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The Adam Hamilton interview on ‘Making Sense of the Bible’ while growing the church


TO BUY THE BOOK, click on this image for the book’s Amazon page. At the end of this interview, you will find more links and information on ordering the accompanying DVD and Leader’s Guide.

Adam Hamilton wants to help congregations grow.

Within his United Methodist denomination, he already has proven himself a master of church growth. Now, he is breaking out to a wider audience in his first book for HarperOne (his earlier books are from Abingdon, his denomination’s publishing house).

Now, he wants to show congregations nationwide how to fuel revival and outreach—by starting with the Bible.

But, this isn’t your grandfather’s revivalism. Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today is equal parts an evangelical return to the Bible as the foundation of Protestant Christianity—and a scholarly, inclusive approach to understanding scripture that draws on themes familiar to readers of Brian D. McLaren, Rob Bell and Marcus Borg. Most importantly, for the millions of men and women who have been avoiding churches for years, this is a faithful and intelligent orientation to the Bible.

Adam Hamilton’s congregation was dubbed the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection when he and a handful of families founded it in 1990. “Resurrection” seemed like a good name because the only space they could afford at the time was a local funeral home. Today, the church’s “main campus” is in Leawood, near Kansas City, Kansas, but the church is spread across multiple “campuses,” including some sites in other states with video feeds. Adding to that growing list of physical locations is a rapidly growing online church that attracts thousands each week. The church’s digital team regularly sees men and women logging into online worship from Michigan to Florida and from New York to Los Angeles—often including sites overseas.

How big is the Church of the Resurrection?

Church of the Resurrection lobby

One entryway to just one campus of Church of the Resurrection. Photo by Paul McDonald provided for public use.

Writing as Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine with many decades of experience as a journalist covering religion in America, I can tell you: Claims of church membership and attendance are as slippery as eels and there is no regulated national reporting on numbers. Nevertheless, the Hartford Institute for Religion Research is widely respected as a neutral center observing these trends. Based on Hartford’s rankings …

The largest American congregation is Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston with a weekly attendance of more than 40,000. Next are about a dozen churches claiming weekly attendance of 20,000 or higher, including two of the most famous megachurches: Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church in California and Bill Hybels’s Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois. Next are more than a dozen claiming weekly attendance of 15,000 or higher and among the famous congregations in that strata are T.D. Jakes’s The Potter’s House in Dallas and Creflo Dollar’s World Changers Church in Georgia. Adam Hamilton’s Church of the Resurrection currently is listed in the next group claiming weekly physical attendance of 10,000 and higher. Hamilton’s online congregation isn’t reflected in these totals and, if counted, would push Church of the Resurrection up into the Jakes and Dollar range.

Heatmap of Online Worship

This sample “heatmap” shows the geographic spread of online worshipers at Church of the Resurrection on one Saturday. On Sunday mornings, the heatmap expands further.

No question—Church of the Resurrection is the largest within the 12-million-member denomination with roots in the movement founded by John and Charles Wesley before the American Revolution. Next in ranking, at about half of Church of the Resurrection’s size, is Windsor Village United Methodist Church in Houston, where pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell has made a name for himself in befriending presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama. (Adam Hamilton also is dabbling in national leadership; he preached at the Inaugural Prayer Service held at the National Cathedral in Washington in January 2013.) Caldwell’s church is followed by Granger Community Church in Indiana, Ginghamsburg United Methodist Church in Ohio—and then Highland Park United Methodist Church and The Woodlands United Methodist Church, both in Texas.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Adam Hamilton in …


DAVID: On July 12, you’ll turn 50. You’re only six years older than Rob Bell. And, already, you’re a long way toward your life’s goal of leading a revival within mainline Protestant churches, specifically within your own United Methodist denomination.

Adam HamiltonADAM: We care deeply about wanting to see the United Methodist church revived and revitalized.

DAVID: As a journalist, it’s hard to keep up with everything you’re doing with your huge team of colleagues. I hadn’t realized until recently that you’ve got a satellite program called Partner Churches that now lists eight congregations from Maryland to California. This is for small churches, often served by part-time pastors, who want to use Church of the Resurrection resources—including your sermons in a video feed, right?

ADAM: Yes, we know that all of the things we are trying to do won’t work the same way everywhere. There have to be many different approaches to ministry. Remember that the majority of our United Methodist congregations are small. Many of them have local pastors in some cases part-time at the church. Some of our small churches are led by lay people who serve as excellent pastors in their communities in many cases. Some of these men and women are excellent shepherds; they’re great at hospital visitation and other areas of ministry—but perhaps they don’t feel they can preach very well, or at least not every week. So, that program, Partner Churches, provides a high-quality sermon from Resurrection and other resources.

DAVID: Readers may think that sounds like something out of the “prosperity preaching” movement—Creflo Dollar and others have tried video feeds. But what you’re doing here stems from the very roots of Methodism more than 200 years ago. Methodism was an incredible grassroots, pack-it-up-and-move-it movement. Circuit Riders crisscrossed America. Wesley himself was a pamphleteer widely using the latest technologies for rapid print distribution of his texts.

ADAM: The example I use is a 1789 edition of John Wesley’s sermons that was published while he was at his City Road chapel in London. I hold up my copy of that book and I say, “In America, when the Circuit Riders started a church, they would get it going and then they would leave to work in another town and they’d say, ‘Here is a book of Wesley’s sermons; read one each week until I return to you.’ And they would. We’re just adapting Wesley’s model for the 21st Century.

DAVID: That pattern spread like wildfire in the era of Francis Asbury. Wesley’s assistant before the American Revolution and later one of the first Methodist bishops. The more I’ve researched Wesley’s life myself, the more impressed I am with his courageous innovations. The book of sermons reflects his roots in the Church of England where there was a tradition of publishing sample sermons. So, it was natural for him to carry this idea much further. For Asbury and his team, sample sermons were a great help. Most United Methodist leaders, even today, have copies of Wesley’s numbered sermons.

ADAM: We’re constantly testing what we can do to help small- and medium-sized churches, especially those that are struggling. Partner Churches is just one example. We’re trying all kinds of things. In our online worship, last Sunday, we had 3,600 people actually logging in during the worship services. The online participants register their attendance; they can turn in their prayer requests; they can make donations. That’s the fastest growing segment of our congregation.

They visit us from many places. Recently I was out of town, so I worshiped online myself. What’s interesting is that out of 3,600 men and women we have online on a Sunday morning, about 2,000 of them are Resurrection members, but they choose to worship online with us—for many reasons. Many people can’t make it to the church on a Sunday, for example, but this gives them an opportunity to be with us.


Inaugural Prayer Service

Adam Hamilton preaching the sermon at the National Cathedral’s Inaugural Prayer Service in January 2013. Photo courtesy of Washington National Cathedral. Photographer: Donovan Marks.

DAVID: Right now, you’re speaking to a larger national audience through this new book and events like last year’s sermon at the National Cathedral as a part of President Obama’s inauguration. But, many of our ReadTheSpirit readers are meeting you for the first time today. So, I want you to describe this passion that drives you: Your goal isn’t political influence or riches. You’ve said you’re donating any proceeds from this new book back to your church. You really do want to see mainline Protestant churches start to thrive again, right?

