Remembering the Armenian Genocide, despite turmoil in Hollywood

Armenian-Genocide-Memorial Rodney Curtis

Visitors at the Armenian Genocide Memorial complex at Tsitsernakaberd in Yerevan. Photo by Rita Willaert, Belgium


ReadTheSpirit Editor

How tragic to find the Armenian Genocide playing out in the Arts & Entertainment sections of American newspapers and magazines, this week!

Touching off the dispute are Turkish nationalists who are so upset about the new movie The Promise, debuting in theaters this week, that they have released a competing feature film that denies the larger Turkish culpability in the Armenian Genocide. What’s more, Turkish media activists have tried to sabotage release of The Promise by, among other things, dive bombing the movie’s IMDB page with thousands of low ratings.

Movie still from The Promise with Christian Bale

Christian Bale in The Promise

If you’re just discovering this news story, here is a helpful New York Times overview of the dispute and the dueling feature films, headlined: Battle Over 2 Films Reflects Turkey’s Quest to Control a Bitter History. You also might have heard about this dispute, over the past week, on National Public Radio or in a regional newspaper near you.

Ironically, film critics themselves have been tough on The Promise. Movie critics are not chiding The Promise for its portrayal of the Armenian Genocide itself; rather, they are criticizing the addition of a melodramatic love story. Care to read a couple of those critics’ reviews? Here is the NYTimes review of the film; and here is the Rolling Stone review.

This week, if you care about international human rights issues, you may want to invest in buying a ticket to see The Promise—if you can find it showing at a theater near your home. That’s the movie that tells the more accurate story of the genocide, so presumably a ticket to the film will add support to that more truthful effort. But this column is not intended as a movie review.


Here at ReadTheSpirit, we pride ourselves in following the best of journalistic practices: accuracy, fairness and balance. Our colleagues courageously report on a host of thorny issues concerning racial, ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. And, every year, we publish fresh stories highlighting the need to remember the dangers of genocide and other threats to human rights.

This week, our Holidays & Festivals columnist Stephanie Fenton is covering the annual observance of Yom Hashoah, which continues until sundown on April 24, 2017.  April 24 also is marked, each year, as Armenian Genocide Remembrance Day by the Armenian diaspora around the world. Here at ReadTheSpirit, we have been actively covering centennial milestones, including the genocide, that are part of observances recalling the World War I era. One of the most moving pieces we’ve published on the centennial of the genocide is Rodney Curtis’s short memoir about visiting the memorial complex at Yerevan.

(Note to readers who are new to this subject: If you want to learn more about the history of this genocide, right now, Wikipedia has a fairly detailed and balanced account.)

From a journalistic perspective, Turkish-nationalist activists cannot be allowed to erase this chapter of history. And, even as we say that, let’s be clear: The world is long past trying to heap guilt for the Holocaust/Shoah in the 1930s and 1940s on the collective shoulders of the millions of Germans and German-Americans living today. The Armenian Genocide took place even earlier. Turkish citizens and Turkish-Americans should realize that this is not a question of heaping guilt for those crimes 102 years ago on the collective Turkish population today.


The world must remember. That’s the bottom line and the point of this column is to offer our readers links and resources to dig into this subject—and share accurate information with friends and colleagues. That’s the least we can do in this week’s issue of ReadTheSpirit, which coincides with both genocide memorial days. We must remember.

The Promise is a flawed film, no question, but we recommend it as a milestone in moviemaking. Unlike the Shoah, few feature films have tried to grapple with the Armenian Genocide. Another option is the 2002 Atom Egoyan movie, Ararat. Like The Promise, Egoyan’s film received mixed reviews. One complaint about Arrarat is that the multi-layered narrative, which amounts to a movie within a movie, was difficult to follow.

The Burning Tigris cover by Peter Balakian (1)

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

In my office at ReadTheSpirit, I have two books on my shelf about the genocide. One is the 2002 HarperCollins history of the genocide and its legacy by Peter Balakian, The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response. This book, in particular, has an entire chapter on what happened on April 24, 1915, when Turks wiped out a cross section of Armenia’s civic and cultural leaders in an attempt to cripple further resistance. If you appreciate Balakian’s first volume, then you may also want to order his 2009 follow-up book, Black Dog of Fate.

The other book I keep handy is a University of Virginia Press book by the late historian Merrill D. Peterson, called Starving ArmeniansDuring his lifetime, I interviewed Peterson on a number of occasions, mainly anniversaries of key events in American history. He was an expert on Thomas Jefferson, the Civil War era and, perhaps most importantly, he studied how Americans thought about history over time. His book, like Balakian’s Tigris, opens a window on the Armenian Genocide from the perspective of people around the world, learning about these events and trying to respond.

Want something more substantial? First, you should know that Balakian’s Tigris is well documented and his 393 pages of text are followed by 60 pages of end notes and bibliography for further reading. But, in 2017, two other major histories are widely praised, both from university presses and weighing in at more than 500 pages. Taner Akcam’s 2012 The Young Turks’ Crimes Against Humanity was strengthened by the author’s access to Ottoman Empire archives. Ronald Grigor Suny’s They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else is part of the Princeton University Press’s important series of books called Human Rights and Crimes against HumanityOther volumes in the series range from the Stalin era to contemporary conflicts.

As recently as Sunday, April 23, 2017, The New York Times reported on Akcam’s ongoing, worldwide search of archives, calling him “The Sherlock Holmes of Armenian Genocide.”

This week, the team here at ReadTheSpirit urges you to explore these resources, learn and share these stories.

We must remember.





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Maggie Rowe, Sin Bravely and Hollywood’s new compassion for evangelicals

Cover of Sin Bravely by Maggie Rowe (1)

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

ReadTheSpirit Editor

Hollywood’s century-old love-hate relationship with evangelicals is swinging in the direction of compassionate humor, these days. That’s thanks to the kind hearts and keen talents of writers like Pete Holmes and, debuting in book form this spring, Maggie Rowe.

If you’ve somehow missed the recent coast-to-coast coverage of Pete Holmes’ hit HBO series Crashingthen here’s the gist of it: Real-life stand-up comic Pete Holmes collaborated with Judd Apatow to create a TV series about the struggles of a comic trying to survive in the competitive world of comedy clubs. But, as it turns out, the biggest theme highlighted in media coverage of Crashing (including the New York Times and National Public Radio) is that Holmes also is trying to maintain a loving relationship with his evangelical Christian family. So far, the real Holmes and the series’ main character, a fictionalized version of Holmes, are expressing equal amounts of good, friendly humor toward the evangelical community.

The same can be said of Maggie Rowe, who more than likely will show up on your TV screen in the next year or so with a series based on her new memoir, Sin Bravely: A Memoir of Spiritual DisobedienceThis week, ReadTheSpirit is urging readers to discover this remarkable writer, right now. Then, you’ll be way ahead of the trend when her story continues to flower on TV. Already, her memoir has enthusiastic endorsements from:

  • Mitch Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development (“This book is so honest, so chock full of struggle and philosophical profundity—and ultimately so heartbreakingly funny …”)
  • Peter Baynham, co-writer of Borat (“Maggie Rowe’s writing is a rare thing: brilliant, intelligent, hilarious, thoughtful, and, most importantly, utterly believable.”)
  • And, Jill Soloway, creator of Tranparent (“A beautifully written, deeply funny memoir.”)

Consider those blurbs part of the process of translating this real-life story into a hit TV series. Maggie Rowe confirms that she’s actively pursuing that idea. She understands the process, because she already is working as a Hollywood insider. She’s the only woman on the writing staff of the current version of Arrested Development.


Maggie Rowe author of Sin Bravely

Maggie Rowe, author of Sin Bravely

Sin Bravely tells the true story of a debilitating crisis sparked by Maggie’s upbringing in a devoutly evangelical family. From an early age, Maggie became obsessed with threats of Hell and damnation to the point that, while attending college, she could no longer function without outside help. Ultimately, she decided to check herself into a Christian treatment facility and this memoir mainly focuses on what happens, as a result. We won’t spoil the final scenes of this memoir by describing them—but part of her recovery involves, as the title says, sinning bravely.

In an interview, I told Maggie: “Given the way Hollywood sometimes portrays religious zealots on TV and in the movies, this memoir is remarkable for its kind comedy.”

“I love that phrase,” she said, in response. “I have never used that phrase to describe it, but I think your description is a great complement.”

In response, I added: “As you read the story about your quirky fellow in-mates in the treatment program and the well-meaning if off-base staff, it’s obvious that you could have really skewered these people. They’re easy marks for comedy. But that’s not what we find in these chapters. You really do have a kind heart for these folks.”

“Absolutely! Absolutely!” she said.

“Even Bethanie, who could have been cast as the Nurse Ratched in your story, clearly is someone you regard with compassion in retrospect, right?”

