Marianne Borg on Rediscovering Marcus Borg through ‘Days of Awe and Wonder’

Jesus’s vivid experience of the reality of Spirit radically challenges our culture’s way of seeing reality.
Marcus Borg in Jesus: A New Vision (1987)

I learned one more thing as I read about mystical experiences; namely, people who had them most often spoke of them as experiences of God, the sacred—the Mystery with a capital M that is beyond all words.”
Marcus Borg in Convictions (2014)

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

I knew that my life would forever be intertwined with Marcus Borg’s on December 18, 1993, when Ari Goldman published a story in The New York Times headlined: Burning Rage in Indiana. Earlier that week, I had published a wire-service story about a group of Bible scholars, including Marcus, who had publicly questioned whether Jesus actually said all the words attributed to him in the Gospels. Marcus was among the most eloquent voices I quoted in the story that was published in newspapers coast to coast.

However, this idea of questioning the accuracy of the Gospel accounts so enraged evangelicals in northern Indiana that they organized a public newspaper burning in a church parking lot! For Marcus and myself, this fiery spectacle covered by The Times was bittersweet news. No question: As a Bible scholar and a journalist we had drawn enormous public attention. On the other hand, public burnings echoed the McCarthy era in the ’50s and even Germany in the ’30s.

With relief 25 years later, I can report that this is the only time in my life—or Marcus’s life, which ended in 2015—that we were the subject of such a fiery public protest.

But I also know that this literal crucible in Indiana set us both on a trajectory of forever associating controversy with our work on religion. And, of course, there were  other events that pushed Marcus along that narrative path. I remember reporting the astonishment of Marcus’s publishers that joint public appearances by Marcus and the more traditional N.T. Wright drew enormous crowds nationwide. Then, there were further controversial headlines from the so-called Jesus Seminar.

What was lost in all of this was Marcus’s deep love affair with Christianity. He had a profound faith in the Spirit that continues to flow through this tradition—no matter the noise and nonsense that may occasionally obscure the deeper truths.

Ultimately, that is why I so strongly urge our readers to get a copy of this posthumous collection drawn from Marcus’s writings and introduced by his wife Marianne Borg.

To borrow a couple of Marcus’s own earlier titles, this book could have been appropriately titled: Meeting Marcus Borg Again for the First Time—Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary.

‘A BROADER CONVERSATION ABOUT CHRISTIANITY’

Marianne and Marcus Borg

When I interviewed Marianne about this new collection—which was curated by Marcus’s long-time editors at HarperOne with input from Marianne—she said that she hopes this new book serves as a fresh introduction to his long career.

“One thing people may miss when they think of his work is that—for all his academic precision and clarity—he also was very receptive to the realm of Spirit,” Marianne said. “When he talked about Jesus and the Christian tradition he always tried to point toward the realm of Spirit where we can discover a deeper reality and new possibilities.”

That may not sound as revolutionary to readers today as it was back in 1987 when Marcus stepped onto the national stage via HarperOne with Jesus: A New Vision. An excerpt from that milestone volume opens this new collection. Remember: That was six years before the big headlines about the Jesus Seminar.

Marcus debuted as a national voice in a different context.

Here’s the background: In 1987, Marcus was raising a courageous, alternative voice against the backdrop of a deafening, politically loaded “Christian” chorus that was pushing a conservative political agenda. The Cold War was still so chilly that Ronald Reagan had been elected partly as a Cold Warrior with help from Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. By 1987, Reagan famously challenged the Russians in Berlin to “tear down this wall!” Clearly, Mikhail Gorbachev was headed in that direction. As American “Christians” confidently flexed their muscles, some dared to reach for the White House themselves. In September, 1987, televangelist Pat Robertson announced that 3 million Americans had signed up for his grassroots campaign for the presidency. That was the same month Pope John Paul II toured North America, drawing vast crowds wherever he went.

“All that stuff with Falwell and Robertson was trying to close off a broader discussion of what Christianity was all about,” Marianne recalled in our interview. “So, Marcus came forth at just the right time, when many people welcomed a call for a broader conversation about Jesus and Christianity.”

By the 1990s, Marcus had a reputation as an outspoken critic of traditionalist Christian voices—certainly encouraged by his public appearances debating N.T. Wright—but that reputation was easily mistaken as anti-Christian. That myth was fostered by Borg’s vocal critics who usually were the first to claim the “Christian” mantle.

“I’m so glad you’re making that point,” Marianne said in our interview, “because his Christian counter narrative was never an effort to destroy the tradition. In fact, he was so deeply drawn to the truth of Christianity that he believed the tradition could withstand the most rigorous evaluation. We can bring scrutiny to our faith—we can raise all kinds of questions—and our faith can take it. That was his true message.

“He invited people to look into the very heart of Christianity. He felt that our tradition deserved our very best, close examination. We should try to understand the ancient world views using our best scholarship, he believed, because that would lead to a clearer understanding of its relevance in our modern world.

“Yes, some people experienced his work as shaking the foundations of their own understanding of the church. But his larger vision was to free Christianity from the voices that would limit our faith’s possibilities. He wanted to liberate people to follow Christianity and to find their way home again—a metaphor he loved.”

That’s why this book is called Days of Awe and Wonder. That was Marcus’s vision of Christianity’s potential in the 21st Century.

‘WE ARE ALL LIVING WITHIN A MYSTERY’

There was another metaphor Marcus loved. He believed that a life of faith was a mystery. In fact, he was a life-long, voracious reader of murder mysteries, favoring writers such as Ian Rankin, Charles Todd and Julia Spencer-Fleming who develop complex characters and raise haunting questions about the human condition.

For 20 years, any time I interviewed Marcus, we would close the conversation with his recommendations of recent mysteries he had discovered. About 10 years ago, I made a point of asking him about his personal fascination with these novels. He laughed and said, “You know, you’re the only interviewer who asks me about mysteries. But, sure, I’ll talk about it.”

I asked: “Why do you think religious people are drawn to murder mysteries?”

Marcus replied: “The most obvious connection for scholars and historians is with the detective. Here is the analogy I would make. We might think of detective work as involving three stages: There’s the street detective who simply gathers something that might possibly be evidence, but the street detective doesn’t know what really will be evidence in the final case. It’s a process of collecting data.

“Then there’s the forensic stage, the analysis of the data and the evidence. Sometimes these roles are performed by different people and sometimes they’re performed by the same person. And, the third stage is what I would call the hunching stage—trying to see the big picture that the clues and the evidence that have been analyzed add up to. That is like the process that at least a historian working with ancient material goes through. I don’t know if a historian working with, oh let’s say, the causes of the Vietnam War goes through exactly that same process, but it is particularly true for people who work in earlier periods of history where the evidence is particularly thin. We go through these stages.