ADAM: There were two things I had in mind as I was finishing this new book: One is the person who has been turned off to Christianity because of things they’ve heard or experienced in the past. The most vocal Christians we see in America today are conservative evangelicals and Fundamentalists—and I know those are two different categories, but the two groups do overlap. I don’t regularly watch Bill Maher, but I happened to see him on TV the other day ridiculing Christians because of this new Noah movie. Maher was pointing out that  a large portion of Americans tell pollsters that we need to take these Bible stories literally—and Maher also was pointing out how absurd the Noah story seems, if we have to take it literally. He pointed out that it’s obscene to think that God wanted to kill virtually every man, woman, child and animal on the planet.

The Bible does seem absurd to many people, today. And misunderstandings about the Bible lead to all kinds of confrontations. I think of people in my own congregation: One woman is studying biology at the university level and she told me, “I’m in a Bible-study group and people are telling me I can’t be a Christian if I believe in evolution. Modern biology rests on the assumptions of evolution.”

There are so many issues that arise if we try to take everything in the Bible as literally true. What do we do with all the violence in the Bible? What do we do with the passages in which God seems to be ordering overwhelming violence against men, women and children? There are lots of people wrestling with these issues inside and outside of churches all across America. I write about these issues in the new book.

I want people to know that there is room to interpret scripture in light of modern science and that we don’t have to accept that God intentionally ordered this overwhelming violence we read about in some passages. But we have to properly understand the Bible. I’ve been saying this repeatedly within the United Methodist Church.

DAVID: Now, through HaperOne, you’re saying this to a much broader audience. Clearly, you want to revive “mainline Protestant” churches. You’re also known as fairly evangelical among United Methodists. Crossing over into the national arena now, one big question is: Where do you stand on interfaith relationships? In my own research into your work, I’m finding very positive examples of cooperation with diverse communities. You were honored, at one point, with a B’nai B’rith award in social ethics.

ADAM: We’ve tried hard to develop positive relationships with the Jewish community here in our own area. We’ve shared some worship services together. That’s important here because, in the very area where our church sits today—until the 1960s, Jews were not allowed to purchase homes in this community. We regularly talk about this. I have friends, rabbis, who I bring on the screen with me to share in certain sermons where their insights are valuable. I’ve taken a trip to the Holy Land with a rabbi friend. We’ve also met with and talked with Muslims. We’ve sponsored forums here where we bring Christians, Muslims and Jews together to talk.


DAVID: You point out that, in today’s world, the religious challenge really is not between faith groups—it’s between religion and secular culture. Americans are distinctive in the world because of our intense interest in religion nationwide. In the UK and across Europe, there’s a stark contrast: Very few people go to church anymore. Even in America, people really need a crash course in “Bible 101″ to understand the Bible.

ADAM: Yes, that’s how to understand my new book. There are so many folks out there who know very little about the Bible. If they read my book, I hope it will clear up some of their misconceptions; then I hope it will lead them to read the Bible itself; and maybe they will decide to visit a church where they can find out more. In the first half of my book, I lay out the Bible: how it came to be, the sweep of the Bible and so on. Then, in the second half of my book, I address some of the very difficult issues that still spring from the Bible today.

A lot of times pastors are nervous about sharing what they’ve learned in seminary and through scholarship with lay people in their churches. They fear this might undermine people’s confidence in scripture. So, we end up with a lot of pastors letting unquestioned assumptions continue and accumulate out there. In this book, I tried to put about a year’s worth of graduate study of the Bible into a book that general readers will find interesting. I find that too many people—including Christians inside the church—have an inadequate understanding of the Bible.

DAVID: I know enough about you to tell readers: You love the Bible. Your own daily reliance on scripture is described in the opening page of your new book.

ADAM: I really do love the Bible, yes. The Bible contains the defining story of my life. As you just noted, I do regularly tell people how I wake up in the morning: I drop to my knees and pray and then the very next thing I do is read the Bible. And, before I go to bed at night, no matter how tired I am, I open my Bible and read. I carry a Bible with me everywhere I go; I carry a Bible on my phone, too, but I always have an actual Bible with me. We encourage Bible reading here. We prepare a daily Bible reading for people to encourage them to read more of the scriptures. Every day, I’m doing all I can to encourage more people to spend more time with the Bible.


DAVID: Before I left newspapers in 2007 to form ReadTheSpirit, I covered Rob Bell’s launch of his Everything Is Spiritual tour in which he barnstormed the country, talking to people in theaters and clubs about the Genesis creation story and science—and how the two realms are not in conflict. When I read your section on the Creation Stories, I immediately thought: There’s a lot of similarity here between your approach to these issues and Rob’s.

You and Rob both love the Genesis stories and find them profoundly true, but not as some kind of scientific report on creation. As you both describe it: Genesis opens with some of the world’s most famous poetry, talking about God’s ongoing role in our cosmos. There is no reason to regard this as a war with modern science.

ADAM: The Bible represents the people of God coming to understand how the order of creation came to be. Genesis wasn’t intended as a science lesson, as we understand science today. The Bible is making profound claims about the connection between God and the world—and this is profoundly true. It wasn’t intended as a science lecture.

I encourage people to read the opening of Genesis. The first chapter is beautiful poetry with the refrains coming back—”evening and morning” and this beautiful liturgical language about the nature of creation as it unfolds. People need to understand that this is an archetypal story that was repeated down through the generations around campfires and in homes and the Genesis stories do express deep truths. We need to understand the great value of these stories.

If we free ourselves from all this noise from some of the Fundamentalists about this somehow conflicts with science, then we can begin to appreciate again the deeper truths here. Did a snake appear and speak in a garden in the literal way the scene is described in Genesis? That’s not the point. The point is the real truth of such an experience: Who among us hasn’t heard a serpent speaking to us at some moment in our lives? We’ve all faced temptation—haven’t we? And, often, that temptation feels as real as a serpent speaking to us.


DAVID: You have organized this book in a masterful way. You begin with an overview of the Bible and, in the middle of the book, you’ll have a vast majority of readers with you when you talk about the hundreds of verses in the Bible that seem to indicate that God wants us to wreak overwhelming violence in the world—or the hundreds of verses in which the Bible seems to approve of slavery—or the many verses in which Bible treats women as second-class humans or, even worse, as possessions.

Christian churches today have completely rejected slavery or mass killing as something God wants us to be doing. Many churches have come a long way toward recognizing women’s rights. Then, you come to the small handful of verses that seem to condemn homosexuality.

Cover A Letter to My Congregation by Ken WilsonYou point out in this section that you are bound, as a United Methodist pastor, by the denomination’s strict rules on this issue. If you tried to bless a gay couple, you’d be brought up on charges and banned from the church. But, in this section late in your book, you make it clear that gay marriage is not a threat to our faith. And you make it clear that you want to see your church move toward inclusion. Your language in this part of the book reminds me very much of the language in Ken Wilson’s new A Letter to My Congregation.

