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

By DAVID CRUMM, ReadTheSpirit Editor

What’s the mission of an interfaith activist?

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

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

FAITH & PUBLIC POLICY UNITE

Reasa Currier speaking to a grup (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY FAITH GROUPS CARE

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

Buddha receiving honey from a monkey (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFUSING TO SLIDE INTO DESPAIR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to get involved?

Learn about the Faith Outreach division of HSUS.

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

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

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Categories: Children and FamiliesChristianJewishMuslimNatural WorldPeacemaking

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:

.

(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

MSU ‘Bias Busters’ sort out the mysterious realm of religion

Front cover MSU guide 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

CLICK this cover to visit our Bookstore and learn about ordering your copy.

By JOE GRIMM

The MSU Bias Busters series of guides to cultural competence embarks on a new direction this week: We’re heading into the realm of religion.

The series, from the Michigan State University (MSU) School of Journalism, started in 2013 with 100 questions and answers to everyday questions about several groups. There are now guides for Indian Americans, Hispanics and Latinos, East Asian cultures, Arab Americans, Native Americans and, to help international guests, Americans.

Why did our MSU team decide to start this new series on religious minorities? Because such guides are needed by so many men and women, these days. Americans in countless neighborhoods and professions need to know how to interact with our neighbors and co-workers from minority faiths and cultures.

Why did we start this new series with Muslims? Because these men, women and children face the greatest misunderstandings right now, according to nationwide studies.

Recently, Pew researchers reported that prejudice against Muslim Americans is “rampant among the U.S. public.” The Pew team added: “We have a long way to go in dispelling prejudice against Muslims. Muslims were the group rated most negatively of all religious groups.”

Can our guide books really make a difference? Yes!

Here’s the goal of our overall series of 100 Questions & Answers guides: We answer the questions that real people ask every day wherever Americans gather. We answer the questions that no one else is answering in such a convenient and authoritative form. We have blue-ribbon readers across the country advise us as we answer these questions for readers—so you can trust what we’re telling you in these pages.

In your hands, these guides will help you get to know co-workers, neighbors or fellow students in your school. And that process of getting to know each other, concludes the Pew team, is the way to build healthier communities.

The Pew team used a thermometer chart to show Americans’ relatively warm vs. chilly attitudes toward minorities. The team’s report concludes: “Knowing someone from a religious group is linked with having relatively more positive views of that group. Those who say they know someone who is Jewish, for example, give Jews an average thermometer rating of 69, compared with a rating of 55 among those who say they do not know anyone who is Jewish. Atheists receive a neutral rating of 50, on average, from people who say they personally know an atheist, but they receive a cold rating of 29 from those who do not know an atheist. Similarly, Muslims get a neutral rating (49 on average) from those who know a Muslim, and a cooler rating (35) from those who do not know a Muslim.”

WHAT QUESTIONS DO WE ANSWER?

MSU Bias Busters Class works on 100 Questions about Muslim Americans

PHOTOS OF THE MSU BIAS BUSTERS: TOP PHOTO shows an MSU editing circle—clockwise from front: Arielle Rembert, Julia Gorman, Sarah King, Cheyenne Yost, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan and Kate Kerbrat. MIDDLE PHOTO shows our editors Amanda Cowherd and Kyle Koehler collaborating on the new guide. BOTTOM PHOTO shows class members—front from left: Lia Kamana, Stacy Cornwell, Arielle Rembert and Julia Gorman. Second row, from left: Kate Kerbrat, Amanda Cowherd, Kyle Koehler, Zhenqi (Bruce) Tan, Cheyenne Yost and Sarah King.

The full title of our newest book, as listed on Amazon, is 100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans with a Guide to Islamic Holidays: Basic facts about the culture, customs, language, religion, origins and politics of American Muslims.

These guides are designed to answer the everyday questions that people wonder about but might not know how to ask. The Muslim-American guide answers:

* What does Islam say about Jesus?
* What does the Quran say about peace and violence?
* What is the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims?
* Which countries are predominantly Shia and Sunni?
* Do Muslims believe in heaven and an afterlife?
* Do Muslims believe that non-Muslims are going to hell?
* Is the Nation of Islam the same as Islam?
* Are honor killings a part of Islamic teaching?
* What does Islam say about images of God?
* Do women who wear the hijab play sports or swim?

The guide’s Foreword is by John L. Esposito, professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies at Georgetown University. He is founding director of the Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding and author of the popular book, What Everyone Needs to Know about Islam.

