Grace Lee Boggs: What do Americans look like?

Grace Lee Boggs and Director Grace Lee. Photo by Quyen Tran, used with permission.

Grace Lee Boggs and documentary filmmaker Grace Lee. Photo by Quyen Tran, used with permission.

WHERE CAN I  SEE “American Revolutionary”? The documentary about Grace Lee Boggs debuts on PBS’s POV documentary series Monday, June 30, 2014. Use this PBS webpage to learn more and check local listings. AND, from July 1-30, 2014, PBS will stream the documentary free of charge from that website, as well. No word yet on a DVD release of the film, but stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for news of a future DVD.

REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM

As she enters her 100th year on the planet, Grace Lee Boggs has lived long enough to see all of America celebrating her achievements as a philosopher and civil rights activist. That’s a stark contrast with the many years that FBI bulldog J. Edgar Hoover labeled Grace and her husband James dangerous subversives—resulting in FBI surveillance and a thick FBI file compiled on both of them.

Filmmaker Grace Lee accidentally discovered this woman who is a household name in Detroit (as one of Michigan’s most famous resident philosophers, authors and human-rights activists). When she was starting out as a young filmmaker, Grace Lee was intrigued by the significant number of Chinese-American women with “her” same name. A decade ago, she began filming interviews nationwide in what she called The Grace Lee Project, and she eventually completed a documentary on the similarly named women in 2005. Among the women she met in that project, Detroit’s Grace Lee Boggs was by far the most intriguing—so filmmaker Grace Lee began a long-term friendship with the Detroit activist. They visited at least once each year for additional interviews.

The result is American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs. The play on the words “revolution” and “evolution” comes from Grace Lee Boggs’ own teachings about her journey as a young scholar from pure Marxism through the turbulence of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s—to an embrace of nonviolence and a new appreciation for the evolution of change within communities. That change takes the entire hour-and-a-half of this film to explain—including several “30-second primers” on key issues that filmmaker Grace Lee inserts into her documentary to help us keep up with Grace Lee Boggs’ philosophical arguments.

Born Grace Lee, the daughter of a well-to-do Chinese-American family in New York City (where her father owned a famous restaurant), the young Chinese-American woman stood out as a brilliant student. She graduated early from Barnard College and, by age 25, already had earned a doctorate in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. She quickly became a well-known translator, speaker, journalist and activist in the movement for social justice and for racial equality—a movement that was ruthlessly suppressed for decades. In 1953, she married African-American activist James Boggs, the great love of her life until he died in 1993.

Her extensive work in the civil rights movement and later in the “black-power” movement—working shoulder to shoulder with her husband—mystified Hoover and the FBI. In one of the more amusing scenes in this new documentary, the filmmaker shows us a passage from her FBI file in which the agents could not make heads or tails of her ethnic identity. She was a true original even to her enemies!


Grace Lee Boggs American Revolutionary posterThe film opens with Grace Lee Boggs walking—assisted by a wheeled walker—along the huge expanse of Detroit’s most famous symbol of blight: the 40-acre hulk of the devastated Packard Automotive Plant. Her words to us, as viewers, run counter to the startling visual imagery we see on the screen. She says:

“I feel so sorry for people who are not living in Detroit. Detroit gives us a sense of epochs of civilization in a way that you don’t get in a city like New York. It’s obvious from looking at Detroit that what was doesn’t work. People are always striving for size, wanting to be giants. And this is a symbol of how giants fall.”

And she has made her point. The petite Chinese-American woman who now is nearing her own century mark has survived and continues to walk these streets—even as the gargantuan auto plant now is a dangerous ruin.

Then, she warns viewers not to think that destruction is inevitable. In fact, communities move in complex, sometimes circular patterns—and new possibilities lie just around the corner of our imagination. “Evolution is not linear. Times interact.”

If you’re a younger viewer, this may seem incomprehensible, she tells us. “It’s hard to understand when you’re young about how reality is constantly changing because it hasn’t changed so much in your lifetime,” she says.

And that’s just in the opening few minutes of this film!

Here are some other “take away” quotes from Grace Lee Boggs to give you a sense of the thought-provoking journey that these two Grace Lees—the filmmaker and Boggs herself—are inviting us to undertake in American Revolutionary.

On her attitude toward the world’s current condition: “I think we’re in a time of great hope and great danger.”

On the need for everyone to keep changing: “Don’t get stuck in old ideas. Keep recognizing that reality is changing and that your ideas have to change.”

And: “Most people think of ideas as fixed. Ideas have their power because they’re not fixed. Once they’re fixed, they’re dead. … Changing is more honorable than not changing.”

On the power of each life: “You don’t choose the times you live in, but you do choose who you want to be. And you do choose how you think.”

On the power of conversation: “We are the only living things that have conversations, as far as we know. When you have conversation you never know what’s going to come out of your mouth or someone else’s mouth.”

On imagination: “There are times when expanding our imaginations is what is required. The radical movement has over emphasized the role of activism and underestimated the role of reflection.”

Why did she eventually come to embrace nonviolence? “Why is nonviolence such an important philosophy? Because it respects the capacity of human beings to grow. It gives them the opportunity to grow their souls. And we owe that to each other. And it took me a long time to realize that.”

Finally: “It’s so obvious that we are coming to a huge turning point. You begin with the protests but you have to move on from there. Just being angry—just being resentful—just being outraged does not constitute revolution. So many institutions in our society need reinventing. The time has come for a new dream. That’s what being a revolutionary is. I don’t know what the next American revolution will be. But you might be able to imagine it—if your imagination is rich enough!”

Care to read more?

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

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Explore the world’s spiritual traditions in ‘Global Spirit’

Click this "Global Spirit" image to visit the TV series' website.

Click this “Global Spirit” image to visit the TV series’ website.

COMING JULY 13, 2014:

For years, ReadTheSpirit magazine has recommended the exceptional spiritual conversations hosted by Global Spirit, an innovative series of broadcasts mainly delivered across the Internet. Hosted by scholar, filmmaker and writer Phil Cousineau, the series has welcomed a Who’s Who of famous spiritual sages.

Coming July 13, you will want to visit Global Spirit’s live-streaming website to watch Cousineau interview two top environmental teachers: Joanna Macy and Michael Tobias. Until that time, you’ll see a brief excerpt in a video window on that page. Then, at the end of each new episode, Global Spirit also hosts Live Webcasts with participants in the program. Visit this page to find the Live Webcasts.

When are these broadcast? This page lists Global Spirit’s complete broadcast schedule.

Cover Active Hope Joanna Macy Chris JohnstoneJoanna Macy is well known as a Buddhist scholar and environmental activist, encouraging spiritual reflections on the Earth’s living systems. Wikipedia has a more extensive biography on this now 85-year-old teacher. ReadTheSpirit magazine especially recommends Macy’s book published by New World Library, Active Hope: How to Face the Mess We’re in without Going Crazy.

Michael Tobias also is profiled in Wikipedia. He’s a leading environmental activist, as well, writing and teaching primarily about population stress on our planet and, especially, the need to create sanctuaries and to change policies governing the protection of life on Earth. He has circled the world in his activism, working regularly with partners on several continents. His writing has appeared in many magazines and journals, including Forbes magazine.


Global Spirit has posted a short video clip of Macy talking about Sacred Ecology as a preview for the upcoming broadcast. This YouTube video is well worth watching, because Joanna Macy guides host Phil Cousineau around her Canticle Farm in Oakland, California.

Named for St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun, Macy and her friends convinced the owners of five homes in a poor neighborhood of Oakland to take down the fences separating their back yards to form a single community garden. Organic fruits and vegetables are raised and given away to neighbors.

CLICK THE VIDEO SCREEN BELOW to watch this clip. NOTE: The first two-and-a-half-minutes show Macy in the Global Spirit studio talking with Cousineau—but stay tuned! The next five minutes are a colorful look at Canticle Farm.

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Categories: Movies and TVNatural WorldPeacemaking

Watch a preview of ‘Jerusalem’ the IMAX movie

Jerusalem the IMAX movie poster

Click the movie poster to visit the official website for the ‘Jerusalem’ movie, which provides much more information about the film and regional showings.

Reviews from a wide range of journalists are raving about Jerusalem, a 45-minute large-format movie distributed by National Geographic with an impressive array of partners involved in the production. Just how wide is this range of reviews? In Washington D.C., for example, both the mainstream Washington Post and the famously conservative Washington Times praised the film and urged readers to go see it.

The film’s official website has more information, including listings of regional screenings. Or, you may prefer to read the Wikipedia overview of the film first.

The film’s major strength is that this crew was given access to film in many areas usually barred to such media projects. Given the IMAX-scale production that mainly means the cameras could be strapped to helicopters that flew over and around some of the world’s most sacred landmarks. You simply won’t see these eye-popping vistas anywhere else.

The voice narrating the film now is familiar to millions of viewers worldwide: Benedict Cumberbach, the BBC’s newest Sherlock Holmes and also a co-star in movies from 12 Years a Slave to parts of the Star Trek and Hobbit movie series.