Let me read from page 278 in your book, Adam: “My own views on this issue changed as a result of thinking about the nature of scripture, God’s role in interpreting it, the meaning of inspiration, and how we make sense of the Bible’s difficult passages. As I came to appreciate the Bible’s humanity, I found I could at least ask whether the passages in scripture about same-sex intimacy truly captured God’s heart regarding same-sex relationships. But what really prompted me to look seriously at this issue and to wrestle with it were the gay and lesbian people I came to know and love, including children I had watched grow up in the church I serve.”

That’s Ken Wilson’s story, too. Truly pastoral Christian leaders do seem to be leading this change in Christianity, right now. The major reason, which you point to in your book, is the enormous generational shift going on across America on this issue. You’re focused on reviving the church and, frankly, that’s not going to happen with large numbers of young Americans staying away from church because of the way churches treat their gay and lesbian friends. The Public Religion Research Institute just released a major new study on this. And, Pew just took a look at the trends as well.

ADAM: You’re right: There is a trajectory in this book. Homosexuality is the most divisive issue in mainline churches and it really is the natural conclusion of the book. By the time you reach this issue, we’ve already talked about the era in which the scriptures were written, the way in which they came to be written and we’ve understood the complexity of the canonization of scripture. And we’ve helped people to set aside their overly simplistic views of the Bible.

So once I’ve established that in the first half of the book, I run through these topics that build on each other: the hundreds of verses about violence, slavery, the way we regard women. Finally, we reach homosexuality and hopefully readers will have a much more nuanced understanding of how we should approach these 5 short passages of scripture that seem to talk about homosexuality. We realize that some things in the Bible don’t capture God’s heart as much as they refer to issues that presented themselves in the era when the scriptures were written.

At the very least, I hope that people will realize that thoughtful and committed Christians can come out at different places on this question—and still be committed Christians.

I know this is a very difficult issue for many people. I have had people leave our church over the way I am talking about this issue and so this is painful for me, too. Some of the people who have left us were people I once baptized. But, right now, the spirit is moving. Of course, we all recognize today that slavery isn’t the will of God, even though hundreds of verses in the Bible seem to take slavery for granted and even encourage it. We’ve moved beyond that issue. We will move on this issue, too.

DAVID: There is only so much you can do, right now. You make that clear in your book. You’re bound by your church law. Still, you can talk about this movement toward change. And talking like that is courageous.

ADAM: I have this deep fear that, one day, I’m going to stand before the Lord and the Lord is going to say: “I put you in a position to speak to great numbers of people. Why didn’t you dare to say something courageous on behalf of people who are so marginalized and who so very much need to be welcomed?” I don’t want to face such a question someday.

Hopefully readers will see how deeply I love the Bible and how much I want people to start reading the Bible every day. I’m doing everything I can, every day, to see that this happens. I believe we can revive the church. But we must be courageous.

DAVID: Well, returning to the life of John Wesley, he courageously published a booklet completely opposed to slavery—about a century before the American Methodist church finally settled that issue.

ADAM: My next big project is about the life of John Wesley. We’ve got video segments in which I take people to many of the places that were important to Wesley. What we can learn about John Wesley and his faith can shape our own faith today and can help us in this revival of the church.

Care to read more?

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

4 Things You Need to Know about Kay Lindahl

Kay Lindahl cover The Sacred Art of Listening

Click the cover to visit the book’s page at SkyLight Paths.


If you take 1 thing away from this profile of Kay Lindahl, today, it should be this: She’s the woman behind The Sacred Art of Listening. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, a well-thumbed copy of Kay’s book has been a part of my own collection of essential reading for more than a decade.

At this point in her life, Kay is a highly respected interfaith and cross-cultural teacher and a tireless professional in knitting together diverse networks of women and men. She regularly crisscrosses the country in her work, although she is primarily based in Long Beach, California. (That’s just south of Los Angeles, where she also serves on the board for the “Four Chaplains” memorial on the Queen Mary.)

Given that brief summary of her life, you might wonder: Why isn’t her book about the sacred art of teaching … or speaking … or organizing? She embodies all of those skills, after all. The answer is that she discovered years ago—thinking about her many experiences with groups: “The art of listening was the main skill that was missing for most participants.” Let me repeat that: She found that most people who are drawn to diverse dialogue groups have a real problem with—listening. Is that conclusion making you smile and nod? Recognize that truth? Kay did, early on, and created this marvelous interactive book on The Sacred Art of Listening, subtitled: Forty Reflections for Cultivating a Spiritual Practice. You can move through the book’s meditations at your own pace, skip around among the 40, go back and reread them—and use them in your own group.

However, unlike many of the authors we profile in our cover stories, Kay Lindahl is not a household name nationwide. Among her accomplished goals as a listener, teacher, organizer, writer and an activist promoting diversity, she has not pursued celebrity.

So, today, rather than a typical author Q and A, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, I’m going to share with you …

Four Things
You Need to Know about Kay Lindahl

Kay Lindahl author of Sacred Art of Listening1. You can meet her.

She’s presenting one of the workshops in the August 10-13 North American Interfaith Network (NAIN) 2014 conference in Detroit. Last year, this influential gathering was held in Toronto and, this year, it will be hosted at Wayne State University in the historic heart of Detroit. If you care about the future of interfaith relationships on this continent—and around the world—you’ll plan to attend this NAIN event in August. Here is the NAIN-Connect page where you can register right now. The final schedule of events has not yet been published, but this conference will be jam packed with: workshops, inspiring and challenging talks, plenary sessions to discuss future projects, some off-site tours exploring the history of religious diversity in the global crossroads that Detroit represents. Most importantly, NAIN is a gathering of remarkable men and women like Kay Kindahl—and including a number of ReadTheSpirit’s authors as well. If you decide to attend NAIN, please email us at and let us know you’re coming.

2. She is a master of creative collaboration.

As publishers ourselves, our ReadTheSpirit staff is working in 2014 to dramatically expand the way we collaboratively create books. We are impressed that Kay helped to gather a circle of friends to create an award-winning book that we also highly recommend, Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership: Where Grace Meets Power. Here is a shortened version of the story behind that book …

Kay Lindahl cover Women Spirituality and Transformative Leadership

Click the cover to visit the book’s page at SkyLight Paths.

FROM THE BOOK: This book was born out of a deep curiosity about the current pattern of women’s spiritual leadership in North America and profound excitement about the possibilities that lie before us as women of faith and spirit. … The four editors of this book met at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Melbourne, Australia, in December 2009. This Parliament was buzzing with feminine energy. People everywhere were talking about Earth-based spirituality, the Sacred Feminine, feminine principles, the full inclusion of women, women’s leadership and the critical global issues facing women and their children. Sprinkled liberally among the more than 6,000 attendees were little pink buttons with the question, “What happens when women lead?” …

Our global experiences at the Parliament inspired us to learn more about women’s spiritual leadership in our part of the world—North America. … The four of us created a new organization in 2010—Women of Spirit and Faith—with a commitment to core principles that model a different way of working: shared leadership, collaborative practices, circle processes, deep listening, mindfulness and compassionate action. The organization exists to invite the many brilliant threads of feminine spiritual leadership into relationship and to support emerging patterns of transformation. …

The next step was holding a retreat later that year for 25 women spiritual leaders from the United States and Canada. Leaders representing diversity of age, geography, ethnicity, spiritual orientation, and communities of passion came together for three days of dialogue and inquiry focused on the potential for collaboration among the many organizations and networks represented. … This conversation expanded in April 2011 with a larger gathering. … More than 150 women from across the United States and Canada came together in San Francisco to experience many diverse expressions of spiritual leadership.

