The Robert J. Wicks interview on restoring ‘Perspective’

Cover of Perspective by Dr Robert J Wicks

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

Millions of souls are in trauma this week. Headlines are heralding: Deadly fighting in the Middle East, Ukrainian troops battling separatists, a mass shooting in another American community, militias killing innocents in Africa. And, next week? Tragically, the headlines will replace these locations with others.

Here is help: Psychologist Dr. Robert J. Wicks is known around the world for helping to restore lives traumatized by such conflicts. He has served in the wake of massive tragedies, such as conflicts that swept across Rwanda and Cambodia. He regularly helps aid workers, medical professionals as well as men and women serving in the U.S. military.

But, this week, as we prepared the text of this interview about his new book, Perspective: The Calm Within the Storm, the author Debra Darvick reminded us of a fresh viewpoint on his work. In her review of the new book, Debra writes from the perspective of a nearly overwhelmed young mother in a typical American home, crying out: “I just want to have perspective! I want to know that everything is going to turn out OK.”

Alas! Perspective is more elusive than ever. In 2014, most of us assume that our powerful global media network allows us to look into any event anywhere. Not too many years ago, Americans were hard pressed to find any news reports out of Africa. Today, Americans can tap on our smartphones to zoom into Africa and—in just one example—we can choose from hundreds of news reports on the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram.

But our access to information is not the same as … perspective. In fact, psychologist Dr. David Myers writes this week that many of our daily choices about who we choose to associate with can wind up contributing to a loss of perspective. Myers’ column examines tragic divisions within Islam—but the four principles he outlines can help all of us bridge divisions.

In this time of crisis, we need new perspectives. This summer, Dr. Robert J. Wicks is holding out his hand and offering a small volume that shows a girl on the cover standing on a shoreline. Look at the book’s cover for a moment. Is that girl enjoying a vacation? Or, is she contemplating suicide? Is she a rich American teenager at her family’s summer home? Or, is she a refugee dreaming of a ship that might carry her away and save her life?

What you see in that book’s cover is all a matter of … perspective. In this new volume, Wicks isn’t playing games with readers. This book is built like a Craftsman Tool Chest, inviting you to pull out the drawers packed with the particular kinds of tools you need right now.

In her review of the new book, Debra Davick also writes, “Wicks structured this clear and useful book so that it is rich with bullet points, questionnaires for self-reflection, and carefully honed text bytes that can form the basis for a lifetime of step-by-step personal transformation. In addition to explication, educative text and recollections drawn from his own life and that of other seekers, philosophers, and authors—Wicks shares insights culled from the most up-to-date research in cognitive behavioral therapy and the psychology of optimism.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Dr. Robert J. Wicks. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DR. ROBERT J. WICKS
ON ‘PERSPECTIVE’

DAVID: This new book brings together new insights in many fields of research—from psychology and therapy to spiritual direction—on effective ways to survive after we pass through life’s inevitable waves of suffering. I’m going to describe it as a toolbox of ideas for rediscovering a fresh, healthy and hopeful perspective on living. How is that as a summary?

Dr Robert J Wicks author of PerspectiveROBERT: Good! That’s exactly what I wanted to do with this book. The core point in the book is that it’s not the amount of darkness in the world, in your country or your family or even within your own life—it’s how we stand in the darkness. How we view something can be the pearl of great price. There are people in the world who have so little and yet they are able to focus on the world in such a way that fulfills them, and also puts them in a position to share freely with others without expecting anything in return.

DAVID: As a journalist, I’ve covered the ongoing research into Americans’ growing sense of “necessities.” The list of what we think we must have for a happy life has grown extensively over the past half a century. Your book points out that the solution to restoring a healthy perspective doesn’t involve wealth. You can’t buy “perspective.”

ROBERT: There are three illusory pathways in life. One is that we need “more.” Frequently, when people feel they need more, they go out and get more—but then they simply feel they need even more. It’s an illusory pathway.

Others may think they need something “different,” but once they get that different thing—it quickly begins to feel the same. Still others wait for “perfect” to come along. And while they are waiting for this illusory perfection, they allow life to pass them by.

Rather than those three dead ends, I ask people to look at what they already have and how they can access it even more. In doing that, I’m not saying people shouldn’t get something more or something different or something better than what they have right now, but I am saying that the real question for each of us is: How do we access what we already have in ways that will deepen our lives?

DAVID: You describe many kinds of trauma in your book: death of a loved one, cancer, destructive storms, financial disaster, war, abuse and chronic pain. As I finished your book, I understood you to be saying: Some form of serious suffering will come to each of us and, broadly speaking, whatever you are suffering—there are some general principles that can keep our minds and spirits clear and functioning in healthy, hopeful ways.

ROBERT: Yes. What happens is that we think of life as acute. We’re facing one difficult thing right now and we want to solve that problem in front of us. If we face that problem, we may be able to solve it, and then we think that we’re fine. That’s if we think of life as acute.

But spirituality and now psychology remind us that life is chronic. We will always have peaks and valleys, some higher and some lower. It’s what we do with the chronic ups and downs that defines our lives.

When I think of this, I think of the contemplative Thomas Merton who one day was passing a room where he saw an old monk. Merton went in and asked how he was doing.

The old monk said, “I feel awful! I may be losing my faith.”

Merton smiled at the old fellow and said, “Courage comes and goes. Hold on for the next supply.”

We need patience and that’s not really sold to people today. We need perseverance and we need courage. Those three elements come not just out of the air, but out of discipline. This comes from things like carefully planning to take alone time, which is one of the examples I write about in the book.

‘THE PEARL OF GREAT PRICE’

DAVID: I love that Merton story and this message you’re describing is summarized on the opening page of your book, where you first mention this metaphor of “a pearl of great price.” Let me read a few lines from that page:

“When someone gains or regains a healthy sense of perspective, it feels like pure magic. The person sees more clearly and experiences greater freedom. Unforeseen possibility surfaces. New peace and joy are seeded.

“The situation hasn’t changed. Unwanted occurrences aren’t denied or minimized: Instead, they are faced and explored differently—not with unrealistic expectations or the projection of blame, harshness, or self-recrimination, but with a sense of intrigue. There is a realization that whatever ‘darkness,’ suffering, confusion, or potentially addictive attraction may be present in the moment, it is not the end of the story. It is not the last word.

“And so, having the passion and tools to continually seek out a healthier perspective is not simply a good idea. No, it is much more than that. It is actually a determining factor as to how life can be enjoyed more completely and shared more fully every minute of one’s day. Having a healthy perspective is tantamount to possessing the psychological pearl of great price.”

I think millions of Americans could find help through your new book. That especially includes Americans who have served in the armed forces—or have veterans in their families.

‘A LOT OF GHOSTS IN THIS ROOM’

ROBERT: That’s one of the major audiences for this book. I work in an ongoing way with the military. I was a Marine Corps officer myself. I recently got back from a speaking tour on four bases in England where we have stationed some U.S. Air Force personnel. I also spoke to members of NATO and to some of the people who are involved in the troubles in Africa. When I speak to these groups, it’s clear that they have gone through a lot of both acute and chronic suffering. That’s true for their families, as well. When our military personnel are deployed overseas with their families, we need to remember that we are deploying a whole family.

I remember before one speaking engagement, a colonel pulled me aside and said, “Be careful as you talk. There are a lot of ghosts in this room with us.”

One thing that has struck me: I am overwhelmed by the sense of generosity and gratitude from the military people I work with. They have a sense that, when their military service is ending, they want to integrate that service they have been providing into new ways of paying back society. I’m so glad that the president and others are encouraging Americans to hire veterans. When you hire a vet, you’re hiring experience and depth of personality.

‘WE DON’T HAVE ENOUGH TIME TO THINK’

DAVID: I want to ask you about a major theme in the book—to give readers of this interview a sense of the kinds of topics they’ll explore with you in these pages. I was most impressed with your section on “mindfulness.” There’s hardly a more over-used word in spirituality, these days. Yet your book does a great job of defining it in solid ways. One conclusion you draw that may surprise readers: Mindfulness is not religion.

ROBERT: No, it’s not. It’s an attitude that we almost take for granted. We assume that we’re attentive and aware in our lives—but, for most of us, that’s not true. I had the privilege of speaking to some members of the U.S. Congress and their chiefs of staff. A senator talked about the greatest challenge facing Congress today: “We don’t have enough time to think,” he said.