“Yes,” she said. “Bethanie was not trying to harm anyone. She was doing the best she could. And I should explain: I was in an evangelical psychiatric recovery facility. The place was designed for Christians with psychological difficulties who wanted both Bible-based work on spirituality and also psychiatrists on staff who could prescribe medicine. One important detail here is: Everyone in the facility was there voluntarily, so that’s a big difference if people are thinking that I was locked up in some kind of Cuckoo’s Nest. We all chose to be there. That’s a key difference.

“Then, within that circle of people you’ll meet in the book—yes, there are some really troubled individuals and I tell their stories along with my own. I think the main thing to consider in reading my book is: Hey, life is hard for all of us. And, we’re all trying to do the best we can.”

That’s the compassionate tone Maggie says she plans to maintain as she develops this memoir into a TV series.


The idea of savvy, successful young writers turning a kind eye toward staunch evangelicals—as Pete Holmes has done and Maggie Rowe hopes to do—is a remarkable turn in Hollywood culture. Even 100 years ago, movie directors felt besieged by Fundamentalists and were eager to turn the tables. The Library of Congress marks Hells Hinges (1916) as a cultural landmark in silent cinema. The early Western epic stars William S. Hart as a heroic cowboy, squaring off against a demented clergyman who is so evil that he winds up helping to burn down his own church.

Over the subsequent century, religious movies tended to veer from sentimental spirituality (including the swords-and-sandals epics of the 1960s) to vicious send-ups of religion (such as Kevin Smith’s biting satire Dogma). Over the past decade, the rise of a so-called “Christian film industry” has produced dozens of formulaic evangelical movies, most of which are dismissed or ignored by serious film critics. The basic problem with “religious movies” is simply: With some notable exceptions, few filmmakers manage to portray real religious experiences in honest, heart-felt ways.

Overall, Christian themes have fared better in TV series, including shows on cable channels like Hallmark. Now in its fourth season, When Calls the Heart is a popular romantic drama set a century ago in western Canada and regularly features characters kneeling in prayer and talking about their faith.

What’s new, right now, is the sharp-edged talent of Hollywood heavyweights like Judd Appatow or writers, like Maggie, whose credits include co-writing on the hit series Arrested Development. They’re willing to risk their reputations by exploring religion in a balanced way. In one episode of the series Crashing, for example, Appatow and Holmes put some of the smartest, wisest lines in the mouths of the main character’s evangelical parents. That’s part of the pleasant surprise in Crashing—the evangelicals aren’t cast as the butt of every joke. There clearly is potential for a new genre of sophisticated comedy that isn’t afraid to love the evangelicals that other comics, like Kevin Smith, regarded as merely fodder for a good roasting.


Maggie’s memoir is a “spiritual page turner.” You’re likely to find yourself smiling and wanting to keep reading scene after scene. And that’s an exceptional complement for a “religious book.” How did she achieve that style? Well, she had some help.

In addition to writing for Arrested Development, Maggie coordinates Sit n Spin, a regular gathering in Hollywood in which a lineup of writers perform their own work. “Sit n Spin has been going on for 14 years now. Each night, it’s five people reading from their work, generally comedic essays about their lives. In choosing people to read, I look for stories that are deeply personal.”

Maggie performed drafts of several key chapters for her new book at Sit n Spin and then continued revising the texts based on audience responses.

“It’s a great way to develop material,” she said. “You get up in front of the audience and you get immediate feedback—responses you couldn’t get if you were writing alone in your room. And the reactions I got? Very positive. The audience really responds to honesty. People can tell right away when you’re exaggerating. So, this helped me to stay very true to what happened. The humor in the book comes from the honesty and I think that’s what you’re responding to when you call this compassionate.”


So, who should play Maggie in the TV version?

“Well, I’m already pitching the TV version of this, so that’s a good question. Who should play me? Let me think,” Maggie said. “Well, I love Chloe Sevigny‘s work and I also love Brie Larson. But, for this, I probably would try to get Taylor Schilling or Shailene Woodley. I like Woodley in that movie, The Spectacular Now. She’d be wonderful in this TV series.”

Expanding the new book into an entire series would require exploring many tangents from the basic story in the new book. “I might start the TV series with the first day at the facility, but then the story would flash to my life at different ages. We’d expand on the other characters, too, and learn more about them than you’ll find in the book. I’m a fan of Crashing and I would want my series to do the same thing—treat the characters with sympathy. These are people you’ll like and you’ll care about as you find out more about their lives.”

Meanwhile, Maggie already is writing the next volume in her memoir. And, for those left hanging after the last page in this first book, I asked: “So, let’s not leave our readers in suspense when it comes to your attitude about religion. You learned, at an early age, that a lot of evangelical preaching—like Hellfire and brimstone—can be downright dangerous. But, you didn’t come away from these experiences as an enemy of religion, did you?”