Esposito wrote, “The Muslims of America are far from monolithic in their composition and in their attitudes and practices. They are a mosaic of many ethnic, racial and national groups. As a result, significant differences exist in their community as well as in their responses to their encounter with the dominant religious and cultural paradigm of American society.”

Esposito was one of 20 experts who helped MSU students in one way or another through the creation of our new guide. The students began by interviewing Muslims, and consulting with our experts, to determine the 100 commonly asked questions we would answer in this book. Then, the students researched the answers and, once again, consulted with our experts to verify the entire guide.

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE …

Another new feature in this new book is a nine-page guide to Islamic holidays. Written by Read the Spirit’s Holidays & Festivals expert Stephanie Fenton, it explains their timing, meaning and significance.

The guide also has a recording with American Muslims pronouncing Arabic words such as Muslim, Islam and Allah. Muslims told students that these are often mispronounced and the audio addresses that. (Visit the ReadTheSpirit bookstore now to learn how to order your copy of this inexpensive new book. When you get your copy, the first thing you’ll want to do is listen to this helpful audio track. In most e-readers, the audio plays within the digital book; in the print edition, a QR code lets you click on that page—and play the audio on your smart phone.)

The series is evolving and becoming more elaborate.

The next guide will focus on Jewish Americans and is expected to have videos.

CARE TO READ MORE?

JOE GRIMM is visiting editor in the Michigan State University School of Journalism. In addition to the MSU series, Joe has written two books about careers in media. You can learn about all of Joe’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

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Categories: HolidaysJewishMuslimPeacemaking

Marcia Falk interview on ‘The Days Between’

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

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

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

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

Slow spin of earth
against sky—

imperceptible yet
making the days.

One stone tossed
into the current,

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

.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcia Falk. Here are …

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

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

Marcia Falk, photo used with author's permission.

Marcia Falk, photo used with author’s permission.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsBibleGreat With GroupsHolidaysJewish

Immersed in the spirit of tashlikh as a family

As part of our coverage of the Jewish High Holidays, ReadTheSpirit magazine welcomes author Lynne Meredith Golodner, writing about her own contemporary experience with tashlikh.

Throwing Away Mistakes:
It’s that time of year

By LYNNE MEREDITH GOLODNER

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe will walk through the cascading hills of Cranbrook’s grounds, between and among the tree-shaded trails. The kids will climb into the arms of a steady old tree, balance in the fork of branches, jump down without fear. We will debate whether to take the path that leads to a carefully scripted line of boulders, where they can dance and skip from rock to rock, or take the other path, the back way, and end up at a grand finale of stones.

At some point in the middle of this autumn hike, my four children, husband and I will pause beside the water. Most years, it’s the drumming river next to the Japanese gardens, but last year we sat on a platform beside the still and silent pond. Either way, we’ll open the bag of old bread and crumble pieces into crumbs to disseminate over the water’s surface, letting the current take last year’s choices and regrets away forever, making room for this year’s clean slate.

This is the tradition I’ve built with my family in the spirit of tashlikh, the Jewish practice on Rosh Hashanah, or sometime between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later. Tashlikh is the ritual of throwing away our sins so that we may start anew, start fresh, in the dawning of a new year.

It’s a cleansing, so to speak, of the soul.

When I became a single mother of three young children in 2008, I began my journey toward personalizing my spiritual pursuits. I grew up as a secular Reform Jew, doing my duty–services twice a year, where my sister and I camped out in the synagogue bathroom and commented on other people’s outfits. Bored by the observances, we muscled through until the time when we were set free into the parking lot and onward to home, to imbibe chicken soup and matzoh balls and revel in the day off from school.

In young adulthood, I chose Orthodoxy, my form of rebellion. I spent a decade in the ritualistic rigidity of very traditional Judaism, learning the roots of my heritage, observing as much as I could stomach. I sat in long services on two days of Rosh Hashanah, trying not to fidget from the not-knowing, the lack-of-understanding. My rabbi had compassion; he encouraged me to attend a learner’s service, admitting that the high holy day observances are heavy, too much for someone not raised in the culture of immersion.

I dreaded the 25-hour fast day of Yom Kippur, though I did it, muscling through in the way that I did as a child in my liberal synagogue. Either way, I didn’t find my place in my religion until I set myself free from an unhappy marriage at the age of 37. It was then that I felt brave enough, confident enough, strong enough, to create my own rituals, and involve my children in tangible observance of our long tradition.

