the time between them—the present time—exists.” And then you continue a few lines later: “How do we live with the knowledge not just of our own mortality but of the truth that we cannot hold on to anything? How do we keep from succumbing to despair?”

I underlined those lines and turned down the corner of that page. That summarizes, so eloquently, the spiritual challenge we all face at times of major life transitions. It certainly was very helpful to me in the midst of hospice care with my Dad. I read those lines aloud to him.

MARCIA: To me, that’s the best reward as an author—to hear that kind of response from a reader. I should also mention that it’s been very interesting to me that, wherever I speak about this book, hospice workers in particular come up to me and I see how engaged they are. I feel very gratified that the book is of use to those in hospice. I think that hospice workers are doing something extremely important in our world world.

DAVID: I think it speaks, even more broadly, about how these timeless truths and insights—these blessings and prayers—can touch many lives whatever one’s faith might be. So, let me close our interview by asking: What do you hope general readers will take away from reading your book?

MARCIA: For my Jewish readers, I hope I’m bringing a new entry into Judaism. I also hope it will reveal something for non-Jewish readers as well. I hope it touches people and enriches their paths through life. We’re all human beings and we’re all in this together.

In this book, I am dealing with big themes that speak to and for all of us. Of course, I’m doing this in Jewish language and metaphor—but ultimately for any religion or tradition to meaningful, it has to be dealing with the universals of human life. No religion works unless it is really talking to the whole community of humanity.

(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 InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsHolidaysJewish