Archives for December 2007

COMICS: Buzz Dixon’s Goofy Gamble on Manga

ere’s an intriguing self-portrait by one of the pioneers in this new realm of comics: Buzz Dixon, president Realbuzz Studios, the creators of Japanese-influenced, manga-format comic books for Christians with names like “Serenity,” “Goofyfoot Gurl” and “Couplers.”

Buzz describes his own journey this way (and, no, that’s not precisely the Rip Hunter issue he mentions in his story — but this cover gives you an idea of what he’s talking about) …

The first comic I remember buying with my own thin dime was DC’s Showcase No. 25 featuring “Rip Hunter … Time Master” on the cover, trapped between a triceratops and a sea monster.  My aunt and grandmother had always brought Donald Duck and Uncle Scrooge comics for me when they came to visit, but given my own dime at age five and a half, my eye shot right past Carl Barks’ masterworks and glommed onto the dinosaurs.

I grew up in a fairly typical Boomer family; we attended church regularly and I was baptized around my 12th birthday.  But while I attended church and read my Bible regularly, I don’t think my real spiritual journey started until much later in life.  It took a few missteps and misdirections for me to realize I had strayed far off the path and needed to get back in line with what God wanted for me.

Part of that growth was the realization that God had given me talent not merely for my benefit, but so that his Word would be glorified. Realbuzz Studios is the outgrowth of that. As the creators of the inspirational manga category we are in the lead when it comes to developing stories that reflect Christian, moral and spiritual truths to today’s young readers.

I’ve loved comics ever since I was a kid and enjoy working in the medium.  As Scott McCloud pointed out in his book, UNDERSTANDING COMICS, it’s not merely a blend of words and pictures but a wholly new art form, a combination of the two where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

While there’s a lot to be recommended in today’s market, particularly in original graphic novels and some of the new imported manga series, there’s a lot that bothers me as well.  There has always been crass commercialism in popular media, with material of dubious moral and ethical value being pitched to the lowest common denominators in the market, but in recent years it seems popular media has all but abandoned the values that make life worth living, choosing to concentrate on sensationalism and spectacle instead of substance.

We feel there’s a way to counter that, and that’s by doing stories that are technically and aesthetically the equal of what the secular market produces.  Check us out at (and come back in a couple of weeks once we’ve got the re-vamped website up and running!).

I’m the president and co-founder of Realbuzz and I’m proud that we are credited with creating the new category of “inspirational manga” among booksellers in both the Christian and secular markets.  Since our flagship series SERENITY was announced and launched in 2005, several publishers have started their own lines of inspirational manga, most notably Zondervan.  By our count, the inspirational manga category has grown from six titles when we launched SERENITY with our original publisher Barbour to over 64 announced and published titles today from at least a half a dozen publishers.

Our flagship series SERENITY will be releasing four new titles in January, bringing that series up to a total of 10 full color digest style graphic novels. SERENITY is a comedic teen soap opera about an unhappy girl who finds a happy ending; over 100,000 copies of SERENITY gns have been sold with our first volume hitting the CBA best seller list in January 2006.

Our second series, GOOFYFOOT GURL, is a lifestyle comedy set in the “endless summer” of the California surfing scene; we have four volumes in print and are currently working on two more for release in 2008.

Also in the works are COUPLERS, a star-spanning space opera that serves as a metaphor for courtship and marriage, and HITS & MISSES, a story about a girls’ fast-pitch softball team. COUPLERS is slated for a 2008 launch while HITS & MISSES is on deck for 2009.

All of our titles are inspirational and compatible with the traditional CBA market, although SERENITY is our only overtly Christian title (sharp eyed readers will note the heroines of GOOFYFOOT GURL and HITS & MISSES are Christian as well, though that is not the focal point of those series).  As we are fond of saying, our stories are values reinforcement tools, not overtly evangelical tools (though we have had a lot of feedback from readers thanking us for the strong expressions of faith in the SERENITY series).

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Conversation with comic scholar Greg Garrett

Jules_from_pulp_fictionThis is Part 2. FOR THE REST OF THIS 3-PART SERIES on the creative explosion in spiritually themed Comics, click here: Part 1. Part 3.
    How did you do on yesterday’s SUPER-spiritual Quiz? Superbly?
TODAY, in Part 2 of our 3-day focus on Faith and Comics, we’re thrilled to share a Conversation With Greg Garrett, a leading expert on religion in popular culture.
In an earlier review, we recommended Greg’s book, “The Gospel According to Hollywood.”
However, he’s also the author of an upcoming “Revised and Expanded” edition of his 2005 book on comics: “Holy Superheroes!”
What’s more, Greg is the only Christian writer I’ve ever met — and, perhaps the only Christian, period — whose conversion was sparked by director Quentin Tarantino’s R-rated pot-boiler, “Pulp Fiction!”
MORE on that Amazing Tale in a moment, but first consider this …

Greg is a longtime professor of English at Baylor University in Texas and his personal journey into sacred realms of mythic storytelling is a fascinating echo of C.S. Lewis‘ own pilgrimage from Atheism to Christianity.

One of the defining moments in Lewis’ religious awakening was an encounter with his close friends in which they articulated the nature of faith to Lewis in a strikingly persuasive way. Lewis and his scholarly friends in Britain, who included “Lord of the Rings” creator J.R.R. Tolkien, all adored the world’s mythic literature. In fact, they had devoted their lives to studying and teaching the genre to university students.
Finally, Lewis’ friends got through to him about the powerfully transcendent nature of faith by insisting: Myths can be true! In other words, it wasn’t only in fairy tales that heroes sacrificed themselves for the greater good. Creation, beauty, self-less love and courage don’t exist only as relics of ancient mythology. Quite the reverse, Lewis’ friends argued: These themes endure in stories from ancient times because they resonate from the truth of God.
This led to the celebrated idea of “true myth” and the whole Mythopoeic movement — the rocket fuel that propelled “The Chronicles of Narnia” and the great masterpiece of the movement: “The Lord of the Rings.”
Yesterday, we pointed out a direct-line connection between major shifts in American culture and the growing attention to religious themes in popular comic books. Today, we’re pointing out that there’s also a direct-line connection between Mythopoeia and the exploding interest in spiritual comic books, graphic novels and manga.

