The Rachel Held Evans Interview on ‘Searching for Sunday’

Rachel Held Evans book cover Searching for Sunday

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘THE CHURCH WELCOMES US’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘NEVER IN MY LIFE HAD I BEEN SO ANGRY’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘CHANGING HOW WE SEE OUR NEIGHBORS’

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

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

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

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

Care to read more?

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

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

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

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

By BENJAMIN PRATT

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

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

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

MY STORY; MY CHALLENGE

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

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

Felix_Salten_1910

Felix Salten in 1910.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WINNER AND A NEW CHALLENGE

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

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

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

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

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

Email us at ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

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

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Categories: Children and FamiliesGreat With Groups

The Bob Alper interview: ‘Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This’

Life-Doesnt-Get-Any-Better-Than-This-front-cover-Bob Alper

CLICK THE COVER … to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Everyday in America, someone chuckles at Bob Alper. Sometimes, hundreds laugh at him.

On purpose.

Alper is the world’s only practicing rabbi who also is a full-time standup comedian. Some of the laughter echos from comedy clubs, universities and other professional stages in the US and the UK where he performs his trademark “100% Clean” comedy routines. Some of his fans laugh in their cars, since Bob is one of the most popular voices on Sirius/XM satellite radio’s “clean comedy” channel.

But, seriously now …

Alper also is a wise teacher, a sought-after rabbi, and this is the time of the year when the vast majority of Americans—millions of Christians and Jews—are marking treasured holidays. Christian Easter and Jewish Passover are vastly different celebrations, but both traditions have kept alive sacred stories handed down through thousands of years. Christians remember, in great detail, Jesus’s final days on earth and Jews remember, in great detail, God leading the Israelites out of Egypt in the Exodus.

Most Jewish Americans attend a Passover seder each year. And Christians? Pew researchers took a fascinating new look at church activity around Easter. The Pew experts examined online search trends and found “the highest share of searches for ‘church’ (at any time in the year) are on the week of Easter Sunday, followed by the week of Christmas.” The researchers looked back over a decade at this pattern of Americans searching for “church” and found the pattern was nearly identical, year after year.

So, why do some stories hold such sacred power that Americans move in predictable tidal waves each year, especially to retell and celebrate Jesus’s final days—and the story of Exodus?

Because, such ancient holidays are “holy”—and “holiness” is a part of the title of Bob Alper’s new book, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This. If the book’s subtitle were written in Hebrew, the word “holy” would be “kodesh,” which also could be translated as “set apart.” At this time of year, we might say that holiday time—and the stories we retell at these occasions—are “set apart” from the rest of the year.

And, as spring dawns across the Northern Hemisphere, that’s a powerful spiritual idea Bob Alper is unfolding in this book’s more than 200 pages: What makes life sweet is consciously deciding which experiences—which true stories—we will set aside, retell, savor and recognize as defining who we are.

In one chapter of his book, Bob addresses all of us who are somewhere in life’s second half. He says that, as we look at our lives, we may regret that we’re no longer a teen or a 20-something with all of life’s courageous possibilities lying ahead of us. But, Bob writes: We can reclaim some of that power if we carefully remember our life’s best moments, our holy stories. He writes: “I’ll never again rescue the damsel, save the multitude, and charge off into the sunset. But I can dream. And I can recollect. And I can savor. Often, that’s all I need.”

What kinds of stories are in this book? Have you ever taken a challenging hike, perhaps a climb in the mountains, that you never expected to conquer? Have you ever received a hand-made gift—accompanied by a story you didn’t expect? Have you ever rushed to comfort a loved one who has fallen and then found yourself caught up in their difficult recovery?

Do you remember an image of your child on a day so wonderful that you will never forget that moment? Bob remembers just such a day, way back in 1976 with his 4-year-old son Zack—and a snapshot he took of his son Zack, that day, is on the cover of this new book.

“When the first copies of this book arrived, I mailed one to Zack,” Bob says in the following interview. “He called me and he said, ‘Dad, you can tell a book by its cover!'”

And, that is a true story.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BOB ALPER ON
‘LIFE DOESN’T GET ANY BETTER THAN THIS’

DAVID: Let’s start with this word in your sub-title: Holy. The majority of Americans are Christian and, when Christians see that word, they may think this book is like Chicken Soup for the Soul. And it’s not. Your stories, I think, are even more powerful than what readers might find in Chicken Soup. So, tell us: What does “holy” mean to you?

Life-Doesnt-Get-Any-Better-Than-This-back-cover-Bob Alper

CLICK THE BACK COVER … to see it in a larger size that’s easier to read.

BOB: You’re right—when most people hear the word “holy,” they start thinking about old men with long beards, dusty books, big old buildings or maybe Gregorian chants. That kind of thing. But in Hebrew, “holy” is “kodesh,” which means set apart—something that’s set apart because it is so exceptional.

DAVID: And in terms of stories? What are holy stories from everyday life?

BOB: These are the stories we set apart, the stories that we recognize as holy. These are the stories that give meaning to our lives.

And the truth is: We all have them.

For me, this process begins with how we think about our lives. What do we choose to remember? And, then, how do we choose to remember it? I’m talking about a moment that might cause us to say, “Oh, what a nice experience!” Or, “What a great day!” We might say, “Wasn’t that cute.” Or, “Wasn’t that so nice!” But we know that some of these experiences are more than that. They’re not just “nice” or “cute” or “great.”

When we find ourselves saying things like that about an experience, we might be describing something that I would call holy. When I use that word, holy, I’m talking about grabbing these times, recognizing their extraordinary value, setting them apart and hanging onto these stories.

DAVID: There’s such a moment from your own life on the cover of the book, right?.

BOB: The cover was designed by a wonderful artist, Rick Nease. And the photo on Rick’s cover is my son Zack. This is my favorite photograph of my son at age 4. This was back in 1976. We were on Cape Cod on summer vacation and I took that picture as he was getting a drink from a fountain. That was one of the happier moments in our family.

When the first copies of this book arrived, I mailed one to Zack. He called me and he said, “Dad, you can tell a book by its cover!”

GETTING UNSTUCK

Rock Climbing hold

Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

DAVID: One of the wisest messages you send to readers in this book is: Life comes in waves. There is an ebb and flow to the good times—and the bad. Sections of your book have titles like “From Weakness to Strength or Strength to Weakness” and “From Health to Sickness and Back, We Pray, to Health Again.”

In fact, we don’t often find a warm bowl of chicken soup at the end of a tough day. Sometimes things get worse. And, sometimes we’re surprised for the good. Without spoiling one of your best stories for readers, I can tell them this: You’ll never look at an ugly, hand-made afghan blanket the same way after you read this book.

Another of my favorites is called “Getting Unstuck” about your fear of heights—and the day you tried to climb a rock cliff as high as a 14-story building. In eight pages, you take us through the kind of outdoor challenge that so many of us, as non-climbers, can appreciate, including: What were you thinking setting out on this challenge!?! You tell the story so well, including the surprises on that cliff like a particularly nasty patch of poison ivy!

The reason that story is worth remembering and retelling? Because it’s about, as your chapter title puts it: “Getting Unstuck.”

BOB: It’s such a common experience!

Like millions of other people, I read Dear Abby every day. It’s a column about people who are stuck. Every question to “Dear Abby” is about someone who’s stuck and needs help. They don’t know what to do. But we do know that, if we go in the wrong direction, things can get worse. And, on that rock cliff, someone did head in a wrong direction, where they found the poison ivy. Much worse!

Of course, I got unstuck. And one reason is that I had a safety harness. I finally got to the top. I think it’s helpful for people to realize that we all get stuck—all the time in life. We’ve got to remember to look for the safety harnesses we may have. Stories like that in my book, or in Dear Abby, give people courage to hang on. Just like we all get stuck all the time—we can get unstuck, too.

CHANGE YOURSELF / CHANGE THE WORLD

Bill W aka Bill Wilson grave in East Dorset Vermont

EAST DORSET, VERMONT. Bill W’s simple grave is visited regularly by recovering men and women who leave AA sobriety medallions and, in a large coffee can, leave cards, photos, prayers and notes. (Photo by David Crumm.)

DAVID: A constant reminder of the possibility of change is right in your small town of East Dorset, Vermont, which is the birthplace of “Bill W,” co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. You tell some of that story in one chapter of this new book. I remember visiting Bill W’s birthplace, and his grave, back in 2010 when I visited you in Vermont, Bob. I think it’s one of the most moving sections of the book.

BOB: Our town is so quiet that, if a car drives up our dirt road, our dog barks. In our back yard, we see deer, moose, even bears. There’s a saying here: “Vermont is what America was.”

One of my daily privileges is going down to the post office. As I do that, I can look across the railroad tracks at the Wilson House, the center where Bill W was born in 1895. His parents ran an inn there and Bill W was born in a room behind the bar.

Every day, people come to Wilson House as a sign of thanks to Bill W. The program he created with Dr. Bob helped them change their lives for the better. It’s a privilege to see them there—people with all kinds of different clothing, in different conditions, clean shaven or with long beards, all kinds of different hair styles. Yet, they’ve all traveled to that place to show that they’ve achieved something that’s very hard to do—to gain sobriety and maintain it.

In my tradition, there’s an old Hassidic story about a young man who set out to change the world. And most of us can guess what happened: He couldn’t change the world. Then, he decided to change his country and that didn’t work, either. The story can go on and on—until finally the young man discovers that what he really needs to do is change himself. And, in changing himself, he is changing the world.

That’s the story of Bill W. and I am reminded of that every day in our town. And when I think about it, it still—(pauses). Well, let me put it this way. Just before this book was published, I had to proof the galleys and because I travel so much, I was working on planes. And it was embarrassing. There I was, the guy crying on the plane.

That’s not to say the stories in this book are all sad. Many of them are happy—but they are tear-enducing to me because they’re true—and because they’re so important.

And I’m not alone.

DAVID: What do you want to tell readers, in the end.

BOB: If you read this book, I hope you’ll find stories from your own life that will help you think about your life in helpful new ways. If you do, then you can start telling your own stories—and discover new meaning in your life.

Care to read more?

BOB’S BOOK—The easiest way to purchase Bob’s new book, Life Doesn’t Get Any Better Than This, is through Amazon or you may want the Kindle edition. For more purchasing options, including Barnes & Noble and iBooks, visit our bookstore page for the new book. You can learn more about Bob’s life, his work—and his earlier book Thanks I Needed That on this author page.

Bob Alper in a Laugh in Peace comedy event

Bob Alper, at right, performing in a Laugh in Peace comedy show.

BOOK BOB—Over the years, Bob has appeared in venues large and small—from individual congregations to major universities, conferences, theaters and comedy clubs. His performances range from his 100% Clean solo standup shows—to a Scholar in Residence Weekend—to his very popular Laugh in Peace shows, which include a Muslim and a Christian comedian as well. You can learn all about him here—and you’ll find his tour schedule here.

CURIOUS ABOUT “KODESH” and “HOLY”? Entire books have been written on these themes, and Wikipedia has some helpful introductory articles. Here is the Judaism section of the overall “Sacred” article. Then, here is Wikipedia’s overview of the Hebrew term that begins ק-ד-ש.

LAUGH ALONG WITH AMERICA—In our opening lines today, we described the typical reaction to Bob Alper: Laughter! Here is a 5-minute clip from one of his shows at the University of Michigan:

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsGreat With GroupsJewish

The Adam Hamilton interview on ‘Revival’ of John Wesley

Cover of Adam Hamilton Revival Faith as Wesley Lived It

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page. (NOTE: Links to additional “Revival” multi-media resources appear in the interview, below.)

Why are so many people fascinated by a preacher, born more than 300 years ago in a little town 150 miles north of London? For long stretches of American history, John Wesley was all but forgotten. Adam Hamilton, the most famous United Methodist pastor in the U.S. these days, thinks Wesley’s rising popularity stems from the culture into which he was born in 1703.

At that time, the English were exhausted by a tragic and bloody history of religious conflict. The skeptical winds of the Enlightenment had been blowing across Europe, which meant that Wesley faced an era in which many bright people were walking away from the church. Much like today, the mid 1700s was “a perfect seedbed for the revival in which Wesley would play so prominent a part,” Hamilton writes in his new book, Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It.

Wesley’s life parallels many religious trends today:

  • John and his brother Charles understood that popular music was a key to church growth and, together, they unleashed on the world one of the largest bodies of then-contemporary church music.
  • John was a ceaseless pamphleteer and independent publisher who hauled a printing press into his church—a master of his era’s social media.
  • John wasn’t afraid of taking a stand on red-hot issues—condemning slavery long before the rise of the American abolitionist movement and supporting a daring new movement that encouraged compassionate care for the animals around us.
  • Most importantly, the Wesleys proclaimed that their brand of Christianity was a faith for head and heart. Emotion and intellect both were welcomed—faith and skeptical questions as well.

How do we know Wesley is trending? His name keeps popping up. Widely read inspirational writers like Rob Bell and Tony Campolo have been talking about Wesley more in recent years. Google’s N-gram Viewer, which searches phrases in 5 million books published since 1800, provides more evidence: Books about John Wesley peaked in the U.S. in the early 1800s. Then, Wesley buzz rose again for a few years just after World War II. Most recently, Wesley has been trending upwards since 2004.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author.  Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ADAM HAMILTON
ON JOHN WESLEY’S ‘REVIVAL’

Inside Pages of Adam Hamilton book RevivalDAVID: There are many good books about the life of John Wesley. Amazon says there are more than 500. Thousands of other books include a chapter or more on Wesley.

Why do you think he’s so popular today?

ADAM: I agree with you. I think there’s a great resurgence of interest in Wesley today.

He’s being embraced by people across the religious spectrum. Evangelicals continue to claim him as the father of the small group movement with an emphasis on spiritual disciplines and evangelical revival. And progressives in the church look to his teaching of the importance of works that go along with faith and his teaching that your faith doesn’t mean much if you’re not concerned for your neighbor. Almost everyone across the theological spectrum finds something they like and that inspires them in Wesley’s life.

There are people who follow Wesley all around the world. He’s had 300 years of people looking to him and taking what he’s taught and applying it in different ways.

WORLDWIDE WESLEY FAMILY TREE

DAVID: You’re right about the global scope. Today, there are many churches that trace roots back to the teachings of John Wesley. Of course, you’re part of the biggest branch: the United Methodist Church. Wikipedia’s “Wesleyanism” article lists more than a dozen current denominations that trace roots to Wesley.

Adam-Hamilton

Adam Hamilton

ADAM: In traveling and researching and writing this book, my hope was to help people from the entire Wesleyan background to rediscover this powerful inspiration that still is important in our world today. I’m convinced that John Wesley’s approach to the gospel may be one of the best hopes we have of reaching new generations of young people who are not religiously involved at all.

DAVID: You and Abingdon Press make rediscovering Wesley pretty easy. You’ve divided your message into a whole array of multimedia options. There’s a Revival DVD that goes along with the book that shows you talking about Wesley in all of these settings where Wesley lived and worked in the UK. Want to direct a series of group discussions? There’s a Revival Leader Guide, a Revival Youth Study Book, and even a Revival Children’s Leader Guide.

ADAM: I want to teach people—whatever their age—about the life of Wesley by following his life, but not by providing a long biography in this case. There are other in-depth biographies of Wesley out there. I wanted to tell people about his heart and character, by going to places that were important in his life and ask: How does what Wesley did here, or there, affect our lives today? I want people, whatever their age, to ask: How could this affect my life now?

If you get the DVD along with the book, you can use it in your small group and you’ll see me standing in the place where each chapter unfolds, talking about that part of Wesley’s life.

A WESLEYAN PILGRIMAGE

DAVID: That’s one reason I heartily recommend this book. Your aim is to reach young people, especially, and one way to do that is to have a strong video component. More than that, people want to experience religion today. In the Catholic world, pilgrimage has been a huge part of Catholic spirituality for many centuries. Methodists aren’t so big on that idea of traveling as a spiritual discipline, but your book invites people on a Wesleyan pilgrimage. You’ve even got specific travel tips sprinkled throughout the book. You’re saying people should hit the road and rediscover Wesley.

ADAM: That’s exactly what I’m doing this summer. I’m leading two groups of people to places that were important in Wesley’s life. One group will be people from our Church of the Resurrection and a second group will be pastors from other United Methodist churches.

DAVID: Let’s talk about one of the places you take readers—and viewers of the DVD—the famous church in London known as The Foundry. Americans who follow faith-and-politics in the news know another Foundry church in Washington D.C., which is famous for all of the presidents who have worshiped there. For 200 years, the D.C. Foundry has kept the name of Wesley’s Foundry alive in this country.

So, tell us about Wesley’s original Foundry in London. And, remind us: Where are we in his timeline?

ADAM: The Foundry work really begins in the 1740s.

He wound up there because he needed to find a place to meet in London after he experienced breaks with other religious societies. The Foundry was an old cannon factory—an ironworks used for making weaponry. It was a very large building and he saw it as a place where Methodists could meet in London. In the fall of 1739, he takes hold of the building and begins having it renovated. It becomes the home of Methodism in London for the next 38 years.

What the Foundry represents for me is Wesley’s emphasis on works of mercy. That’s what I talk about in that chapter of the book.

DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines: “At the Foundry in the 1740s, the Methodist works of mercy saw new expression. Wesley started a fund to make small loans, akin to today’s microlending, and the fund made loans to 250 people in the first year. On Fridays, the poor who were sick came to be treated and were provided basic medical care. In 1747, Wesley published a book on ‘easy and natural’ methods for ‘curing most diseases.’ Wesley and the Methodists at the Foundry leased two houses for poor and elderly widows and their children. And, they started a school for children who roamed the street.”

ADAM: And at Foundry, they brought in a printing press.

MASTER OF 18TH CENTURY SOCIAL MEDIA

DAVID: Let’s talk about that printing press at Foundry. John Wesley was deeply involved in the major issues of his era and, over time, he became a prophet way out ahead of others. He certainly was in his condemnation of slavery and in his call for compassionate care for animals. Some of Wesley’s critics used to joke that you could tell Wesley followers in a village by how well they treated their horses.