“No, I didn’t come away with a screw-you attitude toward faith. Not at all,” she said. “Over the years, I did change from my earlier beliefs that everything in the Bible is literally true. Now, I see the Bible as containing figurative language, poetry and lots of pointers to the truth, but it’s not a book to be read literally in the way I experienced it as a child. Today, I like to follow people like Rob Bell and Peter Rollins. I also like to read mystics—Christian and Buddhist and Hindu mystics. I’d say I’m a spiritual person with ties to a Christian faith.”

What’s more, “I’ve learned to live with my anxieties. It helps that I now know I was wrestling with a kind of OCD that led to my excessive anxiety. My form of OCD sometimes is described as ‘existential obsession’ and I still have a tendency to struggle with some of those questions from time to time. But I think I’ve come away from these experiences with a healthy spirituality, today, and I hope that people who hear my story will find some reassurance that they can find that balance, too.”






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PBS’s ‘The Great War’ marks the centennial of America entering World War I

PBS The Great War about World War I (1)By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Whatever else you do this week, watch or record the moving, thought-provoking PBS series The Great War! Since it totals six hours, broadcast over three evenings, you may want to record the documentary to watch at your own pace. Or, look for other viewing options on the PBS network website. Or, consider ordering it on DVD from Amazon.

Our readers with a global perspective may wonder why PBS is suddenly marking this centennial, which most news media around the world began marking in 2014. The answer lies in the over-arching theme of this sprawling film: PBS is examining the war from an American perspective and the U.S. did not join the conflict until April 6, 1917. This month, then, is “our” centennial as Americans.

In fact, that American point of view opens up some very thought-provoking—and timely—reflections on our American attitudes toward racial, ethnic and gender diversity. As we learn in Part 1 of the three-part series, when the war broke out in 1914, one third of “Americans” had been born in some other country. We were truly a nation of immigrants and the early years of the European war sorely tested the strength of what we then called our Melting Pot.

The first night of the series explains how Americans slowly turned against Germany in this conflict. Beyond German attacks on American ships, including the infamous sinking of the ocean liner The Lusitania, we learn that Americans were horrified when Germany introduced poison gas along the Western Front in France. Thinking about the public response to that first attack is as timely as headlines out of Syria in recent days.

However you respond to Part 1—and particularly if find it merely a refresher course on events you already know by heart—make sure you don’t miss Part 2. That’s when the film opens up to examine deeper issues of diversity. Many influential Americans who came to support the U.S. entry into the conflict did so because they felt an expanded U.S. Army would finish the job of the Melting Pot. A popular phrase in that era was that serving together in the war would “yank the hyphen out of these immigrants.” Americans would no longer be Polish-Americans or Italian-Americans or Irish-Americans. Through the crucible of warfare, veterans would return home as simply “Americans.”

Whatever you think about that idea—the fact is that President Wilson and most other American leaders had a tragically near-sighted view of whose civil rights they were trying to promote. Wilson was a Southerner and outspoken racist who personally ensured that Jim Crow rules were instituted in Washington D.C. He also tried to fight women campaigning for a universal right to vote with police powers and imprisonment. The second part of this documentary extensively explores those conflicts that reshaped our own 20th Century history as much as the bloody battles in French trenches.

Why were did “we” join the war in 1917? Wilson declared that it was so the world could “be made safe for democracy.”

Given the oppression and violence against minorities on the homefront, one of the rallying cries in civil rights protests became: “Mr. President, why not make America safe for democracy?”

And that question is as urgent today as it was a century ago.

Care to read more?

Cover Philip Jenkins The Great and Holy War on World War IReadTheSpirit has been covering the centennial of the First World War since the anniversary of the conflict’s outbreak in the summer of 1914. Among our many previous columns, here are several of the most popular with readers:

‘Green Fields of France’Peacemaker and author Daniel Buttry posted this series of reflections and videos on some of the haunting music connected with WWI.

Pope FrancisThe pontiff marked the centennial in 1914 with pointed remarks about the danger and the legacy of war. We published an excerpt.

‘The Great and Holy War’We still believe that the most important book on the World War I centennial is by Philip Jenkins. His book describes the underlying religious movements that fueled the war and its aftermath. Three years after publication, Jenkins’ book remains unique—and vitally important to anyone who cares about religious influences in our world.


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Vivid video reminders that ‘Media’ are not ‘enemies of the people’

The Man of Aran (1)

Filmmaker Robert Flaherty made the “Man of Aran” (center) one of the world’s most famous fishermen. But, in the process, Flaherty nearly killed the man by producing a dangerous scene in a small boat in the midst of a real storm.