This process drew together the writers—and the emerging ideas—that formed the book, Women, Spirituality and Transformative Leadership, finally written by more than two dozen different women and published by SkyLight Paths.

Friendship and Faith book cover

Click the cover to visit the book’s page in the ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

Here at ReadTheSpirit, we receive proposals for new books nearly every week—almost always by single writers planning to create books by themselves. That’s the traditional role of an author—a lone writer in a room somewhere. At ReadTheSpirit, we published our first collaborative book in early 2010, called Friendship and Faith, which featured dozens of women co-authoring a book. We’ve been encouraging collaboration ever since. Soon, ReadTheSpirit will publish our first comic book, Bullying Is No Laughing Matter, which is a convergence of dozens of cartoonists and comic artists. We believe that such innovative, cooperative books hold great promise as effective tools for building stronger, healthier communities.

So, we celebrate Kay Lindahl’s skills in this area—and we invite you to learn more from her by coming to NAIN in August and by buying a copy of her book, now.

3. She’s a certified listening professional.

Kay is certified by the International Listening Association, which is the leading professional group for promoting the study, development and teaching of listening. Kay also has a personal website, where you can explore her work. It’s an unusual little website with slowly moving words about listening that scroll across her home page—plus a series of links to read more about what she describes as “my work”—the “Listening Center.” In an interview, Kay talked about this program:

KAY: The Listening Center is the name of my work. It’s not a physical place. It’s the name of my professional work. In 1991, I started doing a meditation practice. I quickly became acquainted with centering prayer and that has been my practice every since. That has given me a deeper, richer relationship with God. I was trained by Basil Pennington and knew him well.

My denomination is the Episcopal Church, but I consider myself a very progressive Christian. About the same time I was exploring meditation and centering prayer, I also founded a local interfaith group. We got together so we could talk and find out more about each other and, right away, we found that we needed dialogue—and we especially needed to find out what works in listening to others. We wanted to avoid either debating or trying to convert.

My husband and I had moved to a new community and we realized that there was no Episcopal church nearby. We ended up being spark plugs to have a church founded in our community and the first gatherings of that church were in our home. I became very engaged in this fledgling church and the bishop at that time, Bob Anderson, came to visit us. We became friends and we would meet often. This was in the mid 1990s and we would meet and talk about centering prayer and dialogue and the start of this new church. He asked me to do a weekend retreat with clergy on prayer.

As we got to planning this, it became clear that there were three things: Listening to God, which is centering prayer, listening to others, which is the dialogue process, and then as we planned this we realize that we also wanted to talk about listening to Self. I was generating exercises and ways of presenting these three areas. The retreat was very effective. Bob and I did it one more together. It was effective again. As my mentor, Bob urged me to keep doing this. So the Listening Center came up as a way to do this work since 1997.

4. She believes this is a transformative moment.

If you haven’t already been enticed to learn more about Kay Lindahl, consider this: She believes firmly that this is a moment of historic, transformative change around the world. In our interview, she said:

KAY: So much is happening right now—and very quickly in many many places! I see a lot of people interested in finding new ways to approach all the challenges we face in our world today. There’s a lot of chaos in the world. You can’t be blind to that. But I see a groundswell of action and activity and thinking that’s going on. I see more and more of it. This is bubbling up now. This is a transformative moment and I am very hopeful about whatever is coming next for humankind.

I am seeing a great deal of movement and interest across North America, but I am also talking worldwide. I have great hope for the work being done around the world by the United Religions Initiative (URI). Through URI, I am hearing about people doing amazing work in the Middle East and Asia and other parts of the world as well. Some of the work is just mind-blowing—fueling my hope that we are onto a major transformation of consciousness on our planet. I know it. I can feel it emerging.

Care to learn more about URI? The link above goes to URI’s homepage online. There also is a Wikipedia overview article about URI’s work.

Care to read more about global peacemaking?

ReadTheSpirit hosts the website Interfaith Peacemakers, coordinated by global peacemaker Daniel Buttry and featuring a rotating series of inspiring profiles of men and women who dare to cross boundaries in pursuit of peace. See what’s new on the Interfaith Peacemakers front page today.

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Mitch Horowitz interview on ‘One Simple Idea’ (Positive Thinking)

One Simple Idea by Mitch Horowitz cover

Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.

“The power of positive thinking” surrounds us so completely that most of us don’t recognize this idea as an American innovation in spirituality and psychology—or what Mitch Horowitz calls a “genuine and still-unfolding Reformation of the modern search for meaning.”

The message is everywhere we look from Disney’s “Wish upon a star,” to Reagan’s “Nothing is impossible,” Obama’s “Yes, we can,” Nike’s “Just do it.” This idea is the rocket fuel that has launched a host of celebrity brands: Oprah, Dr. Phil, Joel Osteen and many more.

So, it’s startling to realize: This idea that our thoughts can produce a better life is actually a concept developed by a crazy-quilt of men and women over the past two centuries. About 180 years ago, a man named Phineas Quimby—a talented watchmaker in Belfast, Maine—jumped from engineering time pieces to spreading European ideas that the mind can control the body’s inner mechanisms. Never heard of Phineas Quimby until this moment? In his book, Mitch argues that this absolutely fascinating man—all but forgotten today—was as influential as other major religious founders: the John Wesleys and John Smiths and Mary Baker Eddys of American religious life.

As Mitch puts it in his book, this idea of “positive thinking” was the product of “a determinedly modern” group of American men and women. “These experimenters, sometimes working together and other times in private, resolved to determine whether some mental force—divine, psychological or otherwise—exerts an invisible pull on a person’s daily life. Was there, they wondered, a ‘mind-power’ that could be harnessed to manifest outcomes?”

Welcome to Mitch Horowitz’s grand 278-page tour of this odd assortment of pioneers, prophets—and profiteers as well—who gave us one of the central pillars of American culture today: the power of positive thinking.

Who is Mitch Horowitz? He’s the head of the Tarcher-Penguin publishing house, where he produces some of the most important books on America’s and Europe’s great spiritual teachers. (Last year, we interviewed one of Tarcher’s top authors, religious historian Gary Lachman, when Tarcher published his new biography of interfaith pioneer Madame Blavatsky.) We also highly recommend Mitch’s own earlier book (currently published by Bantam), Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation.

Want to see Mitch’s video? He produced a 5-minute introduction to his new book. Well worth watching!

Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Mitch about his latest book (published by Crown), One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.


Mitch Horowitz author of One Simple Idea

Mitch Horowitz as he worked on his video promoting ‘One Simple Idea.’ Photo by Shannon Taggart, used by permission.

