Guest Writer Cindy La Ferle on “Why I Still Love Halloween”

TODAY, guest writer Cindy LaFerle visits ReadTheSpirit again with a delightful, new, holiday-themed story:

WHY I STILL LOVE HALLOWEEN

By CINDY LaFERLE

A_halloween_skeleton_goes_trick_or_From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,

Good lord, deliver us!
A Scottish saying

Halloween always stirs a delicious caldron of memories.
Baby boomers are a nostalgic bunch, and most of us can recall at least one costume we wore in grade school. Wearing yards of pink tulle and a homemade foil crown, I dressed up as Miss America when I was in the first grade in 1960. And who could forget trick-or-treating in packs until our pillowcases were too heavy to lug around the block?

While the holiday suffered a lull in the 1970s, the “season of the witch” now competes with Christmastime as the biggest party season of the year. And with all due respect to religious groups refusing to celebrate it, I never thought of Halloween as inherently evil.

In fact, I always felt a little sad for one of my son’s grade-school pals, whose born-again Christian parents refused to let him wear a costume, attend Halloween parties, or go trick-or-treating
with the neighborhood kids on Halloween night. While I respected the family’s religious devotion, I disagreed with their conviction that the holiday’s pre-Christian history was a threat to their faith. (I wanted to remind them that Christmas trees and Easter baskets also boasted pre-Christian, pagan origins. But I kept my mouth shut.)

British and Irish historians are also quick to remind us that “All Hallows Eve” did not originate as a gruesome night of devil worship—though I’ll be the first to admit that American retailers, film producers, and merchants who cash in on Halloween are guilty of adding their own mythology—and gore. Regardless, in my view, what most of us seem to enjoy about the holiday is the creativity factor.

Stepping over age limits, Halloween extends an open invitation to play dress-up. It inspires us to raid attics and local thrift shops for the most outlandish outfits we can jumble together. If only for one magical night, it gives us permission to drop the dull disguise of conformity.

For flea-market junkies like me, Halloween is reason enough to hoard pieces of vintage clothing and jewelry that, by all rights, should have been donated to charity ages ago. My husband now refers to our attic as “the clothing museum,” and with good reason. Friends who have trouble rustling up an outfit will often call for help during dress-up emergencies. (“Can I borrow one of your medieval jester hats for a clown costume?” is not an unusual request.)

Over the years, in fact, I’ve collected so many crazy hats that we have to store them in a large steamer trunk behind the living room couch. Those hats get the most wear near Halloween, when even the most reserved engineer who visits will try on a pith helmet or a plumed pirate hat and wear it to the dinner table.

And why not? Historically speaking, the holiday has always been a celebration of the harvest, a madcap prelude to the more dignified ceremonials of Thanksgiving.

Halloween’s deep roots weave back more than 2,000 years to the early Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It was originally known as the festival of Samhain, according to Caitlin Matthews, a Celtic scholar and author of The Celtic Book of Days (Destiny Books). The festival, she explains, marked the end of the farming season and the beginning of the Celtic new year. Lavish banquet tables were prepared for the ancestors, who were believed to pierce the veil between the living and the dead on the eve of Samhain. It was also time to rekindle the bonfires that would sustain the clans in winter.

“In the Christian era,” Matthews writes, “the festival was reassigned to the Feast of All Saints; however, many of the customs surrounding modern Halloween still concern this ancient understanding of the accessibility of the dead.”

And we can thank our Irish immigrants for the jack-o’-lantern, which reputedly wards off evil spirits. This custom evolved from the old practice of carving out large turnips and squash, then illuminating them with candles. The term jack-o’-lantern was derived from a folk tale involving a crafty Irishman named Jack, who outwitted the Devil.

On cool October nights, when the moon is bright and leaves scatter nervously across the sidewalk, a bittersweet chill runs up and down my spine. I like to recall a favorite quote from Ray Bradbury, whose affection for Halloween surpasses even mine: “If you enjoy living, it is not difficult to keep the sense of mystery and wonder.”

And I think of my beloved Scottish grandparents, who left their exhausted farms in the Orkney Islands to begin new lives in United States in the 1920s. I recall the knee-cracking highland folk dances they taught me, and the silly lyrics to their rural old-country tunes. I remember their hard-won wisdom, and how much I still miss their love.

Like my Celtic ancestors, I’m moved to take stock of my own “harvest”—how much I’ve accomplished throughout the year, and how many things I’ve left undone. My to-do list is yards long. There are parts of the world I haven’t seen; stories I haven’t written; debts and favors to repay. I marvel at the mellow beauty of the season, which has always been my favorite, but also feel a little sad that one more year is drawing to its close.

All said and done, I like to think of Halloween as the big good-bye party we throw for autumn’s final weeks. And a toast to the year ahead. All in good fun.

CARE TO READ MORE?

Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published essayist and author of Writing Home, an award-winning collection of essays. Her writing has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, Catholic Digest, The Detroit Free Press, Michigan BLUE, Reader’s Digest, Victoria, and many other publications. She enjoys posting inspirational quotes with her photography on her blog, “Things that Make Me Happy” Cindy visited ReadTheSpirit earlier with a story about her appreciation for Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

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Categories: Christian

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

By DAVID CRUMM, ReadTheSpirit Editor

What’s the mission of an interfaith activist?

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

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

FAITH & PUBLIC POLICY UNITE

Reasa Currier speaking to a grup (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WHY FAITH GROUPS CARE

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

Buddha receiving honey from a monkey (1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

REFUSING TO SLIDE INTO DESPAIR

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to get involved?

Learn about the Faith Outreach division of HSUS.

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

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

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Categories: Children and FamiliesChristianJewishMuslimNatural WorldPeacemaking

Iona meets Interfaith Peacemakers in John Philip Newell’s ‘Rebirthing of God’

Dramatic peaks vistas and drop offs in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland photo by Nigel Brown Wikimedia

A dramatic landscape: Peaks, vistas and dangerous drop offs in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland.

The Rebirthing of God by John Philip Newell SkyLight Paths Publishing

Click the cover to visit the book’s main page at SkyLight Paths.

WE at ReadTheSpirit magazine sometimes overlook great new books, until colleagues reach out to us and urge us to recommend them. Such is the case with John Philip Newell’s new The Rebirthing of God: Christianity’s Struggle for New Beginnings, which was released some months ago.

Of course we can heartily recommend this book! ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and Publisher John Hile have made multiple pilgrimages to the centuries-old Christian community on the island of Iona, which defines John Philip’s life and is a cornerstone of the stories in this slim new volume. And, we have recommended his other books in recent years, including A New Harmony as well as Praying with the Earth.

This new book inspires us especially, because John Philip includes inspirational profiles of men and women who we also celebrate in Interfaith Peacemakers, including Aung San Suu Kyi, Thomas Merton, Mahatma Gandhi and Simone Weil. (If you’ve enjoyed our stories about these heroic saints, then you’ll definitely want to read John Philip’s stories about them in this new book, as well.)

DUNCAN NEWCOMER’S PERSPECTIVE

Long-time contributing writer, scholar and author Duncan Newcomer prompted today’s column, recommending The Rebirthing of God. Last week, Duncan wrote to our home office that he had just used an illustration from the new book in a sermon he preached. Duncan wrote:

I read John Philip’s book and was so astonished that I read it a second time. Then, I outlined the book, because I know I’m going to be discussing it as I travel and speak to groups around the country.

Recently, I told John Philip: “While I will always most highly favor your 2003 book, Shakespeare and the Human Mystery, this new one may be your best in that it has such an intense and clear focus, incredibly condensed and urgent. It’s a unique and remarkable collection of sources and resources all dramatically presented in their essence. What seems most remarkable is that you have collected a cohort of strong, originally and courageously involved people to quote—and you give us cameo images of their lives.”

As I read the book, I thought: Imagine a round-table discussion of all the people we meet in these pages!

JOHN PHILIP NEWELL’S PERSPECTIVE

Then, here’s a page from John Philip’s new book to give you a feeling for his style in these inspirational stories. Many passages are, indeed, about the lives of interfaith heroes. But, again and again, John Philip brings these ideas home to his native Scotland and frequently tells us about experiences on Iona itself. After describing the compassion that defines the life of Aung San Suu Kyi, he writes:

Many years ago when my wife and I were hiking in the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland we had just reached one of the highest peaks, Sgoran Dubh, when a thick cloud descended on s. It covered the mountain. The mist was so thick that we could barely see our outstretched hands. Climbing in the Cairngorms can be dangerous. Every year hikers die in such circumstances, slipping off precipitous cliffs. Sgoran Dubh can be particularly treacherous because a few yards from its summit there is a sheer drop of over 2,000 feet to the next glen.

God using a compass in creation

In this 13th-century illumination, a Divine compass is used to measure and connect points in the creation of the universe.

We knew where we were and we had a compass and a map. So we took a reading and, one step at a time, followed our readings of the map and compass down the mountain. There were moments when we could barely believe the compass was right. At times our senses were telling us something entirely different. But we knew that we had to place our faith in the compass. In the end we emerged safely from the cloud down the mountainside.

Notice the similarity between the word “compass” and the word “compassion.” They share an etymological root.

The earliest use of the word compass does not, of course, refer to the modern hiking compass as we know it, the one I had in hand as we descended the mountain. The word is first used to refer to the mathematical compass, that simple two-pronged device that many of us remember  using in grade school to measure the distance between two points and to draw arcs and circles.

A compass, then, is used to determine the relationship between two points. The related word compassion is about honoring the relationship between two people or between one group and another, and remembering those who suffer. It is about making the connection between the heart of my being and the heart of yours, and following that connection—just as we followed the compass in descending the mist-covered mountain—even when we are filled with doubts as to whether we are moving in the right direction.

 Order a copy of John Philip Newell’s new book from SkyLight Paths.