“But, it’s that hunching stage of the detective process that is most like what we do. There’s that whole relationship between clues and hypotheses that is so central to historical work.”

I challenged Marcus: “But your interest goes deeper than that, doesn’t it?”

He continued, “Well, yes, there is a second connection. A really good murder mystery or detective novel deals with the human heart, for want of a better phrase, including the heart of the murderer—the killer’s motivations. Oftentimes, we look at the darkness within all of us and the unconscious factors that motivate us.

“We are all living within a mystery.

“Now, the difference between detective stories and religion is that in detective stories you typically find out in the end what happened, so the mystery is neatly solved. But that sense of living within a mystery touches something deep inside of us and, in religion, things do not get resolved so easily.”

In my interview with Marianne, she agreed that fascination with mystery did, indeed, reflect Marcus’s larger vocation.

His respect for the ultimate, unsearchable mystery of faith led to what Marianne described as “his elegant generosity about it all.”

“He provided us with new lenses to see Christianity—through his scholarship and writing and speaking and teaching. But he wanted all of us to develop our own new eyes. He was not trying to make us all see things as he saw them. He was very generous in wanting all of us to find our own lenses and see in new ways,” Marianne said. “And that finally is why I think Marcus’s books will have a very long shelf life.”

Here at ReadTheSpirit, we agree.

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CARE TO READ MORE?

Read the book. Order this new book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Learn more about the Marcus J. Borg foundation. The website includes occasional new columns from Marianne as well as videos of Marcus’s talks—and much more.

VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that explore faith and compassion for “the other” in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore.

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Matthew Kaemingk invites Christians and Muslims to envision a table as the core of healthy community

“As thousands of Muslims stream into the West, they carry more than ancient traditions, beliefs and cultures; they carry an ancient question as well:
How can diverse people live together?”
Matthew Kaemingk
from Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

Humility is the first value trampled into the dust of America’s stormy political conflicts these days. So, we start our coverage of Christian ethicist Matthew Kaemingk’s thought-provoking new book by pointing out that Matthew identifies true humility as a foundation for healthy interfaith relationships. If you are among our readers interested in the promising new findings emerging in humility research—then this is a a book you need to add to your bookshelf.

Want background on humility research? Journalist David Briggs is providing excellent overviews at the Academy of Religion Data Archives (ARDA) website. In an interview with sociologist Michael Emerson, David and Michael talked about the contrast between a “rights culture” prone to conflict and the potential antidote that can be found in cultivating humility. Then, David edited and published an ARDA Global Plus column on this research that concludes: “Humble people promote values from empathy to clear-eyed political leadership that contribute to more tolerant, prosperous societies.”

If that quick summary has you nodding your head, then you’re an ideal reader for Matthew’s new book. For most of his 300 pages, Matthew focuses mainly on the ancient religious value of “hospitality”—but he describes hospitality in terms that connect directly with this new appreciation of authentic humility. Toward the end of Matthew’s book, he even includes a section on Training in Humility.

‘HIGH WALLS, OPEN DOORS AND A THIRD WAY’

Matthew Kaemingk 

The main reason we see so much conflict around Muslim immigration, these days, is that the international debate has been polarized in two extremes. Matthew identifies these extremes as the camp of “high walls,” people who fear outsiders and want to erect towering barriers—and “open doors,” people who respond compassionately to the humanitarian plight of refugees and call for us to help these vulnerable men, women and children.

Matthew argues: Both sides are right. There is common-sense wisdom in the need for walls. Any safe and healthy community must take collective security measures, he argues. And, at the same time, there is a deep Christian calling to open doors. People of faith must respond with compassion to those in need, he writes.

But wait! Matthew’s central argument continues—arguing that both sides also are wrong when they reduce Muslims collectively to a problem we must solve or a crisis we must fix. If the majority of Christians continue to see Muslims as simply a problematic “other,” then they ignore the crucial question. Ultimately, Matthew writes, the question should be: Beyond security issues or humanitarian aide (“walls” or “doors”)—how do we live together as equals in communities with different faith traditions?

Matthew addresses this book to Christians, especially evangelicals, who assume that there are only two extreme responses to Muslim immigration. Instead, Matthew says we all need a new “third way.”

Like the nationwide emergence of Blue Ocean Faith churches, which were founded around an evangelical call for a “third way,” Matthew makes it clear that a true “third way” requires a radical rethinking of Christian traditions. In the book, he writes that a “third way” is not “an amalgamation of two broken approaches.” To be clear, Matthew is not part of the Blue Ocean movement. But, he does sound a lot like Blue Ocean leaders when he tells us that many mistaken assumptions must be reconsidered to reach a constructive third way.

In his dozen chapters, Matthew covers a whole range of these issues Christians should re-evaluate in approaching Muslim co-workers, neighbors and newcomers. The first is separating the evangelical enthusiasm for saving souls from the Christian call to hospitality. Inviting Muslim neighbors to debate each faith’s approach to salvation is not the most urgent question in our world today, Matthew writes.

Here’s how he puts that in the book’s opening pages: “This book is not primarily concerned with resolving the future question, ‘Where do Muslims go when they die?’ It is focused, instead, on exploring the present question, ‘How should Muslims be treated while they are still alive?’ ”

Why is that shift in focus so important? Because we doom any hope for a healthy relationship if we start by arguing about who is “right” and “wrong.” A third way won’t open up if we begin by trying to score points as winners and losers, Matthew writes. We are sure to stumble if we approach these new relationships with one side believing it holds the power over the other side.

We are not staging a contest; we are inviting friends to gather around a table.

Here is how Matthew describes this process in his final pages: “Table politics will demand that the distinct categories of guests and hosts ultimately come to an end. Well-functioning tables will not dissolve our differences, but they will dissolve our hierarchies. Well-functioning tables will encourage both guests and hosts to shed their labels and begin to call each other by a new name, a category unknown in modern political theory—friend.”

COMMENT SECTION

But, once again, wait! There’s more to Matthew’s argument!

Certainly, he writes, true hospitality and humility don’t involve asserting our power over “others.” However, he continues, Christians should not confuse that call with simply giving up on their religious traditions. Some of the most intriguing chapters in his book urge Christian readers to dig deeper into their core beliefs—as a way to strengthen their commitment to interfaith relationships.