Before we go any further — we need to make one thing clear: Yes, Greg is a Christian writer and many of the people exploring spiritual themes in comics are Christian in the U.S. BUT, the interest in comics is truly a multi-faith movement.
Best-selling author Deepak Chopra is developing a line of Hindu comic books that you’ll find on the shelves of your local Borders stores — and he’s also involved in adapting existing comic characters from the U.S. for Asian audiences.
In the Muslim world, the hottest series of comic books is called “The 99,” which finally hit the U.S. in a couple of colorful issues this summer. Check out the series’ homepage if you want read more about these Muslim superheroes.
Spiritually themed comic books, graphic novels and manga are emerging from just about every corner of the religious cosmos these days. In fact, the New York Times recently ran an extensive review of top graphic novels, many of which wrestle with spiritual themes.

O, you get the point. This is a Big Story in Spirituality.
AND — that brings us back to Greg’s conversion story!
For those of you who never saw “Pulp Fiction” — or have forgotten the precise storyline — let me remind you that it’s a sprawling, circular tale about a pair of professional hit men who are stunned, one day, when another gunmen unleashes a hail of bullets at them — and completely misses them.
Jules, played by Samuel L. Jackson, declares this “Divine Intervention” and by the end of the long movie decides that he will turn his back on violence forever — and pursue a new religious vocation. This sudden conversion experience very nearly costs Jules his own life, but even staring down the barrel of a crazy young woman’s pistol, Jule vows: “I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.”

DAVID: Greg, I’m amazed. I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone who was converted by watching “Pulp Fiction.” But if “Pulp Fiction” led to your conversion, then — most comic books are tame by comparison in their treatment of larger-than-life comic themes. I guess it’s easy to see how comic books could play a role in evangelism.
But, first, let’s talk a little more about this fascinating moment. It wasn’t an altar call that moved you. “Pulp Fiction” was your call.
GREG: Well, let me explain that I’m a fairly orthodox person.
I’m an Episcopalian and I’m a pretty serious Episcopalian at this point. I’m still a tenured professor at Baylor, but I’ve also just finished three years of seminary and I have a master’s of divinity from the Episcopal Theological Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, Texas, where I also work now as a writer in residence. I serve as a lay minister in a big downtown church in Austin and I’m exploring the possibility of ordination as an Episcopal priest.
DAVID: But tell us the story of “Pulp Fiction,” because I think this directly relates to the power of mythic, graphic tales to move people spiritually. I see a direct link here between your story and your whole approach to comic books and C.S. Lewis’ own journey toward conversion.
So, tell our readers more about how this unfolded.
GREG: When “Pulp Fiction” came out in 1994, I saw it right away. At that time, I was a very spiritual person, as a lot of Gen-X and Gen-Y people describe themselves, but I wasn’t the least bit religious. I had not found a church or a religious community that spoke to me.
Then, I went to see this movie. It’s powerful. It’s full of violence and vile language, but at the heart of the story I saw these glimpses of grace in the character of Jules.
In Jules, we see a character who feels the touch of God and he decides not to be the sort of person he was, anymore. From that moment on, Jules decides he’s going to be the sort of character who God wants him to be.
Ben_grimm_thing    And I thought: Here in this movie with all the blood and violence and vile language — right there in all the muck and mire of the world — there’s this character played by Samuel L. Jackson who powerfully encounters grace.
DAVID: You’re right. It’s a pretty shocking scene at the end of the movie with all the other lurid things in the storyline to have Jules talking about a passage from Ezekiel and his sense of a divine calling.
GREG: Yes, that movie has all the worst that real life can possibly contain, including these hired killers — but I was so struck by what I saw that I watched that movie seven times! And, when I finally was able to put into words what was going on in my head, I put it like this:
This shows that there can be a turning away from the muck and mire of the world. There can be a turning back toward God. No one ever is too far away from God to make the journey back.
DAVID: I’ve got an early copy of your revised book on comics, which I’ve read — and I’ve already recommended your book on Hollywood to our readers. Overall, what you’re arguing here is that our taste in popular stories these days is becoming more mythic, right?
GREG: Right. Archetypal images are underlining a lot of the stories coming out of Hollywood and showing up in comic books, as well.
DAVID: Like this whole storyline involving Ben Grimm, the super-strong superhero in “The Fantastic Four” comic books and movies — who suddenly revealed proudly that he’s Jewish. And prayed in Hebrew in a comic book. And then suddenly in a popular American superhero comic book, readers are reading about references to Ben Grimm as a sort of Golem figure — the mythic Jewish tale of a sort of un-formed, mighty superhero.