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Categories: ChristianNatural WorldPeacemakingUncategorized

The Adam Hamilton interview on ‘Revival’ of John Wesley

Cover of Adam Hamilton Revival Faith as Wesley Lived It

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page. (NOTE: Links to additional “Revival” multi-media resources appear in the interview, below.)

Why are so many people fascinated by a preacher, born more than 300 years ago in a little town 150 miles north of London? For long stretches of American history, John Wesley was all but forgotten. Adam Hamilton, the most famous United Methodist pastor in the U.S. these days, thinks Wesley’s rising popularity stems from the culture into which he was born in 1703.

At that time, the English were exhausted by a tragic and bloody history of religious conflict. The skeptical winds of the Enlightenment had been blowing across Europe, which meant that Wesley faced an era in which many bright people were walking away from the church. Much like today, the mid 1700s was “a perfect seedbed for the revival in which Wesley would play so prominent a part,” Hamilton writes in his new book, Revival: Faith as Wesley Lived It.

Wesley’s life parallels many religious trends today:

  • John and his brother Charles understood that popular music was a key to church growth and, together, they unleashed on the world one of the largest bodies of then-contemporary church music.
  • John was a ceaseless pamphleteer and independent publisher who hauled a printing press into his church—a master of his era’s social media.
  • John wasn’t afraid of taking a stand on red-hot issues—condemning slavery long before the rise of the American abolitionist movement and supporting a daring new movement that encouraged compassionate care for the animals around us.
  • Most importantly, the Wesleys proclaimed that their brand of Christianity was a faith for head and heart. Emotion and intellect both were welcomed—faith and skeptical questions as well.

How do we know Wesley is trending? His name keeps popping up. Widely read inspirational writers like Rob Bell and Tony Campolo have been talking about Wesley more in recent years. Google’s N-gram Viewer, which searches phrases in 5 million books published since 1800, provides more evidence: Books about John Wesley peaked in the U.S. in the early 1800s. Then, Wesley buzz rose again for a few years just after World War II. Most recently, Wesley has been trending upwards since 2004.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author.  Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH ADAM HAMILTON
ON JOHN WESLEY’S ‘REVIVAL’

Inside Pages of Adam Hamilton book RevivalDAVID: There are many good books about the life of John Wesley. Amazon says there are more than 500. Thousands of other books include a chapter or more on Wesley.

Why do you think he’s so popular today?

ADAM: I agree with you. I think there’s a great resurgence of interest in Wesley today.

He’s being embraced by people across the religious spectrum. Evangelicals continue to claim him as the father of the small group movement with an emphasis on spiritual disciplines and evangelical revival. And progressives in the church look to his teaching of the importance of works that go along with faith and his teaching that your faith doesn’t mean much if you’re not concerned for your neighbor. Almost everyone across the theological spectrum finds something they like and that inspires them in Wesley’s life.

There are people who follow Wesley all around the world. He’s had 300 years of people looking to him and taking what he’s taught and applying it in different ways.

WORLDWIDE WESLEY FAMILY TREE

DAVID: You’re right about the global scope. Today, there are many churches that trace roots back to the teachings of John Wesley. Of course, you’re part of the biggest branch: the United Methodist Church. Wikipedia’s “Wesleyanism” article lists more than a dozen current denominations that trace roots to Wesley.

Adam-Hamilton

Adam Hamilton

ADAM: In traveling and researching and writing this book, my hope was to help people from the entire Wesleyan background to rediscover this powerful inspiration that still is important in our world today. I’m convinced that John Wesley’s approach to the gospel may be one of the best hopes we have of reaching new generations of young people who are not religiously involved at all.

DAVID: You and Abingdon Press make rediscovering Wesley pretty easy. You’ve divided your message into a whole array of multimedia options. There’s a Revival DVD that goes along with the book that shows you talking about Wesley in all of these settings where Wesley lived and worked in the UK. Want to direct a series of group discussions? There’s a Revival Leader Guide, a Revival Youth Study Book, and even a Revival Children’s Leader Guide.

ADAM: I want to teach people—whatever their age—about the life of Wesley by following his life, but not by providing a long biography in this case. There are other in-depth biographies of Wesley out there. I wanted to tell people about his heart and character, by going to places that were important in his life and ask: How does what Wesley did here, or there, affect our lives today? I want people, whatever their age, to ask: How could this affect my life now?

If you get the DVD along with the book, you can use it in your small group and you’ll see me standing in the place where each chapter unfolds, talking about that part of Wesley’s life.

A WESLEYAN PILGRIMAGE

DAVID: That’s one reason I heartily recommend this book. Your aim is to reach young people, especially, and one way to do that is to have a strong video component. More than that, people want to experience religion today. In the Catholic world, pilgrimage has been a huge part of Catholic spirituality for many centuries. Methodists aren’t so big on that idea of traveling as a spiritual discipline, but your book invites people on a Wesleyan pilgrimage. You’ve even got specific travel tips sprinkled throughout the book. You’re saying people should hit the road and rediscover Wesley.