ReadTheSpirit Editor

As supporters of American news media face the fury of a president who seems determined to demonize journalists, several vivid reminders of courageous media professionals are popping up for home viewing, this spring. If you care about this issue—then these are ideal, thought-provoking films for individual viewing and small-group discussion.

The three we are recommending, this week, are:

What these films show us—along with the dozens of breathtaking movie clips included within them—are that the struggles over truth and manipulation in non-fiction media are at least a century old. These films also demonstrate the enormous power of American media—in particular American movies (whether shown in theaters or broadcast via other means)—to shape opinions worldwide.

Of course, the current U.S. president is not so discriminating in his tirades against “The Media.” He lumps together his attacks on Hollywood professionals along with network-TV reporters, staffers at major news magazines, newspaper writers and journalists in other formats. The president is non-discriminating in his fury. He slams anyone who dares to question his own actions and statements.

The three documentaries we are recommending here explore three different and equally important eras in Hollywood’s love-hate relationship with telling the truth.


Filmmakers have been trying to capture “real life” since Eadweard Muybridge began making experimental “moving photos” of humans and animals in the 1880s. By the 1890s, Thomas Edison was capturing film clips inside a studio and, in 1895, the Lumiere brothers stunned the world by moving their cameras outside. One of the landmarks of early cinema was a short Lumiere movie of a locomotive arriving at a station, which caused some viewers to leap out of their seats before they were hit by the looming train!

Very quickly, however, moviemakers began focusing on popular entertainers, especially Vaudevillians, comedians and actors from the stage. It wasn’t until the 1920s that major figures in the film world began to establish a separate genre of movies called “documentaries.” In fact, the term was coined by an influential film critic in Scotland, John Grierson, who used it to describe the work of an American: Robert Flaherty.

Icarus Films’ Boatload of Wild Irishmen makes it clear why this era is far more than a tidbit of historical trivia. When pioneering moviemakers like Flaherty began circling the planet, trying to capture footage of remote native communities, they had no ethical rules to follow. Along the way, they felt free to dramatically change the communities they filmed. The “boat” in the title refers to an infamous scene in which Flaherty convinced three men to launch their tiny boat in the middle of a storm, nearly killing the men in the process.

What is fascinating in Boatload is the way descendants of the original native communities, a century later, tend to describe these early movies with great nostalgia and pride. While later critics savaged directors like Flaherty for endangering people and sometimes faking their scenes of “real life,” the descendants point out that no one else ever showed up to document their lives. These early movies now are treasures of their past.

In one South Pacific village, a descendant of men and women filmed by Flaherty tells us that, despite the flaws pointed out by later critics, “We can still see our fathers and grandfathers when they were young. … That’s why the film is so important to us.” No one else in Hollywood—or most of the U.S.—showed any interest in the challenges of island life.

Says another descendant of Flaherty’s feature: “This film is our film. It belongs to this village!”

Sometimes, it seems, factual flaws are not fatal—if the essential, human message is authentically captured. There ethical issues involved are far more nuanced than most viewers realize.


DVD cover of To Tell the Truth an Icarus film about documentaries

Click on the cover to visit the Amazon page.

If you’re serious about exploring these crucial ethical issues—and especially if you plan to organize a small-group discussion—then you’ll also want to get Icarus’s set of two, hour-long segments grouped under the title To Tell the Truth.

The first hour covers the courageous young filmmakers who put themselves in harm’s way during the 1920s and the Great Depression to capture footage of demonstrations, marches and even brutal police crackdowns on protest. All of those dramatic, historical movie clips you’ve glimpsed over the years, perhaps when viewing TV shows about this era, involved some brave soul wading into dangerous situations with bulky cameras.

The second hour covers aspects of filmmaking during World War II that are curiously absent from the final series we are recommending, streamed by NETFLIX.

That new streaming series, called Five Came Home, is a big-budget, three-hour look at five famous Hollywood directors caught up in World War II. But watching NETFLIX, it’s easy to think that they were the only film crews producing movies throughout the war. Of course, that wasn’t true—as the Icarus documentary points out.

In fact, as the three-hour series unfolds, we learn that the five Hollywood directors who went to war were tragically ill prepared to capture the kind of truthful films they dreamed of producing.


William Wyler's The Memphis Belle

Director William Wyler finally risked his own life to create a documentary, The Memphis Belle, about the real experiences of an American bomber crew during World War II.

Five Came Home certainly is dazzling, featuring amazing still photos and historical film clips gathered for this production! If you care about WWII history, or classic film, you’ll be pointing at the screen repeatedly as famous people and events flash past.