Mindfulness is an attitude that’s really worth trying. We have to carefully think about and find ways to take a breath each day. Maybe that’s in the shower, during a walk at lunch, in a visit to the library. This is essential, especially if you’re involved in intense work. Most people don’t stop to think about how contaminated they are every day and they’re not planning for ways to deal with that contamination.

‘YOU NEED TO DECONTAMINATE’

Wash Your Hands sign in South Korea 2013

U.S. service personnel can’t miss this sign! The huge plywood reminder was set up at Camp Baldwin in South Korea before meals. Photo by Elisandro Diaz, released for public use.

DAVID: I am struck by that word “contamination” and I think it’s a helpful word for readers to consider. So, please talk a little more about how you use that word.

ROBERT: What happens is that, during each day, we encounter a lot of thoughts, emotions and actions in our life that have a negative side to them. We can begin to feel helplessness, doubt, anger, fear, shame—a sense that there is no meaning in life. When we experience these negative thoughts, actions and emotions around us, each day, we need to do something about it so that we don’t remain stuck in them ourselves. If we do, we will carry them around with us and contaminate others.

Think about the sign in a restaurant’s washroom: “All employees must wash their hands.” Those signs hang in hospitals, too, reminding us to sanitize our hands throughout the day.

I like to take that kind of medical metaphor and apply it to the psychological and spiritual. Stop and think about how you go home after a full day of work. Think about this if you’re a caregiver—especially if you’re someone caught in the sandwich generation caring for both your children and your parents. Before you reach home after a hard day, you need to decontaminate. We need to reflect objectively on the peaks and valleys of the day and subjectively on how we reacted to those experiences. Without taking time for reflection, we just move on with our lives and we carry contamination with us as we go.

For me, mindfulness, alone time, time in reflection—these are ways to decontaminate ourselves. When I have intense interactions in my day, I always build time into my schedule so that I don’t take carry these experiences on to the next person I encounter.

‘LOVE IS REALLY AT THE HEART OF LIFE’

DAVID: Compassion is a major theme that runs throughout your book. I want to point this out to readers, because loads of popular books on spirituality and psychology are selling skills that claim to provide a selfish kind of success. Look around and you’ll see book after book promising that you’ll “win” or “make money” or achieve “success” through the techniques the author is hawking.

You’re aiming at a different goal: Compassion.

ROBERT: I believe that people lose their sense of balance, a key element in perspective, if we don’t have a sense of true compassion: giving to others and expecting nothing in return. We might call it a sense of mitzvah.

Even a lot of people who we consider to be religious aren’t really using their prayer time to be alone with God; they’re using the time to be alone with themselves or to try to get something for themselves from God. They lose the realization that they’re part of something much bigger.

Without balance in our lives, we run the danger of hedonism that masquerades as social justice. We think: I deserve this! I should get this!

A lot of publishers today aren’t interested in books that are about serving or helping the other person. They think that people will only buy books to help themselves feel better—or books that will tell them how to go out and get more. Thinking of the other person becomes a counter-cultural message. That’s why I appreciate publishing this book with Oxford, because they’re open to counter-cultural ideas like this.

When we become narcissistic and egocentric, we fail to see that a spirit of humility is key to gaining a healthy perspective. I emphasize this because, when you take knowledge and add humility, you get wisdom. And when you take that very wisdom and add compassion, it becomes love. And, love is really at the heart of life.

People who have love at the heart of their lives can maintain a healthy perspective no matter what is going on around them.

CARE TO READ MORE?

(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 InterviewsGreat With Groups

The Brian McLaren interview on ‘We Make the Road by Walking’

Brian McLaren cover We Make the Road by Walking

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

For years, Brian McLaren has been writing best-selling books about renewing our faith. He wrote about becoming A New Kind of Christian and compared the process to The Wizard of Oz. Beginning to renew our faith, he wrote in his 2001 book, is “like Dorothy setting out on her journey to see the wizard, invigorated with new hope and passion.”

He wasn’t abandoning the long-held traditions of Christianity, he argued. He was embracing what he called, in a 2004 book, A Generous Orthodoxy, which he defined (in one of the longest sub-titles ever published) as “a missional, evangelical, post/protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, fundamentalist/calvinist, anabaptist/anglican, methodist, catholic, green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished CHRISTIAN.” He refused to capitalize any of the terms in that subtitle except the final word: CHRISTIAN.

Still in his 40s, McLaren was listed by TIME magazine as one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America. TIME called him a leader in a worldwide movement to establish “a kinder and gentler brand of religion” and “yet remain true to Scripture.” TIME called him “an elder statesman … of the emerging church.”

Like Dorothy, McLaren found himself riding a tornado. Many friends saw great hope in his message and he logged countless miles to appear before appreciative audiences. Many foes claimed he was abandoning truly evangelical Christianity and he shouldered countless attacks in news media and social media.

Now, in his late 50s, McLaren is retired from parish ministry and is more firmly in control of his own life’s journey once again. He now seems far less interested in playing with labels—or battling his foes—than he is in the core message of his ministry: “The Living God is with us! And with all creation!”

Those are two lines you’ll learn to proclaim if you read his new book, We Make the Road by Walking: A Year-Long Quest for Spiritual Formation, Reorientation, and Activation. McLaren is hoping that you’ll make that proclamation with friends, your family and your entire congregation, week after week for a year. This book is all you need to spend 52 weeks taking a pilgrimage with McLaren through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

While a year-long Bible study may seem like a heavy-duty return to McLaren’s evangelical roots, readers quickly discover that he remains steadfastly committed to his original message all those years ago: The Christian journey is always about change.

The book’s opening lines are a challenge: “You are not finished yet. You are ‘in the making.’ You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change and grow. You also have the freedom to stagnate, regress, constrict and lose your way. Which road will you take?”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Brian McLaren about his new book. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BRIAN McLAREN ABOUT
‘WE MAKE THE ROAD BY WALKING’

Brian McLaren author of We Make the Road by WalkingDAVID: Readers could begin this year-long journey through the Bible at any point. You don’t have specific dates attached to the 52 chapters. But the book is designed so that, if readers start in early September, they’ll roughly reach the Christmas story in the appropriate season and so on. Can you explain that overall plan?

BRIAN: I’m a big fan of the church year, but as the church year is experienced in most congregations, the entire biblical story isn’t connected very well. People hear little snippets from the Bible read aloud and it’s hard to understand the big connections. So, I wanted to create some way to guide people through the biblical story as if these chapters might be sermons people would hear in church, week by week. In fact, I’m happy if groups want to use this book that way: as a series of sermons.

You’re right, I decided to start this year with the North American school year, which begins each September. So, if readers do start in September and follow the book week by week, it will take them into the season of Advent during the winter and we will follow Jesus’s life to Holy Week in the spring.

DAVID: This was smart. Most of the country’s thousands of congregations scatter during the summer and gear up again around Labor Day.

BRIAN: I was a pastor for 24 years and I know a lot about how resources are used in congregations. Most of us organize ourselves around quarters, so one way to think of this book is: We look at the Hebrew scriptures in the first quarter, starting with Labor Day. Then, the second quarter is the life of Jesus. Then, we take the teachings of Jesus up through the Passion and Holy Week in the third quarter. And we look at what flows from the life of Jesus in the early church in the fourth quarter.

A SPECIAL ROLE FOR CHILDREN

DAVID: Here’s another big selling point for congregations to get this book now—and start using it in the fall: You’ve included things for children throughout the book. If families are reading your book around the table, this is a terrific way to bring children into Bible study. And, nearly all of the growing churches I’ve visited have some kind of vibrant children’s ministry. Your book includes something for children at each stop.

BRIAN: The idea of this book is to spark questions. And if we assume that people will be able to spend time regularly talking about these issues, then we should include all ages. Many gatherings include children. Can we involve our children in this process? I think we should.

My dream is that families will use this book and small groups will use it, too. And I hope that any families or groups with children can include them in the group. I’m not interested in cute little comments for kids on the side. We can do better than that. I’ve actually engaged with children using some of these questions and they can really add to the discussion, if you take this invitation seriously.

PRAYERS FOR THOSE WHO’VE LEFT THE CHURCH

DAVID: Obviously, I’m a big fan of this book. So let me raise another selling point: At the end of the book you give readers 12 pages of resources to use either in small-group worship or to use in church services. You’ve got prayers and other pieces of liturgy that people could use throughout the year.