ADAM: That’s exactly what I’m doing this summer. I’m leading two groups of people to places that were important in Wesley’s life. One group will be people from our Church of the Resurrection and a second group will be pastors from other United Methodist churches.

DAVID: Let’s talk about one of the places you take readers—and viewers of the DVD—the famous church in London known as The Foundry. Americans who follow faith-and-politics in the news know another Foundry church in Washington D.C., which is famous for all of the presidents who have worshiped there. For 200 years, the D.C. Foundry has kept the name of Wesley’s Foundry alive in this country.

So, tell us about Wesley’s original Foundry in London. And, remind us: Where are we in his timeline?

ADAM: The Foundry work really begins in the 1740s.

He wound up there because he needed to find a place to meet in London after he experienced breaks with other religious societies. The Foundry was an old cannon factory—an ironworks used for making weaponry. It was a very large building and he saw it as a place where Methodists could meet in London. In the fall of 1739, he takes hold of the building and begins having it renovated. It becomes the home of Methodism in London for the next 38 years.

What the Foundry represents for me is Wesley’s emphasis on works of mercy. That’s what I talk about in that chapter of the book.

DAVID: Let me read a couple of lines: “At the Foundry in the 1740s, the Methodist works of mercy saw new expression. Wesley started a fund to make small loans, akin to today’s microlending, and the fund made loans to 250 people in the first year. On Fridays, the poor who were sick came to be treated and were provided basic medical care. In 1747, Wesley published a book on ‘easy and natural’ methods for ‘curing most diseases.’ Wesley and the Methodists at the Foundry leased two houses for poor and elderly widows and their children. And, they started a school for children who roamed the street.”

ADAM: And at Foundry, they brought in a printing press.

MASTER OF 18TH CENTURY SOCIAL MEDIA

DAVID: Let’s talk about that printing press at Foundry. John Wesley was deeply involved in the major issues of his era and, over time, he became a prophet way out ahead of others. He certainly was in his condemnation of slavery and in his call for compassionate care for animals. Some of Wesley’s critics used to joke that you could tell Wesley followers in a village by how well they treated their horses.

ADAM: That printing press was important! Wesley was constantly printing and publishing his sermons and tracts and responses to debates of the day. He published hundreds of different pamphlets and he published a huge number of books, too. He made these as cheaply as he could and distributed them as widely as he could. He was a major user of the social media of his day. If he were alive today, he would have been a master of social media.

DAVID: And that’s a big part of the reason that Methodism took off like wildfire across America after the Revolution. Of course, the explosion of Methodism in the early 1800s was the work of some other geniuses of religious organization. Historian Martin Marty once called Francis Asbury the George S. Patton of strategic deployment for Methodism for the way he deployed circuit riders across the American frontier—each one toting around with him Methodist books, like Wesley’s sermons.

ORGANIZATIONAL GENIUS

ADAM: Wesley had many talents. He was an effective preacher and we know from so many accounts that people were stirred when they saw or heard him. He was an Energizer Bunny who just kept going and going and going.

We know he traveled 250,000 miles across the British Isles and he did most of that on horseback. He was constantly reading and we know he did a lot of that reading while riding his horse! (Laughs!) Today, he’d be a terrible driver! He’d want to text while he was driving.

And he had this capacity to organize so it would continue after he was gone. His publishing efforts were a big part of this. He equipped the circuit riders—these traveling preachers—in his movement with a number of essential books. Every circuit rider at least had a copy of his notes on the New Testament, plus copies of his sermons. Publishing was a huge part of Wesley’s life. I own a copy of his notes on the New Testament that dates back to three years before he died in 1791. It’s one of the great treasures I have in my library.

DAVID: And you’ve said repeatedly over the years that you model your own ministry on Wesley’s, right?

ADAM: Yes, and I’ve shared this with my church and at many conferences where I’ve spoken. Here at our Church of the Resurrection, we have multiple campuses—and we also have more congregations that partner with us in other ways. We upload the sermons and share them online. Our partnering churches can just take the sermon and use it in that form, or they can preach their own sermon using some of the things they find in our sermons.

When I explain the way we do this, I say: “If Wesley were alive today, he would be uploading his sermons to share them and help other pastors preach. He would actively share his ideas and themes. From the beginning, he was providing so many ways that he knew a movement could flourish and grow.”

DAVID: So, we’re now about three centuries from his birth and roughly two centuries from his death. When readers go through your book, they will learn about parts of Wesley’s life when he was a failure. Early in his life, he had some unfortunate experiences. And they will learn about the faith that shaped his ministry into a movement that now circles the globe. Some of the things I’ve mentioned in our interview—the opposition to slavery and the care for animals, for example, were themes he emphasized much later in his long life.

ADAM: Yes, you’re right. When he was older, Wesley did become a sort of heroic and widely popular figure. In the last 30 years of his life, in particular, he was a folk hero across Great Britain. People wanted to meet him and talk to him in a way that wasn’t true early in his ministry. In that part of his life, he could speak more freely about issues like slavery.