GREG: I think it’s part of a larger resurgence of these stories. That “Fantastic Four” story came out right about the time that “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay” came out.
DAVID: Michael Chabon won the Pulitzer for that. And that’s a novel about the birth of comic books — and how comic culture relates to powerful myths. And, you’re right, there’s the resurfacing of the Golem story again in “Kavalier and Clay.” Who would have thought that an obscure story like the Golem suddenly would wind up back in the popular imagination?
GREG: This is such an incredibly creative area now — and so many people still think that comics are just for kids. Of course, that’s not the case anymore, if you walk into a comic store or look at the graphic novels in a bookstore.
DAVID: One of the things I like about your new edition of “Holy Superheroes!” is that you’ve got this whole list of essential comic books that people should try to read, if they want to understand this very creative genre. I noticed that you’ve got one of my personal favorites in that list: The Sandman.
That’s Neil Gaiman’s creation. He’s a multiple award winner from the Mythopoeic Society for some of his other fiction. And Sandman, which has evolved from these surreal DC comic books to these very elaborate tales of cosmic spiritual struggles — well, Gaiman’s really exploring realms between art, literature, faith and — well, I think you agree with me that Sandman is almost a case study all by itself in how big, broad and global these comic reflections can get, right?
GREG: I have one Sandman example there in my “Essentials” list and, honestly, if I had organized that list just on the basis of the quality of comics, I probably could have filled five slots on the list with different Sandman books.
What Neil Gaiman did in Sandman is to create a mythos that’s as powerful as any of the archetypal stories we’ve seen from different cultures. He has shown us that comics can be high literature. One of the reasons I want to steer people toward Sandman and other comics like this is that, for 20 years, a lot of the best comics have been for older readers.
DAVID: This takes us back to your central point, right? There’s a return to mythic interest in understanding the world — and it’s not a bad thing for people of faith.
GREG: Yes. And, there’s this important crossover between comics and films and TV shows now. Think about the movie “Superman Returns.” The most popular comic books are read by maybe 100,000 to 150,000 people, but films and TV shows have a much wider audience.
Think about this: Bryan Singer, the director of “Superman Returns,” has been very much up front in saying that he was creating a new idea of Superman that was very much like Jesus. Here’s a son sent by a powerful father to redeem Earth.
These stories become a central part of our mythos — the stories that shape who we are and how we live. And, now, it’s more than just comic books. Films and TV shows are bringing these stories to people all around the world.

DAVID: And you’re saying that religious leaders shouldn’t see these as a threat — shouldn’t see these as their enemies. They should see this cultural shift as something that’s potentially positive, right?
GREG: If you’re a minister today, then you’re facing generations of people who aren’t familiar with their own religious traditions. They may not have gone to church or synagogue or a mosque — they may not know anything about the core traditions of their own community’s religious life.
But a starting point may be that they’re impelled by these central spiritual myths. They may want to know more about where these ideas came from originally.
That’s what has driven me to write about religion and culture — to help people see this connection. Lately, when I talk to people, I tell them it’s a way to lay bread crumbs back to the central stories of our faith. So, if we talk about Superman as something like a god-like redeemer, well we’re retelling the story of Jesus, or Messiah, if you’re from the Christian tradition.
DAVID: OK, so going back to “Pulp Fiction.” I’m smiling about this idea. I mean, you’re not suggesting that churches start showing “Pulp Fiction” as an evangelistic outreach.
GREG: With comics, with films — with any form of popular culture — if you’re sifting for spiritual meaning out there, then personal discernment is vital.
“Pulp Fiction” was pivotal in my own spiritual journey, but for other people the subjects and the language in the film may be damaging — may be deeply offensive.
People should take ratings systems seriously. There are ratings on comics, now, too. If a comic says it’s intended for adults — then people should treat that comic like an R-rated movie. Actually, I think a lot of people understand that already. For 20 or 25 years now, more comics have been bought by adults than kids.
DAVID: Well, obviously, our whole theme at ReadTheSpirit is the we should engage popular culture to find those spiritual voices that can be so valuable in our lives.
GREG: Yes, pull the threads together. That’s what I do. Not everyone agrees with me on this. I understand that. I’ve heard from a lot of people, including a lot of Christians, who disagree with me on this. But I say: If you’re so afraid of our popular culture that you want to climb into a Christian ark and pull the ramp up behind you — then you’re going to miss out on some very powerful stories that can teach us a whole lot about our faith.

AND WITH THAT, we close today’s Conversation …
COME BACK TOMORROW for the third and final story in our series on the spiritual revival in comics.
We always want to know what you think. Click on the Comment link at the end of any story on our site to add your thoughts — or Click Here to email me, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.

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Categories: Author InterviewsMovies and TV

058: A SUPER-spiritual Quiz!

Kapow_from_batmanThis is Part 1. FOR THE REST OF THIS 3-PART SERIES on the creative explosion in spiritually themed Comics, click here: Part 2. Part 3.

IF YOU’VE landed on this page from Google — or various links from our friends’ pages and blogs — PLEASE be aware that ReadTheSpirit continues to explore the important impact of comics, graphic novels and manga. We actually designed a class around “The Manga Bible.” AND, we published a 2-day series on “Gospel According to …” guru Robert Short.

iff! Bam! Pow! That’s the sound of ReadTheSpirit knocking out another wall to expand our online home and make room for — Thwack! — the rapidly growing realm of spiritually themed comic books, manga and graphic novels!
    If this seems like a bizarre idea, come back tomorrow for our Conversation With a leading expert in this field: Greg Garrett, professor at Baylor University and a longtime scholar of Faith & Culture. In 2005, Greg published one of the most influential overviews of this whole realm: “Holy Superheroes! Faith and Spirituality in Comic Books.”
    But, there’s so much religious creativity in these genres that Greg already has extensively updated his book — and a whole new “Revised and Expanded Edition” of “Holy Superheroes!” is due out from WJK Press by February.
    If you’re intrigued by this new realm — come back on Thursday for a special story showcasing some of the writers and artists producing this astonishing diversity of books, magazines and online comics.

    TODAY, we’re saluting a true media pioneer who is helping to Make the Comic World Safe for faith.
    He’s a Texas computer programmer, Preston Hunter, and a decade ago he created one of the Internet’s most popular hubs for religious data: Adherents-dot-com. Click Here to visit our growing list of ReadTheSpirit-Recommended Web Sites. Today, we’re adding Hunter’s vast site to that evolving list.
    That’s because of Hunter’s fascinating focus on religious affiliation, in general.
    However, today’s quiz is a special salute to the enormous amount of data he has collected on the religious affiliation of scores of comic book superheroes.

    SERIOUSLY — a major cultural shift that’s showing up now even in the most popular comic books is a new openness to expressing characters’ spirituality. Hunter, Garrett and other observers argue that this shift in comics reflects a larger shift in American culture.
    What they’re finding in comic books, graphic novels and Japanese-influenced manga is yet another tip of the cultural iceberg documented from World Values Survey data by University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker in “America’s Crisis of Values“: As Americans, we’re overwhelmingly religious and increasingly we feel it’s our right to express ourselves about our faith.
    Think about that — and come back over the next two days to explore more fully the expression of these ideas in comics.