The first time I took the kids to Cranbrook for tashlikh, I made a conscious choice not to use the word “sin,” which is the common construction for this practice. The bread crumbs symbolize our sins, which we cast off for the moving waters to carry away from us. And then we are free, free from sin, a clean canvas with which to start a new year, in hopefully better spirits and character than the one just ended.

I didn’t want to teach my children that our religion is a punishing one. I wanted them to embrace themselves in success and in failure, and the word sin has such a harsh connotation. So I used the word “choice,” asking the then 2-, 4- and 6-year-old sweet ones what choices they would like to make in the coming year.

“I will be nicer to my brother,” said one of my children.

“I will listen to Mommy more,” said another.

“I will read more books,” said the third one.

And I joined them, admitting my own human-ness in front of these precious souls.

“I will try not to yell,” I said. It was hard being a single mother; I was easily excitable in those early years trying to figure it out for myself. I threw that regret into the waters and watched the bread crumb dissolve into nothingness.

After the bread supply was depleted and I had just a plastic bag left to carry home, we continued on our journey. The Pewabic tiled fountain under leafy pine and maple. The cairn beside the swampy pond. Overgrown shrubbery nearly obscuring the narrow path toward the majestic old house with its fountains and gardens.

We dipped into the Greek amphitheater and the children ran up and down the rows of seats, called with echoing voices from the open stage. We were free in the forest, reveling in our connection and in the freedom to be reborn after making mistakes, grateful for second chances.

My children are older now and I am thankfully calmer. We still do our tashlikh routine, a favorite of mine at least, with each passing year. We go to synagogue to mark the significance of the holiday season with community, but it isn’t until we get out in the open air and sunshine that we feel energized to start anew.

I have two middle-schoolers who roll their eyes at me even as they snuggle in close. I have a third-grader and a fifth-grader, too. All are wrapped in their version of good and bad, their understanding of the way our world rejuvenates itself.

I still use the word “choice,” preferring its participatory connotation over the finger-wagging “sin.” As we stroll along the pine-scented trails, I listen more than I talk, letting them take the stage, letting them share their revelations of what it is to live a good life, what it is to release regret into the warm hug of the generous world.

Lynne Meredith Golodner is author of eight books including The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. She owns a public relations company called Your People LLC, guiding spiritually-focused businesses and nonprofits in storytelling and relationships to build their reach, and blogs daily at www.lynnegolodner.com. She lives with her husband and four children in Huntington Woods, Michigan.

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Categories: Jewish

The Naomi Schaefer Riley interview on growing your congregation

Cover Got Religion by Naomi Schaefer Riley for Templeton

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

Anxious Christians, watching young adults slip away from congregations by the millions, have built an entire industry around “church growth.” So, this new book by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley is both eagerly awaited news—and a startling surprise.

What’s the big surprise in Got Religion? How Churches, Mosques, and Synagogues Can Bring Young People Back? Riley’s extensive research, backed by the Templeton Press, shows that the advice hawked by a lot of would-be church-growth experts simply isn’t worth the money. And, congregations of any size—whether Christian, Jewish or Muslim—have an opportunity to welcome back young adults by focusing to the basics of religious community: hospitality, compassion and sincere relationships.

Frequently, self-proclaimed experts walk into congregations and promote investment in technology to bring young adults back to worship. Her book concludes: “Perhaps the most striking element that is absent from the accounts of successful religious institutions in this book is—technology. When I asked the academics, religious leaders and journalists who cover religion which institutions were doing the best job and how, my respondents barely mentioned Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Tumbler, let alone the institutional websites that congregations often spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours creating.”

And when Riley went out and talked to young adults nationwide? Yes, she reports, they did “expect a basic level of technological literacy from their churches and synagogues. … Of course they would like to see an updated Facebook page from their religious instutions with information about where services will be or what time events will take place—but I could not find one example of a technological innovation that brought someone into one of these religious institutions or an instance in which it convinced them to stay.”

In fact, young adults are even willing to forgive the technological limitations of their houses of worship. They’re seeking, first and foremost, something that congregations once understood was their core value—forming communities.

Today, ReadTheSpirit magazine is highly recommending Naomi’s book for individual reading and for small-group discussion. Click on the book cover and order a copy today. Invite friends to discuss this book with you.