It’s easy to forget the underlying lesson here: The relationship between truth and media is always complicated and often flawed.

Ironically, the new U.S. President’s chief Hollywood critic, Meryl Streep, is the main narrator for Five Came Home. What we learn from her narration is that all five directors, including John Huston and Frank Capra, were fully committed to filming truthful stories that would help defeat the Axis powers and end the war. But, before each director was able to achieve anything close to that goal, each man wound up bumbling and stumbling over a host of obstacles.

The only conclusion one can draw from the lives—and the legacies—of these Hollywood directors is that they cared so deeply about truth that they paid dire costs to portray it on screen.

Some injuries were physical. John Ford was shot in the leg. William Wyler lost nearly all of his hearing. Their three movie-making colleagues suffered other kinds of wounds. John Huston poured himself into directing Let There Be Light, the first honest look at post-traumatic stress among WWII veterans—only to find the movie seized by the U.S. Army as dangerously un-American and suppressed for several decades. George Stevens’ film footage of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp was used to help convict the Nazis on trial at Nuremberg. But, Stevens’ intense immersion in documenting the Holocaust left him traumatized.

Overall, this is an inspiring story for those of us who admire media professionals. Despite their early mistakes and, in some cases, errors sparked by their own ambitions—truth won out in the work of all five directors.

That’s why we are recommending all three sets of documentaries, this week. Each presents a different perspective on the enormous challenge media professionals face in trying to portray the truth. We are journalists ourselves, here at ReadTheSpirit, and we encourage you to enjoy as many of these offerings as you can.

This ongoing conflict between truth and the real-world demands of mass media is an ongoing struggle. We all need to understand the risks and costs involved.

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PW Magazine on Blue Ocean: ‘Jesus is still a fascinating figure’

Publishers Weekly PW magazine March 27 2017 with story on Blue Ocean 05 closeupPublishers Weekly magazine’s Senior Religion Editor Lynn Garrett reports this week on important new books that reflect the transformation of traditional religious boundaries nationwide. Like Garrett, we’ve also been covering this important news story for a number of years at ReadTheSpirit.

We are pleased that Garrett highlighted the newly released Blue Ocean Faith: The Vibrant Connection to Jesus that Opens Up Insanely Great Possibilities in a Secularizing World—And Might Kick Off a New Jesus Movement by Dave Schmelzer.

Garrett is a long-time expert on trends in American religion—and publishing. She opens her 5-page story by summarizing the latest data on “Nones.” (As we explained in our own cover story last week with Diana Butler Bass, that’s the label for the nearly 1 in 4 Americans who tell pollsters “None” when asked to give their religious affiliation.)

Garrett writes that millions of these Nones have abandoned traditional religions and now “seek to replace what those faiths provided—guidance, encouragement, comforting rituals and sacraments, even community.” Then, Garrett asks: Where are these men and women seeking? One place is books!

As she describes this new spiritual frontier, she starts with a wide range of physical-spiritual resources from mindfulness and yoga to disciplines that can control addiction. The link between recovery and spirituality has been an all-American connection since at least the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 and, today, publishers continue to offer new books on regaining mind-body-spirit balance.

Garrett also points to the long tradition of writing, storytelling and personal memoir as a source of spiritual renewal. (Stay tuned if you love this genre! In April, ReadTheSpirit will be recommending Barbara Mahany’s newest collection of “small moments,” called Motherprayer: Lessons in Loving.)

Publishers Weekly PW magazine March 27 2017 with story on Blue Ocean 01 (1)

Click this March 27 2017 PW cover to read Lynn Garrett’s entire article. 

Garrett covers Blue Ocean in the second half of her report in which she looks at various ways that Christian communities are trying to break down the barriers that have scattered so many of the Nones. She concludes:

“Despite disillusionment with Christianity as an establishment, Jesus is still a fascinating and mysterious figure for many.”

Care to read more?

Find out about Blue Ocean!




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Cover Story: Diana Butler Bass asks, ‘What if we’ve got the story wrong?’

Diana Butler Bass at Ann Arbor First United Methodist Church 2017 03 25 (1)

Scholar Diana Butler Bass talks about the crumbling of hierarchical structures with an image of the Tower of Babel on a screen behind her. She spent three days in Ann Arbor teaching at the First United Methodist Church.

ReadTheSpirit Editor

“What if we’ve been getting the story wrong?”

That’s the most provocative question historian, author and educator Diana Butler Bass asked a crowd at the First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, across the street from the University of Michigan’s main campus.