In our interview, Matthew summed up this major section of his book: “You’ll hear some people actually say this in discussions about their hopes for interfaith relationships. They’ll say that, in order for different religions to get along, we all need to take our faith less seriously. We all need to let go, take our traditions less seriously—and just be more chill about it all. It’s tempting to say that: If we would only take our faith less seriously, then we could all get along.

“But, that’s just not the case,” he said. “All you have to do is look at Europe, where countries have been secularizing pretty intensely for the last 70 years—and, still, that widespread loss of faith has not helped Europeans to become more tolerant. We are seeing a rise in extremism and nationalism in these traditionally Christian populations. So, looking to Europe, we can see that the answer is not to give up our religious traditions in our hope for peace. In fact, there’s a real danger if we do that. If we lose the traditional values in our tradition—then we are giving up our teachings about hospitality, love, patience and humility.

“In this book, I’m pointing out that simply walking away from the church is not going to make people more tolerant. I’m saying that we can demonstrate a deep commitment to Jesus Christ  and that very commitment can help us to build these new relationships. Christianity calls us to open ourselves up to the world in humility.”

A TRAINING CENTER FOR HOSPITALITY

Beyond Matthew’s well-organized analysis—punctuated with illustrations from around the world—are useful resources for congregations. His section on prayer as a training ground for hospitality and humility is practical, inspiring reading for men and women who care about their congregations. At its best, Christian worship can move families toward the core values of true peacemakers, he tells us.

“Unfortunately, not all worship calls us in this direction,” Matthew said in our interview. “But I believe that if worship is done correctly, then it should open us up to all kinds of difference. And I’m not talking about just opening ourselves up to Muslim immigrants—but also opening us up to racial, economic and sexual diversity.

“Properly focused prayer can bring us to such an opening. Good liturgies help us. But, the truth is: If we look at our lives, each week, we realize that it’s not just in Sunday morning worship that we encounter liturgies that shape the way we live as citizens. For example, millions of us engage in a daily liturgy of cable TV news—a repetitive reflection that trains us to believe certain things and to react in certain ways. Depending on which network you prefer to watch, this nightly news liturgy might train you to see others as friends—or foes.

“At its best, Sunday morning worship has always been counter-cultural liturgy. In our world of political fragmentation and fear, today, worship can train us to become citizens of hope and hospitality. If we practice postures of prayer that lead us to our knees, heads bowed, we are practicing hospitality, practicing our submission to something larger. If you like to pray with your hands raised, you can be saying: God, you are sovereign over what I do with these hands this week. May I be driven by your mission and not my own.

“There are lots of possibilities for worship to prepare us for hospitality,” Matthew said. “If worship is done well, it can be a countering force to the politics of fear. There are many approaches to worship—and not all of it leads us in this direction. But I do know that worship has this capability.

“And that’s not a new idea,” Matthew concluded. “That’s as old as our faith. Ancient Christians thought of worship as a gymnasium of the soul—a place where we strengthen ourselves for our life in the world.”

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CARE TO READ MORE?

Read the book. Order Matthew’s book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Learn more about David Finnegan-Hosey. Visit is website.  You also can follow him on Twitter.

VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that explore faith and compassion for “the other” in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore. You may be especially interested in our recent overview of books about Muslims and Islam.

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David Finnegan-Hosey invites us to meet ‘Christ on the Psych Ward’

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

“Let me tell you a story.”

Those are the first words in the Rev. David Finnegan-Hosey’s memoir, Christ on the Psych Ward, an inspiring book that should be read by anyone who cares about the future of congregational life in America. The personal narrative is David’s struggle to overcome his crisis with mental health. Along the way, he invites us to look at how churches can respond more appropriately to the millions of families facing these issues every year.

His theme draws on the same deep religious traditions that have animated our online magazine for more than a decade: the spiritual solace of stories. We are, after all, ReadTheSpirit magazine. Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions all begin with sacred origin stories. Christians teach that Jesus Christ actually is the “Word” and the Quran lifts up for Muslims the power of the “Pen” and the command to “Read!” as defining attributes of God’s work in the world.

To distill David’s message into three words, he tells us: Stories are healing.

In our online magazine, we often publish stories about new books and films that bust myths, break down stereotypes and invite compassionate understanding of our neighbors who seem quite different at first glance. David’s central metaphor of storytelling cuts to the heart of this challenge: What stories do we tell about people with mental illness? Simply look at almost any news section of The New York Times and you’ll find related stories. As Americans, we’re talking a lot about mental illness these days.

In his book, David asks: Are we telling those stories in the most helpful way? Do we tend to talk about mental illness as a medical problem? Do we turn to spiritual metaphors? Are we tempted to reach for troubling images from novels, films and popular culture? Rather than helping families, do we wind up demonizing or isolating people?

Then, David sums up the questions this way:

What story do we tell about mental illness? A medical story frames recovery in terms of medicine, which can be a powerful, and useful, and good story. A problematic spiritual story can frame illness in terms of possession and recovery in terms of exorcism. More robust spiritual stories, in all their variations, can frame recovery in terms of presence, acceptance, and friendship. Perhaps, in the end, better stories are the most powerful healing, the most powerful exorcism, we have to offer.

That’s why this memoir, addressed pointedly to people of faith, is titled in a way that places the heart of Christianity—Christ—right there with David and others suffering through these crises actually “on the Psych Ward.”

‘OPENING UP SAFE PLACES’

David Finnegan-Hosey.

David was diagnosed and hospitalized for bipolar disorder in 2011, while he was trying to make his way through Wesley Seminary in Washington D.C. Eventually, he returned to Wesley and completed his master’s degree in divinity. Today he is chaplain-in-residence at Georgetown University. He says his wife urged him to turn his story into a book. Even before the book was finished, he also went to the Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina and told his story during one of the sessions during that vast festival.

“I would not have gone to Wild Goose or written this book without my wife’s encouragement. I was really resistant to the idea, at first,” David said in an interview about his book. “Then, at Wild Goose, I gave a talk along with the Rev. Sarah Griffith Lund, who wrote Blessed Are the Crazy about her family’s experience with mental illness.

“We were scheduled on a side stage at Wild Goose,” David explained. “There were national figures up on the main stage, so we didn’t expect much. Then, more than 300 people showed up! That was really eye opening for me. They didn’t show up because we were famous names. The famous people were on the other stage. They came because we were talking about a real need in their lives. I realized how important it was to open up more safe places in faith communities to talk about these issues.

“I could see, then, that my story was a door opener so others can share their stories. And that’s what’s so important about my book. I didn’t write this just to dump my story on others. I wrote this to create space for others. We all need to be more open and honest and together we can beat back some of the stigma about mental health in the faith community.”

