Jon Sweeney on the remarkable life of Phyllis Tickle

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Editor of ReadTheSpirit

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

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

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

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

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

Then, it was Phyllis’s turn.

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

Everyone was awake.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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Zaman International’s BOOST team brings a global vision of home to a public reading of Jhumpa Lahiri’s ‘The Namesake’

From left: Gigi Salka, BOOST’s director, and Raghida Abraham, BOOST’s lead sewing teacher in the sewing room at Zaman International’s headquartersl in southeast Michigan.


EDITOR’S NOTESince the 1990s, Zaman International‘s founder Najah Bazzy, a transcultural nurse specialist, has been working to help at-risk women and their children in southeast Michigan and around the world. In 2004, Zaman became an official non-profit NGO committed to addressing basic needs and empowering marginalized women and children through relief and development programs. In 2007, Zaman launched BOOST (Building Ongoing Opportunities through Skills Training), a program designed to offer women the opportunity to break the cycle of poverty by learning job-ready skills in sewing and culinary arts as well as developing their English-language literacy. One of Najah Bazzy’s inspiring true stories forms the final chapter of the new edition of Friendship & Faith. Stay tuned to our online magazine and you will find more news later this year about this amazing woman and her work around the world. This week, we invited Zaman’s Lori Rhode, a veteran quilt maker, to write about one of the colorful BOOST projects.



When the Dearborn Public Library announced a “Big Read” of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Pulitzer-prize winning novel, The Namesake, the goal was to bring an entire community together around this popular story of an immigrant family’s adjustment to America. That meshed artfully with the goal of Zaman International’s BOOST program, which includes developing skills in sewing and fabric arts.

Our quilters challenged themselves to piece together:

  • Their creative fiber-arts skills
  • A novel whose central theme is the immigrant experience
  • And, a library event that could become the outer framing of this project.

How did this all come together?

“Jihan Jawad, a member of the Dearborn Library Commission, one of the Big Read partners, knew we have a sewing program at Zaman and the idea was born to commission a quilt to become a part of the city’s event,” said Gigi Salka, BOOST Director. The Big Read quilt is the second quilt commission for BOOST.

The BOOST sewing program is in its second year. Salka said people are familiar with Zaman’s many efforts in the community. Now, awareness of the sewing entrepreneurship program, and the small business opportunities that result, is growing.

“We are getting more calls asking if our students can be hired to do alterations and commissions,” Salka said.

Students come to the sewing program from the beginner level to more advanced skills. Quilting, a beloved American tradition, which experienced a revival after the bicentennial, is a lesser known skill among our participants. Salka and Raghida Abraham, BOOST’s lead sewing teacher, realized this could be another valuable skill for our students. A group of BOOST volunteer sewing assistants—with years of quilting experience between us—are helping to teach the students.

Abraham is an accomplished seamstress, who multi-tasks in the sewing center teaching, drafting patterns for the lessons, and evaluating the quality of the items the students sew. But, she didn’t have a lot of experience with quilting. Since the BOOST program began, volunteers have brought a wealth of skills, from tutoring students in English, to a variety of sewing skills, and to marketing and business development.

Coming up with an idea for the quilt was a challenge, Abraham said. “We greatly appreciate the experience and skills of our volunteers.”

One of the volunteers suggested a house block quilt. One classic quilt square is a school house block. The idea grew as Abraham surfed the internet looking at the variety of houses and homes from different parts of the world. Abraham had an approximate idea of the size of the finished quilt.

Next, Abraham and four volunteers—Pat Robertson, Mary Dahlke, Kathryn Rodorigo and myself—sewed nine house quilt blocks. Some of the house blocks represent the ancestries of their makers. One of the houses sewn by Abraham represents her family’s home in Lebanon. The Japanese house block is reminiscent of another volunteer’s stint teaching English in Japan.

“I chose to do a farmhouse block because it was a good representation of rural America. While I didn’t grow up on a farm, the house and barn seemed to capture a special American time and place amidst the other houses from around the world,” said Robertson. “It was fun to make the square and be a small part of this project.”

“A lot of creativity was sewn into these blocks,” said Abraham.

While some students have worked on quilting projects, the primary day-to-day efforts in our BOOST sewing program are projects of a more modest scope—such as purses, tote bags and aprons. That’s because these smaller items are faster to produce and sell well at local fairs and markets.