ADAM: That printing press was important! Wesley was constantly printing and publishing his sermons and tracts and responses to debates of the day. He published hundreds of different pamphlets and he published a huge number of books, too. He made these as cheaply as he could and distributed them as widely as he could. He was a major user of the social media of his day. If he were alive today, he would have been a master of social media.

DAVID: And that’s a big part of the reason that Methodism took off like wildfire across America after the Revolution. Of course, the explosion of Methodism in the early 1800s was the work of some other geniuses of religious organization. Historian Martin Marty once called Francis Asbury the George S. Patton of strategic deployment for Methodism for the way he deployed circuit riders across the American frontier—each one toting around with him Methodist books, like Wesley’s sermons.

ORGANIZATIONAL GENIUS

ADAM: Wesley had many talents. He was an effective preacher and we know from so many accounts that people were stirred when they saw or heard him. He was an Energizer Bunny who just kept going and going and going.

We know he traveled 250,000 miles across the British Isles and he did most of that on horseback. He was constantly reading and we know he did a lot of that reading while riding his horse! (Laughs!) Today, he’d be a terrible driver! He’d want to text while he was driving.

And he had this capacity to organize so it would continue after he was gone. His publishing efforts were a big part of this. He equipped the circuit riders—these traveling preachers—in his movement with a number of essential books. Every circuit rider at least had a copy of his notes on the New Testament, plus copies of his sermons. Publishing was a huge part of Wesley’s life. I own a copy of his notes on the New Testament that dates back to three years before he died in 1791. It’s one of the great treasures I have in my library.

DAVID: And you’ve said repeatedly over the years that you model your own ministry on Wesley’s, right?

ADAM: Yes, and I’ve shared this with my church and at many conferences where I’ve spoken. Here at our Church of the Resurrection, we have multiple campuses—and we also have more congregations that partner with us in other ways. We upload the sermons and share them online. Our partnering churches can just take the sermon and use it in that form, or they can preach their own sermon using some of the things they find in our sermons.

When I explain the way we do this, I say: “If Wesley were alive today, he would be uploading his sermons to share them and help other pastors preach. He would actively share his ideas and themes. From the beginning, he was providing so many ways that he knew a movement could flourish and grow.”

DAVID: So, we’re now about three centuries from his birth and roughly two centuries from his death. When readers go through your book, they will learn about parts of Wesley’s life when he was a failure. Early in his life, he had some unfortunate experiences. And they will learn about the faith that shaped his ministry into a movement that now circles the globe. Some of the things I’ve mentioned in our interview—the opposition to slavery and the care for animals, for example, were themes he emphasized much later in his long life.

ADAM: Yes, you’re right. When he was older, Wesley did become a sort of heroic and widely popular figure. In the last 30 years of his life, in particular, he was a folk hero across Great Britain. People wanted to meet him and talk to him in a way that wasn’t true early in his ministry. In that part of his life, he could speak more freely about issues like slavery.

In this book, I tried to capture what I love about Wesley and the most important thing I want to emphasize is that Wesley was able to hold in tension things that often would split communities apart. He taught that we should hold together the intellect and the heart. He didn’t want people to check their brains at the door.

Centuries ago—and still today—he called men and women to trust in Christ and, at the same time, to live out their faith in the world.

(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 InterviewsChristianGreat With Groups

What stories make a difference? ‘The Two of Us’

th-Short-Stuff-from-a-Tall-Guy-Cover“Good media builds good community.” That’s as true today as it has been in our religious traditions for thousands of years. Now, you can play a role—and perhaps win a signed copy of my new book Short Stuff from a Tall Guy in the process. Below is a prose poem, based on a chapter from a classic novel published nearly a century ago. The story has shaped lives around the world.

YOUR CHALLENGE—Name the book and author. Because the following is a prose-poem based on and extending from one famous portion of the book, you can’t use Google to find the source of the following text. But, read the text and think about it! Talk to friends. You’re free to repost or to print out this text and share it in your small group. RESPOND by emailing your thoughts to ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com. From the emails that correctly identify the original book, I will draw a winner and mail out a personally dedicated copy of Short Stuff. Then, I will return online to talk more about how powerful stories shape our lives—and I will tell you the moving story behind the famous novel.

THE TWO OF US

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Oak tree leaves in autumn

OAK LEAVES. (Photo by Pierre Selim, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

We cling to each other
like two oak leaves hanging on
against the chilling blast of
winter’s bitter bite.

It’s an ancient story;
yet only a day has passed since the latest news.
An old friend—
a beautiful, once-vibrant, gracious
breath of life—
fell.
Life’s winter season
racked body and soul.

The storyteller knows our questions:
“Why must we fall?”
And:
“What happens to us when we have fallen?”

We hold gloved hands
and lean into the bitter wind,
determined to complete our daily walk.
We shiver from the bitter news
as sleet begins to bite our faces.
Too cold to talk, our teeth chatter—
we surrender, return home
with heavy hearts and cold parts.

Off come the layers,
out spill the words,
“You never know who’s going to go next.”
For a moment we hold each other,
transferring tender warmth.

The phone rings and a new father bubbles:
“Our child is born!
“Mother and daughter are doing well.”
We laugh.
“Oh, such sweet news. Gentle kisses to
Momma and your new daughter.”

I mumble, “Others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others,
and more
and more.”

She says, “Which one of us will go first?”

“There’s still plenty of time to worry about that,” I say.

There is silence.
Then, she replies, “How kind you are.”

We hold each other and our questions:
Do you remember when we first met?
Do you remember how beautiful it was when…?
Do you remember the warm night on the sand when…?
Do you remember when we were so angry that…?

Finally I say it aloud: “Let’s remember.”

Do you remember?

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN …

Identify the original book and author. Email your thoughts to ReadTheSpirit@gmail.com

Good media builds good community. It’s a truth that touches the core of our spiritual traditions.

 

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Categories: Great With GroupsNatural World

The Ragan Sutterfield interview on ‘This Is My Body’

Cover of Ragan Sutterfield's 'This Is My Body'

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

ASHAMED of your body? Overweight? (Millions of us are.) Not attractive? Not athletic? Addicted to chocolate or cigarettes or worse? Are you wondering: Who could love such a body—including you yourself?