‘WORDS HAVE POWER’

“Story has been a theme for me throughout my life,” David said as we talked. “Some of my earliest memories are telling fanciful stories to my parents and, then, working with my parents to make little books of them. A solid definition of Christian community is: Stewards of sacred stories. When we’re able to share our stories,we make connections and bring the community together.”

The key to compassionate storytelling lies in the words we use and the context in which we use them, David argues in his book.

“Words have power,” he said in our interview. “Words can be used to heal and to bring people together and words can be used to injure and to drive us apart. Words matter. Context matters. For example, there are certain words I can use, or jokes I can make about my experience of mental illness, because I’m inviting people to join me in laughing in a supportive way about our lives. But other people could use those same words, or tell those jokes, to make people feel small—sometimes to hurt people.”

Churches already have the basic resources to respond in helpful ways, David believes.

“I know that responding to mental illness is hard—but so is responding to a diagnosis of cancer,” he said. “Most congregations already have in their DNA the instincts to respond. There’s usually something in congregations that is a starting place. First, we know how to be thoughtful and compassionate to families. Then, perhaps you have Stephen Ministers or home visitors of some kind. There also are opportunities for more training all across the country.”

‘AN ADVOCATE FOR MENTAL HEALTH’

Click the logo to visit the website for Mental Health First Aid.

There is a personal note to this week’s review and interview. Christ on the Psych Ward was recommended by my son in law, the Rev. Joel Walther of the Goodrich United Methodist Church in Michigan. Joel’s own studies at Wesley seminary overlapped with David’s.

When talking with David and me about this book, Joel said that—as a pastor of a mid-sized congregation—he came away from the book with a very practical idea.

Joel wrote the following:

Reading Christ on the Psych Ward made me want to be an advocate for mental health. The book was a call to action—pointing out practical ideas for getting involved. One option is training in Mental Health First Aid. After finishing the book, I got online and looked for a course offered in my community. Within a week, I was able to take a course in Mental Health First Aid.

The class encourages people to become more aware. When signs of mental health issues arise, this course trains people to notice and compassionately respond. The sooner a mental health crisis can be spotted, the sooner a person can get the help that they need.

Courses on Mental Health First Aid help fight the ongoing stigma that surrounds mental health in this society. A course like this presents mental health issues for what they are—illnesses that can and should be addressed, not hidden away because of shame. I love the idea that I can be trained in physical first aid as well as mental health first aid. I would encourage others to look for classes in their area and to take advantage of them.

‘A BASIC DO-NO-HARM APPROACH’

“Clergy definitely need this kind of training,” David said in our interview. “But, don’t forget all the other folks in your congregation who are on the front lines with people. Ask yourself: Who answers the phone at our church? Who are your ushers and greeters? Home visitors? Youth leaders? Encouraging this kind of first-aid training gives everyone some basic language and skills to spot things that are emerging in your community. We’re not making people mental health experts, but this kind of training does encourage a basic do-no-harm approach to helping people.”

In the end, David also stressed that this book represents his own experience and advice—and others may disagree with some of his recommendations. “I’m not trying to speak for everyone. I want to make that very clear. I do encourage people to share their stories of mental illness and to help create safe places to tell these stories—but I also understand when people tell me: This is something I don’t want to tell people about for a variety of reasons. For some people, this is a privacy issue. For others, they might fear losing their job. I understand those responses.

“In this book, I’m simply telling my story. I hope that readers will join me in opening doors.”

CARE TO READ MORE?

Do you know how many Americans experience mental illness each year? About 1 in every 5 of us—or more than 40 million people! That data comes from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, which provides several very helpful (and free) handouts you can use in discussing the issue with others.

Read the book. Order David’s book from Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Learn more about David Finnegan-Hosey. You can follow him on Twitter.

VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that explore faith and compassion for “the other” in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore. Among the titles, you may be especially this week in Benjamin Pratt’s Guide for Caregivers.

 

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Diana Butler Bass: Why should we feel Grateful?

I have always struggled with gratitude.
I want to be grateful, but too often I find myself with no thanks.

Diana Butler Bass in the Prologue to Grateful

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

By DAVID CRUMM
ReadTheSpirit Editor

Nearly everyone feels grateful—or so we’re told in a national study by Pew researchers that Diana Butler Bass describes in the opening pages of her new book, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks

So, if you don’t feel grateful most of the time—do you find yourself feeling like a failure? Diana admits that’s how she feels sometimes—like “a gratitude klutz.”

Whether you’re a klutz or gratefulness devotee, we all can admit that Diana’s book is timely! There’s no idea as popular—and as misunderstood—as gratefulness.

Why is gratefulness confusing? Because, for more than a century, Americans have been unable to decide whether being grateful is about other people and the larger community—or all about ourselves and our personal desires. That confusion arose again a dozen years ago, when America’s perennial positive-thinking movement resurfaced like a volcano in the mega-hit movie and bestselling book, The Secret. 

Mitch Horowitz, the leading expert on America’s long fascination with positive thinking says the explosion of interest in The Secret was as American as Apple Pie. Mitch traced the content of The Secret back to bestsellers a century ago like The Science of Getting Rich and many others. The idea behind these books is that if people focus on gratefulness and visualize what they want—their desires will be fulfilled. In the midst of fads like The Secret, the gratefulness gospel seems to be all about “me” and “getting mine.”

Readers can be forgiven for mistaking Diana’s new title, Grateful: The Transformative Power of Giving Thanks, for a repackaging of The Secret—unless you are already familiar with Diana’s body of work. Her name on the book’s cover should immediate signal to readers: This book is the opposite of The Secret!

Diana leads us away from the world’s selfish messages about spirituality. Our spiritual values are not guarantees of a happy life, she says—but they are the pathway toward building healthier communities. At one point, late in the book, she even lashes out in exasperation at the “anger and division” mounting in our world. “Rarely have I felt more out of sync with the world around me,” she writes.

Gratitude is not some kind of get-rich-quick magic formula. She writes, “To be grateful in these days is an act of resistance, of resilience, of renewal. … The politics of gratitude is a way of healing and compassion—perhaps even salvation. I invite you to the journey from ingratitude to gratefulness and to find yourself part of a like-spirited community. You are not alone. There are many on the road.”

Now are you intrigued?

As Diana has done throughout her career, in this new book, she is urging people to rethink their religious and spiritual assumptions. This is a book full of provocative and inspiring ideas that makes it terrific reading for anyone trying to preach or teach or lead a small group in this anxious era in which confrontational voices seem to be surrounding us. This book is an invitation, a pathway forward.