Here is Riley’s message—after an impressive body of national research—in a few concise lines: “Religious leaders who are successfully connecting with young adults realize that sleek advertising is not going to bring people into the pews. The barriers to entry are not matters for a public relations firm to tackle. Young adults want community. They want a neighborhood. They want a critical mass of people their age. But they want to see older people and younger people in their religious institutions, too. They want a way to serve, and many of them want a way to serve sacrificially for longer periods of time. They want the racial and ethnic diversity of their country reflected in their religious community. … They want to feel welcome whether they are single or married. And while they may appear to be experiencing an extended adolescence, when they are given responsibility, they often are inclined to take it.”

Is this refreshing news—or what!?! For religious leaders bemoaning the mass exodus of young adults? Riley’s message is: The opportunity to welcome them back is right there in your hands and in your own timeless mission as congregations.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH NAOMI SCHAEFER RILEY
ON ‘GOT RELIGION?’

Naomi Schaefer Riley used with the author's permission.

Naomi Schaefer Riley used with the author’s permission.

DAVID: I imagine that many of our readers will be surprised by the conclusions in your book, but I see your work mirroring the No. 1 “Key Takeaway” from Pew’s study of the millennial generation: “Millennials have fewer attachments to traditional political and religious institutions, but they connect to personalized networks of friends, colleagues and affinity groups through social and digital media.” Most people reading Pew’s No. 1 point may focus on the final phrase in Pew’s conclusion “through social and digital media.” And Pew is correct in explaining how millions of millennials achieve community through social media. But your book looks past that final phrase to focus squarely on Pew’s main point: Young adults want to connect socially with a community.

NAOMI: Absolutely. My research for this book included going out and finding success stories to the extent they exist. When I went around the country and visited a variety of religious institutions–Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, evangelical and mainline Protestant–I asked the young adults I found there to describe what drew them in. I was surprised that nobody gave me answers involving technology. It wasn’t mentioned as something drawing them in.

What people described was a personal sense of human connection with the community. In New Orleans, when I visited Redeemer Presbyterian Church, I found that the people there focused on where they are—the neighborhood they are in. The pastor there prides himself in saying to visitors: Is there a church that’s closer to your home that you’d rather belong to? You don’t hear that from most religious leaders. He says that because he wants to warn people ahead of time that this church is very focused on the neighborhood. He walks everywhere. The members of the church really like the fact that they run into each other on a daily basis. They like seeing each other in coffee shops and bars and stores.

DAVID: Now, you also make it clear that digital technology is a way of life with young adults and congregations ignore that at their peril. Millions of adults want their congregations to connect in ways that make common sense in their lives today. For example, they want an easy-to-find website with the location and the upcoming schedule. The Redeemer church website provides all of that information on its opening web page. However, you also conclude that Twitter or Facebook “campaigns” aren’t going to bring young adults through the doors.

THE DAILY QUESTIONS:
WHERE ARE YOU?‘ AND, ‘WANT TO GO …?

NAOMI: This focus on Twitter and Facebook among some of the people who are advising congregations is a misunderstanding of how young people think about technology. These are just tools—just a means of meeting other people. Most people are using these tools to say things to other people, like: “Hey, I’m at the Starbucks now. Where are you?” Or: “I’m headed to the bar later. How about you?” Or: “Want to go to the park?”

These tools aren’t magic. What we need to look at more closely is the spontaneous way that young adults use these tools to create human interaction. If you’re a congregational leader and you think that young adults will flock to you because of the coolness of your new technology—you’re missing the point.

DAVID: One of the fascinating examples in your book is called CharlotteONE, and the program’s website also makes it clear that these organizers understand what people really want on a website: the upcoming schedule. As we publish this interview “Upcoming Dates” is the top headline item on CharlotteONE’s website. This Charlotte program is an example of a bunch of local congregations all coming together to produce a “local” event aimed at orienting young adults to local houses of worship.

The program’s website boils the conclusions of your book down to a simple line: “CharlotteONE helps 20-to-30-somethings get connected, make a difference, and find their purpose.” At the moment, they explain: “We are a collaborative effort of nearly 50 local churches to provide young professionals with greater opportunities for establishing significant roots in Charlotte.” This is right in line with the central findings of your book.

NAOMI: One of the big obstacles that religious leaders and communities face in attracting young people is: Where do we find the resources? You have people in the pew now and you have an obligation to serve them. So, how much time and money should you spend on bringing in people who are not there–and who aren’t showing much interest about coming?

So, a group of religious leaders got together in Charlotte and found that they all were throwing up their arms in weariness over trying to create their own individual programs for young adults. Together, they came up with the idea: What would happen if we all contributed to this one big flashy gathering for young adults each week? Sometimes it’s a lecture. Sometimes it’s music.