If so—then here’s good news. Ragan Sutterfield has written a book just for us: This Is My Body—From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. And to answer your first two questions: Yes, Ragan’s spiritual journey led him from disgust with his overweight body, his addiction to cigarettes and his problems with physical intimacy to a healthy life. But, no, he’s not expecting readers to compete in extreme sports. This is a book for—well for us, if we find ourselves drawn toward religious life, yet we forget to tend to our bodies.

There’s clearly something wrong in the mind-body-spirit culture within American congregations, Ragan argues persuasively. In many communities, what’s wrong is evangelical preaching that our bodies are wicked and we should only worry about getting our souls into heaven.

He’s not alone in confronting this kind of preaching. Another group of religious leaders trying to counter this “our-bodies-are-wicked” theology are the writers producing www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com where they point out that many body-related issues wind up painfully excluding individuals, and their families, from congregational life. Or, those Third Way writers point out, churchgoers feel pressure to hide their true physical identities.

Ragan’s book zeroes in on one particular issue: the way our understanding of faith shapes our approach to health and to physical contact with those we love. Millions of Americans are caught in patterns of shame, addictive behaviors and a tragic inability to take seriously the physical meaning of our marriage vows. In that last realm, Ragan writes about his own struggles with marriage and the spiritual pathway that led him to loving and caring for his wife Emily in sickness and in health and in all physical conditions.

He opens the book with some startling research data—a 2011 Northwestern University study that shows frequent involvement in congregational life, when young, is linked to greater likelihood of obesity in middle age. When it first appeared, that study sparked headlines nationwide. (Care to read more about the study? Here are a Northwestern summary, a Chicago Tribune story, a US News story, and a report from Science Daily.)

But, this book isn’t only about getting into better physical shape. At an even deeper level, Ragan argues, the way we think about our bodies rests on the foundation of how we think about the world God has created. Is the totality of God’s Creation—this world, our environment, plants and animals and our bodies—fundamentally good? Or is this world an evil place where our wicked bodies lead us astray? Ragan argues passionately that what God has made in this world is good. Grounding our faith in that belief immediately begins to move us away from shame and a spiritual separation from our bodies, he argues. In short: Recognizing that God’s Creation is good is a pathway to spiritual and physical health.

And, this book isn’t just about our own physical health. If we are evangelically focused on abandoning an evil physical world for the paradise that may await us after death, then we also won’t care much about global warming, sustainable farming or the fate of non-human animals who live on our planet. Before writing this book, Ragan was best known as an author and activist promoting sustainable agriculture and care of the earth. Now, in 2015, he is working his way through Episcopal seminary and will emerge in a year or so as a priest serving congregations in his native Arkansas.

Finally, don’t let fear keep you from reading this book. Ragan won’t make you feel even guiltier than you perhaps feel right now. His approach is humble and completely honest about his own rocky journey. “I ask others to join with me in listening to what God is saying about this,” he tells readers. He’s an honest companion, not a task master pushing guilt.

This is a book you’ll find both inspiring and personally challenging—and that is sure to spark spirited discussion in your class or small group.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RAGAN SUTTERFIELD ON
‘THIS IS MY BODY’

DAVID: I was struck by the Northwestern study you describe in the opening of your book. There’s a lot of research showing that involvement in congregations is actually quite healthy—especially for older adults. And the Northwestern study still leaves a lot of questions unanswered—but it really is an ominous report. You also include some other research to back it up. Let’s share just a couple of lines with readers. You write:

“Theology has consequences. A church where the soul alone and not the body is saved becomes a place where the body is left to other stories or no story at all. Because the body doesn’t matter to our eternal salvation in this view, Christians tend to adopt secular views of the body or simply ignore it and its health altogether. Research has borne this out. According to a Northwestern University study that tracked over 2,000 participants for 18 years, adults like me, who attended evangelical churches as youth, are 50 percent more likely to be obese than our unchurched counterparts. Other research based on census data has shown that Southern Baptists and other, more evangelical denominations, are the heaviest of all religious groups.”

When I read it, I bookmarked that page. I thought: Wow, 50 percent more likely to be obese!

Ragan Sutterfield author of This Is My Body Photo by Paul Brown

RAGAN SUTTERFIELD (Photo by Paul Brown, used by permission of the publisher.)

RAGAN: I found that statistic really interesting because as I was growing up in a conservative evangelical context, we knew that our bodies were held in low esteem. Yes, we used to hear, “Your body is a temple,” but that mostly was the way adults warned us against smoking, drinking and sex. The real message was that these bodies we’re living in aren’t important—and we really need to pay attention to our souls. When you’re sharing those assumptions, it’s hard to take care of your body in a proper way.

DAVID: Your book is mainly a real-life story of how you—and some of the people around you—struggled along this spiritual journey to find a healthier, more integrated understanding of your life. It’s a true story with lots of interesting anecdotes, but you do pause in the narrative to teach us things along the way. And one of those lessons you teach early in the book is that the Bible’s Hebrew and Jewish roots don’t regard the body as some wicked, throw-away husk of life.

In the book, you sum it up at one point this way: “In Hebrew thought that most formed the imaginations of the writers of the New Testament, the body and the soul were inseparable.” And, you write, none of the early Jewish followers of Jesus “would have imagined a disembodied soul in the Greek sense. If there would be eternal life, it would have to come from the resurrection of the person, the whole package: body and spirit.”

You wrap up that section by telling readers in a 4-word paragraph: “We are our bodies.”

‘PART OF THE GOODNESS OF GOD’S CREATION’

RAGAN: I think my biggest hope for this book is that readers will walk away with a greater sense of the gift of our bodies. I want people to understand that our bodies are a part of the goodness of God’s creation.

DAVID: Let’s go back and fill in a bit of the timeline for readers.

RAGAN: I was born in Arkansas in 1980 and I’m moving into my 35th year. Right now, I’m about half way through Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and in 2016 I hope to be returning to Arkansas with my wife Emily and Lillian who is now 3 and in January we welcomed our second daughter Lucia.