BRIAN: I had two groups in mind when I wrote that part of the book. First, I meet a lot of people who have dropped out of church. Some who have dropped out are gay or they have family members who are gay—and, in many parts of the country, there’s literally no church in their town where they can go without hearing gay people insulted.

DAVID: There’s research to back up what you just said. The Public Religion Research Institute studied this pattern nationwide. Among the millennial generation, roughly 18 to 33 year olds, about 1 in 3 people who’ve left the church say that’s one of the main reasons for leaving.

BRIAN: That’s right. And, it’s not the only reason people are leaving. Many people who work in the sciences are offended by churches that try to cram creationism down their throats. There are a lot of people of faith who just are not comfortable going into the churches near their homes. So if people do want to engage with liturgical resources themselves, then they will find them right in this book. People who may not feel comfortable walking into their local churches can use some of these ideas in that section of the book to actually enjoy some worship and prayer and liturgy on their own.

We should also point out that readers don’t have to commit a full 52 weeks to this. I’ve got a bunch of ideas in the book about how to adapt this material. For example, I tell you how to do this in 13 weeks, if you prefer that length of time. I even explain how the book could be used in a weekend retreat. I put a lot of thought into the design of this book so that it can engage people in as many ways as possible.

A RADICAL IDEA:
IN CHRISTIANITY, CHANGE IS GOOD

DAVID: One of the major themes in this new book is: Change is not only possible—it’s at the core of Christianity. That’s a radical idea. You’re not alone in this, of course. We just published an interview with Barbara Brown Taylor about her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, which preaches this same message: Change is good—so, as people of faith, we should be out there exploring new ideas all the time.

This also is a point raised by Philip Jenkins, the historian, who argues that we all should thank God that Christianity can change, because some earlier chapters of Christian history were pretty horrible. And, recently, I asked Marcus Borg about this point in our latest interview with him about his book, Convictions. Part of his answer was: “We grew up in an insular world with a limited view of reality in which we took the conventions around us for granted. … I grew up in a pre-civil-rights-movement era with all kinds of false assumptions about the relationships between Christianity and the church and the world.”

BRIAN: I completely agree with what Marcus said in that interview. Part of this happens when we live long enough to have experienced some regret about things that we once were quite dogmatic about. If you live long enough, most of us discover this on a personal level.

I also think our entire civilization is grappling with the pace of change right now. Our world is passing through such rapid change that a whole lot of people now are trying to turn back the clock to some moment in the past when they like to think “things were right.”

In one of my earlier books, A New Kind of Christianity, I quote Gregory of Nyssa who believed in the idea of eternal progression. He defined sin as a refusal to grow.

DAVID: I know that you’re deeply engaged with the global challenges of our day. You made that clear in the Preface you wrote for the new book, United America. Tell me in plain language, though: Are you afraid right now? There are so many terrible things happening around the world.

BRIAN: Well, we have reached a point in history where the future can be absolutely terrifying if you think about what we’re doing to our climate, or you think about all of the nuclear weapons in the world. These weapons now can fit into suitcases that can be carried around the world! The Fundamentalists may be right: The End might be near. So, as I look at the world, I don’t necessarily see a future full of liberation.

As I said in that Preface I wrote for United America, the truth is: Liberals and conservatives need something from each other. We can find a common ground—and we need to realize that is possible. There needs to be dialogue about the kind of a world we are building. And in this new book, We Make the Road by Walking, I am showing readers that the Bible is full of these points in history when there were dialogues about this same question: What kind of a world are we building?

DAVID: Our publishing house is about to publish a book, later this year, written by eight Christian bishops (six in the U.S., one from Europe and one from Africa) and collectively they have chosen the theme: Be Not Afraid. I think the point you are making in your book, and the resources you are providing, are so timely in that regard.

BRIAN: My testimony is this: If you are not tempted to despair then I don’t think you’ve taken the problems we face seriously enough. But, until you are tempted by despair, the value of faith never becomes clear.

Jim Wallis says, “Faith is believing against the evidence and then watching the evidence change.” I say this: It is in honestly facing our despair that our faith does begin to matter. I often think of Dr. King saying that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice. Now, I can’t prove the truth of King’s claim through the laws of physics. But, I am willing to spend the rest of my life working from King’s belief.

Care to read more about Brian McLaren?

(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 InterviewsBibleChurch GrowthGreat With Groups

Grace Lee Boggs: What do Americans look like?

Grace Lee Boggs and Director Grace Lee. Photo by Quyen Tran, used with permission.

Grace Lee Boggs and documentary filmmaker Grace Lee. Photo by Quyen Tran, used with permission.

WHERE CAN I  SEE “American Revolutionary”? The documentary about Grace Lee Boggs debuts on PBS’s POV documentary series Monday, June 30, 2014. Use this PBS webpage to learn more and check local listings. AND, from July 1-30, 2014, PBS will stream the documentary free of charge from that website, as well. No word yet on a DVD release of the film, but stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for news of a future DVD.

REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM

As she enters her 100th year on the planet, Grace Lee Boggs has lived long enough to see all of America celebrating her achievements as a philosopher and civil rights activist. That’s a stark contrast with the many years that FBI bulldog J. Edgar Hoover labeled Grace and her husband James dangerous subversives—resulting in FBI surveillance and a thick FBI file compiled on both of them.

Filmmaker Grace Lee accidentally discovered this woman who is a household name in Detroit (as one of Michigan’s most famous resident philosophers, authors and human-rights activists). When she was starting out as a young filmmaker, Grace Lee was intrigued by the significant number of Chinese-American women with “her” same name. A decade ago, she began filming interviews nationwide in what she called The Grace Lee Project, and she eventually completed a documentary on the similarly named women in 2005. Among the women she met in that project, Detroit’s Grace Lee Boggs was by far the most intriguing—so filmmaker Grace Lee began a long-term friendship with the Detroit activist. They visited at least once each year for additional interviews.

The result is American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. The play on the words “revolution” and “evolution” comes from Grace Lee Boggs’ own teachings about her journey as a young scholar from pure Marxism through the turbulence of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—to an embrace of nonviolence and a new appreciation for the evolution of change within communities. That change takes the entire hour-and-a-half of this film to explain—including several “30-second primers” on key issues that filmmaker Grace Lee inserts into her documentary to help us keep up with Grace Lee Boggs’ philosophical arguments.

Born Grace Lee, the daughter of a well-to-do Chinese-American family in New York City (where her father owned a famous restaurant), the young Chinese-American woman stood out as a brilliant student. She graduated early from Barnard College and, by age 25, already had earned a doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. She quickly became a well-known translator, speaker, journalist and activist in the movement for social justice and for racial equality—a movement that was ruthlessly suppressed for decades. In 1953, she married African-American activist James Boggs, the great love of her life until he died in 1993.

Her extensive work in the civil rights movement and later in the “black-power” movement—working shoulder to shoulder with her husband—mystified Hoover and the FBI. In one of the more amusing scenes in this new documentary, the filmmaker shows us a passage from her FBI file in which the agents could not make heads or tails of her ethnic identity. She was a true original even to her enemies!

WHAT YOU WILL SEE IN
‘AMERICAN REVOLUTIONARY:
THE EVOLUTION OF GRACE LEE BOGGS’

Grace Lee Boggs American Revolutionary posterThe film opens with Grace Lee Boggs walking—assisted by a wheeled walker—along the huge expanse of Detroit’s most famous symbol of blight: the 40-acre hulk of the devastated Packard Automotive Plant. Her words to us, as viewers, run counter to the startling visual imagery we see on the screen. She says:

“I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit. Detroit gives us a sense of epochs of civilization in a way that you don’t get in a city like New York. It’s obvious from looking at Detroit that what was doesn’t work. People are always striving for size, wanting to be giants. And this is a symbol of how giants fall.”

And she has made her point. The petite Chinese-American woman who now is nearing her own century mark has survived and continues to walk these streets—even as the gargantuan auto plant now is a dangerous ruin.

Then, she warns viewers not to think that destruction is inevitable. In fact, communities move in complex, sometimes circular patterns—and new possibilities lie just around the corner of our imagination. “Evolution is not linear. Times interact.”

If you’re a younger viewer, this may seem incomprehensible, she tells us. “It’s hard to understand when you’re young about how reality is constantly changing because it hasn’t changed so much in your lifetime,” she says.

And that’s just in the opening few minutes of this film!

Here are some other “take away” quotes from Grace Lee Boggs to give you a sense of the thought-provoking journey that these two Grace Lees—the filmmaker and Boggs herself—are inviting us to undertake in American Revolutionary.