DAVID: Since your book is about attracting young adults to Jewish, Christian and Muslim congregations, we should explain that this particular example is very diverse but the CharlotteONE example is a Christian program. Sponsors include Catholic and mainline and evangelical congregations.

NAOMI: Yes, whatever the program might be in a particular week, this is always a Christian gathering with a Christian theme. But the real focus for the sponsors are these tables they set up representing all of the different churches in the Charlotte area. There are maps to help visitors see the locations. And, as everyone gathers, you’re supposed to walk around and talk to people about what you’re looking for in a church community. Some people might want to find a Catholic church; others might want to find a more evangelical congregation.

Because of its focus, CharlotteONE has an almost 100 percent turnover every few years. It serves as a funnel for young adults to think more about belonging to a church, attending on Sundays and putting down their roots in a local community. One characteristic of the Charlotte area overall is a transitional feel among the young professionals who live and work there. People are moving in, getting new jobs and then, like a lot of young adult life now, people expect to be drifting from job to job, roommate to roommate, friend to friend. CharloteONE is intended to help people put down some roots in the middle of that process.

DAVID: I could see this working in a big, healthy Jewish or Muslim community like the ones in metro-Detroit as well. There might be weekly regional gatherings for young adults co-sponsored by a number of congregations. This could work, of course, with Christian groups just as it does in Charlotte, but I think this is a part of your book that could apply to other faith groups as well.

WHAT DO ‘THEY‘ WANT?
INVITATIONS TO SERVICE

DAVID: Let me ask about another key finding in your report: Congregations nationwide are missing a big opportunity if they don’t reach out to young adults with opportunities for service, either within their own communities or within other needy communities. This is fascinating: You conclude that many young adults today are looking for ways to provide much more significant service—even longer-term sacrificial service. I hope that religious leaders pay close attention to that part of your book.

I know, just from young adults I’ve known in recent years, this certainly is true. They’re not so sure that America has a secure “career path” waiting for them, so they are eager to consider alternative ways to work and provide service. I know a lot of young adults who have considered the Peace Corps, for example. This is very much in line with the big Pew study of “Millennials” that calls this generation: “Confident. Connected. Open to change.” As I read that Pew study, it’s a portrait of a generation open to invitations for service. Your research draws an even more pointed conclusion about this, right?

NAOMI: This is the first generation that has grown up and gone through school with this sense of community service as part of their curriculum. For many people in their 20s, community service actually was a part of their curriculum in high school and college. They don’t need to go the religious route to find opportunities for service, but this possibility of service is an opportunity for religious groups.

DAVID: One amazing point we should stress about your book: You say almost nothing about the religious teachings that should come from houses of worship. You do say a lot about the need for religious leaders to be honest and welcoming and reflective of the diversity in our country. But you really don’t write about theological themes. That’s one reason, I think, that this book can be so successful across faith lines.

NAOMI: That’s right. This book is not about changing your theological outlook. This book is about seeing your church, synagogue or mosque as an institution that needs to figure out how to get the next generation involved. And if you look through the chapters from different religious perspectives, then some things I write about will be more applicable to you than others.

But the most important message here is the importance of face-to-face contact focusing on your neighborhood. Young adults today have one of the lowest rates of car ownership in our history. Young adults want to walk places. Young adults want to know about their neighborhood. Second, young adults need to be treated as adults. Twenty somethings are perfectly capable of being in charge of any number of so-called “adult” issues in your congregation. That’s a point I can’t stress enough. It’s true that these young adults don’t have the traditional markers of adulthood. Many are waiting years to get married. Many may live with their own parents. They may not look like traditional adults to older leaders in religious communities. But they are very capable adults and we need to invite them to lead and to serve.

This really is about talking to young adults and saying: You really are valuable members of our community.

Gayle_Campbell_teaching_kids_in_HondurasCare to read more from …
our own Millennial columnist?

Contributing columnist Gayle Campbell has written several series of OurValues columns about the values that motivate her Millennial generation. If you click here, you’ll find 15 of her columns, grouped into three series, including: “Doing Good,” “5 World-Changing Truths” and “5 Millennial Truths.” In many ways, Gayle’s columns mirror the conclusions drawn in Naomi Schaefer Riley’s new book. If you are planning a small-group discussion of Naomi’s book, you may want to include some of Gayle’s columns, as well, which include discussion questions.

Care to see the idea?

Author and columnist Benjamin Pratt shares a vivid greeting card about building strong relationships that he often sends to young couples.