DAVID: Some readers may know you from farming. You wrote Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. And you’ve been active nationally—and internationally, too—in organizations that promote sustainable farming and a concern for the environment. In this new book, there are some sections where you talk about your time as a farmer. So, give us a little update about your departure from agriculture.

RAGAN: I left farming, first of all, to work for Heifer International for a time, mainly working on their websites. Then, eventually I came to seminary.

DAVID: There’s no family farm in Arkansas to which you’ll be returning?

RAGAN: No, and the time I was farming was the time my body was heaviest and I got into some unhealthy habits. Someday, I might like to do a little small farming again, but I came to realize that full-time farming is very hard.

DAVID: I’ve been a fan of Wendell Barry myself and, in this book, you talk about Barry and also Henry David Thoreau.

RAGAN: Yes, I was inspired by Wendel Berry and other writers so much that I wanted to farm, too. So, I began an apprenticeship with a farmer in Arkansas and worked in varying capacities for several years. At one point, I was leasing land myself.

I had this  idea that I would work hard to provide healthy food for others—but I discovered the life is much harder than I had realized.

DAVID: You weren’t overweight as a child, but you’ve had issues with weight since your youth, right? For example, by high school, your weight prompted some teasing. We’re very involved in anti-bullying efforts, as an online magazine. Overweight teens face some tough challenges. That’s been a running theme, this season, on the TV show Glee, for example.

RAGAN: I was heavy enough in high school that I would get comments on it, yes. But it really was while I was farming that I gained the most weight.

DAVID: How big did you get?

RAGAN: I was so ashamed of my weight that I didn’t want to step on the scales, but I was upwards of 260. I was working so hard at this goal of healthy farming that I wound up eating convenience foods and drinking sugar-filled drinks. I’d even drink Red Bull to keep myself going.

DAVID: And now?

RAGAN: Well, I’m 5-foot-9 and now I stay under 180. I finally quit smoking a couple of years before Emily and I were married in 2011. I go up and down a little, but I’m able to stay at a healthy weight.

‘FITNESS IS A FAMILY PROJECT’

DAVID: At one point as you were getting back into shape, you did some pretty extreme training to get ready for big physical challenges—races and other competitions. Toward the end of your book, however, you make it clear that part of your awareness of health and spiritual balance means that, today, you’re making sure to spend plenty of time with your family. In other words, you enjoy a balanced approach to fitness.

How about this year? What’s on the horizon for you?

RAGAN: This past fall I completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time. But I’m not a racer per se. I don’t ever expect to be standing on the podium at the end of an event. My aim is to complete them and complete them well. This spring, I’m going to be in the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington D.C. In the fall, I’m planning on doing a half ironman—basically doing half of all the ironman distances, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.

DAVID: Fitness is a family activity, right? Your wife Emily is a swimmer.

RAGAN: She doesn’t compete in biking or running but she’s an avid swimmer. She teaches swimming and coaches swimming for adults. She has worked with triathletes.

‘WHAT IT MEANS TO BE CREATED BY GOD’

DAVID: As readers get into your book, they’ll discover that you’re a humble storyteller. You’re not glorifying your own accomplishments like some of the celebrity trainers these days. Your real goal is to convince readers that caring for our bodies is an important part of caring for God’s entire creation, right? You drop reminders of this idea throughout the book.

RAGAN: I’m glad you picked up on that. Our sense of embodiment and our sense of ourselves as beings created by God go hand in hand. In the kind of Christian church where I grew up, we tended to reject the goodness of creation and to reject the human body along with that. The problem is: If we regard our bodies as just something that will burn up or slough off on our way to heaven—then we lose a proper sense of what it means to be created by God. To be a healthy person, we need to realize that we are wrapped up in a whole ecology of other living beings. There are organisms all around us and even inside of us—healthy organisms in our digestive tract that help us to digest foods—that are a part of our lives.

DAVID: Given your past work—your writing and activism—I would call you an environmentalist.

RAGAN: Yes, certainly. I’m a long-time environmentalist. I was interested from a very early age in exploring the creation all around me. In college, I got very interested in how working landscapes fit into that—not just preserving pristine environments, but exploring how working landscapes like farms are a part of our relationship with creation. I wanted to be part of the effort to encourage both the flourishing of human beings and creation, as well. That’s the way Wendell Barry influenced me and a lot of other people in my generation.

Ekklesia_Project___Fostering_conversations_about_the_Church_among_theologians__pastors__and_congregations_DAVID: In our online magazine, we are publishing a number of interviews with authors who are part of emerging religious  movements. Last week, our cover story featured Doug Pagitt, who is connected with a couple of those new networks. So, I want to ask you about a group in which you’ve been active: The Ekklesia Project.

RAGAN: Yes, I’m an endorser of the Ekklesia Project and I’ve been involved in their conferences for several years, although my schedule prevents me from being involved in their gathering this summer in Chicago. I’m going to be doing clinical pastoral education this summer, as part of my seminary work, so I can’t go this time.

I would describe Ekklesia as a place where clergy, lay people and academics can come together with a common commitment to living out the faith in a really concrete way in the world. People involved in this project are very committed to justice and peace issues and creation care. We want to help Christians maintain an allegiance to their faith over against the competing ideologies of our world today: things like consumerism or nationalism.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by pointing out, once again, that your new book has a compassionate voice. You’re not here to bully us and you’re also well aware that our bodies can’t all wind up running marathons. Our online magazine does a lot of work with the many caregivers living among us.

RAGAN: I realize that we live in a world that is filled with a lot of brokenness and that sometimes includes our bodies. I’ve had health issues myself. I know people who live in deep chronic pain. This summer, my pastoral work will be in a retirement facility. I’m well aware that lots of people have a hard time accepting the idea that our bodies are a good gift from God.

But I do hope readers will walk away from reading this book with a sense of our bodies as part of the creation that God called very good—and that, even with the current brokenness we may feel in our bodies and in our world, there still is hope.

I hope that readers will leave this book encouraged to embrace our bodies and our world in a new way.

STAY TUNED!

ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious ideas and movements emerging. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:

Look for these “Cover Story” author interviews on Mondays in March, April and May 2015. Make sure you get all of our upcoming stories: Sign up for our free email updates as new stories are published by clicking on the “Get FREE Updates by Email” link at the top of this page. Or, visit us anytime via our new Facebook page.

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You are free to repost or to print out this interview to share with friends. We only ask that you include this credit line: “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: BibleGreat With GroupsNatural WorldUncategorized

The Doug Pagitt interview: Why do we need to be ‘Flipped’?

Cover of Flipped the new book by Doug Pagitt

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

Millions of churchgoers nationwide care about the future of their communities. And, millions of “Nones”—people who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation—are searching for spiritual pathways that make sense to them. Whichever side of that divide you call home—you should meet Doug Pagitt, a pastoral pioneer trying to forge new connections in our communities coast to coast.

The terms to describe what Pagitt and his influential friends are trying to accomplish are as diverse as their approaches: Emergence, Convergence, Reformation and Blue Ocean are several of the common terms this year. Famous names include Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Ken Wilson, David Gushee, Peter Rollins and Phyllis Tickle. (For the names of more cutting-edge writers see the “Stay Tuned” note at the end of this interview.)

Collectively, their work sometimes is described as a “movement,” but at this point it really is a growing community of communities—a network of networks.

The surprising truth is this: Americans already are far more united than most of us imagine and these visionaries are inviting men and women from diverse religious backgrounds to take that truth seriously. As Pagitt writes in his new book, there is far more that unites us than divides us. (You may be asking: Could Americans actually be united in our values? That’s the conclusion of years of research by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, reported in his book United America, for which Brian McLaren wrote the Preface.)

Doug Pagitt's ConvergenceUS web logoTo learn more about this newly forming religious landscape, Pagitt recommends visiting ConvergenceUS, a website that explores issues shared by a wide array of new religious activists. Why is this effort so urgent? “We, our children, and our grandchildren face an unprecedented convergence of global crises: global warming and environmental collapse, the danger of cataclysmic violence enhanced by weapons of mass destruction, the rise of unaccountable elites, and the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the multitudes,” that website says.

Who are these people? They’re a surprisingly broad array of Christians—with some men and women from other faiths collaborating as well. The particular ConvergenceUS website that Pagitt recommends puts it this way: “The Convergence Movement is bringing together forward-thinking Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, along with ethnic and peace churches and other willing colleagues, in a growing movement-building collaborative.” But, that website is only one of many that are springing up as this nationwide movement expands. Another key site is the www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com, hosted by Ken Wilson and his co-pastor Emily Swan. More related websites already are going up this year, including an upcoming site for the Blue Ocean movement.

What does this have to do with Pagitt’s new book? Everything. The book is called Flipped: The Provocative Truth That Changes Everything We Know About God. In 200 pages, Pagitt lays out his vision of a religious community that focuses far more on the way God unites us—than on our own individual claims about the little pieces of God we may own.

How does Pagitt describes this “flip”: The “flip” is about our giving up a selfish focus on God “in me—and discovering the far healthier community that forms when we appreciate that “we all are in God.” Making that spiritual “flip” opens up new freedom, compassion and also real urgency to address the world’s many dire needs. Faith becomes less about “me,” and far more about “us.” In describing the potential “flip” this way, Pagitt dramatically opens up community connections around the world—if his audience is listening carefully and if we respond. Going forward, this could include powerful prophetic voices from the secular community like the environmental writer James Gustav Speth, who has been calling for years for religious communities to rise up and take their responsibility in the global community seriously.

That’s why the new book Flipped is a must-read this spring. Right now all across America, groups of church leaders—and Nones, as well—find themselves talking about their hopes for the future in these troubling times. Flipped is terrific for sparking creative discussions about those yearnings that so many of us share.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Doug Pagitt. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DOUG PAGITT
ON ‘FLIPPED

DAVID: Let’s dive right into the book’s core concept—the flip. It’s “flipping” our understanding of faith, or some might say our understanding of our “religion” or our “spiritual path.” You want us to become aware that we’re already all “in God”—and a key step toward flipping our awareness is identifying what you describe as a dangerous and destructive temptation toward what you call a “transactional” or “If/Then” faith. As you describe it, that “transactional” term refers to assuming that religion is a deal we’re each making with God. It’s a spiritual focus on what I, as an individual, must do each day to maintain my religious “deal”—my connection to a distant God.

Obviously, the Christian journey is a constant search for greater compassion and love. We want to improve ourselves all the time. That’s the message from Jesus to John Wesley to the current Pope Francis. And you, of course, agree with that in your book. But, here’s the key—you’re talking about confronting the malignant patterns that form when we become obsessed with our own daily transaction with God—and all of the rules we want to slap on the people all around us as we compare them to our own holiness.

Mid-way through the book you write that too many of us want “God to be forgiving—but only when the conditions are met. That fits the transactional system, and somehow it seems right. It’s only fair that a person in need of forgiveness do something to merit being forgiven.”

Doug Pagitt author of the book FlippedDOUG: When we live in that old transactional system, we keep asking: Am I a greater or lesser possessor of God today than I was yesterday? Do I have more God in me than you do? Are some people beyond God’s love? People really struggle with questions like these that come from that kind of transactional system.

Sometimes when I’m with people who have a deep religious commitment, I begin to feel that many of them want nothing more than to have God be distant from them—and to think of Jesus as this cord or cable that connects them to this distant God.

DAVID: You write in your book that this kind of thinking appeals to people who worry that people won’t be faithful if they’re not scared of losing God. I was just reading Carl Kell’s new book, The Exiled Generations, about the aftermath of the fundamentalist takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention. Then, I interviewed Carl and he describes the old-school appeal of being born again and getting baptized as “fire insurance.” In other words: Better do it—or you’ll burn in Hell.

In your book, you describe this fear as based on the idea that “without the threat of losing God’s love, people won’t be motivated to grow and be better. Why would anyone be driven to improve if there were not the very real possibility of losing favor in God’s eyes? This type of transactional view feels right, in part, because it’s consistent with an incentive-based market economy. If we don’t give people a sufficient financial incentive to work hard, they will just be lazy. Likewise, if we don’t scare people into living right, they’ll thumb their noses at God.”