In this book, I tried to capture what I love about Wesley and the most important thing I want to emphasize is that Wesley was able to hold in tension things that often would split communities apart. He taught that we should hold together the intellect and the heart. He didn’t want people to check their brains at the door.

Centuries ago—and still today—he called men and women to trust in Christ and, at the same time, to live out their faith in the world.

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

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Categories: Author InterviewsChristianGreat With Groups

Good News from Detroit: We’ve never seen a book launch like this!

By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit

DETROIT, MI—Think book publishing is fading in the face of new media? Think the City of Detroit is “bad news”? Need some good news today?

We’ve never seen a book launch like this in the city of Detroit! Nearly 1,000 men and women from across Michigan bought tickets to Detroit’s Orchestra Hall on Saturday (September 27) to celebrate the launch of the city’s first ecumenical publishing house in 200 years, headed by one of the city’s most accomplished pastors: the Rev. Faith Fowler.

In a lengthy Detroit Free Press column, Mitch Albom writes: “Faith Fowler, 55, is not your typical pastor. She is funnier. And more blunt. And, Lord, does she get things done. … She is the most important currency of our city, a loving, egoless, inspiring leader who doesn’t see color, doesn’t see class, who looks at our poorest, most neglected citizens and sees only hope and opportunity.” At the Orchestra Hall event, Mitch showed up in person to further praise Faith’s work.

And Mitch was not alone! The launch was a symphony of community connections, orchestrated by Faith.

THE REAL REASON THIS LAUNCH WAS UNIQUE?

William Jones of FocusHOPE and Laurie Haller of Birmingham First United Methodist read at the Cass launch event

A SIGN OF UNITY: Focus:HOPE’s William Jones reads with Birmingham pastor the Rev. Laurie Haller.

It’s accurate to call this launch “unique.” The crowd was enormous. The landmark setting was inspiring. Detroit hasn’t seen a publishing house like this in two centuries.

But the real reason this launch was unique? It was not all about Faith Fowler. In fact, she appeared on stage only briefly. It’s a rule in American publishing that book launches are a showcase for the author—but not this one!

Faith made sure that this launch was all about the community. And that is Faith’s most important talent. The Orchestra Hall stage was filled by musical groups from her congregation, singing such stirring selections that people in the crowd leaped to their feet, hands waved and “Amen! Amen!” echoed through the auditorium.

Everyone at Orchestra Hall felt the electricity when a beloved sports legend, retired University of Michigan football coach Lloyd Carr, took the stage.

Anyone who cares about the city of Detroit was moved when the Rev. Laurie Haller, pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, took the stage to read one of Faith’s stories with William Jones, the head of Detroit’s famous Focus:HOPE. In the crowd, minds silently flashed the connections: Suburb and City. White and Black. Female and Male. Church and Nonprofit.

Together, Haller and Jones read a moving story from Faith’s book. But they did more than read to the crowd. The sparked possibilities. Their appearance alone was good news to many.

TOURING MICHIGAN:
SEE FOR YOURSELF!

ReadTheSpirit reaches readers around the world—but if you are in Michigan this week you can catch this infectious spirit. Come and see! Faith and friends are touring Michigan all this week.

Detroit Orchestra Hall ready for Faith Fowler launch of Cass Community PublishingOn Sunday, September 28, Fowler and the Cass musical group, the Ambassadors, begin a week-long, statewide tour. All events begin at 7 p.m. except the Gaylord event, which begins at 6 p.m. Admission to these tour events is—free! Books and Cass Green Industry products will be available for purchase. Profits from book sales benefit the work of Cass Community Social Services.

Come on!
Get involved!

Wherever you live in the world, you can catch the fire of this amazing “good news” campaign.

The crowd at Orchestra Hall was as diverse as Michigan, but United Methodists were were especially well represented—because Faith herself is a United Methodist pastor. Just as this was a historic day for those who love the city of Detroit, this was a proud milestone for Michigan United Methodists.

“It was such a great day!” said the Rev. Marsha Woolley, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Northville, MI. “I brought with me some women who are native Detroiters and who, these days, are feeling really good about what is happening in Detroit. Experiencing this launch was just so inspiring—about the city of Detroit and about ministry in Detroit and about all those of us who want to work with the city’s very diverse people.”

“Inspiring! Uplifting! That’s what I felt,” said Maggie Hakala, a member of First United Methodist Church in Plymouth, who also went to the launch with a group of friends. “The readings from the book were so great. We all got our books as we left and I’m really looking forward to reading it, now. And I have to say: We appreciated the visit from Mitch Albom, too!”

Learn more about Faith’s book and buy a copy right now.

(SPECIAL THANKS: Becky Hile and John Hile took the photographs published with our coverage of this book launch.)

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Categories: ChristianChurch GrowthGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

The Matthew Fox interview on Meister Eckhart and connecting peacemakers

Cover of Meister Eckhart by Matthew Fox

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

Wake up your spiritual life with best-selling author, theologian and educator Matthew Fox. In his newest book, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Fox inspires us by connecting dots between the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart—and the lives of visionary men and women in our times who we, at ReadTheSpirit, would call Interfaith Peacemakers.