AMERICANS LOVE GRATITUDE

The starting point of this book is America’s enormous fascination with gratitude. So, how much are we attracted to this idea? As Diana explains in the opening pages, Pew researchers have documented an overwhelming American fascination with the idea.

“This Pew study came out a couple of years ago,” Diana said in an interview. “I was working on this book long before Donald Trump was elected president and before the #MeToo movement and yet, as this book was going through the final stages of preparation for publication, I realized that this book is very timely on a number of levels.”

Diana often is prophetic. She became famous as a scholar of American religious life—the subject of her doctorate research at Duke University. Most of her earlier books are about the complex history of faith groups and contemporary trends in spirituality. That expertise led to invitations to write for The New York Times, Washington Post and Huffington Post—and is why she is popular nationwide as a speaker and  teacher.

“So the back story on Gratitude is that I had finished my earlier book Grounded and I left this question on the table for readers: So, if God is embodied in the world of nature and neighbor, then how are we supposed to act in such a world? And, I thought I should develop more in response to that question, particularly about character. What character should we aspire to develop in such a world? Or: What does our character look like if we really do love God and our neighbors as ourselves?

“I presented the idea of writing about character to my editor and he asked me: ‘How many items are already on your list when you talk about character?’

“I said, ‘Nine. And I began to list them—kindness and mercy and joy and so on.’

“He said, ‘That’s more than one book. Take one thing from your list and turn it into a book.’

“Finally, I accepted that and said, ‘First, I’ll do a book on thanksgiving or gratitude. This is a part of the moral life that is important in empowering us along the pathway of doing justice in the world. And, at the same time, I think gratitude is so misunderstood, these days.”

Want evidence of that confusion? Consider that The Secret has sold more than 20 million copies with a message about gratitude that is quite different than the traditional understanding of this virtue in the world’s oldest religious traditions.

Diana agreed in our interview, “I would say that the biggest source of confusion when Americans think about gratitude is that we associate gratitude with getting stuff and having stuff. That’s what the secular prosperity gospel preaches. That message tells us: We should be grateful because we are achieving material success.

“In my book, I describe the idea of gratefulness that is foundational to the Hebrew scriptures, the Christian New Testament, Buddhism and Islam,” she continued. “This idea of gratefulness comes from a different place. The first true thing about every life on earth is that we are receivers. We have received the greatest gift of all and that gift is life itself. Everyone of us was born—and then someone took care of us for a long time. If you’re a human being on this planet, our traditions call us to recognize that we can never hope to receive a greater gift than our lives and those early years of care.

“Every religion teaches us that we should be aware of our humble origins and be shaped by these gifts we were given. Most people of faith believe that God is a part of that picture and that God is the source of these gifts. And we’re not talking about a stingy God—we’re certainly not talking about an accumulation of stuff you can order on Amazon. No. We’re talking about gifts of God that are as fundamental and powerful as an infant taking its first breath.”

LET’S GET PERSONAL

Diana Butler Bass

What makes this book so pragmatic—so full of helpful insights for most readers—is that Diana is determined to explore even the toughest, darkest questions about gratitude. She has little patience for the all-too-common spiritual double-talk of well-meaning pastoral figures who want to smooth over the thorniest issues with sweet-sounding God talk. However well-meaning, that kind of teaching and preaching can lead to a “therapeutic and theological gerbil wheel,” she writes.

The heart of this book is Diana’s search for deeper answers that really work. For example, for the first time in her long career as a writer, Diana reaches back into her own life and explains to readers that she was sexually abused as a 14-year-old girl by an uncle who appeared to be a good Baptist to the rest of the world. Anyone who has encountered such trauma early in life will immediately understand the dilemma this causes when considering the prized virtue of gratefulness.

Be grateful for what!?!

As Diana writes, “What if you are angry because you have been violated and no one protected you?”

Putting this section of her book in context, it’s 7 pages out of more than 250. In writing this section, Diana simply explains what happened to her and then invites readers who also have shared trauma in their past to wrestle with her through the conflicting emotions that are the legacy of trauma.

“The first thing I want to say about my decision to share that story for the first time is that I had made my decision before the news broke about Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement arose,” Diana said in our interview. “So, my decision was not prompted by that movement, although I certainly support what’s happening now. I chose to include that story here because I think there are too many books on gratitude by successful, privileged people who have never personally suffered any real injustice or trauma. In fact, my place is not up on some pedestal of privilege. My place is sitting right there at the table with others who have suffered—and who know that gratitude is not some easy thing. In fact, if you have suffered real trauma, you know that people telling you that you have to be grateful all the time can really turn gratitude into a kind of bludgeon.”

TAKING A SEAT AT THE TABLE

Taking a seat at life’s table becomes a metaphor for people gathering to live and share and work together in a cooperative circle, Diana writes in the book.

The notion of gratitude acting as a spiritual magic trick to produce a shower of money and earthly goods ultimately looks a cheap substitute for real gratitude. “Gratitude really is a path of self discovery as well as communal discovery about our place in this world,” Diana said in our interview.

“Ultimately, gratitude is the sharing of good with others wherever we are, sometimes simply because we still have life and breath left in our bodies—and we still have the ability to act with compassion toward others and to create justice together. In that pathway, gratitude becomes the capacity to stand up in the face of fear and despair and sorrow and say: We are people alive and breathing here. We are together at this table. We have the capacity to resist those forces that would take life away from us and, together, we can keep passing gratitude into the world.”

 

 

CARE TO READ MORE?

VISIT DIANA’S WEBSITE—The Web address is simply DianaButlerBass.com, a site where you’ll find lots of resources, including her calendar of upcoming events.

‘GROUNDED’—In 2016, Diana published Grounded, a book she described as a personal departure from her earlier writing. We published this interview with Diana as the book was released. Then, Ann Arbor-based Christian educator Debbie Houghton collaborated on a five-part Discussion Guide to Grounded. To explore that free Guide, here are links to Part 1, also to Part 2, and Part 3Part 4 and finally Part 5.

‘CHRISTIANITY AFTER RELIGION’—Readers still come to our online magazine to read this 2012 interview with Diana about her book on the future of Christianity.

VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that explore religious and cultural diversity in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore.

 

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Must we be enemies? Or, are we ‘people who deserve a chance to heal’?

EDITOR’S NOTE—Our contributing writers share our long-time commitment: Good media builds healthier communities. So, we always are pleased to bring you their fresh stories of hope. Recently, we shared a story about a handmade quilt that looks like home—actually, all of our homes—and we published a story about two women leading a retreat to help university students wrestle with the tensions they face on campus. This week, Benjamin Pratt writes about the inspiring connection he made between his visit to the Old City of Jerusalem—and a inspiring remake of an Agatha Christie mystery.