Now, though, all of us at Zaman are proud to see this quilt become a part of Dearborn’s Big Read. The month-long program includes various events to promote community-wide reading and discussion of The Namesake.

“This Big Read represents a team effort of many organizations in partnership in the Dearborn community,” said Henry Fischer DPL Librarian. A diverse committee of community leaders participated in this book selection. They felt it was a great choice to celebrate the diversity of our community, the immigrant experience, and it is a story which appeals to many groups, Fischer said.

In keeping with the Big Read’s overarching theme of community involvement—library patrons will be able to create a small part of quilt on Tuesday, April 10, 2018, from 6-8 p.m., by assembling their own name blocks. These fabric squares will be used in an outer border for the quilt. Participants in the quilt event will attach small pieces of fabric to a base by ironing them to a fusible fabric and adding their signatures. These name blocks will frame the house blocks.

For more information visit

Our nine quilt squares, awaiting the final outer border of participants’ names that will be added this week through the Dearborn library’s Big Read program.


LORI RHODE is a volunteer sewing assistant at Zaman International. Lori was first attracted to quilting in 1979 by the beauty and the resourcefulness of the quilt makers she met. Lori makes quilts for her family, but the number of quilts she has made for charities is greater than those kept. She is a member of the Greater Ann Arbor Quilt Guild and the Farmington Community Library Quilters. Lori serves on the diaconate of North Congregational Church where she has been a member since 1996.

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Stanley Hauerwas on The Character of Virtue, Letters to a Godson

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

Halfway up the stairs
Isn’t up
And it isn’t down.
It isn’t in the nursery,
It isn’t in town.
And all sorts of funny thoughts
Run round my head.
A.A. Milne

Virtue matters because it enables us to realize our potential. Virtue names the ways good habits become inscribed on our character by steering between excess and defect. Christopher Robin put things much the same way as he sang, “Halfway up the stairs …”
Samuel Wells in explaining why he asked Stanley Hauerwas to be godparent to his son, Laurie.

I confess that I find it frightening to be asked to be your godfather. It tempts me to be more than I am. … But for me to pretend to be wise would be pretension. And there’s nothing I hate more in life than pretension. I’m originally from Texas, and Texans are people who have had their pretentions ground into the ground by the hard land we found we couldn’t master. Texans, in short, are people who have nothing to live up to. What you see is what you get.
Stanley Hauerwas in the first of 16 annual letters he wrote to Laurie.


Editor of ReadTheSirit

Would you invite Stanley Hauerwas—the famously “angry” theologian—to become your child’s godparent and agree to write a series of letters to your son or daughter? That is what the Rev. Dr. Samuel Wells and his wife did two decades ago, fully aware of the famous theologian’s “happy anger,” as Well describes it.

The Wells’s chose Hauerwas—and he agreed—because of the rock-solid foundation of Hauerwas’s prophetic voice: Truthfulness. “All I can promise is that I will try very hard never to lie to you,” the theologian writes in his first letter to little Laurie.

That’s exactly what the Wells’s were hoping. Samuel writes in this new book’s introduction:

“His restlessness resonated with my sense that Jesus came to unsettle, rather than to comfort, and the angles from which he addressed the issues of today and forever intrigued and challenged me to a degree I hadn’t found in any other contemporary theological writing. He was, in short, talking about the questions I was asking, with a fearless relish that I longed to imitate.”

That honest counsel about growing into a life of faith is precisely the role of an ideal godparent, Wells and Hauerwas both argue in this book.

Wells and Hauerwas became friends when Wells served as Dean of Chapel at Duke University, where Hauerwas has taught for many years. Today, they are separated by an ocean. Wells now is Vicar of the landmark St. Martin in the Fields at Trafalgar Square in London. Hauerwas is semi-retired but still teaches and writes—and agreed to publish these letters as a book with some collaboration in the form of a 28-page introductory essay by Wells about the role of an ideal godparent.

Then each of the letters in this volume reflects on a different Christian virtue—including Kindness, Truthfulness, Hope, Justice, Courage, Humility and Generosity. That opening section by Wells on what it means to serve as a godparent, plus all of Hauerwas’s thought-provoking letters, makes this book perfect for small-group discussion in your congregation.

Stanley Hauerwas


‘An Angry, Happy Man’

Regulars at ReadTheSpirit know that we have featured interviews with Hauerwas and recommendations of his books a number of times over the past decade. He welcomed this latest interview, he said, because of the deeply personal nature of this book. So, my first question this time was about Wells’ description of him in the opening pages as “an angry, happy man and a happy, angry man.”