What is the “story”? In the middle of a day-long series of talks on a rainy Saturday, Bass tackled the nationwide news story about millions of Americans who are abandoning their traditional religious identifications. Now, according to Pew research, nearly 1 in 4 Americans respond with the option, “None,” when asked by pollsters to give their religious affiliation.

“A lot has been written about the rise of the Nones. But, what if we’re living in an age of mystics—and not really Nones? What if we’ve been getting that story wrong?” Bass asked the crowd of men and women, drawn mainly from southeast Michigan but including visitors from other parts of the Midwest as well.

This was part of a special weekend appearance by the popular Christian author and scholar at the university church. Mainly, she talked about themes raised in her book, Grounded, which just debuted in paperback. Her central argument in this weekend of teaching was, as her book suggests: There is a historic spiritual movement unfolding at the grassroots—among everyday lay people—that is “grounding” Christianity in a new way.


Hierarchical religious structures—or “vertical churches,” as Bass likes to describe them—are crumbling and new religious networks and movements of spirit are growing, she says in her book and talks. To illustrate her arguments, Bass often demonstrates old hierarchies by holding one arm straight up—or sometimes she forms a two-armed pyramid in the air. In contrast, she sweeps her hands horizontally from side to side to illustrate the new grassroots or “grounded” movement of spirit.

One image she projected on a big screen showed someone paddling across a beautiful lake. The caption read: “Religion is a person sitting in church thinking about kayaking. Spirituality is a person sitting in a kayak, thinking about God.”

Anyone who cares about the religious life of our communities should be grappling with these dramatic shifts in perspective, Bass said. “It’s about learning to make new connections and to be aware of things we weren’t previously aware of.”

The alternative, she warned, is a scramble to rebuild traditional hierarchical structures. “This is a time of great turbulence, anxiety and dislocation,” she said. Many people react out of fear during such a transformation, Bass said.

“So many people are feeling like they’re dislocated and even deeply abandoned. They wonder: Where is God?” she said. “People can start acting insane when they feel abandoned. They don’t know what to do. So they go about trying to rebuild structures they once depended on.”


Diana Butler Bass cover of Grounded Finding God in the World

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

A healthier alternative to fearful retrenchment is welcoming the rise of the spiritual insights that millions of Americans seem willing to share with each other, these days, Bass said. She cited Pew research on the growing number of men and women who say they have weekly experiences of awe about the world around them—signs of a spiritual movement in the general population.

In a 2016 report, Pew summarized the trend this way: “There has been an increase of 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 in the share who say they feel a deep sense of wonder about the universe at least weekly (from 38% to 45%). And there has been a similar rise in the share of religious Nones who say the same (from 39% to 47%).”

“We are all mystic,” Bass said, spreading her arms wide as if to embrace the crowd and the world beyond the walls of the church in which she was speaking. “We all have a capacity to see. Seeing is part of being a mystic. … People often talk about this as mindfulness. We all have a capacity for mindfulness.”

A sure sign that this movement is taking root in our culture is that religious scholars, writers and teachers are no longer alone in talking about mindfulness and spirituality in everyday life, Bass said. “This idea now is showing up more and more across our culture. This is showing up in psychological language. It’s showing up in business language.”

This new language signals “a truly new theological territory … in which our deepest spiritual connections revolve around our relationships with other people and the natural world.”


“The strongest millennial language is about friendship,” Bass said. “If you ask a millennial about an important ethical question, a millennial eventually will say to you something like, ‘I am in favor of—because my friend Sue—’ One of the primary ways of organizing their ethical universe is around friends.”

So, as research by Pew and other groups has shown in recent years, huge numbers of millennials aren’t interested in traditional churches because they perceive them as mean to their friends—especially gay friends and those in other vulnerable minority groups. Pew reports that nearly half of millennials now say that churches do not have a positive impact on the country. That’s a significant change. As recently as 2010, 73 percent of millennials saw churches as generally positive.

Bass challenged people who care about their congregations to begin thinking about the question: “What is the theology of friendship?” There is a treasure trove of religious associations with friendship, she pointed out, including the strong evangelical and Pentecostal notion that Jesus can become a friend.


Ultimately, Bass said, these emerging experiences and terms for spirituality center on one question: “Where is God? That’s one of the most consequential questions of our time. … When people ask me theological questions, I find the most common questions are about God’s location.” For example, someone might describe a personal challenge, tragedy or global conflict and wonder: Where is God in this situation?

These aren’t abstract questions we can ignore, Bass argued. “Our conception of God—the way we conceive of God—shapes the whole character of our lives and ultimately our culture.”