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By BENJAMIN PRATT

Recently, I prayed at the Western Wall in Jerusalem—a defining experience in a sacred setting described as a place where God rests.

I prayed that God would stop resting and be more active to ease the painful tensions across the Middle East.

Five days later, on my flight home, I watched the 2017 film version of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a special project for director and actor Kenneth Branagh working with a screenplay by Michael Green.

The opening scene takes place at the Western Wall! That got my attention—I was just there! In that scene, Hercule Poirot solves a mystery involving a rabbi, a priest and imam.

Even more coincidence: Days earlier our Jewish guide in Israel had told us that, in his opinion, the only solution to the strife among nations in the Middle East would come if determined, powerful religious leaders of the three faith traditions would provide the leadership. Then he said very soberly: “I don’t think it will ever happen.”

As the film unfolded I began to see that Branagh also was attempting to offer an alternative to seemingly impossible conflicts—in concert with the best of our religious traditions.

Branagh, who also plays Poirot, says of the film: “There are not only the questions of who did it, how did they do it, and why, but also the question of what now represents justice. And that issue of what justice is—when concerning crimes born out of revenge—goes quite deep in analyzing whether an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth ultimately is a way to order civilized behavior.”

Agatha Christie’s tales are quite formulaic, which her loyal fans enjoy. In Christie’s tales, everyone eventually gets what is deserved—the moral universe always is set right again.

In her Hercule Poirot mysteries, the Belgian detective acts as her Prime Mover. “I can only see the world as it should be,”  he says. “There is right! There is wrong! There is nothing in between.”

If you’re not familiar with the plot of the Orient Express, here’s a brief recap: We learn that one of the mysterious passengers on the train actually is a criminal who earlier kidnapped and murdered a child in a case loosely based on the real-life Lindbergh kidnapping. In the course of the story, the killer becomes the victim. Poirot learns that the other passengers on the train are not strangers. All of them were traumatized in some way by the killer—and, on this journey, all of them collaborate in his execution.

That’s the basic plot of the novel and earlier radio, TV and movie versions of the tale—making Branagh’s and Green’s expansion of the storyline quite striking!

What makes this new film especially relevant in our world today is their additions to the final scene. This is when Poirot is about to reveal what he has learned about the murder plot—the crescendo of any Christie mystery. First, the detective addresses the central dilemma he faces:

“I have discovered the truth of the case and it is profoundly disturbing. I have seen the fracture of the human soul. So many broken lives, so much pain and anger giving way to the poison of deep grief until one crime became many. I have always wanted to believe that man is rational and civilized. My very existence depends upon this hope, upon order and method and the little gray cells. But now perhaps I am asked to listen, instead, to my heart.”

Poirot then steps before the 12 passengers and says:

“Ladies and Gentlemen, I have understood in this case the scales of justice cannot always be evenly weighed. And I must learn for once to live with the imbalance. There are no killers here. Only people who deserve a chance to heal.”

Ultimately, in this film version, Poirot seems to be reaching for what we might call Restorative Justice today. He has no judicial powers himself in this corner of the world—and decides not to reveal the truth to regional law enforcement authorities. Instead, he makes space for these dozen victims to further wrestle through their past traumas without adding further punishment himself.

Of course, the film is fiction and soon ends, so we never learn more than Poirot’s impassioned plea—lines that do not appear in the original Christie novel. These remarkable words are Green and Branagh appealing to all of us in the audience, today.

At the Western Wall, my prayer was for Restorative Justice that might one day bring balance and healing in our divided world. What stunned me on the flight home was that my prayer was not a lonely voice—clearly Branagh and Green are voicing a similar plea.

If this column finds you, today, ensnared by this “poison of deep grief,” may these words point you further along your journey. And, now, like the film, this column quickly ends.

I have done my part: Sharing these words with you. And, with that—like Branagh—I’ll take my leave.

Now, it’s your turn: Consider sharing this story with a friend.

At the root of our conflicts, I cannot believe we are beyond redemption.

We are not hopelessly evil.

Only people who deserve a chance to heal.

Care to read more?

Enjoy looking over Benjamin Pratt’s books in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

 

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Rediscovering the Tree of World Religions with John Bellaimey

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

“As for the sacred Scriptures, or Bibles of mankind, who in this town can tell me even their titles?” wrote Henry David Thoreau in the 1850s.

“In America, religion is miles wide and a quarter inch deep,” pollster George Gallup Jr. liked to say in the 1980s.

“The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind,” evangelical historian Nark Noll wrote in the 1990s.

“It’s impossible to understand our world today without understanding religion. Unfortunately, far too many Americans are religiously illiterate,” Boston University’s Stephen Prothero says today.

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By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit

As citizens of one of the world’s most diverse nations, Americans are ill prepared to understand the religious culture of their next-door neighbors—let alone religion’s influence on major global issues from war and immigration to our shared environmental crises.

In fact, as a nation, we are so ill informed that the Pew Research Center gives Americans a failing grade in its surveys of religious knowledge—even our awareness of our own traditions! According to Pew, roughly half of Catholics don’t know their own church’s basic teaching on the meaning of the Eucharist, half of Protestants don’t know that Martin Luther sparked the Reformation, and half of Jews don’t recognize Maimonides’ name.

Can we hope to change this situation by jump starting basic education about world religions? Well, that’s another problem, Pew researchers tell us. Unfortunately, the majority of Americans incorrectly assume that public school teachers can’t even mention God in their classrooms. The Pew team reports: “Two-thirds of people surveyed incorrectly say that Supreme Court rulings prevent public school teachers from reading from the Bible as an example of literature, and only 36% know that comparative religion classes may be taught in public schools.”

A WISE TEACHER WANTS TO HELP

So, today, please meet John Bellaimey—a veteran educator at the prestigious Breck School, an independent preK-12 college preparatory school in Minnesota. Breck is known for producing more than its share of Merit Scholars and sending students to Ivy League schools. Bellaimey developed The Tree of World Religions to help students understand the religious foundations of our world’s diverse cultures and nations.

“Religion is an essential component of human life around our planet so we need to understand religion with all of its variations,” Bellaimey said in an interview. “Religion affects world politics because it forms the basis for the ways people look at life. If you don’t understand the religious dimensions of culture, you’re not going to understand why many families behave the way they do, why their communities and their nations make crucial decisions and how we can work together globally.”