The filmmakers’ own explanation of this project is a fair summary of what you’ll see, if you attend a showing: “Our film is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It embraces the idea that Jerusalem is many cities: imagined and real; past and present; Jewish, Christian, Muslim and secular. We are trying to answer the question: Why Jerusalem? What is it about this tiny space that made it the ultimate prize of empires and the object of longing for so many different cultures over thousands of years?”

YOU SHOULD SEE a video screen below. Click to view a 7-minute preview. (And, yes, it’s worth all 7 minutes!) If you don’t see a screen here, try clicking this story’s headline to reload the page, which should properly display the video screen.


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Amish return to PBS with Saloma Furlong in ‘Shunned’

PBS American Experience DVD cover for The Amish Shunned

CLICK this image of the DVD cover to visit its Amazon page.

One of our most talked-about author interviews, in recent years, was our 2012 conversation with former-Amish writer Saloma Furlong. A shortened version of her story was featured in the PBS American Experience documentary The Amish, which was both gorgeous and absolutely fascinating in its exploration of Amish life in America.

Now, on Tuesday February 4, 2014, PBS American Experience will debut another major documentary, American Experience: The Amish—Shunned. (Note: That text link takes you to the Amazon page where the DVD version is sold. This DVD eventually will be offered by Netflix. Some libraries may stock the DVD, as well.)

PBS WEBSITE: This American Experience website for the film includes a preview video, background materials, plus information about the series’ broadcast schedule, other upcoming films and some “bonus videos” related to Shunned.

‘The Amish—Shunned’

Review by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

For some strange reason, the same Americans who are fearful of other traditionalist cultures around the world seem to love all things Amish. Mainly, this is because the Amish appear to be a living museum exhibit of America’s past. By driving through “Amish country,” eating at “Amish-style restaurants” and shopping in “Amish markets,” millions of Americans feel as though they are able to step back into their own families’ rural past. So, every year, millions of us pack up the kids and enjoy the smells, the rural vistas, the hearty food, the lovely hand-made goods and we return home to our busy lives feeling as though someone continues to preserve “our past.”

The truth is—as PBS’s American Experience series already has shown in its earlier documentary on The Amish: “The truth isn’t plain—or simple.” Like traditionalist Jews, Muslims, Hindus—and adherents of a host of other centuries-old global cultures—the Amish enforce rigid rules that leave many young Amish men and women sorely torn. Education—even a high school diploma—is strongly discouraged if not outright forbidden. Women are expected to play submissive roles. Everyone is expected to follow the Amish commitment to pacifism to the point of even forgiving extreme abuse within the community. Yes, many Amish families live very satisfying, faith-filled lives of love and grace and hard work.


Well, this new documentary is about the many former Amish men and women who have weighed their experience with Amish life and have finally said: “But—this is not for me.” The documentary shows us how the strict Amish code of community then cuts off these wayward souls. In fact, in one story included in this new film, a family that spent years hoping to join the Amish community finds itself painfully shunned. That comes after the family has labored mightily to prove itself a part of Amish culture—yet is never able to properly measure up to the core traditions of the group.

This is a movie about painfully torn relationships and one of the leading figures in the film—and one of the most sympathetic figures overall—is Saloma Furlong herself. In my home as I previewed this film one evening for this ReadTheSpirit review, I found my wife absolutely fascinated, as well. She watched every minute of this film with me. We kept talking about the issues raised, long after the movie had ended.

You likely will find yourself captivated, as well.

Care to read more about the Amish?

ReadTheSpirit has reported extensively on the Amish, over the years. Our readers keep telling us—and showing us with your clicks and your Facebook sharing of these articles—that you find this subject as fascinating as we do. Here are some recommended links:

REVIEW OF PBS’s THE AMISH: As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I also reviewed the earlier American Experience documentary, calling that movie, “by far, the best film I have seen about Amish life in America.”  That assessment still stands. I am also highly recommending this new sequel to the first film, but Shunned is limited to one aspect of Amish life. The first film is a broad overview, so I continue to rate that first film even higher than this one.

MEET THE LEADING EXPERTS: This new documentary features Amish voices and the true stories of a few men and women who have left the Amish community. But this whole approach to careful, balanced media coverage of the Amish has been shaped by the leading experts in Amish studies. We featured this in-depth interview in 2011.

AMISH NOVELS AND MOVIES ARE POPULAR! We have interviewed Vannetta Chapman, one of the leading novelists writing best-selling tales of Amish life. We post movie reviews, occasionally, of new Amish-themed movies like this one that was broadcast by Hallmark. And, to help point out some of the better Amish movies, we published this overview of lesser-known movies that “get it right” in portraying aspects of Amish life.