In his introduction, Wells writes:

“What makes him angry is to see the way, particularly in the United States, Christianity has been transposed into a benign form of therapy or a soundtrack for nationalist ideology, and, in particular, the way that project has been underwritten by some of America’s most famous and distinguished theologians. … This anger turns constructive when Stanley seeks to identify, first, on what ground the church’s faith should instead stand, and second, how the church forms the character of its members.”

I read that passage aloud in our interview and said to Hauerwas: “Anger is not one of the Christian virtues you identify in your letters to Laurie. I am aware at least one pastor who has preached recently about the importance of anger in these turbulent times, but I would say that most Christians don’t consider anger a virtue.”

“Well, I think anger rides on the back of courage, which is one of the virtues I wrote about in these letters,” Hauerwas said. “Of course, that kind of courageous energy needs to find expression in a constructive way. But I think not to be angry at the current political alternatives in this country—well, it’s beyond me how Christians could not be angry right now. I think a lot of people are still in shock and are feeling helpless, which I can understand, but that’s very dangerous because simply sitting there stunned gives credence to certain kinds of violent responses that are unfortunate for all of us.”


“To be fair,” I said, “the first virtue you address at length is kindness. I don’t want to give readers the impression that this book is a thunderous blast from an Old Testament prophet. I think kindness sums up the tone of this book as you write to this child.”

Here’s a sample of what he writes about kindness in the book: “To be kind in a violent world is very dangerous, but fortunately you will discover you were destined to be kind. The Spirit of kindness stirred in the waters of your baptism, setting you on a difficult and rewarding journey.”

I told Hauerwas, “If I was leading a small-group discussion of your book in my congregation, I could spark a spirited discussion with the remarkable line: ‘The dangerous Spirit of kindness stirred in the waters of your baptism.’ That’s a potent image!”

“You’ve identified the problem,” Hauerwas said. “People can get confused when you mention kindness because they think of it as a kind of sentimentality that doesn’t make judgments that we do need to make. Kindness is a demanding virtue insofar as it should force us to see others in an honest, nonviolent way. Iris Murdoch says, ‘Love is the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real. Love … is the discovery of reality.’

“That kind of commitment to seeing the other is difficult,” Hauerwas continued, “because most of the time our temptation is to see the other in terms of our own narcissistic ego needs. In the letter, I explain, ‘I’ve begun with kindness because I believe kindness to be the very character of God.’ ”

Did you stop at that phrase? “Kindness is the very character of God.”

I told Hauerwas that was another potent line that could spark a vigorous discussion in a small group.

“But they have to get it right,” he said. “People think kindness is fundamentally a mode of tolerance that says: I won’t judge you. I believe kindness requires judgment to the extent that we are encountering the other honestly and we need to see the limits of the other. Challenging each other in our encounters is the way we grow in relationship to one another.

“Another thing people get confused about: We tend to think that kindness primarily is something we do for someone else. But, in fact, the most important form of kindness is our willingness to accept kindness from one another. It expands us to be treated kindly.”


“This discussion on kindness leads me to my two other favorite chapters in your book—ones that I’m sure to recommend to people,” I said. “First is the chapter on Christian humility, which I think is one of the best 12-page summaries of this virtue that I’ve ever read. I particularly like the way you contrast the classical Greek concept of ideals—which did not include humility—with the centrality of humility in the Christian life. Then, there’s the chapter on friendship.”

“Well, friendship is another one that most people confuse with just being what we consider friendly—you know, good-fellow-well-met kinds of relationships. And that’s not serious Christian friendship,” Hauerwas said. “I’m trying to describe friendship of character. Aristotle distinguished between imperfect kinds of friendships—friendships that just rely on mutual benefits—with friendships of character that can last across great suffering, tragedies and joys. That’s the kind of friendship I was trying to describe. In America today, I think we’re seeing some very perverted forms of friendship.

“In my life,” he continued, “friendship has been a central category I’ve been talking about from the beginning. True friendship is a relationship in which one or the other can expose their needs without an invitation to be manipulated. And, of course, friendship is central for Christians because God befriended us. Generally, in today’s world, we’re afraid to be befriended, but God first befriended us and refuses to go away. And that is a great gift, which takes some getting used to!”