    But — right now — let’s get to today’s 10 Question SUPER Quiz:
    INSTRUCTIONS: Match these Superheroes to the religious affiliations Hunter’s web site attributes to each one. When you think you’ve got all 10 matched up — click on the link at the
end — and the correct answers will pop up. If you’re a daily subscriber by
Email (you can sign up for free on the right-hand side of our site),
we’re sorry that you don’t get this Click-to-See-the-Answers feature in
your Email versions — so, please don’t read too far ahead today, if
you’re an email reader.


    1.) Superman

    2.) Batman

    3.) Mr. Fantastic, Reed Richards, of the Fantastic Four

    4.) The Thing, Ben Grimm, of the Fantastic Four

    5.) The Invisible Girl, Susan Storm, of the Fantastic Four

    6.) Wonder Woman

    7.) The Hulk, Bruce Banner

    8.) Captain America

    9.) The Flash

    10.) Hal Jordan, the most famous of the Green Lanterns

    BONUS QUESTION: So, what’s Lois Lane? (No, she’s not included in any of the following 10 affiliations.)


    A.) Believes in God, but a Humanist with a strong scientific focus.

    B.) Noted as quite a religious person — although not terribly active as an Episcopalian.

    C.) Follows Greco-Roman religious traditions — perhaps called “pagan” in modern terms.

    D.) Generically Protestant. Attends church every week.

    E.) Most likely Protestant, but pretty much inactive — although there’s a long-running debate over whether this character really is Jewish.

    F.) Currently, the most famous Jewish character among super heroes.

    G.) No question about it — grew up Methodist, but not really active as an adult.

    H.) Catholic. And shown in a Catholic wedding to underscore the affiliation.

    I.) Hmmm. Debatable. Perhaps Jewish. Perhaps Catholic. Perhaps not part of any earth-based religion.

    J.) Another mysterious affiliation. Debatable whether Episcopalian or Catholic.

    When you think you’ve got all the answers, CLICK on the link below in the online version of this
quiz, and the ANSWERS will pop up!

    Ready? CLICK for the ANSWERS below …


1.) Superman. G.
    Preston Hunter points out that Clark Kent always was depicted as growing up in a solid, Midwestern, church-going, Protestant family — although an explicit reference to his youthful Methodism didn’t crop up in print until recent years. After his super powers fully developed, however, Clark felt uncomfortable attending Sunday services.

    2.) Batman. J.
    According to Hunter’s site, Bruce Wayne’s parents were from these two different denominations. Batman is increasingly depicted as an exceedingly dark and mysterious super hero — and certainly lapsed from any organized religious tradition.

    3.) Mr. Fantastic. A.
    Reed has said as much in Fantastic Four storylines. What’s more — in one mythic storyline — Mr. Fantastic actually meets God. In the movie version of The Fantastic Four, this is a somewhat striking culture clash of images, because Mr. Fantastic is portrayed by Welsh actor Ioan Gruffudd, who also starred in the movie “Amazing Grace” as William Wilberforce!

    4.) The Thing, Ben Grimm. F.
    If you’re not already familiar with the recent history of comic books — this is one of the astonishing tales. After decades in which writers downplayed serious religious themes in comics, the creators of the Fantastic Four’s storyline portrayed Ben Grimm as suddenly revealing a proud connection to his Jewish faith. In one key comic book issue, he prayed in Hebrew and spoke proudly of his religious heritage.

    5.) The Invisible Girl, Susan Storm. B.
    The Fantastic Four writers must be intrigued by this new openness to spirituality. It’s true: Although she doesn’t regularly attend services, the Invisible Girl is singled out in print as especially religious.

    6.) Wonder Woman. C.
    If you’ve read her comics, you know. This one isn’t much of a mystery, Hunter says.

    7.) The Hulk, Bruce Banner. H.
    Hunter’s site says there’s really no question about this affiliation. The clearest evidence is that Dr. Banner was married in a Catholic ceremony to a Catholic woman.

    8.) Captain America. D.
    Knowing the Captain’s longstanding history as a cultural icon, going way back to the World War II era, it’s not surprising that he was portrayed this way, Hunter suggests. If you haven’t noticed this, though, Captain America is back in a big way since 9/11 — and he famously defends religious diversity now!

    9.) The Flash. E.
    The speedy super hero seems to be Protestant, Hunter’s site says, although religion plays little role in his life, apparently. But, among comic fans, there’s a famous storyline in which someone wishes him a “Happy Channukah,” spelled just that way.

    10.) Hal Jordan as Green Lantern. I.
    He’s a toss up religiously, Hunter’s site suggests. Like a lot of comic characters, the few tantalizing clues about his spiritual affiliation have evolved over the years. That’s not even mentioning the fact that, down through comic history, there have been more than one Green Lantern.

    BONUS: Lois Lane is Catholic, although she may not be a Catholic in good standing with the church. Hunter’s site nails this down in several fascinating ways. Apparently, an earlier writer of Lois Lane comic books — a popular series devoted to her own adventures — makes a point of saying that Catholicism was an intentional part of Lois’ back story, even though it wasn’t explicitly a part of the comics for years. Hunter’s site picks up other evidence, as well.

How’d you do?
    Remember — if
you enjoyed this week’s
quiz, you can print it or email the entire text it to a friend. We
only ask that you credit the quiz to “David Crumm” and
“” (If you’re new to ReadTheSpirit, we often run
quizzes on Tuesdays and you can quickly find our past quizzes by
finding the “Categories” area on our Web site and clicking on the
“Tuesday Quiz” category!)

    Tell us what you think. Click Here to email me, David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.
    AND: COME BACK TOMORROW FOR Day 2 in our 3-Day series on the Spirituality of Comics!

    OR, click on the “Digg” link below and add a very brief “digg” comment — even a phrase — to this story’s listing on Digg-It, which will tell even more folks worldwide that it’s worth reading:


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Categories: Uncategorized

057: What You’re Reading, Hearing, Seeing!