READ MORE BY SALOMA FURLONG: Our earlier interview with Saloma Furlong was published when Saloma only had one volume of her memoirs. Watch Saloma’s own website for updates on her new volume, debuting in February, which continues her story past that first book.

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

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Categories: Movies and TV

Review: Don’t miss ‘The Poisoner’s Handbook’

Click on the logo to visit the PBS website for this film.

Click on the logo to visit the PBS website for this film.

WHERE TO SEE ‘THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK’—Visit PBS’s webpage for this documentary to learn more about its background and viewing options. PBS provides links to local listings. Since this is a well-researched documentary, the PBS website also offers educational resources. There’s even a step-by-step curriculum for science teachers to reproduce some of the then-groundbreaking lab techniques used by New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner and his staff.

You also could opt to purchase the DVD from Amazon, titled American Experience: Poisoner’s Handbook. Eventually the film will reach Netflix. Your local library may choose to stock a copy.


REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Why should people of faith care about a bone-chilling documentary on the early history of forensic sciences in criminal investigations? Why should you help us to highly recommend this PBS American Experience debut to your friends, small group, congregation and community?

First, we all should promote this film because it’s flat-out fascinating. The two-hour documentary takes us back to the dawn of real-life CSI—the birth of modern homicide investigation and the spawn of thousands of hours of prime-time TV dramas. So, the first reason to see this PBS offering is: You’ll enjoy it!

At right is the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York City Charles Norris and his chief toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Library of Congress archived photo in public domain.

At right is the first scientifically trained medical examiner for New York City Charles Norris and, at left, is his chief toxicologist Dr. Alexander Gettler. Library of Congress archived photo in public domain.

Second, by the end of this two hours, the real pioneering triumph of the film’s two main characters will become crystal clear: They proved to New York City and then to the entire nation that government must play a crucial role in scientifically investigating the vast array of potentially poisonous substances coming into our world—and protecting all of us, including the most vulnerable, from dangerous vultures. Most religious groups around the world hold human rights—caring for and protecting the vulnerable—as a sacred mission. The Poisoner’s Handbook is the true story of two men who fought against almost impossible odds to establish the government’s role in the science-based protection of public health.

Given the wall-to-wall prime-time status of CSI-style shows, you’ll be startled to discover that—before the arrival Dr. Charles Norris and his right-hand researcher Dr. Alexander Gettler—poisoners regularly got away with murder. There was no way to catch them. In 1922, 237 men and women died of fatal gunshots in New York City, but researchers believe nearly 1,000 died of poisoning!

The producers of this documentary have organized the two hours like a series of mini-CSI tales—all true stories. They begin with this new scientific team’s most puzzling early case, the 1922 death of an elderly couple in what appeared to be “a locked-door mystery.” I won’t spoil the suspense by revealing what they found.

Just as in the TV dramas, there’s even a recurring character, a woman accused multiple times over the years of what amounted to serial murders. And, yes, just like the TV series today, these early scientists head into the laboratory over and over again. Sometimes, they must devise new tests. Occasionally, they must exhume a body and look more deeply into the human remains.

In the second half of the film, Norris and Gettler tackle huge public-health issues. Viewing this in 2014, you’re likely to be startled by the official government position on what amounts to massive crimes against vulnerable people. Officials in New York City and Washington D.C. felt that these threats weren’t a part of their responsibilities, until Norris and Gettler joined the campaign to change their minds.

You’ll have a whole lot to talk about after watching The Poisoner’s Handbook. Bravo to PBS and The American Experience for kicking off 2014 with such a landmark film.

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

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Categories: Great With GroupsMovies and TVPeacemaking

VeggieTales reminds kids of Chrisian reason for the season

VeggieTales Merry Larry Christmas video

FROM TOP: The DVD cover. Second, a scene from the new movie showing the Narrator mopping up at the mall as he talks with viewers. Third, the real Silas Merritt “Uncle Si” Robertson.

Either you’re a VeggieTales family—or you’re not. That’s certainly true, after more than 40 original Veggie Tales videos and a host of other TV shows featuring these big-eyed, big-hearted vegetables. This year, VeggieTales is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its first direct-to-DVD film, Where’s God When I’m S-Scared?

Most families know what to expect: Lots of colorful vegetables bouncing around on their rear ends (everyone knows that vegetables don’t have legs!), singing silly songs in high-pitched voices (hey, millions love it when the Muppets do it, right?)—and drawing biblical lessons at every turn of the plot (they’re such universal Christian lessons that it’s hard to imagine any denominational friction).