The irony of this book is that it was written over two decades and any reader, today, is likely to finish the book in a couple of days. If you spread it into a small-group discussion series, the book could last for a few months. But, as I said to Hauerwas, “There’s a problem with the time here. It takes a long time to internalize these virtues. I want to make sure that readers don’t miss your chapter on patience. I love that chapter because that’s where you step back and recall your own father, the master bricklayer.”

Hauerwas chuckled. “I learned about patience as I saw my father’s patience with me learning to lay bricks. Now, that’s a real skill and you learn that through imitation of a master. I remember as a young boy, I was about 15, he let me try my hand at laying brick. My first thought was to do that faster than anyone else! And, that was wrong! Learning to be patient in laying brick was absolutely crucial for me in knowing how to live well as a person. I would like to think that there is something of my father in me, after all these years.”

If you decide to engage with this new book, perhaps a little of the Hauerwas approach to life and faith will become a part of your life, too.


Care to Read More?

VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that are great for small-group discussion in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore.

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Brenda Rosenberg and Samia Bahsoun expand the potential of Techtonic Leadership

Samia (second from right) and Brenda (fifth from right) with Northwood students creating what Brenda describes as “a safe space for the truths to come forward—and a brave space, where tough questions get asked, paradoxical truths reside, feelings are validated, empathy emerges, and new solutions begin.”


EDITOR’S NOTE—Over the past two decades, Brenda Rosenberg has pioneered new approaches to bridging the dangerous chasms that separate so many of the world’s peoples. Her earlier Reuniting the Children of Abraham project wound up featured on network TV. For the past four years, working with colleague Samia Bahsoun, Brenda has spearheaded a new process for bringing polar opposites together, which she and Samia call Techtonic Leadership. The title refers to the power that emerges when the earth’s techtonic plates come together. Suzy Farbman told the story of this project’s origins in 2014. In 2015, Brenda and Samia published the story of their new work in book form: Techtonic Leadership. In 2016, this process was adapted to bring police and minority teen-agers together. This week, ReadTheSpirit asked Samia and Brenda to report on their latest use of this process—with college students struggling to come to terms with sexual harassment and roommate conflicts.



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

What a surprise that two of us—an Arab and a Jew who come from deeply polarized communities—are called upon repeatedly these days to help people talk across their own seemingly insurmountable differences.

Our latest invitation came from Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, asking us to lead a two-day program we called: “Harnessing the Power of Tension to Build Sustainable Relationships.” The goal of this workshop was to train students leaders in our 4-step tectonic process to address the tension of residence living and sexual harassment on campus.

The opening of our workshop turned out to be the same day that tension erupted at another Michigan university over the end of the sexual abuse trial of Dr. Larry Nassar. Reactions spread like a tsunami from the Michigan State University boardroom to MSU’s Richard DeVos Center—funded by the late father in law of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose rolling back of Title IX policy on sexual harassment has made her a primary target of the #METOO movement.

The anxiety about sexual abuse—one of the issues we had been asked to address—could not have been higher.

We started our workshop exploring roommate tensions in general. We showed a video on issues between two roommates Sarah and Ashley, arguing about hair in the sink, dishes piled up and unwanted noise. After a few good laughs, we asked the student to give the tension a name. While this appeared to be a simple step in the process, it took a good half hour for students to scope down the problem and spell out the tension. As we have found in other techtonic workshops, the participants wanted to leap ahead toward blaming one of the girls and prescribing solutions. The reality was more complex: Each girls had been inconsiderate of the other.

The case study we chose for sexual harassment was prompted by Northwood University’s manual on responding to “gender-based and sexual misconduct.” That pamphlet gives this example:

“Amanda and Bill meet at a party. They spend the evening dancing and getting to know each other. Bill convinces Amanda to come up to his room. From 11 p.m. until 3 a.m., Bill uses every line he can think of to convince Amanda to have sex with him, but she adamantly refuses. He keeps at her, and begins to question her religious convictions, and accuses her of being ‘a prude.’ Finally, it seems to Bill that her resolve is weakening, and he convinces her to give him a ‘hand job.’ Amanda would never had done it but for Bill’s incessant advances. He feels that he successfully seduced her, and that she wanted to do it all along, but was playing shy and hard to get. Why else would she have come up to his room alone after the party? If she really didn’t want it, she could have left.”

When we asked the participants to name the conflict, which is Step 1 of our 4-step tectonic process, a cloud descended on the room. From MSU to the White House, the seriousness of these issues was obvious to everyone. The conversation was difficult that day, but finally we named the conflict as “Mixed Messages.”