    Thank you, readers! We plan our coverage based on your interests — and this entire week we’re focusing on spiritual themes that you’ve told us are important.
    In TODAY’s story, we’re reporting to our growing worldwide readership about some of the books, films and music that you have told us are truly inspiring.
    Then, come back Tuesday through Thursday for our first-ever coverage of a spiritual realm that a number of readers have urged us to explore: Zowee! It’s the rapidly rising realm of spirituality among super heroes, comic books and graphic novels! That three-day series of stories kicks off tomorrow with our weekly quiz.
    On Friday, we’ll wrap up the week with more of your favorite religiously themed Web sites. Yes, there’s still time to send in nominations for Friday’s story. (You can do that easily by leaving a comment or sending an email via links at the end of this story.)

    FIRST, just in the nick of time for Christmas, a special “Thanks!” goes to Patrick Ogle of Chicago for urging us to tell you about “Dark Noel,” one of the strangest and most awe-inspiring holiday music CDs that we’ve heard in years.
    “It is a very different angle on holiday and sacred music,” Patrick wrote. And that’s a perfect way to describe the appeal of this CD, produced by an independent music label known as Projekt.
    (With any of today’s recommendations — and all of our ReadTheSpirit articles — click on the titles or cover images to jump to our individual reviews. You also can purchase copies from Amazon directly through our site.)
    I wound up going to unusual lengths to review “Dark Noel.” That’s because this CD is a sampler of genres that are different from most of the music in my personal iTunes collection. For instance, I don’t carry many “darkwave”-genre tunes around with me.
    The photo at left is from a performance of the band Arcanta that produced the truly striking version of “Carol of the Bells” on the new CD that evokes medieval memories.
    So, I invited three college students to listen to tracks from the CD and their responses all were raves — sufficient praise for me to feel confident in my own recommendation of the CD.
    My favorite student reviews were: “Sweeeeeeet!” (that was a 1-word emailed review complete with 7 e’s) and “Weird! I LIKE it!” and finally, “I think my Mom will think she hates it until she hears it and then she’ll like it, too.”

    NEXT, a reader in the UK who signed his email, Edmund, nudged me politely toward including another holiday musical delight: “The Birth of Christ.” You might have seen this concert-on-film airing on PBS television stations or you may have seen the musical soundtrack on CD.
    My suggestion is that you buy the DVD to enjoy the full experience.
    “This was terribly good news, many of us feel,” Edmund wrote. “And I don’t see much in American media about this. … Perhaps you can put in just a word.”
    He was referring to the concert that was filmed at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin where Protestant and Catholic choirs came together to perform a new choral work, “The Birth of Christ,” by American-born composer Andrew T. Miller.
    Want to know how serious an event this was? Well, it was hosted by Liam Neeson and, at least in the DVD version, Neeson appears on screen between movements to read from the Nativity narrative in Luke.

    STAYING with the medium of film and the idea of courageously exploring the darkness that is a part of “Winter Light,” I received an email from Emi Foulk, a freelance writer who recently earned her master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University in New York City.
    Emi suggested we tell people about one of the newer editions of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s films.
    She wrote: “You might add Ingmar Bergman’s films, particularly his trilogy of ‘Through a Glass Darkly,’ ‘Winter Light’ and ‘The Silence,’ all available on DVD through Criterion, to a future spiritual cinema post. These aren’t recent, to be sure, and aren’t necessarily the easiest films to watch, but I found their approach to spirituality and God unique, harrowing and, above all, thought-provoking.
    “As you probably already know, Bergman was the son of a Lutheran minister and that greatly informs his film-making,” Emi wrote. “I find your interviews very interesting — too bad you can’t interview him!”
    That’s because Bergman died on June 30 this year and we launched this site in September. Nevertheless, what an amazing spirit he left us in his 62 films, including this trilogy that ranks among his most provocative reflections on faith.

    FINALLY, a physician, Dr. Joffer Hakim, was among a number of readers who have emailed since our September review of Imam Hassan Qazwini’s new book, “American Crescent,” to urge that we further recommend the book to readers.
    Well, we’ll do that today in Dr. Hakim’s own words: “If people are genuinely interested in understanding Islam and how a Muslim lives his life in this country, this is the book to read. The Islam depicted on television is as foreign to Muslims as it is to non-Muslims. Real Islam, as practiced by Imam Qazwini, is beautifully illustrated in his book. I recommend this book without reservation.”
    And, for a second time here at ReadTheSpirit, we do, too. We’re doing this because so many readers have urged us to do so.

    That should underscore that we really do mean it when we say: Please, tell us what you think. You can do so by leaving a Comment via the link at the end of this story on our Web site — or by Emailing me, David Crumm.
    See you tomorrow! And, until then: Zowee!!!

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Categories: Movies and TV

Sheila Schussler’s Strawberry Fluff

0_lynne_schreiber_grandma     Author Lynne Meredith Schreiber shares with ReadTheSpirit readers her wonderful, short memoir, “Inherit The Earth,” which focuses on the power of food and family traditions to connect us with larger religious traditions.

     In addition to sharing that story — she has provided her grandmother’s traditional recipe for strawberry fluff that she mentions in her story. This is her grandmother smiling at us, at left.

    Here her recipe:

    Sheila Schussler’s Strawberry Fluff

    Beat 2 egg whites and a pinch of salt until stiff.

    Gradually add 8 T. (1/2 c.) sugar, beating constantly.
    Add 1 pint sliced
strawberries and continue beating 15-20 minutes.
    Chill thoroughly.

    Serve atop
sponge cake or pound cake.