On her attitude toward the world’s current condition: “I think we’re in a time of great hope and great danger.”

On the need for everyone to keep changing: “Don’t get stuck in old ideas. Keep recognizing that reality is changing and that your ideas have to change.”

And: “Most people think of ideas as fixed. Ideas have their power because they’re not fixed. Once they’re fixed, they’re dead. … Changing is more honorable than not changing.”

On the power of each life: “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be. And you do choose how you think.”

On the power of conversation: “We are the only living things that have conversations, as far as we know. When you have conversation you never know what’s going to come out of your mouth or someone else’s mouth.”

On imagination: “There are times when expanding our imaginations is what is required. The radical movement has over emphasized the role of activism and underestimated the role of reflection.”

Why did she eventually come to embrace nonviolence? “Why is nonviolence such an important philosophy? Because it respects the capacity of human beings to grow. It gives them the opportunity to grow their souls. And we owe that to each other. And it took me a long time to realize that.”

Finally: “It’s so obvious that we are coming to a huge turning point. You begin with the protests but you have to move on from there. Just being angry—just being resentful—just being outraged does not constitute revolution. So many institutions in our society need reinventing. The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is. I don’t know what the next American revolution will be. But you might be able to imagine it—if your imagination is rich enough!”

Care to read more?

(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: Great With GroupsMovies and TVPeacemaking

Interfaith Cooperation Brings Health and Hope

Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition conference in Detroit

PHOTOS (From Top): Two scenes from the one-day conference sponsored by the Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. Then, the Rev. TIMOTHY AHRENS, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio; KELLY HERRON, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit; MELISSA DaSILVA, director of operations for Advantage Health Centers; MARCELLA WILSON, president of MATRIX Human Services; RENEE BRANCH CANADY, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute; the Rev. Dr. URIAS BEVERLY, director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary; and TOM WATKINS, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority. PHOTOS by Joe Grimm of the Michigan State University School of Journalism.

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine

Religious and health-care leaders gathered in Detroit for a one-day conference to discuss collaborating more closely as they serve needy families. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I was at the heart of that gathering as moderator for the conference’s lineup of speakers.

That’s where our publishing house wants to be: connecting men and women with diverse religious and health-giving resources. Why? Because, as ReadTheSpirit expands to publish many new kinds of books, our core mission remains: publishing information that builds healthy communities.

In this column, I will tell you more about the inspiring conference in Detroit, but first—you’re also sure to be inspired by these resources …

WHAT HAPPENED
AT THE DETROIT CONFERENCE?

The annual one-day conference was hosted by Michigan’s Interfaith Health and Hope Coalition. The coalition involves many groups, but it’s 2014 gathering was chiefly sponsored by the St. John Providence Health System. Dr. Cynthia Taueg represented St. John, which has a long history of promoting Faith & Community Nursing and St. John also is part of an innovative Healthy Neighborhoods program in Detroit.

Addressing the crowd, Dr. Taueg said improving neighborhoods begins with improving individual lives: “We understand that you can’t have healthy communities without healthy people.”

As a lifelong Detroiter, Dr. Taueg said, “We’re at a crossroads in Detroit. By the time I finally transition from this life, I want people to say: Oh, you’re talking about Detroit? I know that’s one of the healthiest places in America to live.”

To achieve such a grand goal, Dr. Taueg said, health systems must work with faith communities. Throughout the day, Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy talked with the crowd about the importance of promoting expanded health-care coverage and getting congregations more involved in caregiving partnerships, overall. Also, Taueg was joined by leaders from other health-care programs who talked to the crowd about current challenges in meeting their larger goals.

The Rev. Timothy Ahrens, pastor of First Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation in Columbus, Ohio, talked about his own public campaign for expanded health coverage in Ohio.

Faith leaders must play a role, he urged. “You represent hope. Your imaginative faith brings hope alive. Your brain and spirit—wired to hope—allow others to grab hold when the waters of despair are sweeping over them.”

Kelly Herron, executive director of Cabrini Clinic in Detroit—known nationwide as America’s oldest free clinic—said that religious groups need to continue supporting free clinics. Even as medical coverage expands nationwide, many men, women and children will continue to need help.

“We’re the safety net for the safety net,” she said.

Herron also urged religious leaders to help members in their communities navigate the complex new layers of health care. She described how her clinic is helping clients to register for health coverage, but signing up is only the first step.

“As they are approved, our patients cry. They’re so happy. They are overwhelmed,” she said. “Then, they ask us: ‘Now what?’” Countless men and women are coming into health-care systems this year for the first time. Many of them have no experience accessing doctor’s offices, hospitals and pharmacies. Congregations can share helpful information to smooth this often rocky transition.

Melissa DaSilva—director of operations for Advantage Health Centers, which specialize in linking government programs especially with people who are struggling with homelessness—told the crowd that health care is more than a matter of dispensing treatment.

“Health care is also about helping people to achieve wellness by obtaining a housing wage and affordable housing,” she said.

As DaSilva urged participants to think broadly about health and caregiving in their communities, many heads nodded and pens scratched notes about her recommendations. Other speakers echoed her broader vision of the challenge shared by health care systems and religious groups.

Marcella Wilson, president of MATRIX Human Services, talked about the MATRIX method of linking a wide range of programs to help men and women move out of chronic cycles of poverty. It’s not enough simply to treat a medical condition, or provide a shelter, or serve food—or provide any one response disconnected from others, she said. Helping people climb out of poverty requires many kinds of partnerships. She urged faith leaders to find out how they can contribute to such efforts, wherever they are based.

This is hard work, Wilson told the crowd. “As leaders in a city with desperate need and boundless optimism, we need to remember that vision without backbone is hallucination!”

Renee Branch Canady, chief executive of the Michigan Public Health Institute, echoed Wilson’s and DaSilva’s appeals for broad vision in meeting the needs of people living in poverty. Canady’s nonprofit advocates at all levels—from local communities to Washington D.C.—on behalf of collaborative programs to build healthier communities.

“I don’t want my grandchildren to still be having this conversation,” Canady told the crowd. One way to inspire the hard work of forging cooperative new programs is to tap into our deepest values, including the values within faith communities. “We must invite our values to the table with us,” she said.

Adding to the list of issues that congregations can address, Canady said one challenge religious groups might tackle is easier access to everyday, healthful activities. An example: Many neighborhoods don’t have safe and barrier-free areas where residents can go walking each day.

“We must look at the built environment around us,” she said. “If we want people to get exercise by walking more, then we have to provide places they can walk. We have to make the healthy choice the easy choice. Can people walk around your neighborhood?”

The Rev. Dr. Urias Beverly told the crowd about the deep roots of these issues in the Abrahamic faiths. Beverly is the director of the doctor of ministry and the Muslim chaplaincy programs at the Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit. He also serves as professor of pastoral care and counseling,

“Health and religion have been wedded as long as there have been men and women on the earth,” Beverly said.

Tom Watkins, president of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, closed the conference by reminding faith leaders that mental health issues are an essential part of congregational caregiving.

“There is not a zip code in the United States that is not touched by the mental health care system,” Watkins said. “And if your own family and friends have not been touched by mental health issues—then it’s only a matter of time before someone you know is a part of this.”

He urged religious leaders to go home and spread the word: “Without quality mental health care—you don’t have quality health care.”

(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: CaregivingChildren and FamiliesChristianChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsMuslim

The Carrie Newcomer interview on ‘A Permeable Life’

Cover of Carrie Newcomer A Permeable Life CD

CLICK this cover to visit the album’s Amazon page.

Restless this summer? Eager to roam? Hoping to discover something that will energize and motivate you all year long? Then, don’t wait: Get Carrie Newcomer’s latest collection, A Permeable Life, and start singing along.

You can enjoy her first song, today, in our Interfaith Peacemakers department. It’s called Every Little Bit of It, a perfect song for a summer adventure. Here are a few of the lyrics:

Just beyond my sight,
Something that I cannot see,
I’ve been circling around a thought,
That’s been circling round me. …
There it is just below the surface of things,

In a flash of blue, and the turning of wings,
Drain the glass, drink it down, every moment of this,
Every little bit of it, every little bit.

Around our offices, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I’ve been humming that song for weeks—alternating with Carrie’s triumphant hymn of praise for America’s all-but-forgotten workers. In this season of political struggle to raise the nation’s minimum wage and help working families have at least a shot of climbing out of poverty, I can’t get Carrie’s The Work of Our Hands out of my head. Her song’s title and refrain echo my favorite Psalm 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
Through all generations. …
May the favor of the Lord rest upon us;
Bless the work of our hands.
Yes, bless the work of our hands.