Northwood University policy on Mixed Messages is crystal clear: “Mixed messages from your partner are a clear indication that you should stop, defuse any sexual tension and communicate better. You may be misreading them. They may not have figured out how far they want to go with you yet. You must respect the timeline for sexual behaviors with which they are comfortable.” The manual makes it clear that Bill violated university policy. The pressure he applied to Amanda was unreasonable. She did not consent; Bill’s pressure forced her toward sexual activity. If this hypothetical case had been adjudicated, Bill would have been punished.

The question we raised was: Would the university process actually have reached that point? And, if it had, what was the likely impact of punishment? Would it have deterred further bad behavior on campus?

We asked: “What would happen if this hypothetical couple had an opportunity to go through the 4-step techtonic process?” Step 1 would have named their conflict as our group had: “Mixed Messages.”

Step 2 of the process is: Describe the tension on each side. Both Amanda and Bill could clearly ex-press their feelings around that night. By acknowledging their feelings, they would each feel heard and their feelings would be validated.

Step 3 is: Bridge the divide. How is it possible to use the tension that once separated us to connect us? As we talked, we realized that this is how Step 3 with Bill and Amanda could look: We could ask Bill lots of questions about what he had assumed before and during that night—and what he realized about the aftermath of his actions. Amanda could respond to similar questions. In this third step of the process, parties in conflict have an opportunity to step into the fault line and deepen their understanding of the other.

Our premise is that tension is never eradicated. Especially, in this age of You Tube, Facebook and Twitter messaging, the tension escalates at the speed of light, reaching astronomical proportion, permeating campuses, businesses, governments, and communities. While restoring relationships is an achievement, creating a foundation that can sustain these relationships through seismic events is essential. This requires that parties in conflict create something new together that benefits all parties, which is Step 4 of our process.

Our workshop ended on another auspicious date: January 24, Holocaust Remembrance Day. For us—Samia and Brenda—it was a reminder of the courageous conversation we started as an Arab and a Jew, years ago. Historic tragedies are the tensions that have separated the very foundations of our two communities for generations.

We need not only safe spaces for truths to come forward but also a brave space, where tough questions get asked, paradoxical truths reside, feelings are validated, empathy emerges, and new solutions begin.


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Jana Riess on re-discovery of the Christian Prayer Wheel after it was lost for centuries

Detail of the Liesborn Prayer Wheel translated into English.


Editor of ReadTheSpirit

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

For Christians, the re-discovery of the 1,000-year-old Christian Prayer Wheel is such a revelation that the opening pages of the new book about this remarkable find provide a Who’s Who of best-selling Christian writers and teachers. They’re all encouraging us to pay special attention to this milestone.

So pick your favorite author from this list and that should move you to click over to Amazon and order your own copy of the new book. Here are half of the dozen famous names you’ll find as you open the cover:

  • Richard Rohr calls this a “brilliant rediscovery” and says the Prayer Wheel “is an excellent example of the endless fruitfulness of healthy religion.”
  • James Martin says it’s a “bold recovery of a long-forgotten path to prayer.”
  • Lauren Winner compares this recovery of a lost practice to the re-introduction of Christian labyrinths in recent decades.
  • Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove calls the Prayer Wheel “just the tool to unlock the door to the home you always knew you needed.”
  • Adam Hamilton says this is an “Indiana Jones” moment!
  • Frederica Mathewes-Green says this practice will “deepen and strengthen our faith.”
  • The book’s three authors compare it to “a message from Middle Earth.”

Click on this English translation of the Prayer Wheel to see it enlarged.

Do you remember the headlines about this discovery? Sara Griffiths of The Daily Mail in the UK was among many journalists around the world who reported in 2015 on the mysterious chart, which turned up when a medieval illuminated book of Gospels was placed on the auction block. In the front of that set of Gospels was a strange chart for a kind of spiritual discipline no one could decipher. Here’s how Griffiths breathlessly heralded the discovery:

Presented by an abbess to her convent of nuns, a medieval tome known as the Liesborn Gospel Book is one of the most valuable gospels in the planet. … Now, one has revealed an extra hidden treasure—a mysterious hand-drawn prayer wheel inside. But despite the unusual find, it is not known how to use the enigmatic diagram. The book, containing just the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, has a cover made of carved oak with copper clasps. … The mysterious prayer wheel was likely added to the book’s blank first page in the 12th century. … Written in Latin and arranged in concentric circles, the prayer wheel’s outermost ring contains instructions, which when translated from medieval Latin read: ‘The order of the diagram written here teaches the return home.'”