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Categories: Uncategorized

056: Flavors of Hanukkah, a Special Story

Hanukkah_candlesHAPPY HANUKKAH! This is the 5th of 5 Hanukkah stories.
Click here to read: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

    It’s Friday and we’re bringing our special, week-long salute to the themes of Hanukkah to a close with one last story. We’ve saved a true gem for Friday, a short memoir from author Lynne Meredith Schreiber.
    Sometimes we illustrate our stories with generic photos. But, two of the photos that appear with today’s stories were taken at Schreiber’s home. Pay special attention to those 2 images, below, of the beloved cookbooks from her family. To see those photos more clearly, click on them and they’ll enlarge.
    To read our recommendation and review of Lynne’s book “Hide and Seek,” click on that book cover.

    Come back, starting on Monday, for some amazing stories about the spirituality of Super Heroes — and other comic characters. (No kidding.) Plus, in the coming week, we’ll share a fresh Quiz — and lots more of your recommendations that you’ve sent to us about great spiritual books and fascinating Web sites.   

Hide_and_seek_schreiberBut now, it’s time to settle back and enjoy this gem. The story is called …

Inheriting The Earth

By Lynne Meredith Schreiber

“Grandpa always made the salad,” I say in the dark of my five-year-old son’s room. “He chopped cucumbers and tomatoes very small and diced hard-boiled eggs to throw on top.” Asher scrunches his nose; he doesn’t like eggs.
    Grandma’s veal scallopine was made of thin slices of veal in bubbling tomato sauce. When I ate there on Friday nights as a child, Grandpa raced through the prayer over wine, sending me, my sister and grandmother into fits of giggles. Grandpa was Weeble-like with a hawk-like nose, but he laughed heartily and his hands were satin-soft. Even in my twenties, I held his hand, the wide square smooth nails, freckles from age and sun dotting his warm skin, holding on, both of us, as if for balance.
    “Tell what you had for dessert,” Asher urges. When I say, “Fudgsicles,” he leans back on the pillow, arms behind his head. It’s as if we ate gold.

    Friday nights at my grandparents’ house were lit by flickering candlelight and the low rumble of Hebrew prayers. They were the only people in my family to celebrate the Sabbath. Saturday mornings, I trailed after my grandfather’s long wool tallit prayer shawl at services, sitting amid the hush of the sanctuary and sneaking single-bite chocolate layer cakes and plastic cups of grape juice afterwards. When I became religious in my 20s, I credited my grandparents with lighting my Jewish spark, even though I went beyond their observances – not driving from sundown Friday until three stars twinkled in the Saturday night sky and eating only kosher food, in restaurants and strict homes. That ruled out my grandparents’ home.
    “Are you never going to eat in our house again?” Grandpa asked me one cold winter night. The son of Orthodox immigrants from Poland, Grandpa revered ritual but compromised to bring people together. A candle flickered on our restaurant table, casting shadows against the white bread-basket napkin. Menus lay at the table edge. I would have the steak.
    “I’m religious because of you,” I whispered.
    “What a legacy we’re leaving,” he said, hugging Grandma.

0_grandmas_cookbooks_l_schreiber    But it wasn’t so easy. Cooking, food, the quest for control over the family table, brought us together as well as it ripped us apart.
    Identity comes from so many places –- my parents gave me fashion- and business-sense and a knowledge of the world while my grandparents grounded me in ancient traditions. As Hanukkah approaches, and Jews everywhere recall the destruction of the holy Temple by the Greeks and the subsequent miracle of a day’s worth of oil burning for eight, so they could adequately rebuild, I think of the destructions and rebuildings that take place in our lives every day.
     I’m lucky because, after a decade of being religious, I found a way to be respectful of tradition AND balanced –- eating once again at the family table, making compromises as my family did so that we could all be together. That gift of family, of knowing who I am in a context of people, is priceless.
    But there have been other gifts, too, like the creased, weathered cookbooks that Grandma gave to me after my grandfather passed away. My kitchen is home to 99 cookbooks with splattered, stained pages creased from years of beloved use. The titles I consider to be art. We decorate our rooms with details of what matters and in my home’s heart, the warped white laminate kitchen where I bake zucchini-carrot bread and roll matzoh balls between wet hands, the counter on which my children sprinkle cheese and chopped olives onto homemade pizza and punch bread dough that we’ll all shape into loaves, color comes from cookbooks.

    Grandpa died after I’d been completely religious for four years. In his last months, he and Grandma cried when they looked at one another, knowing an end was near. Their sad passion was as intense as their joy singing over the Sabbath table. A few months after we buried Grandpa in the tree-lined cemetery, my grandmother gave me her cookbooks.
    “Who would I cook for now?” she said.
    I fingered the pile of four well-loved books. The binding had fallen apart on The Settlement Cook Book. Scotch-tape held the 1945 Jewish Cook Book together, while a rubberband secured A Treasure for My Daughter. Hidden in Guide for the Jewish Homemaker and Jewish Cooking for Pleasure, I found note cards with Grandma’s handwriting, shortcuts and commentary in the margins.
    More than using them, I run my fingers over their cracked covers, trying to remember my childhood, my history in the pages. Did I scribble in thick black crayon across the pages? Or were those thick lines from my mother’s childhood, Grandma in an apron and spray-frozen hair? I imagine Mom and her siblings in the yard or down the street or later, me and my sister pounding the piano keys as the old dog Clancy lay on the blue living room carpet.

    As a child, my religion was food more than prayer and in a way it still is: velvety brisket strips in a bubbling tomato sauce and satiny chicken soup with fluffy matzoh balls; gefilte fish balls with hats of soft carrot, mashed fried cow’s liver, and a shining, jewel-toned jell-o mold with fruit inside. The table – my grandmother’s, my mother’s, my aunts’, mine – holds china and white linens, as the kitchen emanates the coming meal’s sweet husky scent. On Passover, the crowning moment at the seder table for me is not songs or stories but Grandma’s light-as-air strawberry fluff dolloped atop sponge-cake.
    When I took on religion, I was really immersing myself in the world of my ancestors. Tradition is the ultimate gift, I now know, which is why I lay in bed at night, recounting the way my grandfather made salad so my children will know this important part of him. They’ll never touch his hands or hear his belly laugh, but at least they’ll know the tastes he loved.
    A friend once told me that Jews should be observant, first and foremost, because God told us to follow the ancient ways. That’s not why I do it. I believe there is wisdom in all ways of living Jewishly and for me, the hours I spend in my kitchen, whipping eggs, mixing vegetables, roasting chicken with half-a-lemon inside, zest pressed into its skin, are some of the most important ways that I live my heritage.
    Some nights, I try Grandma’s recipes. I’ve mashed canned salmon with onion, paprika, cornflake crumbs and a well-beaten egg for patties, a favorite Settlement Cook Book recipe, modified with Grandma’s notes. But most nights, I make modern favorites: vegetable-rich recipes or new ways to fry an age-old cut of meat.