What’s new in the 43rd VeggieTales?

The producers have convinced the bearded old “Si” from the super popular Duck Dynasty TV series to appear as the on-screen Narrator in VeggieTales: Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas. Overall, he’s an odd casting choice—certainly not as memorable as Burl Ives as the Snowman/Narrator in the original TV special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The bearded Narrator aside, Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas is a pitch-perfect slice of VeggieTales silliness. Sure, the jokes are puns worthy of groans—the Veggies themselves are in on the joke. After about the third “turnip” joke in this new movie, even the turnips are groaning. Sure, the songs verge on nonsensical, but they’re called Silly Songs.

In this new tale, the conflict turns on which is more important for Christmas: Glitzy lights at a shopping mall—or the love of God as shown in Jesus’ birth? It’s hardly a “spoiler” to tell you: Jesus wins.

One of the sung refains starts:

“Oh, Christmas shines most bright and true.
“When you give the love God gave to you.”

The Silly Song in the middle of the video is about Larry managing to completely cover himself in Christmas wrapping paper. The refrain:

“Somehow when I was packin’
“I got caught up in all the wrappin’”

No, it’s neither Cole Porter nor Elton John—but I defy you not to start tapping your toe halfway through the Silly Song.

Have you got children—or an entire family—on your holiday gift list that would enjoy such high-spirited, goofy fun? Click on the image with today’s story and visit the movie’s Amazon page.


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The Jane Wells interview on how a Hunger Games Bible study can fire up your congregation—and help others

Click the cover to visit its Bookstore page, where you can learn more about Jane Wells' new book and can order copies.

Click the cover to visit our Bookstore page, where you can learn more about Jane Wells’ new book—and order copies.

Where are The Hunger Games taking Americans?

TO THE MOVIES: On November 22, a tidal wave will overwhelm movie theaters for the second blockbuster in the film series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. How big is this? In a word: Huge.

  • Ticket pre-sales are massive: Catching Fire tickets are a lion’s share of all tickets people are pre-purchasing this month. Fandango reports the sales pattern is record setting.
  • The first week will be enormous: In its 2012 opening weekend, the first Hunger Games movie zoomed to third place in all-time U.S. rankings of opening-weekend ticket sales.
  • And, this series has staying power: Since 2012, that first Hunger Games movie has shot past Spider-Man, Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings and now is No. 14 in all-time total ticket sales in the United States. (The top three on that list are Avatar, Titanic and Avengers.)
  • Millions still are reading: The three novels remain extremely popular. The first volume remained on the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists for two years! With new movies, book sales will rise again.

WHERE else can The Hunger Games take Americans?

TO CHURCH and INTO THE WORLD to help the most vulnerable men women and children among us. That’s if author and columnist Jane Wells succeeds in her new campaign. Today, through this author interview, we’ll tell you how to join in the movement.

In Jane Wells’ new book—a Bible study for congregations, called Bird on Fire—Jane explains why The Hunger Games is such a hit with readers and moviegoers. Themes in this series of novels and movies tap deep into biblical history, including the lives of Esther, Gideon and David. The main symbols in Hunger Games echo powerful images established hundreds of years ago when mainline congregations first were sweeping across the American landscape. Bringing this new Jane Wells Bible-study series into your congregation not only will draw a crowd—but also can energize young and old to pitch in on popular campaigns to help our world, today.


DAVID: Who are these millions of fans? I expect that a lot of our readers are going to be very interested in organizing a group to go through your Bird on Fire book, but their first question will be: Who should we invite to get involved?

JANE: The movies and books first were popular with teens—teenage girls specifically—but now they also have crossed over so that a lot of adults have read the books and are planning on seeing all of the movies.

DAVID: The first Hunger Games was classified as Young Adult, or YA, fiction. How can such a genre make the leap to adult fans?

JANE: Here’s the key—YA novels leave out the gratuitous sex and violence, but the best of YA novels still deliver all the depth of character and drama we expect in great novels. So there are huge numbers of adults who love these stories—and welcome a chance to enjoy a series without the more explicit sex and violence. A lot of readers not only don’t miss the gore that we find in a lot of crime and suspense novels today—they actually welcome a chance to avoid it! I love well-written YA books for that reason, and I’m certainly not alone. Now, I do realize that a lot of YA fiction doesn’t live up to the standards set by authors like Suzanne Collins. But, in the best of this genre? It’s terrific reading.