For our readers who already love inspirational reading, “Matt” Fox is well known as a global leader in opening up almost-forgotten Christian treasures to help heal today’s fractured world.

Matt has had a long, hard journey to this current popularity. In the 1980s and 1990s, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm was a religion writer for American newspapers and covered the Vatican’s investigation that eventually drove Fox out of the Catholic church. (He is now an Episcopal priest.) The man behind Matt’s inquisition later became Pope Benedict XVI. Then known as Cardinal Ratzinger, he claimed that Matt was dangerous to the Catholic church, because Matt kept insisting that God created the world in an “original blessing” rather than under the Vatican’s doctrine of “original sin.” In that era, Matt Fox headlines were about the international conflict over what became known as Matt’s teachings on “Creation Spirituality.”

FLASH FORWARD—Today, any reader of inspirational books is familiar with names such as Meister Eckhart and also Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic. For example, brief writings from both of their collected works are sprinkled through the pages of Matt’s 365-day inspirational reader: Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations. (That’s a perfect gift, by the way, for friends who want to start a new year with a commitment to daily meditation.)

During their turbulent lives in the Middle Ages, both Eckhart and Hildegard faced critics. Eckhart actually was condemned by the church. However, in recent decades, the Vatican has warmed to both of them: Pope John Paul II publicly wrote about the importance of Eckhart’s writings; Pope Benedict XVI finally declared Hildegard a saint and, much more significantly, Benedict declared her one of the highly respected “Doctors of the Church.” With that official nod, Hildegard became one of only three women (along with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Liseux) to be so honored as a major, Vatican-endorsed, timeless theologian and teacher.

But, today, many readers have forgotten who began pitching for this fresh appreciation of their wisdom as mystics and teachers—way back in the 1980s. It was Matthew Fox, who produced contemporary English-language books on each of them: the 1983 book Meditations with Meister Eckhart and the 1987 book Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs. These books represented a major scholarly effort and we can still highly recommend those two books to dig deeper into these mystics’ original writings.

Matthew Fox

Matthew Fox

NOW, as a new century is unfolding, Matt Fox headlines in the news media are about his work as a writer, educator and popular theologian working toward a more peaceful world. As he has traveled in recent years, he has heard from many of his readers that they want help in connecting spiritual dots in the works of Hildegard and Eckhart with other religious heroes who inspire us today. In his 2012 book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, Matt has Hildegard “meet” and compare ideas with a wide range of modern heroes from the poet Mary Oliver and the Jungian psychoanalyst and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

This summer, in his brand new Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Foxx has Eckhart “meet” and compare spiritual notes with such heroes as Rabbi Heschel, Howard Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marcus Borg and Oscar Romero. NOTE: We are devoting this week’s entire Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website to highlighting our own profiles of these heroes.

As he has many times over the past 30 years, David Crumm interviewed Matt Fox. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF
OUR INTERVIEW WITH
MATTHEW FOX
ON ‘MEISTER ECKHART’

DAVID: I love your technique in these new books, especially this latest one on Meister Eckhart—having them “meet” contemporary men and women as you compare some of their major teachings and show the timeless importance of these ideas. Way back in the late 1970s, I interviewed TV talk-show host Steve Allen when he produced that marvelous series for PBS called Meeting of Minds. For each episode, Steve and his co-writers would have actors dress up as famous figures throughout world history and they would meet, in the TV studio, and talk. Fascinating!

MATT: I do remember watching that series and enjoying it very much.

DAVID: We’ve already dated ourselves, I guess, but let’s fix a dating problem in your Wikipedia entry, today, by establishing your birth date. Based on that Wiki entry, which has been missing your specific birth date, journalists never know your actual age.

MATT: Oh, my birthday is December 21, so I’m 73 right now. I’ll turn 74 in December.

HILDEGARD: ‘Creation formed in love’

Cover of Hildegard of Bingen by Matthew Fox

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

DAVID: I’m 59 and I’m so glad we’ve both lived long enough to get past all the controversy over the Vatican’s inquisition in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, we can actually have some spiritual fun in connecting the dots between these medieval figures and people who many of our readers consider heroes. And let’s start, for just a moment, by looking back at the earlier book on Hildegard.

MATT: I wrote that book when I heard that the Vatican was going to canonize her. And I suspect Benedict did that because he’s German and she’s popular in Germany. But, in my book, I call her a “Trojan horse,” because I don’t think the Vatican is emphasizing her most important messages. When she was alive, she was a great proponent of the divine feminine and I didn’t trust the Vatican to emphasize that properly. Hildegard was very much a critic of the patriarchal church in the middle ages and I think that’s one reason she wasn’t canonized for eight centuries.

In fact, I open my new book on Hildegard with this passage: “I heard a voice speaking to me: ‘The young woman whom you see is Love. She has her tent in eternity … It was love which was the source of this creation in the beginning when God said: ‘Let it be!’ And it was. As though in the blinking of an eye, the whole creation was formed through love. The young woman is radiant in such a clear, lightning-like brilliance of countenance that you can’t fully look at her … She holds the sun and moon in her right hand and embraces them tenderly.”