Carrie’s version of The Work of Our Hands could become an anthem for the movement to recognize, honor and improve the lives of millions of marginalized laborers who shore up the foundations of our nation:

They lay hands on boards and bricks,
And loud machines,

With shovels and rakes,
And buckets of soap they clean.
And I believe that we should bless,
Every shirt ironed and pressed,
Salute the crews out on the road,
Those who stock shelves and carry loads,
Whisper thanks to brooms and saws,
Dirty boots and coveralls,
Bow my head to the waitress and nurse,
Tip my hat to farmer and clerk,
All those saints with skillets and pans,
And the work of their hands.

Ready to meet Carrie? As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I interviewed her about this new album. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH CARRIE NEWCOMER ON
‘A PERMEABLE LIFE’

DAVID: Our regular readers know you already—either as longtime fans of your music—or from reading our earlier interviews on your album Before and After and on your East-West collaboration with Indian musicians in Everything Is EverywhereBeyond the music you write and perform, the one other identification people make with your work is: You’re a Quaker. But, what does that mean?

Carrie Newcomer with her guitarCARRIE: That’s an interesting question because usually, when I tell people I’m a Quaker, that’s it. It’s wonderfully vague. People kind of know that Quakers are people who have a long history of peace-and-justice work. People think we’re kind of a religious group but they’re not too sure about that. Generally, I say I’m a Quaker and they don’t ask any more questions.

And, I do shy away from hard-and-fast categories—I do that in my art, as well. I feel very much akin to Parker Palmer. Often we’re put into categories of “progressive Christianity” or “progressive spirituality” because of the Quaker affiliation. I can say: Quakers are spiritually grounded and a great deal of attention is paid to living out the ideals of justice and peace and love in the world in a particular kind of way.

DAVID: Quaker communities vary widely in style and worship. What kind of a Quaker meeting do you attend?

CARRIE: I go to an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, which means the meetings are for worship but they also are meetings for discernment and contemplative mediation and prayer. You’re right: There are a lot of flavors of Quakers and there are some Quaker communities that do have programs like some of the mainline Protestant churches. Then there are Quaker communities where people don’t even refer to God as God. They prefer to speak to whatever connecting unity there is as The Light. There are some Quakers who don’t call themselves Christian, and there are others who call themselves absolutely Christian. I like the unprogrammed meetings, because I think they are more open to all of the above. It is more about individual revelation and journey—experienced in a community context. Each person’s journey is their own; and the community is there as well.

DAVID: Describe one of your unprogrammed meetings. Readers, I think, may be surprised that a woman known around the world for writing and performing music attends worship that is mainly an experience of silence.

CARRIE: In an unprogrammed meeting, people enter at a certain time. Our meeting starts at 10:00 and it’s in a circle. There’s no pastor. People sit in the silence and they listen. In our lives, we tend to do a lot of talking at God or at the universe and, in a silent Quaker meeting, part of the idea is that you’re not praising or asking or confessing. What you’re doing is listening—you’re spending time with what’s sacred in our lives in that space. Sometimes people will stand and speak out of the silence but there’s a lot of respect for the silence in our group. This isn’t group therapy. Unless you really feel pressed upon your heart to say something, then you probably shouldn’t say it.

This usually takes place in about an hour. Sometimes, people will speak. And, sometimes it’s an hour of being in community together in silence. Generally, there is someone in the meeting who sits on a facing bench. That person finally will turn to the person next to them and shake hands. And that mean’s its over. Sometimes, once a month generally, we have a query where there’s an hour afterwards and there’s a question we talk about. We might ask about the testimony of simplicity: How is that working in your life?

PLAYING WITH IDEAS UNTIL THE SONG UNFOLDS

Carrie Newcomer A Permeable Life Poems and Essays cover

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

DAVID: I started with those questions, this time, because this is the first project you’ve published that also comes in book form. In A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays, you invite people to go beyond the music and actually explore some of the experimental poems and essays that you write before finally creating your songs. The collection in this book is fully formed—really thought-provoking poems and essays to read on their own. But, as you explain in the book, these pieces are experiments with ideas that may evolve, over time, into new songs. Tell us about your process, because it’s different than the creative process followed by many songwriters.

CARRIE: You’re right—we’ve all got our processes. If you ask 11 different songwriters what their process is all about, they will come up with 15 different ways they do this! My personal approach usually starts with a poem or an essay or a story. I’ll do a lot of writing that isn’t songwriting—I’ll write in these other forms and I’ll explore the topic for a while. That lets me play with the idea, write about the idea and hone the way I talk about the idea. From this process, I may come up with the one line that starts the song. Then, by the time I am writing, the words and music usually happen at the same time for me.

In this book, I’ve put together a collection of my essays and poems and stories—and most of them in this book represent the writing that started a song. That may be overt or it may be subtle in the way these pieces started songs. Then, for this book, I also added a few other pieces that weren’t the beginnings of specific songs, but were related to the themes that show up in these songs.

DAVID: I love the richness of your language in the songs you create. Compared with other songwriters, these are beautifully written songs. And, the interplay of language in nearly all of your songs makes you want to hear the song again—often right away. You want to catch all the twists and turns. Talk a little more about the way you use language.

CARRIE: I am a songwriter. I use these other forms of writing as a place where I can develop food for my work as a songwriter. One challenge is the condensed format of songs. You only have a few verses, a chorus and maybe a bridge—so every word has to count. And, the words that you choose to include should reach further than the actual, individual words. Then, you have the element of music. Lyrics share a lot with poetry but lyrics are not strictly poetry on the page. Lyrics are written to entwine with music so, if you read lyrics out loud, they don’t come off with the full effect that the words are meant to have. The words on a page aren’t the same as the final music.

DAVID: You’re right! And I did struggle with this in planning this interview. We are going to quote a few passages from your lyrics, but we’re also going to link to your website www.CarrieNewcomer.com, where our readers can find samples, and we are going to include one of your videos in the Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website today: Every Little Bit of It.

PSALM 90 AND THE WORK OF OUR HANDS

DAVID: My favorite song in the new collection is The Work of Our Hands. I hope this song travels far and wide. I hope we all hear it being sung at events celebrating America’s millions of workers—especially those who are underpaid and under appreciated. In that song, you’ve got a memorable melody, a rhythm that builds as you lay out the litany of workers—and a wonderful interplay of words.

CARRIE: Something really good happened in my songwriting when I gave myself permission to do a couple of things. One thing is: I allow myself to write the song I write today. When songwriters are starting out, they want to put the whole sum of their worldly knowledge into every song. It’s like pastors trying to write their first sermon.

But the best songs usually are about one thing. Just one thing. So, I write the song I write today and, another day, I write another song. I give myself permission to write today and that day’s masterpiece (she laughs) will likely be about one thing.

Here’s another thing: I have given myself permission to be a Hoosier.

DAVID: Anyone who has listened to much of your music knows that you’re from Indiana. Among my favorites from your earlier albums is the song that lists a lot of the county fairs and local festivals in Indiana. In this new song, The Work of Our Hands, you start with a description of how you prepare spiced peach jam and how you can dill beans “from an old recipe that my mother gave to me.” That’s a vivid, flavorful picture.

CARRIE: My potent voice is my most authentic voice. I’m never going to sound like someone who grew up in Manhattan. And I don’t have to cover that voice in my music. That’s for someone who actually grew up in Manhattan. My most potent voice comes when I give myself permission to be a Quaker from the middle of the Midwest.

I love how we’re different, as people. In our whole country there’s no place like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no place like Minneapolis, no place like Asheville, North Carolina—and there’s no place just like Bloomington, Indiana. Places are so rich and diverse.

Yet, at the same time, everywhere I go—every single place I go—if I sing a song about love, about family, about kindness—simple human kindness—or if I sing a song about hope—and not Hallmark card hope but the kind of hope where you wake up in the morning and you get up and really do try to make the world a better place—then my song is immediately recognizable in any community where I’m singing all around this world.

DAVID: As I listened to The Work of Our Hands, all sorts of associations were firing in my mind. I heard the song as an echo of my own favorite Psalm 90. And, I also thought of an interview I did with Barbara Brown Taylor a few weeks ago. In her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she describes a back-country graveyard for poor sharecroppers in the Great Depression. The graves were hand dug; the soil was mounded on top; and the families lovingly placed on those dirt mounds objects from everyday life: a nice dinner plate, a tea cup or even, in some cases, lightbulbs in that era when electricity hadn’t reached every home. Why? These objects represented vocation and aspiration: In other words, they represent hope in “the work of our hands.”