DAVID: In One Simple Idea, you invite readers to explore the largely untold history of the idea that screams at us from the magazine racks, every day, as we check out at the grocery store. You’re talking about the foundational idea behind celebrity coaches such as Oprah, Joel Osteen, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, right?

MITCH: Absolutely. They all are a part of this movement that I explore in the book. This idea of “the power of positive thinking” has touched every aspect of therapeutic and religious life in this country. It forms the operating instructions for every expression of self help and everything in medicine that seeks to probe a mind-body connection or the newer research that seeks to explore the placebo responses in life and health. This movement has reshaped our advertising and our political language. You can’t understand the story of how America formed itself over the past two centuries if you don’t understand the growth of this idea.

Just think for a moment about how slogans from this movement have reshaped American politics. We’ve seen the triumph of this idea in politics over the last several decades. Ronald Reagan used this so frequently: “Nothing is impossible.” People may not realize this, but if you look back: Dwight Eisenhower didn’t sound this way. Richard Nixon didn’t sound this way. Lyndon Johnson didn’t talk about the war on poverty in this way. The tenets of positive thinking changed the way presidents were expected to talk and Reagan demonstrated this so persuasively that Obama’s slogan, “Yes we can,” picked it up from him and took it further and touched people all across the nation. Remember that George H.W. Bush complained that he couldn’t get a handle on “the vision thing”—and it cost him a second term.


DAVID:  Your book points out, of course, that there are many mind-power threads in global culture. Some forms of this theme show up in Asian culture and, more than two centuries ago, a very specific form of the idea was spread in Europe by Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), Americans didn’t invent the idea of a mind-body connection. However, as you show us in your book, Americans took the notion that mind and body are connected, codified it with a new set of assumptions and enshrined it in our culture to an extent the world had never seen before.

MITCH: Yes, of course. There is an international component to this. There are mind-body ideas in other world cultures. And there also was a vast therapeutic movement that arose in the 19th century, involving a lot of European innovations in understanding the mind. This all rested on the idea of a practical shift in human perception and the belief that you can objectively alter your experience of life going forward.

In his era, Mesmer was very good at arriving at an early very rough estimation of the unconscious mind. He didn’t possess a vocabulary that today we would consider “correct.” For example, he talked about “animal magnetism” and he had other ideas we dismiss today. But Mesmer did do enough in his work so that others could leap into this field and build something more concrete.

What Americans built from this is distinctive and Americans have done a very good job of dispersing our positivity gospel to the rest of the world. But there are other related movements in other parts of the world.

DAVID: One example of a European thinker, in your book, is Victor Frankl, who we recently profiled.

MITCH: Frankl is an example of a 20th-century European philosopher who wrote in a related area. Frankl was forced to live through some of the most catastrophic conditions imaginable. He emerged from the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust with the idea that humans, even in the most depleted of conditions, can find some sense of meaning. One could argue that it’s unfair of me to identify Frankl as connected to the “positive thinking” movement, but we can see him as a distant branch of this movement. It shows how far this positive-thinking project ran.

DAVID: Let’s go back to the beginning, for a moment. Some of our sharp readers may do the historical math in what we’ve already said in today’s interview and they will realize that Mesmer died long before Phineas Quimby jumped from designing watches to designing mind-body connections. So, here’s the link with Mesmer: Quimby attended a program by a traveling “mesmerist”—this was a couple of decades after Mesmer himself was dead—and this brilliant Maine watchmaker was so convinced by what he heard that he pretty much dropped his previous life to leap full force into a new line of work.

I’ll wager that most of our readers have never heard of Quimby until today’s interview—and perhaps they’ll go ahead and buy your book to discover his story. Tell us just a bit more about him.

MITCH: Quimby was the classic American religious experimenter and in some respects was the grandfather of mental healing—the forerunner of positive thinking. He was a clockmaker born in New Hampshire, although he spent most of his life in Maine. He found himself suffering from tuberculosis and he had nowhere to turn, like most Americans in that era, in seeking reasonable medical care. What passed for medicine actually made things worse. Throughout much of the 19th century, health care was dominated by an almost medieval approach to medicine. Physicians still thought it was a good idea to create open wounds to drain liquids from the body. Physicians would try to flush disease out of the body by giving people various toxic substances. At first, Quimby was given a treatment of calomel, a mercury-based toxin, and he wound up suffering from mercury poisoning. The poor man was losing teeth.

Quimby was faced with a crisis of suffering that was made worse at the hands of the professionals who were supposed to be helping him. Then, one day, he took a raucous carriage ride through the countryside and he found that the excitement of this ride improved his spirits and he also found some relief from his symptoms for a while. He began to wonder about this effect. He wrote, “Man’s happiness is in his belief.” He became quite interested in mesmerism and the connections between the mind and body. He began using prayers that today we would call affirmations and visualizations as a healing regimen. He began in the early 1840s treating people with disorders that had resisted medical treatments or had grown worse as a result of medicine. He became the nation’s first mental healer and he continued until his death in 1866.


DAVID: This book is far more than a history lesson. You connect the dots throughout your book with modern figures—for example, Norman Vincent Peale whose Guideposts magazine and website remain a mainstay in American culture two decades after his death.

MITCH: Peale wrote the book that would bring this message into just about every household in America: The Power of Positive Thinking.

DAVID: The book sold millions of copies and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 186 weeks in the 1950s! To this day, his magazine, founded just after World War II, reaches millions of readers and the magazine runs some very popular websites, as well. Your book gives us a balanced portrait of Peale, both his spiritual genius and also his tragic limitations. For example, you include Peale’s anti-Catholic bias against John Kennedy. You chart the highs and lows of Peale’s life in that section of the book.

You’ve included a lot in these pages. You look at Reagan’s use of this idea. And you also give us a sampling of recent scientific research, too.

MITCH: At leading institutions like Harvard, research is going on right now—we’re seeing new reports from this work all the time—exploring mind-body connections. But there is this disconnect in the way we understand where these ideas arose, so that’s why I thought this book was so timely. In medical research today, very few people feel any debt in their scientific work to the positive-thinking movement. In its best expressions, this movement did produce early rough estimates of some ideas that science is validating today about the mind and the body.

DAVID: I appreciate your historical balance. You’re not trying to advocate for positive thinking—and you’re not trying to dismiss it. Whether your readers like or dislike positive thinking—you make the case that it’s a movement we all should understand. To borrow your own words: “The whole notion that the mind is causative is the most radical religious and psychological idea of our times.”

We’ve talked already about some of the positive outcomes of the movement. What are some of the mistakes?

MITCH: I think the biggest mistake of the movement is that a lot of men and women in this movement have tried to simplify the power of the mind into something like a big mental law. Many of them have given us their own version of that law. But there is no verification of one great, unified, mental super law. Does that mean that all the insights of the positive thinking movement are wrong? No. I would say it this way: The mind is one “cause” among many.

I think the truth is: We live under many laws. Many forces are at work in the world. We suffer. Things happen that we can’t control. Does the mind have real power in our lives? Research is showing us: Yes, it does. But it’s not the only power. For all of its limitations, though, the positive thinking movement has always been on the edge of redefining humanity’s view of itself. There is real value in understanding this movement.