To me that amazing passage from Hildegard’s visions is a tremendous teaching on what I call original blessing.

DAVID: And then, as the book opens up, you use this technique of having her “meet” various contemporary figures. I like Joan Chittister’s Foreword to that Hildegard book in which she writes: “Those who have lived well for their own time have lived well for all time.”

MATT: Yes, in that book, I put Hildegard in the room with Mary Oliver, Albert Einstein, Howard Thurman and others and then I used that methodology again in my new book with Eckhart.

DAVID: Just to clarify, let’s explain to readers of this interview that your books are not like Steve Allen screenplays. You don’t actually imagine a dialogue between these figures. So, let’s describe your technique this way: You choose central ideas shared by these pairings of people and, then, in each chapter they “meet” as you compare and contrast their teachings. It’s very creative stuff!

POPE FRANCIS: ‘Making up for some very lost ground’

DAVID: After your many decades of feuding with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict, I know you’ve got higher hopes for what Pope Francis might be able to do. One of the heroes in your new Eckhart book is Oscar Romero. Were you surprised by Pope Francis’s decision to go 180 degrees on Romero—from banning him as a candidate for sainthood to putting him on a fast track?

MATT: Your readers will remember that Pope Francis is from Argentina and he’s quite aware of the many sacrifices and accomplishments made by the base-community movement and the liberation theology movement. Francis has made strong statements against what he calls “savage capitalism,” which is in line with what Oscar Romero fought for and died for. Francis sees these Latin American movements as very much in line with the spirit of Vatican II. Thanks to the previous two papacies the Catholic Church has been decimated in Latin America and millions have left the church to join new Pentecostal churches. This pope is trying to make up for some very lost ground.

RUMI: ‘One spark flew …’

Jalal ad-Din Muhammad RumiDAVID: Let’s give readers some examples of famous figures, we call them Interfaith Peacemakers, who you introduce to Eckhart in this book. Let’s start with Rumi, the Sufi mystic who, to this day, is still a best-selling poet.

MATT: They were from about the same era, but they did not know each other. Eckhart was 13 when Rumi died. But there is this phrase that comes up often in Eckhart, “spark of the soul,” which is similar to passages in Rumi’s writings. There are lots of connections. I also point out in my book that Eckhart liked to refer to the Muslim philosopher Avicenna, who came before Rumi in the Islamic tradition.

DAVID: You mention the similar phrases.

MATT: One of Rumi’s famous lines is, “Ah, one spark flew and burned the house of my heart.” I compare that with Eckhart’s “In the spark of the soul there is hidden something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light which incessantly gleams, and something like a burning fire which burns incessangly. This fire is nothing other than the Holy Spirit.” So, right there in the opening of that chapter you can see some of the connections.

Eckhart and Rumi were on the same path in many respects. I point out in that chapter that when I published my first big book on Eckhart in the 1980s, the very first response I got was not from a Christian but from a Sufi. I remember he sent me a 12-page article that analyzed passages from Eckhart and he was convinced that Eckhart really was a Sufi. I’ve been thinking about that connection for the last 30 years.

THICH NHAT HANH

DAVID: So, Eckhart might be seen as thinking like a Sufi, but you point out in another chapter that he almost might be considered a Buddhist. You quote Thich Nhat Hanh saying, “If we bring into Christianity the insight of interbeing and of non-duality, we will radically transform the way people look at the Christian tradition, and the valuable jewels in the Christian tradition will be rediscovered.”

MATT: And I quote Eckhart writing, “Love God as God is—a not-God, a not-mind, not-person, not-image—even more, as he is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.”

DAVID: And you point out that the Catholic monk Thomas Merton similarly saw connections. Merton read Eckhart along with his readings in Zen and saw kindred spirits. In the latter years of his life, the Christian-Buddhist connection was a powerful pathway in Merton’s reflections and writings.

MATT: This is another example of Eckhart’s amazing insights as a mystic. As far as I can tell, Eckhart never met a Buddhist in his life and he didn’t study Buddhism. So, how did Eckhart make these connections? Well, the answer is that Eckhart discovered bigger truths by going deep into his soul as a Christian.

Let me read from a passage in that chapter where Eckhart writes about loving God in a way that seems close to Buddhist practice. He writes, “How should one love God? You should love God mindlessly, so that your soul is without mind and free from all mental activities, for as long as your soul is operating like a mind, so long does it have images and representations. But as long as it has images, it has intermediaries, and as long as it has intermediaries, it has neither oneness nor simplicity. And therefore your soul should be bare of all mind and should stay there without mind.”

RABBI HESCHEL

DAVID: I realize that we’re talking in shorthand here—very briefly touching on some of the topics readers will find in your book. I want to continue, in this way, mentioning a few more people in your book. Our readers may find one name we’ve mentioned helpful, another irrelevant, so let’s list a couple more. And, next, I want to ask about your chapter with Eckhart “meeting” Heschel.