‘Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks.’

Grow Your Own Can Your Own poster NARA

A widely distributed poster during the 1940s.

DAVID: Tell us more about the origins of your song.

CARRIE: The genesis of that song began with a friend of mine who is a wonderful organic farmer in the Bloomington area. She invited me to do some canning in her back yard one August afternoon. At the end of the afternoon, there were about 20 sweaty women and a million jars of salsa. And as we were getting ready to leave, I just listened to what people were saying about the day’s work. These women weren’t talking about where they were going to store or keep the jars; they all were talking about the people to whom they were going to give these jars.

One would say, “I’ll give this to my sister.”

Another would say, “I’ll give some to my neighbor. She’ll love this.”

This work had turned into an expression of love. We all were thinking about the people we love. I went home and wrote a bit about this and then I started the song.

In spiritual community, we talk about “love,” but that idea of “love” can get really big and unwieldy and unfocused. I’m much more interested in the small kindnesses we do for one another every day. Kindness is the country cousin of love. Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks. Kindness irons the shirts without even mentioning it.

DAVID: I think you’ve just given us a very quotable portion of this interview. I love that: Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks.

‘A movement of air from the singer to a listener’s heart’

CARRIE: These are ephemeral things, really, and I hope that people will see and appreciate these things. After all, my art is ephemeral. I make air. It is relatively recent in human history that technology has existed to carry a song beyond the one time and place in which it is sung. The artform is ephemeral—a movement of air carried from the singer to the heart of the listener.

As I wrote The Work of Our Hands, I was playing with this whole idea. We need to see and appreciate these lovely, humble, daily things that we can do for one another that we so often miss and that are gone as soon as we do them.

DAVID: It’s crucial that we develop this vision in our lives—this constant awareness of things happening on the periphery of the circle. Or, as you put it in Every Little Bit of It: “Just beyond my sight, Something that I cannot see …”

I’ve been talking about these transformative challenges with other authors this spring—with Brian McLaren in an interview we’ll publish soon about his new book We Make the Path by Walking and with Barbara Brown Taylor about her book Learning to Walk in the Dark and Marcus Borg about his new book Convictions, which really is a book about change and growth in a rich life.

CARRIE: I think that this is so important, as an artist but also as a person. You have to be able to give up what you already think you know. You have to grow. And that’s not always an easy thing. We are comfortable with what we think we know

Maybe that’s part of getting older, too. You know, if I stop and look back, I sometimes think: Once, I really did think that was true! Parker Palmer calls it reaching the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Sometimes you do wind up returning to a simple truth—but now you know it with a much deeper complexity.

DAVID: I wish that you could somehow collaborate on a soundtrack to Barbara’s new book or Marcus’s new book. You’re singing about the same themes they’re exploring in prose. One of the first questions I asked Barbara Brown Taylor in this recent interview was: Why did it take so long for you to complete this new book? She answered: “Honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

CARRIE: It’s a hard truth to appreciate.

I like thinking about the seeds that sit in the ground all winter. Then, in the spring, we’re surprised by all the green. All through the dark winter, those seeds were deep in the ground and something was happening there that we couldn’t even see.

And then the spring comes, the leaves come out—and there’s this riot of color. Life is both shadow and light. And I’m saying to the world: I want to embrace all of that—every little bit of it.

(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 InterviewsGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Marcus Borg inteview on ‘Convictions’

Cover Marcus Borg Convictions

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

A decade ago, Marcus Borg gave readers his passionate manifesto for renewal, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, which he described as “scholarship, experience and memory” blended across 200 pages. The book spread like wildfire. To this day, when I travel as editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, if I ask groups of men and women to name a Marcus Borg book they have enjoyed, I most often hear about that little book with the two out-stretched hands on the cover.

Marcus’s nine books after Heart of Christianity range from books about Jesus and Paul to the first volume in what will be a series of novels. But, Heart of Christianity holds a special place in the Marcus Borg library. That book’s passion allowed readers in communities large and small to recognize in Marcus a friend—a faithful and compassionate companion in their spiritual journeys.

The news today is: Marcus is back with a new book that feels like a follow up to The Heart of Christianity. It’s called Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most and, in this case, although the book rests on Marcus’s considerable scholarship, this book mainly explores the roles of “experience and memory” in our spiritual journeys.

The writing style in Convictions starts with more than 100 short nuggets about various aspects of faith—each with a bold-faced headline. Then, Marcus organizes these nuggets into 11 chapters with thematic titles, such as “God Is Real and a Mystery,” “Salvation Is More about This Life than an Afterlife,” “Christians Are Called to Peace and Nonviolence,” and “To Love God Is to Love Like God.”

Convictions conveys an overall message that is both simple and urgently needed: Change is a good and natural part of Christian life. (Just in case you question that assumption, right off the bat, Marcus devotes 2 pages to a speed-of-light tour of the dramatic changes throughout Christian history from Jesus’s era to today.)

Marcus reminds us: Change is a normal process in Christianity—but change is more than just history—it’s a personal journey. As millions of Americans are aging, he argues, it’s time to talk openly across the generations. It’s time to talk honestly, he tells us, about how our childhood assumptions concerning faith usually pass through what Marcus calls the “conversions” that are a rich part of becoming an adult—and then can deepen into the “convictions” that form a foundation for a long and meaningful life.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcus Borg. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH MARCUS BORG
ABOUT “CONVICTIONS’

DAVID: Change is on our minds. That’s true for millions of Americans and people around the world, as well. Recently, we’ve featured interviews with a number of popular authors writing about dramatic changes in Christianity—Barbara Brown Taylor and Philip Jenkins. In a couple of weeks, we’ll publish an interview with Brian McLaren about his upcoming book We Make the Road by Walking, which opens with these words: “You are not finished yet. You are in the making. You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change and grow.”

They’re all talking about change. Your book argues that change is a natural part of a healthy Christian life. Why are we hearing so much about change, right now?

Marcus Borg courtesy of the authorMARCUS: All of us—all of the authors you’ve just mentioned—are at an age, now, that means we’ve navigated through lives full of change. We grew up in an insular world with a limited view of reality in which we took the conventions around us for granted. I don’t know the ages of Barbara and Philip and Brian, but I know that I grew up in a pre-civil-rights-movement era with all kinds of false assumptions about the relationships between Christianity and the church and the world.

This is true for millions of Americans, as well. Perhaps some of your readers can still remember the lyrics of songs on the radio Hit Parade in the early 1950s. I can still sing some of them today (and he begins to sing) …

Heart of my heart, I love that melody
Heart of my heart, brings back a memory.

And I’m sure some of your readers will remember …

Mr. Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.

And there was that very popular hiking song, The Happy Wanderer:

I love to go a-wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.
Val-deri,Val-dera.

I’ll stop right there, but the point I’m making is that many of us, of a certain age, grew up in a world of conventions that were taken for granted by everyone, in a way that we do not experience today.

DAVID: OK, so I’ve been Googling along with you, as you’ve been singing these songs. And, I can confirm that in that trio of songs you just recalled, you’ve just nailed a very precise period of 1953-1954. That’s pretty amazing. Those songs were popular in other recordings, at other times, but you were simply able to reach back into your memory and give us the soundtrack to a specific period when you were 11 and 12 years old. That’s the “childhood” period you reference in your new book. It’s amazing to see how powerfully those early years in our lives stay with us throughout our lives.

MARCUS: That’s my point. And I am not alone in this. Growing up, I thought I knew something about the world; I thought I knew what Christianity was all about when I was just a boy. And yet, our country had not yet fully experienced the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War—I could list so many other major changes in the world that we had yet to experience.

DAVID: You write in your book: “I grew up in the world of denominational division … the great divide was between Catholics and Protestants. In my Lutheran and Protestant context, we were deeply skeptical about whether Catholics were really Christians. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, a major issue was the fact that he was Catholic. Could a Protestant vote for a Catholic president? The issue was not only political, but local and personal—and eternal. We Lutherans—at least the Lutherans I knew—were quite sure that Catholics couldn’t be saved.  … They were wrong; we were right.”