DAVID: One last thing I want to point out to readers in this interview: If this subject is intriguing, then your book also serves up one of the most impressive “Notes on Sources” sections that I’ve seen in a long time. You give readers a 43-page section that serves as a road-map to learn more about the whole wide range of topics you raise in your book. That Notes section is a great reason to buy this book.

MITCH: I appreciate your noticing that. I wrote those Notes to be read. They’re not a technical afterthought. They’re not tedious, I hope. This is where the reader can go beyond this book. I want people to be able to reach this section of the book and feel as though I’m showing them beneath the floorboards, taking them up in the attic and guiding them toward places they can go to read much more, if they are interested in what they’re discovering.

Want more?

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

Mitch Horowitz on the American positive thinking movement

intrigued by Mitch Horowitz’s latest book (published by Crown), One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life? Then, take just 5 minutes and let him explain his thesis to you.

Here is just a little of what he says in this video: “Positive thinking surrounds us. It’s the language that we use in everyday life and it’s the language people use when they’re trying to persuade us of something. And it all comes from one simple idea that bubbled up in American mystical subcultures in the mid 19th century. It was this: Thoughts are causative! When Ronald Reagan, for example, used to say in his speeches, “Nothing is impossible!” that was not the kind of thinking was always used in this country. That was language that came out of the positive thinking movement. When we talk about the importance of having a positive attitude—that way of thinking is new. The notion that you have to be able to foster a diplomatic atmosphere with other people—it seems like it’s always been with us. It hasn’t.”

Click the video screen below for this really intriguing introduction to Mitch’s book. (Don’t see a video screen in your version of this story? Try clicking the headline of this post to re-load it. Or, you also can watch this video directly on YouTube.)

Have you found our interview with Mitch? If you are landing on this video page, first, you’ll also enjoy ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s interview with Mitch this week.



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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Care to read more?

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

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

Welcome to a Group Read: Charles Dickens’ ‘Bleak House’

Charles Dickens Bleak House covers Penguin Classics and original magazine editionCALL THIS: An Exciting Little Experiment. I’m your host, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.

We’re launching a very simple Group Read of a book: Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. For our religiously inspired readers, G.K. Chesterton called this sprawling novel Dickens’ greatest book. For our more literary readers, Yale scholar Harold Bloom seconds Chesterton’s view. An impressive chorus agrees with them. Daniel Burt’s famous listing of the 100 greatest novels of all time ranks Bleak House as No. 12, right up there with the likes of War and Peace, Ulysses and Moby Dick.

NEW! We’ve got some good friends reading along—and encouraging you to try Dickens!

  • MARY LIEPOLD: I’ve known Mary for many years, first as the online voice of the Peace X Peace international women’s network. Mary describes herself as Freelance Writer, Editor and Activist. Her own love of Dickens encourages others to read along with us: “I think the emotional workout is precisely what literature is for. It generates and exercises our emotional intelligence, without which we’re all doomed. Happy reading!”
  • BENJAMIN PRATT: Ben is one of our most popular ReadTheSpirit columnists and authors—and he’s also known for reviving the literary appraisal of Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Ben says he’s “in” for this Group Read: “Dickens is the consummate satirist. He paints verbal parables that enable us to see ourselves with all our personal and communal warts. Ian Fleming did the same thing with his journalist’s eyes—showing us amazing portraits of our social decadence in his James Bond series.”
  • AND YOU? We’ve now posted recommendations for a first and second week of readings in Bleak House. On April 7, we will post thoughts on Week 3, covering Chapters 4 and 5. In those delightful chapters, Dickens introduces several of his most enduring characters: the zealous Mrs. Jellyby and the haunting Mr. Krook and Miss Flite (with her special birds). Join us!

WEEK 1: Read Chapter 1

Read Chapter 1, “In Chancery.” That’s just 7 pages in the Penguin Classics Edition of Bleak House. But use any copy of the book that is close at hand. Every library has copies and there are many free versions, too.  (See below.) As you read, pay particular attention to the famous opening sequence about “the fog.” Read those two pages aloud to a friend or loved one.

WEEK 2: Read Chapters 2 and 3

NEW! In Week 1, a small but encouraging number of readers dove into this Bleak House Group Read, sending some emails, talking about the idea on Facebook and encouraging others to take part. In answer to readers’ first question, we are not “dating” these “weeks” so that this online experience of the book can be enjoyed at any point. Depending on the response we get to this very simple form of a Group Read, we may launch others in coming months. Come on along! Here’s what’s waiting in Week 2 …

  • READ ALOUD During his lifetime, Dickens performed such spirited public readings that he sometimes collapsed in exhaustion afterward. As your host for this Group Read, I spent a day this past week as a caregiver for my disabled father and the best part of our day was my reading aloud to him the first three chapters of Bleak House. Try it! Take turns with a spouse or friend.
  • CAN WE SEE THE CLUES? By the end of Chapter 3, many key characters have been introduced, including Esther, the Dedlocks, the powerful and predatory lawyer Mr. Tulkinghorn and the haunting victim of the courts, Miss Flite. Several readers told me these opening chapters seemed “like a lot of overly wordy stage setting.” If so, that’s because 21st-century readers aren’t picking up the clues to the overall mystery that Dickens artfully lays out in scene after scene. If we were watching Law and Order, our radar for “clues” would have been set off a half dozen times. In Chapter 2, for example, don’t miss Lady Dedlock’s shock when casually glancing at a page of handwriting. Dickens started his career as one of the fastest scribes in British courts—so he was a famous master of handwriting styles.
  • THE ESTHER PROBLEM (AND RASHOMON) In the 1970s, when I studied comparative world literature at the University of Michigan, novels by Sir Walter Scott and Charles Dickens (with the exception of Bleak House) were missing from the curriculum.  Now, an influential circle of literary scholars argues that Scott, whose novels enthralled a generation before Dickens, was a pioneering “postmodern novelist,” introducing a wide range of narrators who readers would find were flawed in their perspectives. In 1950, Akira Kurosawa’s murder mystery Rashomon gave the world a term for this kind of storytelling through an accumulation of unreliable narrators. The single biggest criticism of Bleak House is that Dickens’ attempts at creating sympathetic female characters, like Esther, were just one-dimensional images of childish women. As you meet Esther in Bleak House, consider this: What if Esther actually is a brilliantly crafted “unreliable narrator”? In Chapter 3, Dickens bends over backward to paint a vivid portrait of Esther through the many flaws and gaps in her narration. Bleak House is more Rashomon than you may suspect!


Sure, there are many Group Read websites, including GoodReads, where I have occasionally posted reviews myself. Today, however, we’re trying a very simple Group Read right here at ReadTheSpirit, because it’s so Fast and Flexible. Want to join in the fun? Add Comments below—or feel free to email me directly at with your thoughts. If this is popular, we’ll do more Group Reads.