    “When I am grown up, will you come to my house?” my four-year-old daughter Eliana asks.
    I nod and reach for her still-pudgy soft hand. “Of course. As much as I can,” I say, thinking of the muffins and kugels and roasts and soups I’ll make for her freezer. Just the way, when I was a new college graduate working in Manhattan, Grandma sent a clothing box filled with her velvety sugar-dusted brownies. I ate half a dozen, then took them to my office. Colleagues gathered around my desk until the box was empty, sharing their stories about family and food.
    In the kitchen, Eliana stands on a chair next to me, tearing lettuce leaves into a wooden bowl. I chop scallions and tomatoes; she tastes a cucumber slice before scattering the rest over the salad. When I put garlic, mustard, oil and spices in a jar for dressing, she shakes it hard, her long blond hair swishing back and forth. Even my baby, Shaya, stands on a chair beside me, dipping his finger in batter for a taste. Dinner is salad, quiche, soup from the freezer. My eldest, Asher, will eat slices of smoked cheese and turn up his nose at what I’ve made. Eliana will try a little bit of everything.
     Regardless of our preferences and personal tastes, my children will know that one of the best ways we give to others is to create heart-warming meals that not only fill our bellies, they sustain our souls.

0_lynne_schreiber_author    Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a writer in Southfield, Michigan who focuses on how people find meaning in the mundane. Her work has appeared in Saveur, Better Homes and Gardens, AARP, and the Chicago Tribune. She has written six books, including “Hide and Seek: Jewish women and hair covering.”

   AS a special TREAT, Lynne also is sharing her grandmother’s recipe for strawberry fluff, which is mentioned in this story. It’s a traditional family recipe, so you’ll find it quite different from the typical recipes for preparing fluff today. CLICK HERE to jump to the recipe.

 Tell us what you think. Leave a comment at the end of this story on our Web site — or Click Here to email the Editor David Crumm directly.

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Categories: Jewish

055: Where Did You Find Faith? A Holiday Story

Journeys_to_a_jewish_life_2 HAPPY HANUKKAH! This is the 4th of 5 Hanukkah stories.
Click here to read: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5.

Where did you find faith?
    Where did your spiritual journey start?

    We’re kicking off what we hope will become a ReadTheSpirit tradition of sharing personal, real-life holiday stories. We’ve already got some gems lined up for the week before Christmas. Today and Friday, we’re sharing Hanukkah stories — personal memoirs by musician and teacher Elaine Greenberg and author Lynne Meredith Schreiber.
    Both of these stories are about the often surprising sources of faith — places along our pathways in life where new spiritual energy seems to spring unexpectedly from our religious traditions.
    Just in time for New Year’s Resolutions, there’s a terrific new book about this very idea from the creative people at Jewish Lights press, called, “Journeys to a Jewish Life: Inspiring Stories from the Spiritual Journeys of American Jews.” (Click on the cover of the book to jump to our review and buy a copy, if you wish.)
    Here’s the Important Point: If you’re not Jewish, you’ll still enjoy Paula Amann’s new book by Jewish Lights, because you’ll discover immediately that the basic idea she describes in her book is a universal principle.

    Anyone who has a lively faith — certainly anyone among the thousands of people of faith I’ve interviewed over the past quarter of a century — will tell you that there have been unexpected spiritual connections in their lives. No, not everyone’s connection is as grand as envisioning an angel or experiencing something we might call a miracle.
    Our connections are rarely that grand.
    Sometimes, connections are as common as pulling out an old scrapbook and suddenly finding yourself warmed by beloved memories — and sometimes connections are as simple as meeting your neighbors and discovering their religious traditions.
    In fact, this is what most of us love about our faith: It often surprises us, doesn’t it?
    In Amann’s book, she writes about people who found faith through music, the arts, reading, social action, good food and a host of other points along the human journey. Here’s how a typical chapter opens: “Natasha Hirschhorn rediscovered her Jewish heritage in a song, or rather, in 11 of them. Browsing for new material one day, the Ukrainian native, then a musicology student at the Gnesin Music College in Moscow, came across a score that jolted her: ‘From the Jewish Folk Poetry.'”
    And the story goes on from that surprising moment of discovery in Moscow. Grab a copy of the book, whatever your faith, and I’ll bet you’ll enjoy Amann’s collection of stories.

    Our holiday story today — a mini-memoir really — comes from musician and educator Elaine Greenberg. The connection she describes in this short piece came about through simply meeting her family’s neighbors.
    Elaine experienced this kind of connection as a little girl. Then, for many years since then, she has continued to find renewed faith in the act of meeting new people.
    Don’t misunderstand what Elaine and I are writing today. Judaism is the spiritual core of her life and, as a cancer survivor who is an accomplished master at summoning the resources of prayer, Elaine has been a personal inspiration to me over the years. She has recommended Jewish prayer books to me and, on Wednesday this week, she emailed me about our story concerning Dinah Berland’s Jewish prayer book.
    Elaine wrote: “I read ReadTheSpirit every day, but I knew that I would especially love your Conversation With Dinah Berland. I use her prayer book every evening. It is beautifully written.
    “But, I
was blown away by the fact that her
Rabbi’s wife’s family came from the same little Czech town that Fanny Neuda was
from. In  reading about Edith and the picture she
received from Dinah — a picture that was of her own grandfather’s birthday and all the
relatives — I was thinking about my favorite word ‘bashert,’ which means ‘it was meant to
be.’ God has plans for all of us. Otherwise, why would
the two women have made a connection? Fascinating story.”