You’re a bit older than I am, but I can recall that Kennedy era, too. Your point here is that people who claim they want to a version of Christianity that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years—well, most of them don’t know what they’re demanding. As Philip Jenkins has pointed out in a whole series of his books, much of Christian history involved painful conflict and, often, blindness to the world’s most needy people. In fact, the history of Christianity is change.

MARCUS: I like the lines you read a moment ago from Brian’s new book: “You are not finished yet.” This is such an important point. So many of us, as Americans, grew up assuming that our own form of Christianity—what we experienced as Christianity in our family and in our community—was the same, was unchanging and that there really was only our one form of Christianity. We were right; all others had to be wrong.

When you mention Barbara and Philip and Brian, I think that we’ve all lived through so many changes that we’ve moved from our original provincial views of reality and of Christianity to one that is pluralistic. We want to talk and write openly about this journey—because lots of people find themselves on this journey today.

A MODEL FOR EXPLORING
OUR “OWN LIFE JOURNEYS”

DAVID: Online reviews of your book tend to stress two points: One is that this book doesn’t really contain big revelations for readers who’ve followed your writing over the years; the second point is that this book is uniquely inspiring. This book is touching people on a personal level.

MARCUS: I would call it the most consistently personal book I’ve written. Pretty much every chapter begins with what I absorbed as a child growing up in the church, and then I look at the changes that have occurred in the decades since—and then I write about the convictions that flow from those changes. And, because these “changes” are foundational kinds of transitions, I call them “conversions” in the book.

If we were to describe this in three C’s, I go from the Conventions of my childhood through the Conversions of my adulthood to the Convictions I now hold. But this is much more than a personal book, because I’m convinced that there are millions of other people who have experienced these three C’s as well. This becomes a very useful triad for anybody above a certain age to use in thinking bout their life and faith as they read.

I haven’t done a lot of talks out on the road, just yet, about this new book. But when I travel and talk about this book, I’m going to encourage people to try to get in touch with their childhood memories. What did they absorb and internalize about Christianity when they were around the age of 12 or so? Then, I want to encourage people to think about all of the changes in the world and in our own lives. I want to ask people: What were the circumstances that led you to change?

DAVID: And finally, in this process you’re describing in the book, you reach the foundation stones that are described by the title of your book: the Convictions. What does that word mean to you?

MARCUS: I define that as foundational ways of seeing that are not easily shaken. Through this process, I think I am giving people a model for getting in touch with their own life journeys and reaching some of these foundations, these convictions, as I call them.

AN INVITATION TO SHARE THE JOURNEY

DAVID: I really like the way you’re posing the invitation—and describing the process—in this book. Here at ReadTheSpirit, I’ve been working with Dr. Wayne Baker on the rollout of his book, United America, which is based on years of research at the University of Michigan into values that actually unite nearly all Americans. I’ve been involved in a series of small groups with Wayne and, I can tell you, when people gather to talk about American values—they arrive with all kinds of anxieties. I can remember one participant showing up for a first session with United America telling me, “There are going to be fireworks tonight!”

But Wayne surprises people when he presents this material. You and I have just talked about the soundtrack of our lives—our memories of music. Wayne often starts his programs by showing participants famous photographs of America. He’s actually put his “Images of America” photo gallery online. He asks participants to remember when they first saw these iconic images and then he invites them to choose a picture that still holds deep meaning. This transforms these gatherings from potential fireworks to communities of people remembering—and talking about the dramatic changes in their lives.

I see your new book inviting readers into a similar process around their religious beliefs.

MARCUS: You’ve just described the potential of this kind of process very well. This is a journey and I am inviting groups to try a process that follows the three parts in my book: Think about your memories; think about major changes in your life; think about your convictions today. Groups may choose to do all three things in one setting, or they may prefer to begin with the first couple of elements and spend some time talking about their memories and the changes in their lives. They may want to talk about convictions right away, or later in the process. Each group can decide, of course.

The book is very flexible. People could enjoy this book by themselves. Or, they could use this book with a discussion group. Or, they could plan a special program or retreat.

Some readers may find in this book a model for a longer spiritual journey and it is possible to spread out the process of reading and reflecting and discussing over a period of, oh, over an entire year if people choose that route.

DAVID: Let’s close this interview by earmarking our next interview. For the benefit of our readers, what will be talking about in our interview next year?

MARCUS: The second novel will come out in the second half of 2015, if all goes well. I hope to have it done in four or five months and then, of course, there’s a whole process of publishing the book. So, next time, we’ll talk about the second novel.

DAVID: Well, until then … keep writing.

CARE TO READ MORE FROM MARCUS BORG?

ReadTheSpirit has published an almost annual series of interviews with Marcus Borg. Here are some of the subjects we’ve discussed …

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With Groups

Philip Jenkins interview on his book for the WWI Centennial

Cover Philip Jenkins The Great and Holy War on World War I

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

A flood of books, DVDs and TV specials are marking the centennial of World War I. The war has been a major theme on Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge. But you may never guess from most of this media that the war had anything to do with religion.

That’s why—if you care about religious diversity and the role of faith in global war and peace—then you must get a copy of Philip Jenkins’ new The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade. ReadTheSpirit online magazine highly recommends this unique and important look at how the First World War reshaped global conflicts we are still wrestling with a century later.

Jenkins writes this in the opening pages:

“The First World War was a thoroughly religious event, in the sense that overwhelmingly Christian nations fought each other in what many viewed as a holy war, a spiritual conflict. Religion is essential to understanding the war, to understanding why people went to war, what they hoped to achieve through war, and why they stayed at war. Not in medieval or Reformation times but in the age of aircraft and machine guns, the majority of the world’s Christians were indeed engaged in a holy war that claimed more than 10 million lives.

“Acknowledging the war’s religious dimension forces us to consider its long-term effects. In an age of overwhelming mass propaganda … nations could not spend years spreading the torrid language and imagery of holy warfare without having a potent effect. … The war ignited a global religious revolution. … It transformed not just the Christianity of the main combatant nations but also other great faiths, especially Judaism and Islam. It destroyed a global religious order that had prevailed for the previous half millennium and dominated much of the globe. The Great War drew the world’s religious map as we know it today.”

What readers will find in the book’s nearly 400 page are stories that will surprise and, in some cases, utterly shock contemporary readers.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Philip Jenkins. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW WITH PHILIP JENKINS
ON ‘THE GREAT AND HOLY WAR’
AT THE CENTENNIAL OF WWI

DAVID: The fact that religious fervor was at the heart of World War I will come as a surprise to many of our readers, who largely see TV shows about the patriotism that drove men to enlist. So, I’m going to start our interview by quickly listing just a few of the historic religious events that took place on the eve of this war:

There’s no wonder that people around the world thought the End of the World might be at hand, right?

Philip Jenkins, photo by James Rasp used with permission.

Philip Jenkins, photo by James Rasp used with permission.

PHILIP: And there are so many more dates you could include in that list! Certainly you could include in 1917 both the Russian Revolution and the appearances that are known to Catholics around the world as Our Lady of Fatima. Then, if you add General Edmund Allenby capturing Jerusalem in 1917—well, when people picked up their newspapers, it began to seem as though they were reading a direct commentary on the Book of Revelation.

By 1917, all the nations involved in this war were deep in despair. It had begun to seem as though this terrible war might carry on until every man in Europe was killed off. If you were alive in that era, then you were reading all of these headlines in the newspapers—including stories out of Portugal about these apparitions of the Virgin Mary and the sun dancing in the sky. Some of this news becomes absolutely baffling. If you don’t believe the Apocalypse is imminent, then you don’t have much imagination.

SHOCKING CHRISTIAN PERSPECTIVES

DAVID: We’ll return to some of the amazing spiritual visions from World War I in a moment, but I want to ask you right away about some of the really shocking Christian perspectives you’ve documented in this history. And let’s start with Lyman Abbott, one of the most famous theologians and writers in America in that era. Earlier in his life, before the Civil War, he fought against slavery shoulder to shoulder with Henry Ward Beecher. He was a progressive who backed Theodore Roosevelt. And yet when World War I came around?

PHILIP: Like a lot of the leading Protestant clergy of his day—including a lot of the liberal and progressive clergy—Lyman Abbott entirely accepted that the war was necessary. But, then, he went far beyond that to see the war as a crusade. He had a vision of the war in which the Allies represented absolute good and the Germans represented absolute evil.

DAVID: I found an online link where people can read Abbott’s most infamous publication about the war, “To Love Is To Hate.” But give us just a brief summary of his message.