As she does in her book Grounded, Bass devoted one portion of her talks to describing concentric circles that connect us with family, friends, neighbors—and eventually with men and women around the world. As the circles move outward, that awareness of global unity becomes a sense of a global “commons,” she says in her book and her talks.

God is not a captive of vertical religious structures, Bass said on Saturday. God isn’t limited to the sky or the upper reaches of traditional church steeples. God is among us in the commons—wherever people live their everyday lives.

In the age of smart-phone connections to the worldwide Web and social media that circles the planet instantly, this idea of a real global commons is no longer wistful thinking, Bass argued. “We’ve actually built this structure around the world. We can see the physical pattern of our individual nodes connecting all of us through the worldwide Web, the Internet. This is a natural architecture of community to my college-age daughter.”

The historic shift, she concluded, is “from a distant God at the peak of a vertical universe, high above us, toward an intimate God hovering with us and around us.”

In our chaotic culture, today, she warned: “There are a lot of people still hankering for the old verticality. They want to rebuild those old vertical structures.”

“But I think our faith should call us to a place where we really feel our feet on the ground,” she concluded, moving her hands toward the horizon. “We are called to realize that God is with all of us—here—and now.”

Care to read more?

Here is our 2016 interview with Diana Butler Bass on her book Grounded.


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Losses: Aging isn’t easy! Where do you find delight?

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words
And never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson


Benjamin Pratt little red truckBy BENJAMIN PRATT

I lost my truck the other day.

That’s the little red truck I’d had for 13 years for hauling wood, lumber, mulch, compost, rugs, neighbors’ old furniture, dirt—yes, just plain ol’ dirt.

That little red truck was part of me—my outdoorsy, garden-growing, firewood-collecting, mulch-spreading me. It was a part of me so basic that I ache with a sense of loss.

Ok, I didn’t really lose it; I sold it, but to me it was another loss. We don’t need two vehicles now and especially not a truck. No gardens, no fire places, no wood shop any more.

I’ve also lost my wheelbarrow, which had been my constant outdoor companion for 35 years. I’ve lost all those things. Some people will tell you I’m a bit crazy letting this stuff get to me. It’s like losing my favorite ol’ shirt or hat that’s weathered life with me—that gave me a good sense of my identity and vitality. Like an ol’ shirt or hat, that little red truck carried smells, aromas, memories of life’s little joys.

This aging thing is not easy. Every time I turn around, time—with a little help from friends—grabs something else. Something precious—at least something precious to me. Stability of walking. Strength. House. Vision. Hearing. Even the grocery store on the corner is gone!

One very deep sense of loss is the feeling that our country, one which I had hoped and believed we were improving, feels like it has taken major steps backward. There is a new wave of disrespect, of objectifying persons by race, class, sexual orientation or religion. I was never so naive as to believe we had dispelled racism, but it has raised its ugly head again and is looking all of us in the eye. I marched for civil rights in the ’60s. I was the founding pastor of a church that was 25% integrated when I left it in the hands if two pastors. It gives me hope that it is now even more integrated with skin color of every hue.

Everyday, I continue to resist losing the things I cannot do without—gratitude, hope, a sense of purpose—those simple things that give me a reason to get up in the morning and for which I give thanks at the end of the day.

One simple act that gives me hope is learning the name of any clerk who serves me in a store. I address the person by name and offer a smile and greeting. I have experienced remarkable appreciation as a result of this simple gesture. My guess is that often these men and women feel unnoticed and unappreciated. It doesn’t take much to change that.

I can even delight and smile broadly when I pray: Dear God, when I get to heaven, I hope I will find my ol’ shirt and hat hanging on the fence post and I can slip behind the wheel of my little red truck and haul compost and mulch and spread it around the gardens from my ol’ wheelbarrow!

In these troubling times, what are you losing? Or giving up?

And, even more importantly, where do you find delight? What sparks your hopes?

I invite you to share this column with friends to spark discussion. Yes, it’s fine to print out this column for your class or small group.


Care to read more?

DEADLY SINS—In 2017, Benjamin Pratt also is publishing an occasional series on the so-called Deadly Sins. Here is his first reflection on Greed, published earlier this year.

Cover of Benjamin Pratt Ian Fleming Seven Deadlier Sins bookAND, GET THE BOOK—Benjamin Pratt is the author of a book-length exploration of Ian Fleming’s life-long fascination with the challenge of “deadly sins.” In fact, Fleming believed that the traditional deadly sins should be updated with sins of the contemporary world—a theme he explored in his Bond novels. Learn more by getting a copy of Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass.

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