(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 InterviewsChurch GrowthJewishMuslim

The Charles Marsh interview on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and ‘Strange Glory’

Charles Marsh biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Strange Glory by Knopf front cover

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

From Left to Right and all around the world, Dietrich Bonhoeffer is everybody’s hero. This courageous young pastor stood up to the Nazis in the 1930s, eventually took part in a plot to kill Hitler and finally was hanged in a prison camp before the war ended. Nelson Mandela talked about the inspiration he drew from Bonhoeffer’s example. But Bonhoeffer supporters cross the entire political spectrum. In American right-wing politics, Glenn Beck considers Bonhoeffer such a hero that his online store sells wall-size posters of the bespectacled pastor’s face over Bonhoeffer’s famous lines:

“Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.”

Glenn Beck tells his listeners: “This is a guy you should teach your children about!” And then Beck engages in what commentators from Left and Right like to do when they speak, write or preach about Bonhoeffer: hold him up as a mirror for each side’s approach to courageous defiance of authorities.

Within several years of Bonhoeffer’s death on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39, his books began appearing in English. However, according to Google tracking of trends in American publishing, Bonhoeffer did not become hugely popular in American culture until the mid 1960s. His most widely read book, The Cost of Discipleship, which was first published in 1937 in German, struck a chord 30 years later among young Americans working for change in the turbulent 1960s. In the book, Bonhoeffer tells readers: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.”

When Glenn Beck talks about his hero, Beck scoffs at activists who claim that Bonhoeffer was “a social justice guy.” Beck says: Not so! Beck recommends a different biography of his hero: the 2010 book Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, written by the journalist Eric Mataxas and published the conservative Christian publishing house Thomas Nelson. That book does the best job of emphasizing Bonhoeffer’s evangelical purity, Beck argues.

Today, ReadTheSpirit online magazine recommends Charles Marsh’s new biography, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer published by Knopf. Marsh compellingly tells the story of Bonhoeffer’s deep Christian faith, but he also more clearly describes Bonhoeffer’s life-changing experiences while studying for a year in the U.S. Most crucial to his transformation was his regular attendance at worship in a famous black church in Harlem—and a road trip Bonhoeffer took through the American South around the time of the infamous “Scottsboro Boys” trial.

Once Bonhoeffer returned to Germany after his year in the U.S., Mataxas’s book makes it seem obvious that any Christian leader with a spine would oppose Hitler from the beginning. From the first page of his biography, Mataxas describes Hitler and his “legion of demons” as ushering in an “evilly contorted and frightening” era in Europe. Marsh’s book, in contrast, explains how very difficult it was for religious leaders to understand the extreme danger during Hitler’s rise to power in the early 1930s. In fact, Bonhoeffer comes across as a much more remarkable prophet in Marsh’s book for clearly seeing the danger in the Nazis’ first tentative steps that would lead to the Final Solution.

ReadTheSpirit Editor interviewed Charles Marsh. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH CHARLES MARSH ON
‘STRANGE GLORY’ AND DIETRICH BONHOEFFER

DAVID: Most Americans recognize Bonhoeffer’s name, but most of us don’t know a lot about him. Recently, when I’ve visited various groups, I’ve asked people what they know about him. Usually people say: He defied Hitler and the Nazis killed him. Some of them know that he could have moved away from Germany, but made a conscious decision to stay. In general, people don’t know much more than that. I think lots of our readers will find your book absolutely fascinating.

Charles Marsh University of Virginia author of Dietrich Bonhoeffer biography Strange Grace

Charles Marsh

CHARLES: Well, those details you just mentioned are true. That’s what makes Bonhoeffer’s life so compelling, but it’s also true that the facts of his life create misunderstandings. He was a theologian on a restless journey.

DAVID: In reading about his childhood, I was reminded of other famous religious figures who began life with great privilege—St. Francis, the Buddha and others—but later gave that up to follow their vocations. Your book describes Bonhoeffer’s childhood as living in the lap of luxury and opportunity. His family lived in Berlin’s well-to-do Grunewald district, since the late 1800s an area known for its big homes and elite families.

CHARLES: He was a golden child, raised in privilege and yet, as an adult, very early in the 1930s he was able to see with great clarity and prescience that the appointment of Hitler as chancellor of Germany constituted the emergence of what Bonhoeffer would call the great masquerade of evil.

He was restless in his studies, his travels and his conversations. At one point, his long journey led him to reach out to Gandhi in correspondence to see what Gandhi advised about creating intentional communities for peacemaking.