PHILIP: In today’s terms, we would say that Lyman Abbott declared the war a Jihad. He didn’t use that term, of course, but he was declaring this a holy war. In that piece you mentioned, “To Love Is to Hate”—and in other pieces he wrote—Abbott said that anyone who died in the war was a martyr. Fighting in this war was a matter of sacrificial Christian good. Fighting in this war was sacred.

DAVID: He called the German leadership murderers, pillagers of churches, violators of women and he declared, “I do well to hate.”

And, Abbott certainly wasn’t alone. Let’s talk about another figure in your book over in the UK: the Bishop of London Arthur Winnington-Ingram. I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that Abbott may have been an odd exception in this era. The Bishop of London went much further than Abbott and declared that this was “a war for purity.” He told young men in the Allied armies to “kill Germans … kill the good as well as the bad, kill the young as well as the old.”

PHILIP: He was making statements so outrageous that there were even people at that time who considered his statements outrageous. Before the war, he had been fairly pro-German. But, during the war, he accepted the idea that this was a crusade and, in today’s terms, he talked about the war very much like we would describe a “Jihad” today.

DAVID: But those voices weren’t the worst—as incredible as that may seem. Some major religious leaders—including the famous Brooklyn preacher Newell Dwight Hillis—said that the Allies should practice eugenics. Today, after the Holocaust and so many other tragic attempts at genocide around the world, we now regard “eugenics” as an ugly word. But here was this highly respected preacher calling for “the sterilization of the ten million German soldiers, and the segregation of their women, that when this generation of German goes, civilized cities, states and races may be rid of this awful cancer that must be cut clean out of the body of society.”

PHILIP: Hillis was taking eugenics ideas and, by 1918, he was saying that the only way to deal with the Germans was to eliminate the race chiefly through sterilization. What’s especially interesting about him is that he’s not some crazed writer off in some corner. His pamphlets and books were circulated in the millions. This was an age of mass circulation of printed and visual media. However crazy he seems to us, he had a major impact. Abbott, Ingram and Willis cannot be easily dismissed. In their time, they were widely heard around the world.

DAVID: It’s amazing to think that they could play with this kind fire in their preaching and writing. Of course, the world hadn’t experienced the Holocaust, yet.

PHILIP: No, but the Armenian Genocide took place in World War I in 1915. If you were an American reading the daily newspapers, you were aware of that. And here was Hillis arguing that genocide isn’t bad, as long as you direct it against the right people and, for Hillis, it was the Germans.

Of course this is chilling to read today.

DEAD ARISING & ANGELS DESCENDING

The Bowmen of WWI by Arthur Machen which became the Angel of MonsDAVID: Within your nearly 400 pages, there is so much more that readers will discover! “Lawrence of Arabia” is in this book as well as General Allenby’s battle at Megiddo, which led people to call him “Allenby of Armageddon.” There’s his historic march on Jerusalem. You take us to Hollywood and report on some of the blockbuster movies that were produced about the war. I found your book to be a real page turner with one intriguing story after another.

Just as Allenby’s forces clearly bought into the religious fervor of the era, I want to ask you about a couple of the most famous battlefield “miracles” of World War I. The religious zeal around this war wasn’t limited to preachers on the home front. The men in the trenches often were telling about the importance of their faith in the midst of these terrible battles. And, in a number of cases, some of the men were claiming miracles.

I think the most startling story in your book is about “The Angel of Mons.”

PHILIP: It started when a Welsh fantasy writer, Arthur Machen, wrote a short story about the Battle of Mons, where a small and heavily outnumbered British force had won a victory against a much larger German unit. In Machen’s short story—which he called The Bowmen and which he didn’t claim was true—the Battle of Mons is won when these thousands of British soldiers from the Middle Ages suddenly arise and fight off the Germans with arrows. Machen was well known as an author of fantasy stories.

But, Machen soon was amazed to find people telling him that the story is true! People begin saying they were there at Mons and saw these bowmen arising. Then, as the story was retold, the vision of the bowmen morphed into a vision of angels coming to defend the British. This story of angels coming to the defense of the British—”The Angel of Mons”—becomes one of the central, defining stories of the First World War.

But that story Mons isn’t the only one about angels or about the dead rising. You find these stories absolutely everywhere you turn. Many people saw apparitions in this era. These stories like the “Angel of Mons” fit into this larger Apocalyptic narrative about the war.

COUNTING COSTS; LOOKING FOR SCAPEGOATS

DAVID: No one seems to have counted the cost of these extremes to which they were going during the war. The same could be said of the Second World War, too. But we end your book shaking our heads that no one could envision what titanic forces they were setting in motion during the 1914-1918 conflict.

PHILIP: A very large proportion of the participants in World War I believed that they had been involved in a Holy War, even after the war. Then, this poses two questions: If you’ve just won a holy war, then what are you supposed to do? And the other question is: If you’ve just lost a holy war, what do you do? The winners then encounter even more questions because they thought they would enter an age of perfection and, soon, it was obviously not the case. Even worse, the losers wanted to find the scapegoats who led to their defeat. This sets up the rise of Naziism and other Fascist and nationalist movements.

Very soon after the war, there was a sense that this was just one phase of worldwide conflict and another one would come along.

DAVID: One of the interesting post-World War I perspectives you include in the book is the fear of writers like C.S. Lewis and Dietrich Bonhoeffer that the world is moving into an increasingly pagan era. While a lot of Christian leaders, during WWI, were saying that this was a Christian crusade—Lewis and Bonhoeffer and others realized that something much more troubling was spawned by the war.

PHILIP: I describe this as a “Christian war,” but many orthodox Christians are very troubled by what they see in this era. Many evangelicals are troubled by the idea that, if a soldier fights and dies in a national cause, then the soldier gets a straight pass to heaven no matter what else he’s done in his life. That’s the most extreme and vulgar expression of holy war. And, as you’ve just pointed out, a lot of the ideas that arise during this war are occult. Spiritualism runs riot throughout the war and afterward, especially among the families of the millions of dead, hoping to speak to their loved ones again. The religious spectrum in that era is as extreme and bizarre as the array of religious movements we saw in the 1970s.

‘A DECISIVE STAGE IN RESHAPING ANTISEMITISM’

DAVID: Most of our readers, I assume, know that the end of World War I contained the seeds of World War II. The popular version of this story is that the Allies forced such draconian terms on Germany that a second war was inevitable. Your book points out that there were other evil seeds beyond the terms of the final peace treaty. One of the worst outcomes of the WWI era was a rise in antisemitism.

PHILIP: When the First World War starts, there is almost an era of good feeling among the major nations fighting on each side. Everyone thinks: We’re in this together. We have a common citizenship. We will fight together and then, after the war, we will be one united nation. Jews believe this wholeheartedly as World War I begins and, in Germany, many Jews see their service in the war as a final emancipation. They’re becoming fully German as they fight for their nation.

But, by about 1916, the question already is arising in many places: If we’re fighting a holy war and we’re God’s greatest nation—then why aren’t we winning this war? We must have missed something. There must be someone within our gates who is causing this problem for us. Some very troubling things begin to happen regarding Jews, especially in Germany and Russia.

By the end of the war, there was this widespread search for scapegoats. Naziism arises in the 1920s as a veteran’s movement aimed at preventing another failure like what happened in World War I. But, this scapegoating process begins during the war. And, as we know, the Jews come out of this era as one of the most-blamed groups. The war marks a decisive stage in reshaping antisemitism. The two most important things in 20th-century Jewish history are the Holocaust and the creation of the state of Israel and neither of those could have happened without the First World War.

DAVID: At the very end of your book, you describe the dramatic redrawing of the world’s religious map that was a result of that era, a century ago. One major impact was the explosion of Pentecostal movements worldwide. Today, that’s a huge population often estimated at a quarter of the world’s 2 billion Christians. You also point out how dramatically the First World War reshaped the Muslim world, literally redrawing international boundaries and setting up future conflicts.

You describe the scope of this change in a dramatic way. You write that, while the entire war lasted only four years, the scope of religious changes in that era was like moving from the 1850s to the 1950s in just a few revolutionary years. I’ll close our interview with your book’s last line: “Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another.”

CARE TO READ MORE FROM PHILIP JENKINS?

CARE TO READ MORE ABOUT WORLD WAR I?

ReadTheSpirit online magazine has been publishing many perspectives on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, because we are moving through the 150th anniversary of that war. Starting this summer, we are publishing a series of unique stories, columns and historical profiles to mark the centennial of World War I.
Here are some we already have published …

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

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