DAVID: Well, we just published an interview with HarperOne’s Mark Tauber, who is expecting to rack up serious sales this winter with C.S. Lewis editions. And, of course, a lot of Lewis books are what we would call YA today, although a lot of the people buying and reading those books are adults.

Given the super popularity of R-rated books like 50 Shades of Grey and thrillers oozing blood and guts, what’s the appeal of books that are only PG-13 at most?

Hunger-Games-Catching-Fire-movie-posterJANE: It’s all about the characters. And that’s why, in my new Bible-study book, I connect readers with similarly strong stories about heroes from the Bible: Esther, Gideon, David and more. Millions of us love The Hunger Games, because we care so much about these characters! When we first meet Katniss Everdeen—the main hero in these stories—we care about her immediately.

DAVID: Suzanne Collins’ fictional world is usually called “dystopian”—the dark opposite of a utopia. For a long time, such stories have been extremely popular—and some of these novels are now literary classics: George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are two great examples. These dystopian tales also are gripping on the big screen. Think of Blade Runner, which still has a vast cult following more than 30 years since its original release. In The Hunger Games, we meet Katniss in the middle of a similarly unjust and terrifying world, right?

JANE: We do. We learn that, when she was only 11, her father died in a mine explosion. After that, her mother sinks into this deep depression. Her family is on the verge of starving to death. Katniss learns to hunt and gather food just to keep her family alive. Then, she winds up having to compete in this life-and-death competition—the “hunger games” that become the series title—in which young people fight to the death for the viewing pleasure of the powerful people who run this terrible world.

DAVID: Once again, Suzanne Collins is borrowing this whole plot from thousands of years of literature. We only have to think back to the ancient tales of Theseus—stories that suddenly are getting a revival this winter thanks to JJ Abrams (see Jane’s Faith Goes Pop news item on Abrams’ new project). In one version of the Theseus myths, the evil King Minos of Crete conquers the Athenians and orders that, every nine years, seven Athenian boys and an equal number of girls must battle the Minotaur—which meant certain death for the king’s viewing pleasure.  Theseus is the hero who agrees to risk life and limb in these deadly games. That’s just one direct parallel to Collins’ tale and there are many more similar tales through the history of world culture.

In fact, Collins has been widely accused of borrowing the plot of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, which was translated from the Japanese into English in 2003—five years before her first book was published. She denies that she borrowed his plot—but, her novels are so similar to events in Battle Royale that the accusations continue to be raised. I noticed that Target stores just started selling DVD sets of the Battle Royale movies, with English subtitles, just in time to cash in on the latest Hunger Games movie craze.

JANE: Yes, these kind of stories have found audiences for thousands of years.

The best thing Suzanne Collins did in writing The Hunger Games was the creation of Katniss Everdeen as her main character. I’ve read a lot of books in this genre and I don’t recall a character quite like her before this. Yes, there have been lots of girls as main characters and even girls as heroes. But, here, it’s almost coincidental that Katniss is a girl. In this kind of novel with a girl as a main character, we usually see the writer paying a lot of attention to the hero’s gender. But, Katniss isn’t “girly” at all. And, Katniss doesn’t use her femininity to “play” anybody. She uses her skills, her mind, her strength. She really doesn’t spend any time thinking about what it means that she’s a girl. She’s a person who simply refuses to put up with the kind of hazardous, scary, unjust world in which she finds herself.

DAVID: There are some distinctive issues concerning her gender, though.

JANE: Yes, one way that she is distinctively female, as a character, is that she is motivated by not wanting to bring her own children, someday, into the world she finds around her. Her gender also shapes her story because the laborers who must work in the mines do appear to be mostly men in Collins’ world. But overall, Katniss is this very strong hero who goes out and risks her life for justice. I think that Katniss—as this bright and heroic and skillful and motivated young woman—is a different kind of character than we’ve seen before.


DAVID: Katniss may be unique in contemporary YA fiction. But, as you point out immediately in your book, Bird on Fire, there are ancient heroes who mirror Katniss’ courage and wisdom. One of them was Queen Esther, the starring hero of the Bible’s Book of Esther.

JANE: Yes, as I thought about Hunger Games and my strong response to these stories, I remembered that this is the same basic skeleton of Esther’s story. According to the Book of Esther, a decree goes out in the ancient Persian empire for a high-stakes competition that the king stages to show his power over the people. He calls for beautiful young girls from across his empire to come before him in this competition to find a new wife.

DAVID: Our readers probably know the basic story. For centuries, Esther was a classic subject for painters. Then, Hollywood produced at least four different movies from this story; and, now, there’s even a VeggieTales version for kids. This story also is retold each year in the Jewish festival of Purim.