He was a pacifist, but later he also was part of a conspiracy to kill Hitler as he served as a pastor and theologian to the resistance. He was clear, at that point, that killing the madman was a responsible course of action, his principled pacifism notwithstanding.

Just as you’re describing it, I am fascinated to find so many people interested in Bonhoeffer: evangelicals, liberals, conservatives, believers, nonbelievers, humanists, activists, Jews, Christians and Muslims. They all find inspiration in aspects of Bonhoeffer’s life and work. In this book, what I’ve tried to do is invite readers along on this journey of Bonhoeffer’s life, trying to show how vivid and complex a person he was.

DAVID: Some of the other books on the market portray him as a pure saint from start to finish, almost glowing on every page.

CHARLES: In my book, I wanted to move beyond that kind of hagiography to respectfully probe his character, which had so many complex dimensions.

BONHOEFFER IN NEW YORK AND THE SOUTH

DAVID: My advice to readers is to enjoy the opening chapters about Bonhoeffer’s youth—then, I think most of our readers will really start turning pages in the middle section of this biography. I read your section on Bonhoeffer’s year in America twice. He shows up in New York City to study at Union seminary in 1930 under the great Reinhold Niebuhr, who had just arrived from Detroit two years earlier. Niebuhr was teaching “practical theology,” based on his experiences in the urban crucible that was the city of Detroit. Niebuhr’s church had been in what is today called Detroit’s New Center area.

They collided in New York—Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer. As a hot young German scholar, Bonhoeffer thought Niebuhr was a theological lightweight, compared with the world of German academia.

CHARLES: That’s true. He arrived as a straight arrow academic with no sense at all that America had lessons he might want to learn. Initially, he was quite taken aback by the way theology and ethics were taught at Union Theological Seminary. He once asked Reinhold Niebuhr after one of his lectures, “Is this a seminary or a training center for social activists?”

DAVID: But your book shows that Niebuhr and Union and New York City had a profound impact on Bonhoeffer’s life. Among other things, Bonhoeffer began attending the church led by the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Sr., who boasted the largest Protestant congregation in the U.S. with 10,000 members: the famous Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

He became angry over the infamous Scottsboro case in which a group of young black men were framed on charges of raping white women on a train. Bonhoeffer called it a “terrible miscarriage of justice.” He got back to Germany and summarized what he had seen of white Americans’ treatment of black citizens as so fundamentally unjust that it was “darker than a thousand midnights.” As Bonhoeffer described this evil system, he mentioned American policies on “blood laws, mob rule, sterilizations and land seizures.”

CHARLES: His travels abroad gave him a different sense of his own country’s problems. I also point out that Bonhoeffer met with officials from the American Civil Liberties Union while he was in New York. Remember that the ACLU formed partly over concerns with deportations and abuses heaped on resident aliens in this country. Bonhoeffer wrote to his older brother to say, “We will need an ACLU in Germany.”

When I was reading Bonhoeffer’s papers in the archives, I was amazed at how thick his files were from his year in America and how attentive he was to groups like the ACLU that focused on human rights and social dislocation. Bonhoeffer read news reports on lynching, on homelessness. He looked into the whole constellation of human rights organizations while he was there at Union.

DAVID: He didn’t spend much time in the South, but he did make an epic road trip into Mexico and, as you point out, he did pass through the South on his return to New York. So, in addition to reading news reports about conditions there in New York City, he did see conditions in the South for himself.

CHARLES: Bonhoeffer always had a distrust of authority and his experience in the United States showed him some of the dangers that could arise when authority over minority groups was abused.

BONHOEFFER: THE CLARITY OF HIS VISION

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939 from Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939.

DAVID: This is the point in your book when I couldn’t stop reading. Bonhoeffer goes back to Germany in 1931 and he begins studying under the famous theologian Karl Barth. He’s right back in the center of the world’s most elite theological circle of scholars—people far more concerned about academia than about the real lives of ordinary people.

Then, in early 1933, Hitler is rising in power and places the “Aryan paragraph” into Germany’s civil service laws. Very soon, this limited ban on Jewish employees is extended to schools. By June 1933, it’s extended to ban intermarriage. But, this is two years before the 1935 Nuremberg Laws appear and, suddenly, everybody is seeing these frightening posters about racial purity. Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass, wouldn’t happen until late 1938.