It’s one of the world’s most inspiring novels. This tale of men and women caught in the stranglehold of Britain’s notorious Court of Chancery has something for everyone. I first read it in 1969 and it inspired my career in journalism. I’m not alone. If you do wade through the more than 2,000 GoodReads reviews of the book, you’ll find people saying things like: It’s “incredible”! And, it “has had a redeeming effect on me.” One reviewer called it “the 1853 version of The Wire.” But that’s not why I’m re-reading Bleak House this time. I picked it up again because …

  • MY SON IS STARTING LAW SCHOOL My son Benjamin is an urban planner who has concluded that, in order to really help challenged communities, he needs legal expertise as well. In his initial enthusiasm, he is reading classic books about the law. Someone recommended Dickens, who began his career as a court reporter. Benjamin was the first recruit in this little Group Read.
  • ANN MORISY Talk about cutting through “the fog”! As you will read in this author interview, British “community theologian” Ann Morisy recently crossed the Atlantic, bringing her provocative message that hope doesn’t trickle down—it springs from the ground up. Of course, in Dickens’ era, he did campaign for desperately needed top-down reforms in the UK, but in his later novels he had lost much of his early faith in top-down benevolence and he became a stronger advocate of grassroots change. OurValues columnist Dr. Wayne Baker also chimed in with a series comparing Americans and our British cousins.
  • SEEKING AMERICA’S COMMON GROUND As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’m helping Wayne Baker and Ken Wilson launch their books United America and A Letter to My Congregation. In his day, Dickens campaigned for common values and became a Benthamist—a follower of philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Here are just a few of the things Wikipedia says about Jeremy Bentham: He advocated the separation of church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the decriminalizing of homosexual acts, the abolition of slavery, the abolition of the death penalty, and the abolition of physical punishment, especially that of children. Bentham also was an early advocate of animal rights, like Methodism’s John Wesley. Not a bad Common Ground, hmmm?
  • AND, THIS IS FREE The book is free, at the moment, for your Kindle reader (or for the free Kindle App you can load onto your iPhone or iPad). The entire book also is free right now through Project Gutenberg.

Cynthia Lyons thanks to Taildraggers blogThere’s even a free audio version of Bleak House, created by one of the most colorful audio-book readers ever to turn a page. Her name was Cynthia Lyons. A true Baby Boomer, she was born in 1946, grew up in the New York area and later moved to Naperville, Indiana. She was a well-known attorney, she loved book clubs—and she took up “aerobatic flying” in middle age. She loved to compete in performing eye-popping and stomach-churning flying stunts in a small airplane—and continued into her 60s.

Somehow, she also found the time to volunteer as a prolific LibriVox reader. You can get her complete audio version of Bleak House either from the Internet Archive or directly from LibriVox. Unfortunately, Cynthia died in 2011 and never found time to publish her reasons for recording Bleak House—an enormous investment of her time and energy. But it seems clear from various pieces of her online legacy that Cynthia’s passions for the law and for books converged in her passion for Bleak House.


You may be asking: Why are we reading only 7 pages in the first week? This novel is close to 1,000 pages! Answer: What’s the rush!?!

Benedictine monks in Vermont prepare for lunch in 2010.

Benedictine monks in Vermont prepare for lunch in 2010.

One of my favorite stories involves my son Benjamin and our author Rabbi Bob Alper, who we visited in Vermont in 2010 (and where we produced a very popular column headlined Folks So Tough They Don’t Need a Last Name). During that Vermont visit, Ben, Bob and I spent a day with the Catholic Benedictine monks of the Weston Priory. The casually dressed but iron-disciplined monks invited us to join them in what they called a “Red Lunch.” Or, that’s what we thought they said. Ben, Bob and I expected something like a tomato dish, red wine and maybe cherry pie. Hardly! This was a “Read Lunch”—a simple meal of vegetables eaten in utter silence as one monk opened up a book and read aloud. The kicker to this amazing little tale is the book that was opened: Diarmid McCullough’s 1,184-page Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. The monks thoroughly enjoyed their food and just 3 pages of the massive book at that Read Lunch!

Again I say: What’s the rush!?!


Get the book. Read along. Post a comment. Tell friends on Facebook. Email me directly, if you’d like, at

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Categories: Great With Groups

‘United America’ & ‘A Letter’ Spreading the good news …

United America and A Letter to My Congregation Wayne Baker Ken WilsonWE THANK our many readers who are spreading the good news about our two new books:


OVER THE PAST MONTH, the good news has been spreading about United America. Here are a few examples:

  • NPR REPORT BY ALAN GREENBLATT: In his story, “Of Me I Sing,” National Public Radio correspondent Alan Greenblatt focuses on Dr. Baker’s chapter about individualism and self reliance. (And a big Thank You to Alan for that story! It has been reposted in various NRP regions, including New England public radio—and now on the website for KAZU in the Monterey Bay area. Keep spreading the news!)
  • NEW IN HUFFINGTON POST: Dr. Baker was invited by Huffington Post editors to write occasional columns related to his new book. His headline is Why New Anti-Gay Legal Campaigns Will Fail: They Collide with True American Religious Freedom.
  • AMERICAN SOCIOLOGICAL ASSOCIATION: The professional network for the ASA’s Section on Altruism, Morality, and Social Solidarity also has weighed in with a notice on United AmericaThe ASA webmaster cleverly added the downloadable chart of the 10 values documented in Dr. Baker’s research. (You’re free to do that, too, on your website.)
  • EDWARD VIELMETTI:  A popular online writer and long-time contributor to building a better Internet, Edward Vielmetti recommended Dr. Baker’s book, pointing out in a short column that it is helpful to see such a well-researched book countering media hype that tends to promote America’s divisions.
  • ROBERT CORNWALL: Educator, author and Disciples of Christ pastor Robert Cornwall pursues this same theme—media hype vs. grassroots potential for unity—in a very thoughtful review of the book, which concludes: “I encourage the reading of the book … Exploring these values, especially in conversation with others, can help Americans move toward recognizing our underlying unity.”
  • BIBLE STUDY ANYONE? Dr. Baker’s book is based on scientific, secular, neutral research into American values. The book is ideal for business groups and classrooms. But, again this week, we heard the question: “Can this book be used in church groups?” The answer is: Yes, especially with the help of this free Bible Study Guide to United America.
  • PUBLIC RADIO: Cynthia Canty interviewed Dr. Baker in this 12-minute broadcast, which you can listen to on this public radio website. In introducing Dr. Baker, she told listeners: “When you look at the gridlock in Washington, the Red Blue state stereotypes, divisive and alarming messages blasted out at us … it’s easy to conclude that our nation is divided and bitter. But what does science tell us about what is truly in the hearts and minds of Americans? My next guest has applied the science, asked the questions, and come up with an answer that is as surprising as it is reassuring: We are much more united as a people than you might have thought.”
  • BILL TAMMEUS: A veteran journalist, for many years based at the Kansas City Star, Bill’s Faith Matters column is now read nationwide. In writing about United America, Bill concluded: “I don’t know but I’m pretty sure that whatever we’re doing now isn’t working, so let’s give Wayne’s ideas a try.”
  • ALAN CARUBA: As a social scientist, Dr. Baker is not a political partisan himself. His research is reported in a balanced way—and United America is drawing praise from a wide spectrum of commentators, including the popular conservative writer Alan Caruba. In his Warning Signs blog, Caruba writes:As one reads Dr. Baker’s book, one comes away with a renewed confidence in the judgment of Americans, confirming that their core values are those that have made America a beacon of freedom in the world.” In his Bookviews blog, Caruba told readers:The book is not some boring academic study, but a lively examination of the values and one that will be of use to individual readers as well as educators and groups …”
  • HUFFINGTON POST: Dr. Baker now publishes occasional columns related to United America in the Huffington Post.