JANE: In the first part of Esther’s story, she wins this competition. But the story doesn’t end there. She is chosen to be a wife for the king, but then the question becomes: What will this woman do with the power she she got through these experiences? That’s where we find Katniss in this second movie, Catching Fire. In the first book, she won her competition. She survived. She could, then, fade into the background and enjoy everything she has won. That’s the same moral question Esther faces: When she sees great injustice taking place around her, can Esther sit back and remain silent and live in comfort for the rest of her life? In Esther’s case, if she remains silent, her uncle will die and a lot of other innocent people along with her. Katniss faces similar moral choices.

DAVID: There are a lot of reluctant biblical heroes. In  your book, you also compare Katniss to Gideon, among others.

JANE: Yes, you’ll find a lot of Bible references in Bird on Fire. I liked drawing comparisons with Gideon because, like Katniss, he was this young person from this small town who was called to face a challenge. Eventually, he did it—Gideon went out and destroyed some idols in his town—but that wasn’t the end of his story. Like Katniss, he was called on to face bigger challenges after that. I like Gideon’s story, because he answers the question: Can one little person make a difference in a big world? Gideon also reminds us that, just because we win one battle, that doesn’t mean God is done with us.


JOHN WESLEY carefully chose the limited number of symbols that would appear in his 1778 chapel. His Protestant sensibility disdained rich ornamentation. He called his new London base of operations “perfectly neat but not fine.” So, the choice of the dove-and-snake relief, which was repeated all around the balcony of the chapel, was quite intentional. This building, now known simply as Wesley’s Chapel, replaced his other famous house of worship, The Foundery, which stood about 200 yards away. Today, this chapel is regarded as one of the most important architectural gems in London. This was the first Methodist Church built specifically for both communion and for preaching services. (THESE PHOTOS show an overview, then two details from the façade that runs all around the U-shaped balcony.)

JOHN WESLEY carefully chose the limited number of symbols that would appear in his 1778 chapel. His Protestant sensibility disdained rich ornamentation. He called his new London base of operations “perfectly neat but not fine.” So, the choice of the dove-and-snake relief, which was repeated all around the balcony of the chapel, was quite intentional. This building, now known simply as Wesley’s Chapel, replaced his other famous house of worship, The Foundery, which stood about 200 yards away. Today, this chapel is regarded as one of the most important architectural gems in London. This was the first Methodist Church built specifically for both communion and for preaching services. (THESE PHOTOS show an overview, then two details from the façade that runs all around the U-shaped balcony.)

DAVID: Even the Hunger Games symbol of a bird in a circle resonates down through religious history, right?

JANE: I love this part of the story. When I was writing this book, Bird on Fire, I was remembering the logos on the novels and the pictures associated with the movies, too. The movie images add flames with the bird. And I realized that these symbols are from my own denominational background: the Church of the Nazarene. Our logo shows a bird with a flame behind it. There are lots of similarities in these images. In both Hunger Games and my church, the bird represents freedom. In my church, we say it’s freedom through the Holy Spirit. There are other similarities, too—including the flame that represents purifying fire. I was amazed as I got to thinking about this.

Then, David, you and I got to talking about these themes—while I was still working on this book—and you pointed out that John Wesley used a bird-and-encircling-snake symbol to decorate his beautiful chapel in London. It represents a verse that I don’t think many Christians recall out of Matthew 10, when Jesus tells his followers: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

I don’t remember seeing any churches that kept the snake symbol that Wesley used, but I think Wesley was right to display it in his chapel. It’s such a wonderful reminder that, as Christians, we are not supposed to turn off our brains. We are given minds to think; it’s a God-given gift. We’re supposed to be analytical and critical of the world around us and to carefully evaluate what we see around us in light of truths we see in the Bible. Very powerful.


DAVID: There are stark moral questions in The Hunger Games. One of them is the question of what it truly means to be bringing peace into the world. Today, we have a great deal of respect for men and women who agree to be what we call “peacekeepers”—folks who put their lives on the line in some of the world’s most combustible hot spots. But in the novels, “peacekeepers” are bad.

JANE: In The Hunger Games, peacekeepers are just tools of the Capitol, the evil force ruling the world. The peacekeepers are concerned with maintaining the status quo, which means keeping people compliant. The peacekeepers keep President Snow in power and, if that means shooting some people to accomplish their mission, then so be it. For these peacekeepers, the classic excuse is: “We’re only following orders.” Their power is absolute and deadly.