He continued: “On a personal level, do you enjoy reading? Literature? The movies? A lot of the texts and story lines and motivations don’t make sense unless you understand something about religious beliefs. In this book, I am not trying to convince anyone that one religion is better than any others. That’s not the point. What we recognize as educators is that you can’t really understand the world around us without knowing something about religion.”

Like most Americans, you may be asking yourself: Can he do that!? Can he teach about religion in school? Of course, he can. “Most Americans may not know it, but world religion is a required subject in social studies and history standards in most states, certainly here in Minnesota,” Bellaimey said. “This book is a compilation of my years of teaching about world religion at Beck. Through this book, I’m offering what we’ve learned here to the rest of the world.”

BALANCING THE ARGUMENTS

Working with a wide range of colleagues and readers from various religious traditions, Bellaimey has compiled this very inviting introduction to a vast subject. The book is only 128 pages, yet it takes readers from the ancient world to today, along with helpful charts and inviting color photos.

If you enjoy learning about world religions, then you may be surprised by the opening section of John’s book. The first six chapters explore basic questions about religion: What is reality? Are there Higher and Lower realms? What are the basic arguments for belief in God—and against believing in God? How can we hope to define religion? Myth? Ritual? Ethics? Institutions? Experience?

John introduces all of those questions in less than 20 pages! Because this material was developed for classroom use, this book is ideal for sparking spirited discussion in your class or small group. That’s true whether your class is in a school building—or perhaps it’s a Sunday morning class in your congregation or a book group that meets in a coffee shop.

“One thing I’ve been told by students and colleagues is that they especially like the section of my book about belief in God. This is a balanced presentation of that issue, so I don’t make fun of atheists. I simply lay out the basic arguments on both sides—and I really like the results in my classroom from such a presentation. Students have a lot to say!” Bellaimey said.

COMPARING OUR CHOICES

Putting this book in perspective, there are other textbooks available that are comparatively more expensive and tougher to read. One book that is sometimes assigned in college courses is Oxford’s third edition of its Concise Introduction to World Religion—656 pages with a list price of $91.95. It’s a big, solid slice of scholarship, but rather than “concise,” a more accurate title would be “dense.”

In recent years, two other overviews of this field have been widely praised in popular media.

The most recent is the boxed set called The Norton Anthology of World Religions. The New York Times praised this milestone, edited by Pulitzer Prize winner Jack Miles, calling it “a brick of a book” and also “a generously wide-ranging collection of key texts.” As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I have Jack’s set on my office shelf for quick reference. However, the set’s list price is $100 and it weighs in at nearly 4,500 pages. If you want a deeper dive into world religion, this is a great choice. We have recommended Jack’s two-volume set since it was released. But you’ll never convince friends to discuss that whopper in a small group—as it’s simply not practical for most classes.

Also among the perennial favorites are works by the late Huston Smith, the granddaddy of religion teachers in popular media. Before his death in 2016, ReadTheSpirit featured Smith in at least a dozen articles about faith traditions. Smith’s The Illustrated World Religions is a fine, colorful introduction to the subject. It’s also got its flaws: It’s twice the length of Bellaimey’s book, making it more of a challenge for group discussion; Huston’s opening section on basic spiritual questions isn’t designed for class discussion; and Smith limits himself to major groups, ignoring some of the fascinating smaller sects that John covers in his volume.

Once again, if you enjoy learning about the world’s many spiritual traditions, you should have at least three of these on your bookshelf: Jack’s big boxed set, Huston’s illustrated volume and John’s new book, ready to pull out to prompt conversation about the whole cosmic array.

TREASURES ALONG THE WAY

“I’m glad you’re going to point out some of the unique little treasures in my book, because I enjoyed adding them and I know that many people will have fun finding them here,” John said in our interview. “If you’re a C.S. Lewis fan, for example, when you get to the chapter on Heaven and Hell in Christianity, you’re likely to enjoy my turning to what I think is one of Lewis’s best books, The Great Divorce, about this imaginary bus line between Heaven and Hell.”

These unique segments sprinkled throughout John’s book aren’t limited to the three main Abrahamic faiths. “I also made a point of adding a chapter on Maya polytheism from Central America,” John said. “Their view is so strange and different to us that it’s really interesting—but in most of the books I have on my shelf about world religions, you don’t find anything like this from Central America.”

There are also chapters toward the end of the book about groups often overlooked in other introductory books, among them: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Christian Science, Ahmadiyya Islam and the Rastafari movement.

SEE JOHN TEACH

Don’t take our “words” for it in this column today. You can see John teach right now. Each of these TED-Ed talks has drawn more than 2 million viewers!

Here’s a four-minute TED-Ed talk by John Bellaimey on the nature of Yin and Yang:


Here’s an 11-minute talk on Five World Religions:

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Care to read more?

VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that explore religious and cultural diversity in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore.

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

GET JOHN’S BOOK FROM AMAZON—Note that this book we are describing in this Cover Story is listed as the Second Edition of John’s book, a newly revised and expanded book with a release date of May 1, 2018. You may also find an earlier self-published version of John’s book still listed on bookstore websites. You want to be sure you’re selecting the new one.

JOHN BELLAIMEY is a native Detroiter, an Episcopal priest and a full-time teacher and writer. Recently, he traveled around the world with his wife, journalist Lynnell Mickelsen. You can read stories and see lots of photos of their travels at their personal website. John has headed the Religion department at Breck School in Minneapolis since 1989, when he and his family moved from Cambridge, MA. At Harvard, John received the M.Div degree in Religion and Secondary Education. Prior to that, he was Admissions Director at Friends School in Detroit and taught French. In addition, he has taught in Ghana, West Africa, graduated summa cum laude in Anthropology from Haverford College, and helped his father with his family’s tube-fabrication business, Detroit Tube Products, which his sister now directs.

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Jon Sweeney on the remarkable life of Phyllis Tickle

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

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit

Phyllis Tickle got what she wanted—period. Any of our readers who encountered her will smile at that sentence. This ramrod-straight woman could unleash a persuasive hurricane—especially when she whipped it up with a heaping helping of her blunt Tennessee charm.

She wrote so many books that Jon Sweeney’s fascinating new biography of Phyllis devotes two pages to a list of her books, but admits to readers that this is “not a complete bibliography.” If someone eventually lists all of her publications, including manuscripts she edited plus her own ever-flowing river of journalism—the result would fill another book! For ReadTheSpirit, she wrote or contributed to a number of pieces over the years—plus she enjoyed at least a dozen interviews with me since our online magazine was founded in 2007. Across the country and abroad, she delivered so many public talks, seminars and retreats that Sweeney opens the story of her life not with Phyllis as an infant—but with Phyllis stepping up to a podium.