Many authors are urging Americans to find a common ground for civil dialogue—including Brian D. McLaren, who wrote the preface to Dr. Baker’s book. Now, in his new book, Dr. Baker is adding research-based evidence that a common ground still exists. This spring, Dr. Baker is crisscrossing the country speaking at various events. In coming months, he will be in Chicago and also will be traveling to the East Coast. Interested in scheduling an interview or an appearance? Please, email us at (Or, you can visit the United America Press Materials page in our website.)


KEN WILSON’S book was launched two weeks ago, but already the news is spreading online:

  • DETROIT FREE PRESS: Veteran religion newswriter Niraj Warikoo just published, on April 7, an in-depth look at Ken Wilson’s transition with his church in Ann Arbor to an inclusive community. Niraj Warikoo’s lengthy article quotes scholar Tanya Luhrmann, who wrote an introduction to Ken’s book. Most importantly, Niraj reported on the deeply moving experience of real people in the congregation whose faith and friendships now are bridging what had been painful divides.
  • NEW DAVID GUSHEE: Like Dr. Wayne Baker (see the “NEW” item above) the evangelical theologian and author David Gushee also addressed the situation in Arizona, urging his fellow Christians to show Christ-like hospitality and humility. You can read David Gushee’s column in On Faith.
  • IN HUFFINGTON POST: Like Dr. Baker (above), Ken Wilson was invited by Huffington Post editors to write occasional columns related to his new book. His latest appeared April 3, headlined, Evangelicals Punish World Vision for Walking Down ‘Romans Road.’
  • BRIAN D. McLAREN: We thank best-selling evangelical author Brian D. McLaren for his strong support of both United America and A Letter to My Congregation. (McLaren wrote the Preface to Dr. Baker’s book, which you can read here.) On his own website, McLaren also has posted a column about Ken Wilson’s book, under the headline “‘The Issue’ Is Not Going Away.”
  • DAN J. BRENNAN: Author Dan J. Brennan, known for writing about Christian relationships, praises Ken Wilson’s book in a lengthy review. Brennan writes: “I’ve been waiting for a good book by a solid evangelical leader on this issue and Wilson has come forth.” And: “I will make a prediction here. More evangelicals will be joining Wilson.” (Brennan is the author of Sacred Unions, Sacred Passions.)
  • FRED CLARK / SLACKCTIVIST: Fred Clark is a former managing editor of Prism magazine and writes the Slactivist column in Patheos. Clark’s column on Wilson’s book explores what it means that this Letter is coming from the heart of the evangelical community—to the evangelical community.
  • PASTOR TO PASTOR INITIATIVES: Don Follis offers a thoughtful short review of Ken Wilson’s book, calling Ken “smart, gentle, kind, respectful and, from all indications, deeply shaped by his love of the Bible.” Follis also praises Ken’s thoughtful analysis of trends in the church in recent decades.
  • WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM C.S. LEWIS: Ken Wilson, also, is publishing new columns about the pastoral need for inclusion. His latest appears in the FaithStreet website under the headline: “What C.S. Lewis’ Marriage Can Tell Us about the Gay Marriage Controversy.”
  • “PRO” and “CON” VIEWPOINTS: Online commentaries about Wilson’s book are expressing a wide range of perspectives. First, an example of the “Con” perspective: The more traditional evangelical voices at Christianity-dot-com say they are not moved by Ken’s arguments. Nevertheless, their coverage is allowing their readers to learn about Ken’s book for themselves. Second, a “Pro” perspective comes from the UK-based, more Charismatic-evangelical voices at CharisMissional, where founder David Derbyshire concludes: “Yes, I would highly recommend buying Wilson’s book. But with the proviso that you also read the other side of the debate, study the Bible yourself and seek God with an open mind and heart on this issue. If you do read A Letter to My Congregation I would love to hear what you think.” Clearly, the discussion is unfolding on both sides of the Atlantic.
  • BILL TAMMEUS: Among religion news writers—journalists who specialize in covering religion—Bill Tammeus is one of the giants and although he no longer reports on the staff of the Kansas City Star, his online column is widely read. Bill published a strong recommendation of Ken Wilson’s book, including these lines: “Chip by chip by chip the barrier wall that has kept homosexuals out of the mainstream of society is being destroyed. And good riddance. Another chip that just got blasted off the wall has come from Ken Wilson through the publication of his new book.”
  • LISTEN TO KEN ON PUBLIC RADIO: Michigan-based NPR station WUOM’s Cynthia Canty interviewed Ken Wilson for 17  minutes in a conversation that nicely captures Ken’s story and personality as a pastor and an author. You can listen to that interview by clicking the prominent “LISTEN” button on this WUOM page.
  • ROBERT CORNWALL: After writing about Dr. Baker’s book (see item above), Cornwall also reviewed Ken Wilson’s book and concludes: “This is a most helpful and intriguing book. I can’t recommend it more highly. Why? Because he takes us on a journey that is pastoral, missional, and deeply evangelical.”
  • PUBLISHERS WEEKLY: PW writer Joshunda Sanders covered the launch of Wilson’s book in PW’s February 26 issue (available only to PW subscribers). Sanders writes that Ken offers “a more welcoming and modern take on Bible passages that are often used to exclude same-sex couples from marriage and those who are LGBT from full inclusion in the church.” And: “After conversations with religion expert Phyllis Tickle, who wrote the introduction, Wilson used scholarship and discernment to transform his views in a changing time.”
  • TONY JONES: The ReadTheSpirit staff thanks theologian and author Tony Jones, who Wikipedia calls a leading figure in the emerging church movement. Right away, Tony republished an excerpt of our in-depth interview with Ken Wilson. In particular, Tony stressed the most newsworthy element in Ken’s book launch: “He may be the first active pastor of a large evangelical congregation to make such a switch.”
  • ONLINE COMMENTS: Across websites and social media, dozens of readers are chiming in on Ken’s book. One example: Ken’s Amazon page already has 29 reader reviews—most of them praising his book with 4 or 5 stars.


Ken Wilson is the pastor of a large evangelical church in Michigan, so he is not traveling as much as Dr. Baker. However, he already has spoken at a Los Angeles-area film festival and is eager to make a difference with his book—helping other congregations to make the kind of transformation that his congregation has made. Interested in scheduling an interview or an appearance? Please, email us at (Or, you can visit the A Letter to My Congregation Press Materials page in our website.)


YOU CAN HELP SPREAD THE GOOD NEWS, right now, by using the blue-”f” Facebook or envelope-shaped Email icons.

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Categories: Great With GroupsPeacemaking