I think it’s fascinating to discuss how “peacemakers” can be quite different than the “peacekeeper” model we find in The Hunger Games. I would recommend that readers look at the books by Daniel Buttry, especially his Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Dan does a great job in that book of reporting true stories about people who have taken huge risks to make peace. Some of his stories come from the civil rights era, when people literally were willing to lay down their lives.

I want people to realize: Yes, the civil rights era is now a generation or so removed from our time, but there still are huge gaping holes in society that we need to address today.

DAVID: I’m impressed with the guests you’ve invited to take part in your book launch this week, here in Michigan. (Care to go? See information below for details.)

You could have planned all sorts of things for the book launch, but you’ve deliberately chosen to highlight contemporary slavery and hunger issues, including food insecurity, at your launch event. Our readers know—from our past coverage including our interview with David Batstone of the “Not for Sale” campaign—that many congregations nationwide already are joining in the grassroots movement to end modern slavery.

JANE: The message is simple and powerful: If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games, you should realize that these problems exist in our world, today. Millions of American children face hunger every day. Millions live in “food insecure” households, meaning that these families struggle to put enough food on the table and don’t always have enough to provide meals.

A large portion of children across the country now are signed up for free or reduced-price school meals. Think about the heartbreaking situations in homes each summer or over holiday periods when these kids don’t have those school meals and may be making do with one meal-a-day at home—or less. It kills me as a mother myself to think about my own kids. How can we stand by and know that there are so many kids out there living in homes where parents can’t provide food?

The demand on food pantries and feeding programs is growing. We all need to ask: How can we help out? Yes, we can donate bags of food occasionally. But there may be other ways we can help. This isn’t a novel. It’s real life today for too many families.

Hunger isn’t science fiction.

DAVID: I love that line and I think it could make a terrific handbill or poster for a small group planning to discuss your new book. Take a color picture of your book cover, put it on the handbill, then headline the page: “HUNGER ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.” Then, invite people to the discussion series. Or, you could make up handbills with the other theme: “SLAVERY ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.” That’s also something you’re urging people to discuss.

JANE: Slavery isn’t directly in the title of Suzanne Collins’ series, as “hunger” is, but forms of slavery also run through her novels. And, as a lot of congregations already know, slavery is still a problem in our world today.

DAVID: According to Wikipedia’s overview of “contemporary slavery“—the United Nations estimates that there are 27 to 30 million slaves in today’s world.

JANE: When I began looking into this problem, I was shocked me to discover that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before in history.

DAVID: The sheer numbers are enormous and the forms of slavery are many. There are child slaves, sex slaves, huge mining and industrial operations in many parts of the world that are run entirely with slave labor—the list goes on and on.

JANE: Most slaves today are laborers and, by the nature of their work, they’re not tied up in closets or locked away in secret places. They’re often working in plain sight. I live in a farming area of Michigan and, even in our state, there are questions about how migrant farm laborers may be used or abused. In some cases, farm laborers can find themselves financially bonded in such a way that they’re powerless. They can become slaves, even in the middle of America. That’s why I invited a Michigan State Police officer to speak at my launch event, a woman who works on new laws and regulations to help combat human trafficking.

When you finish reading The Hunger Games—or when the movie is over—I want you to ask yourself: What am I called to do in our world right now?


We welcome many perspectives on The Hunger Games. In coming weeks, we will be establishing a Resource Page to help our readers find a wide array of thought-provoking materials on this theme. One of the first additions is a sermon by the Rev. Bob Roth, a peace activist and campus minister, titled Redemptive Violence? An Alternative Perspective.




FIRST, please support Jane’s work by buying her book. Learn more and find easy links to purchase the book in our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

DO YOU LIVE NEAR SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN? Jane is devoting her book launch to helping fans see the connection between Hunger Games and dire needs in our communities today. She is pulling together the YMCA—as well as advocates of combating both contemporary slavery and hunger. From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, November 14, Jane Wells will appear at her local YMCA along with one of Michigan’s leading investigators into patterns of modern slavery—and a regional leader in interfaith feeding programs. The event is free and open to the public at The Monroe Family YMCA, 1111 West Elm Avenue, Monroe, MI.

AROUND THE WORLD: We know that, since we began ReadTheSpirit in 2007, our active readers circle the globe. You live in communities from Australia to Panama, from New England to Los Angeles. If you purchase Jane’s book and organize a local discussion group, please email us at and tell us what you’re doing. We’d like to share your news with the rest of our worldwide readership. AND, if you’d like to arrange to bring Jane to your corner of the world—email us and we’ll be happy to put you in touch with this author. Please note: Her schedule fills quickly, so plan ahead!

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

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