MATT: I have tremendous tremendous respect for Rabbi Heschel. He is one of the great religious minds and activists in the 20th century. He marched with Dr. King in Selma much to the consternation of many people who supported Heschel otherwise. He said he wanted to go “beneath the dogmas and traditional formulations of the Judeo-Christian traditions which so often have served as substitute for the root experiences of biblical faith.” He was a great scholar and teacher, yet he did not stay in the comfortable halls of academia. He went out and prophetically acted. He walked his talk.

In the title of my Eckhart book, I use the phrase “Mystic-Warrior” in the sense of a prophet being a warrior. A prophet interferes with injustice. When it comes to compassion and justice, awe and wonder, Heschel and Eckhart are on the same page.

HOWARD THURMAN

DAVID: You’ve got Howard Thurman in your Hildegard book and he’s also a figure you compare to Eckhart. And I should add: If our readers aren’t familiar with some of the figures we’re mentioning here—I’m hoping they’re going back and forth between this interview to our Interfaith Peacemaker series of profiles. Heschel is profiled there and Howard Thurman, too.

MATT: In many ways, Howard Thurman was the spiritual genius behind the civil rights movement. Everytime Dr. King went to jail, he carried his copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited with him. And Thurman had actually studied Eckhart. As a young man, Thurman studied under the Quaker teacher Rufus Jones, who often cited Eckhart. There are many connections here, but one of them is Eckhart’s sense of social justice.

Eckhart was very aware of the oppression around him in his day and he stood up and was counted by courageously stepping on the toes of the powerful. And that really is what led to his condemnation for many many years—it was a political act against him for his activism on behalf of the poor. Eckhart was the first intellectual to preach in German. At the time, German was associated with the peasants. He was preaching to the peasants in their language about their being noble people who were bringing Christ daily into the world. At the time, this was considered very offensive by the powerful.

MARCUS BORG / JOHN DOMINIC CROSSAN

DAVID: And I was pleased to see our friends Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan featured in your new book. You write that Eckhart was a pioneer in sorting out what today we would call “the historical Jesus”—separating Jesus the teacher from the Christ figure who is lifted up by Christianity after his crucifixion.

MATT: In that chapter you’re mentioning, I have Eckhart “meet” three figures in the Jesus Seminar—Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Bruce Chilton. I’m so struck that Eckhart, in his era, was writing about what is often referred to as a breakthrough in contemporary theology—the assertion that the historical Jesus came from the wisdom tradition of Judaism. Eckhart knew this and wrote about it in his time.

No, Eckhart didn’t reach his conclusions in the same way that Borg and Crossan and the others reached it through their textual and historical analysis. They have resources available to them that Eckhart didn’t have. Crossan and Borg followed different forms of analysis, but ultimately we discover that what we’re hearing from people like Borg and Crossan today actually rests on the similar conclusions drawn many centuries ago by Eckhart, based on his reflections on scriptures as a mystic.

DAVID: So what lies ahead for you as you finish this second book in this “meeting of minds” style? You’ve always got so many projects underway.

MATT: Well, you can give readers links to my website and Facebook page and we try to put my updates there. I definitely will keep traveling and teaching and writing more books. I’m blessed with decent health and I plan to keep going. I’m doing an exciting event in October in Mexico where I’ll be in a program talking about reinventing education, which is one of my major passions. Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian, will be on that program, too. I met Boff the year I was silenced by the Vatican myself. I went to Brazil to meet and talk with him, then, but I haven’t seen him in person since that time. I’m told this conference likely will draw about 30,000 people and I’m looking forward to the good work we can do together.

Care to read more about Matthew Fox?

MEET THE PEACEMAKERS—Visit our Interfaith Peacemakers department to read more than 100 inspiring profiles of the kinds of men and women Matt Fox includes in his recent books.

VISIT MATT ONLINE—Matt recommends that new readers start with his main website, www.MatthewFox.org, where you can learn more about Creation Spirituality, learn about his various public appearances and keep in touch with news about upcoming publications. You also can keep in touch via Facebook by looking for Rev.Dr.MatthewFox

GET THE BOOKS—Click on any of our recommended links above. If you’re interested in his 365-day inspirational reader, you might enjoy reading our 2011 interview with Matt about the preparation of that book.

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

 

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Categories: Author InterviewsChristianGreat With GroupsPeacemaking

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ReadTheSpirit Editor interviewed Charles Marsh. Here are …

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

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

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

Charles Marsh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BONHOEFFER IN NEW YORK AND THE SOUTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BONHOEFFER: THE CLARITY OF HIS VISION

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939 from Deutsches Bundesarchiv via Wikimedia Commons

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in 1939.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BONHOEFFER: FROM FAITH TO ACTION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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READ MORE INSPIRING STORIES: ReadTheSpirit also hosts Interfaith Peacemakers, a growing archive of inspiring stories of men and women who often risked their lives on behalf of world peace.

MORE INTERFAITH HEROES: ReadTheSpirit Books publishes books by international peacemaker Daniel Buttry.

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

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