Oh, yes. And, before her death, Phyllis made it clear that Sweeney was to serve as her biographer—and she got that, too.

Of her many public facets, I recall Phyllis as a journalistic colleague. I first met her a quarter of a century ago when we were asked to speak fourth and fifth on a panel at a conference of media professionals about emerging trends in religion.

The first three journalists on our panel read prepared notes about changes in global religion, including carefully qualified observations about Pope John Paul II’s machinations. After the third speaker, some in the audience were beginning to nod off.

Then, it was Phyllis’s turn.

“I want to thank my learned colleagues,” she began, “but I’ve got to tell you all that if you truly understand the historic upheaval in religious authority today—” She paused to shake her head dramatically and began again: “If you honestly grasp the degree to which religious authority is being turned on its head, well—” Then, she pushed her chair back from the long table where we all sat facing microphones. She didn’t need one. She came around to the center aisle and ended that pause with a loud: “Well, if we understand what’s happening in religion today—all of our jaws should be dropping! Yes they should!”

Everyone was awake.

Phyllis then delivered her stirring message about cycles of Reformation and the worldwide emergence of new sources of religious authority. She ended with a rousing: “We are living in remarkable times, my friends! I hope that you do not miss it!”

Listening to her in person—the first of many occasions on which I was able to work with Phyllis—I thought: She’s a modern-day Erasmus! Half a millennium ago, he was the brilliant, caustic commentator and chronicler of the Reformation. Like any journalist worth her salt, Phyllis dreamed of serving the world as a journalist in an era of historic transformation—and she got precisely what she wanted.

“When I think of Phyllis, I’ll always think of Erasmus—riding the crest of a religious tidal wave,” I told Jon Sweeney as we discussed Phyllis’ life and Jon’s new biography.

Jon thought for a moment and said, “I think it’s a good comparison.”

Naturally, I was struck by an otherwise small detail: In the middle of Jon’s biography, he describes Phyllis switching gears in her career and publishing a volume of her poetry. Her publisher? Erasmus Books.

SHE ‘GAVE VOICE TO A MOVEMENT’

PHYLLIS TICKLE, photographed by Teresa Hooper. Used with the author’s permission.

When Phyllis died in 2015, major newspapers and magazines published obituaries. I have saved The New York Times obit and now have tucked my folded copy of that clipping inside the front cover of Jon’s book on my office shelf. If you are just discovering this amazing woman, today, let me share my favorite lines from the Times summary of her life:

Phyllis Tickle, who helped energize the religion publishing market in the 1990s, wrote dozens of books on spirituality and gave voice to a movement that believes Christianity is entering an epochal new phase, died on Sept. 22 at her farm in Lucy, Tenn., north of Memphis. She was 81. The cause was lung cancer, her daughter Rebecca Tickle said.

Ms. Tickle was the founding religion editor at Publishers Weekly, the leading journal in the book trade, serving from 1991 to 1994. In that post she identified and covered a rapidly emerging market for religious-themed books and helped publishers tap into its profitability. 

Beginning in 2000, she also wrote a popular series of manuals titled “The Divine Hours,” devoted to the tradition of fixed-hour prayer. Meanwhile, she was becoming a leading voice in the amorphous but evolving Emergence Christianity movement, which rejects the hierarchies and many of the orthodoxies of the past and predicts a convergence of the various strands of Christianity, each of which had historically gone its own way.

THE ‘INTERPRETER AND CHEERLEADER’

What is most compelling about this biography is that Jon Sweeney aims his narrative at anyone who cares about faith in America today—and that long list includes anyone who writes for a living, as well as clergy and certainly anyone who leads a small group within a congregation. In 250 pages, he not only paints a portrait of an incredibly creative writer and activist—he also chronicles the turbulent times in which she relished her reign as a religious titan.

Plus, Phyllis loved to laugh—and there are occasional flashes of downright fun in these pages, too! You’ll certainly chuckle at a color photo from the day in Denver when Phyllis and the famous tattooed evangelist Nadia Bolz-Weber switched clothes and tried to swap identities as well. Phyllis even pulled on some faux-tattoo sleeves to complete the transformation.

Phyllis accomplished so many milestones in her life that Jon’s biography can barely contain her energy. Her activism in fostering inclusion of LGBTQ Christians, particularly among evangelicals, already has changed America’s religious landscape. She wrote encouraging introductions to Ken Wilson’s A Letter to My Congregation and to David Gushee’s Changing Our Mindboth of which are read coast to coast by Christians struggling toward becoming more welcoming.

To Jon’s credit as a biographer, he explains more about that branch of her activism than any of us who knew Phyllis understood during her lifetime. As Jon explains the story, her activism sprang from her compassion within her own family.

“She did so much! How do you think she will be remembered in 20 years?” I asked Jon.

“I do write about that at the end of this book,” he said. “I think she’ll be remembered for her work on The Divine Hours, the Great Emergence—and for being both an interpreter and a cheerleader for what was going on for a couple of decades in Christianity. But I also reveal a certain degree of pessimism about that legacy, as well.”

And rightly so. Some of Phyllis’s forecasts—especially when she relied heavily on her journalistic skills—were spot on. And sometimes, when she was exercising her talents as an activist, were more wistful than precise.

“Americans also have terrible memories when it comes to religion—you know that,” I said to Jon. “Nearly all Americans tell pollsters they know the Bible. But less than half can name the four Gospels. How many giants have risen to prominence—and now are forgotten—just in the past half century? It’s humbling.”

“I think you’re right,” he said. “But, even if people aren’t aware of the things Phyllis did and wrote—she effectively formed a generation of leaders in the church or the post-church or whatever you want to call these movements today.”

“And she formed a generation of publishing professionals, as well,” I added. “I’m interviewing you for ReadTheSpirit, a venture that was encouraged every step of the way by calls and emails from Phyllis.”

“She encouraged so many people. I mean—my goodness!—I can’t even imagine how she kept up her work load,” Jon said. “She would receive unsolicited manuscripts every week that she would read in detail and then provide comments before replying. I don’t know anyone else in publishing who does that!”

He paused a moment, then said, “I think one thing we definitely have to say about her: Phyllis was an incredible champion of people.”

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CARE TO READ MORE?

FROM OUR ARCHIVES: Two of our most popular interviews with Phyllis over the years focused on her book, The Age of Spirit, and on her book, The Great Emergence. (Those titles link to the earlier interviews.) You may also want to read Phyllis’s Introduction to Ken Wilson’s A letter to my Congregation.

 

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