Here’s what I found fascinating: Immediately in early 1933, Bonhoeffer saw the danger and knew how to respond. You document in your book that his great hero, Karl Barth, was willing to simply ignore the Nazis as a bunch of brutes and idiots. But not Bonhoeffer. You argue that his year in America and his passionate faith let him see what was going to happen years before others in Germany could guess at the danger that lay ahead. In the summer of 1933, Bonhoeffer was helping to draft a manifesto, the Bethel Confession, that warned of the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews.

CHARLES: It is true that there were dramatic differences between the two men. Bonhoeffer was part of the original drafting of the Bethel Confession. (It went through several versions and Bonhoeffer had left for England by the time the final version was published.)

DAVID: Your book points out that Barth refused to openly defy Hitler until 1934, a year later, and when Barth did issue his declaration it was all about the rights of the churches to be free of Nazi control. Barth was mainly concerned about confronting Hitler’s God-like status and Hitler’s authority over Germany’s churches. Bonhoeffer’s early work in 1933 made statements about the Christian defense of Jewish communities that the world wouldn’t see again until Vatican II passed Nostra Aetate in 1965. Talk about a visionary prophet!

CHARLES: That’s right and that’s such an interesting part of this story. Everyone who knows about this era wants to celebrate Barth’s declaration in 1934, but in many ways Bonhoeffer’s earlier work on the Bethel Confession was the more important document.

DAVID: I keep asking myself how he was able to see the larger issue—the Christian need to oppose the Nazi’s treatment of the Jews—so much earlier than Barth or other leaders.

CHARLES: Remember that Bonhoeffer had grown up in this upper-middle-class neighborhood in Berlin that was also populated with Jewish families. His family socialized with prominent Jewish families, so this awareness was part of his upbringing.

Later, after several versions of the Bethel Confession had been revised already and Bonhoeffer was no longer in Germany, the final draft was worked on by two theologians who would become pillars of the Nazi church. They deleted references to the significance of the “Aryan paragraph.”

But you are right in mentioning Nostra Aetate. Bonhoeffer in 1933 was wanting the statement to clearly say that Jesus, who Christians follow, was a Jew. And he wanted to point out all that should follow from that.

DAVID: As I read that section, I thought: The world wouldn’t see this kind of affirmation for another 30 years and, in between, Hitler would carry out the Final Solution. So tragic that other Christian leaders didn’t listen to Bonhoeffer in 1933.

BONHOEFFER: FROM FAITH TO ACTION

Martyrs honored at Westminster Abbey Dr Martin Luther King Oscar Romero Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Martyrs honored at Westminster Abbey in London include (from left) Martin Luther King Jr., Oscar Romero and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

CHARLES: Ultimately, just as you have been describing this, I hope that readers will find this book a compelling narrative of an amazing life. I hope that I can bring readers into this beautiful and yet heartbreaking world—Bonhoeffer’s world. And, I hope that readers will come away with a different way of understanding the life of faith among those we consider our saints today.

I hope that Bonhoeffer emerges not just as a hero from another century, but as a Christian for our time, as well. The power of his life crosses so many boundaries, bridges so many divides and illuminates so many conflicts and passions—that I believe his life story becomes an extraordinary gift to us today.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by point out that this kind of connection between faith and action is an ongoing part of your professional life at the University of Viriginia. You are part of the Lived Theology project. You’re also part of the really remarkable archive called the Civil Rights Digital Archive, which contains lots of stories about largely unknown figures in the American civil rights era, including links to original documents.

CHARLES: The Project on Lived Theology began as a way to put bricks and mortar on Bonhoeffer’s own response to what he found in America in 1930 and 1931. These were his concerns. When he arrived at Union seminary, Bonhoeffer was shocked to see his professors leading student out of the classroom to take part in lived theology in the throes of the Great Depression. He was amazed to hear students asking: What are faith’s social obligations? And, how can we use our skills as pastors and theologians to make a difference and to relieve human suffering?

Later, Bonhoeffer said that these experiences helped him to turn from the “phraseological to the real.” What was poignant about Bonhoeffer’s return to Berlin is that he tried to find space at the university for this kind of transformative approach to theology and he was not able to do that for many reasons. That’s the vision of our Project on Lived Theology. It’s to create spaces within a major research university where scholars and theologians can work alongside each other and can turn the phraseological into the real.

ALSO NEW TODAY—Award-winning journalist William Tammeus writes a personal column about why he dedicated the time to report a book about Holocaust rescuers in Poland. Tammeus and his Jewish co-author are traveling to spread awareness of their book, as well.

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

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