    Well, the truth is that more than 2 women made a connection through yesterday’s story. Yes, it’s true that there were 2 women described in the story about the photograph that passed from Dinah to Edith. But, Elaine and other readers around the world made connections with that story yesterday.
    What’s more — Dinah herself emailed me later yesterday to report that, through one of those helpful readers of yesterday’s story about Fanny Neuda’s prayer book — Dinah received information that pointed her toward a database of family names that she had overlooked. Quickly checking that database online, Dinah discovered fresh linkages to Fanny’s family — and she may now be back on track toward actually meeting some of Fanny’s relatives early next year.
    Isn’t that remarkable? We’ll keep you posted in coming months on what happens with Dinah’s search. I know that many of you were moved by yesterday’s story and want to follow Dinah’s progress.

    So, TODAY, here is Elaine’s own story.
    Sometimes, spiritual connections involve big, international searches like Dinah’s search for Fanny’s family. Sometimes, spiritual connections are as simple as meeting the neighbors.
    The photographs at right and below show Elaine as a little girl. The second one shows Elaine posed proudly with some of her relatives.
    Also note that, today, we will use Elaine’s preferred spelling of the holiday. (If you want to know more about the various spellings of the holiday, jump back to read our Tuesday Quiz.)

    Elaine’s story is simple and yet it is a bright holiday light, as well:

I was a young girl, Chanukah was not a big holiday, and gift giving was
not what it is today, so our family (uncles, aunts, grandmother) put
our names in a container, and everyone picked out one name and that was
the person they were to buy a gift for. My Uncle Hy had my name and
bought the complete score (on 78 records) of Walt Disney’s “Snow White
and The Seven Dwarfs.” I think I still have that album.

  When our children were small, we still weren’t making a big deal
about Chanukah, but one year decided to give them eight gifts, one for each
night of the holiday. I tried to be very clever and the last night each
one of our children, ages 4 to 10 (well, maybe not the 4 year old) got
a key to the house. They thought that was fabulous! How times have

 But my favorite story of all is from the earlier years of my life.
    This goes all the way back to 1944, when I was just about to turn 9 years old and my mother and father finally saved enough money to buy our very own home. Such excitement! The house was everything my parents could have asked for with the exception of the outer color of the house, which was dark red, almost brown, and the ceiling in the kitchen, which was a blinding bright red.
    We had a fireplace, which wasn’t lit too terribly often. To my father’s delight, we even had a screened-in porch that ran the entire width of the house. My father spent many a hot summer night sleeping on that porch and, since there was no such thing as air conditioning, we all spent many summer days and nights on that front porch.
    In the corner of the kitchen, there was a small shelf about chest-high that served as a telephone shelf.  On the white walls surrounding that telephone shelf were a ton of telephone numbers. You see, my father would call Information, no charge in those days, and didn’t have paper readily available, so he wrote the numbers on the kitchen walls. I do believe, when we sold that house, the numbers were still on the walls.


 On one side of this house, we had what was called a four-flat where four separate families lived. But, on the other side of our house, there was a single-family dwelling that was somewhat smaller than ours.  The husband and wife who lived there were Frank and Marie Honel.
    Unfortunately, our first encounter with the Honels was not a pleasant one. It involved a lamp that had come with our new home — one of those things the previous owners had left behind.
    When Mrs. Honel paid us her very first visit, we found out that she and her husband came from Germany in 1938. When we moved into our home in 1944, the war was still going on in Europe, so here we had a Jewish family and a German family living next door to one another. In itself, this could have caused problems.
     But the lamp touched off the conflict. Mrs. Honel came to visit us because she insisted that the previous owners were aware of Mrs. Honel’s affection for this particular lamp — and had promised that it would be given to Mrs. Honel in the transition. When the lamp never made it to Mrs. Honel’s house, she apparently decided she would come over and claim it from the home’s new occupants.
    My mother knew nothing about this supposed arrangement. In fact, she rather liked that lamp.
    You can imagine the altercation that followed. It ended with our neighbor walking out of our house in a huff, mumbling something about “Jews.” We didn’t speak to them for quite a while. I don’t know how long.
    But, eventually, a kind of peace settled in between the two families.


When our neighbors immigrated from Germany, they brought with them a household full of furniture. Their house was cozy and comfortable with antiques and all kinds of other interesting stuff they brought with them from their homeland.
    Among their belongings were beautiful Christmas decorations, including heirloom tree ornaments that they used every year.
    Mr. and Mrs. Honel had no children. As I recall it, Mrs. Honel seemed almost reluctant one winter when she surprised me by asking if I would like to trim their Christmas tree with them. Their ornaments were beautiful and I wanted to help.
    I had to ask for my parents’ permission, of course. They were Orthodox Jews, but my mother gave her permission. And, we hit it off. From then on, the Honel tree wasn’t trimmed until “their girl” — and that was me — was there to help them.
    How well I remember those figures under their tree that depicted the birth of Jesus.
    Of course, I didn’t know that one day I would visit Israel and, as part of my trip, I would visit Bethlehem and see where Jesus was born.
    We even exchanged gifts. The Honels got Christmas gifts from us. We got Chanukah gifts from them.

    I treasure those memories of sitting in their home, a young girl sharing with this elderly couple. In their wonderful kitchen, I would talk with Mrs. Honel as I helped her bake goodies in an old-fashioned wood-burning stove.
    Why do I cherish this memory?
    Because of the love I felt in that connection with the Honels — and the forgiveness that allowed us finally to cross over all that had separated us and finally share that love.


 Tell us what you think. Click Here to email me, David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site.

    COME BACK Tomorrow for author Lynne Meredith Schreiber’s story. If you’d like to read more about the theme of Forgiveness — and missed our story on that theme 2 weeks ago — click here to read that.

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Categories: Jewish