The problem with this argument, you point out is: “Love is not the reward—but the initiator.”

WHEN CHRISTIANITY BECOMES ‘TOXIC’

DOUG: When I talked about this with Peter Rollins, he told me that he’s also disturbed by this transactional understanding of faith.

As soon as you let yourself think that God is distant and that we need to work to maintain our connection to God, then we’re turning faith into a deal, a transaction. We bob and weave throughout our lives, trying to keep up with this transaction we’ve made. We begin to tell people that you have to follow these steps, or those steps, to be properly purified and to be connected with God most purely.

That’s an unfortunate pinch point in Christianity—and it just doesn’t make sense to so many people today. Maintaining that transaction just doesn’t feel good in our lives. Most of my friends who’ve left Christianity have left over this issue. They want a faith, or a spiritual expression of life, that doesn’t amount to a transactional deal. I’ve heard from early readers of this book that their first reaction is—relief. They feel relief to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.

DAVID: Now, some readers may be thinking: Well, too bad! Religion is about rules that force people to be good—or else. And that’s exactly how it should be—faith is hard. Having just read Carl Kell’s book about the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s obvious that there are lots of evangelicals out there who would make that argument.

But the problem you’re describing in your book runs much deeper than just giving people a sense of relief for the sake of making faith simpler. That’s not your aim. The deeper problem has been explored by writers like Peter Rollins—or, to point out another important writer on this subject: Larry Dossey’s Be Careful What You Pray For explores the dark side of this kind of transactional faith. Dossey is a famous physician, researcher and best-selling author who is best known for books about the power of prayer. In Be Careful, however, he explores prayers that attack others, toxic prayers—prayers in which one person who feels confident in his or her own deal with God prays to manipulate others in ways that amount to assaults on them.

If we don’t recognize the negative aspects of this transactional approach to faith, it can become toxic.

DOUG: The last 15 years of evangelicalism has become so toxic for so many people that they’re leaving and saying: “Screw it! I’m not even interested in hanging around to reform it!” They just walk away.

Right now, I’m traveling on a book tour and I’m appearing with a musician who told me she was very hesitant to do this tour with me—until she read the book. She told me, “I didn’t know we could talk about Jesus like this, until I read your book.”

There are a lot of people out there who say, “I’m not a part of any church or any expression of Christianity—not because I want to be out here, but because what I see in churches is toxic to me.”

EXPERIENCING THE FLIP AT SOLOMON’S PORCH

Doug Pagitt congregation near Minneapolis Solomon's Porch

Click the logo to visit the congregation’s website.

DAVID: So, let’s talk for a moment about your home congregation: Solomon’s Porch, near Minneapolis. Even the website for your congregation shows visitors that you’ve already flipped around a lot of expectations about “church.” One page says, “This church is a church of people, not an event created by the leaders.” Another page says, “You will not find statements of what our community believes on this site. Belief is a dynamic, lived reality and doesn’t lend itself to website statements.”

And here’s another way you flip expectations. A lot of famous Christian authors come from mega-churches. Solomon’s Porch certainly isn’t that, right?

DOUG: It’s about a 300-person community. I worked in a megachurch and one of my biggest worries was that I didn’t want Solomon’s Porch to become another megachurch. We have 11 employees who work part time and they all do other things.

DAVID: In other words, this compelling new message in Flipped is actually describing insights that have shaped your ministry for many years, right?

DOUG: Yes, I’ve been Christian since 1983 and I’ve been thinking about these things since then. This book is the best articulation of my experience over the last 32 years. You’re right: This isn’t a brand new idea that just occurred to me. This whole notion taps into the roots of my thinking for a long time.

A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

DAVID: The book is easy to read—and I mean that as high praise. You invite us into your story and carry us along for 200 pages. I kept wanting to see where your story was going, page after page. In one section of the book, you were sharing some of your earliest influences decades ago in what I’d call the Jesus movement—and we follow your stories right up to the prophetic voices in Christianity today.

So let’s close by comparing your way of describing this new kind of Christian community with the way Ken Wilson and Emily Swan and other leaders in the Blue Ocean Faith movement describe this next wave. Ken, who produces www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com with Emily and other writers, likes to call this “center set” Christianity rather than “bounded set” Christianity. This week, one of their new columns is headlined, “When One Group is Excluded, You Wonder—Am I Next?

Here’s something Ken said to me in an interview: “The church shouldn’t be a place that’s defined by external boundaries of belief and practice so much as it’s a place where people can come in and move toward the center, which is Jesus. This is a centered-set rather than a bounded-set organization. Bounded-set organizations have clearly defined boundaries and they’re hard to get into, or get out of. In a centered-set organization, you’re welcomed and you feel welcome as long as you’re there continuing to take steps toward the center which is Jesus.”

Your new Flipped message feels similar, but I think you’re pushing even further, right?

DOUG: Well, first, I’m 100 percent liking what I’m seeing from the Blue Ocean people. I’m 100 percent thinking they’re on the right path. I know them and I like what they’re doing. I’m working with Blue Ocean’s Dave Schmelzer on some things.

But, you’re right: I’m taking one more step toward a “relational-set” or “network-theory” of what the church needs to be.

One way to think of this is to remember how most of us were first taught about atoms in school. Remember that? The hard little ball in the middle with these spokes sticking out to the electrons? Well, that’s probably how I would have thought about atoms to this day, but I’ve had opportunities to talk to physicists and that’s not how an atom is understood today. There’s no hard little ball in the center. An atom is a series of microconnections that hold the atom together.

And, Solomon’s Porch is not a center-set organization that requires people to move together toward one center. People are engaged in a web of relationships. It’s through all the microconnections that our community forms, not by a strong center pulling everyone inward.

Now, perhaps we’re not talking about different things here. I could also argue that what people are starting to talk about when they say our communities should be “center set” is really what I mean when I’m describing a “relational set.”

In the end, we’re all talking about the importance of one-ness. When I talk about this “in God” theology, I’m sharing a story of healing and integration and harmony in God.

STAY TUNED!

ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious communities emerge. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:

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