So, do you understand the enthusiastic references to Indiana Jones and Middle Earth? They’re not hyperbole. This was the invitation to a real spiritual quest. In 2015, the big question was: How had Christians used this encoded wheel a millennium ago?

At the center of the wheel was Deus, Latin for God. The four concentric bands, when translated, contained text concerning: the Lord’s Prayer, the Gifts of the Holy Spirit, events in from the life of Christ and Jesus’s Beatitudes.

A trio of brave souls set out on the quest to uncover the mystic meaning of this chart: Patton Dodd, a veteran religion editor who has appeared in the pages of The Atlantic and on National Public Radio’s On Faith; Jana Riess, senior columnist for Religion News Service and a well-known author and editor of books; and David Van Biema, best known as Time magazine’s religion writer for a decade until 2009 and now a popular freelancer for various major magazines.

Their biggest discovery on their lengthy global quest? This chart was not the one-off creation of a single quirky monk or nun. The trio found about 70 surviving examples of Prayer Wheels in libraries and archives circling the globe. In fact, all those centuries ago, these circular prayer charts were a popular practice among many Christian communities! Lauren Winner is right: This is a discovery on par with the resurfacing of Christian labyrinths after having been forgotten for centuries.


The original Latin chart in the Liesborn Gospels. (Click this image to see it larger.)

“When the three of us decided to explore the Prayer Wheel, we were able to get the rights to use the image of the wheel from the people selling the book. I think they felt our work might draw attention and increase interest in these Gospels,” said Jana Riess in an interview. “Now, after the sale, the book has returned to German to the monastery where it came from in the first place.”

The museum of Liesborn Abbey is situated in the German state of North Rhine-Westphalia. The Gospels left the monastery, when the community of Benedictine nuns closed in 1803. The treasure then changed hands at least 10 times, hopping around the globe, before it was placed on the auction block. Then, the Liesborn Abbey Museum put together a plan to buy back the Gospels for about 3 million Euros.

“Our book begins with a short introduction to the discovery of this Liesborn Prayer Wheel,” explained Jana. “But our book is not a detailed history either of Liesborn or of this particular Prayer Wheel. We do explain the history, but that wasn’t our purpose. Our book is a guide to using the Prayer Wheel on a daily basis if readers want to rediscover this practice.”

If you are a reader with a long-time interest in spiritual disciplines, you will recognize this book is an instant classic—akin to the 1995 release of Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Pratice by Lauren Artress. Now, there are many books about labyrinths, but Artress’s guide launched the worldwide movement of reclaiming that practice and continues to find new readers every day.

In The Prayer Wheel, the authors emphasize: “The wheel’s paths are not magic, and praying them is not an incantation. Think of it rather as a spiritual best practice.”

Then, the authors also stress the timeliness of this discovery:

“The wheel could have resurfaced at any time, but it is especially welcome today. It offers prayer prompts boiled down to their most succinct essentials—telegraphic words and phrases that contain multitudes of meaning. In an age when we are shifting from communicating in sentences, paragraphs and chapters to expressing ideas in a flow of word bites and visual graphics, the wheel offers a bridge between old and new—without compromising substance. Think of it as an early Christian handheld device, one that is improbably suited to our time.”

The heart of the book is 180 pages describing what the authors call Seven Paths through the Prayer Wheel. These page-by-page spiritual reflections are organized so that readers can focus on one path per week for seven weeks. That makes the book a terrific idea for small-group discussion in your congregation—especially if your small group is focused on prayer and spiritual formation. Invite people to try these prayer prompts, these pathways to prayer, and you’ll enjoy discussing whether this leads to fresh spiritual insights.

Each of the seven weeks draws on a phrase from the Lord’s Prayer.

“That prayer, which most people know as the Lord’s Prayer, is the gateway to understanding the wheel,” Jana said in our interview. “Each spoke of this wheel, each pathway to prayer, begins with a petition from the Lord’s Prayer. The genius of this comes from St. Augustine who began making these connections between each petition in the Lord’s Prayer and a particular Beatitude and a scene from the life of Christ. The juxtapositions of those familiar elements are what makes the Prayer Wheel so fresh—so rich and rewarding.”

There can be connections between the Prayer Wheel and the Labyrinth, says Jana. “Both have this circular movement to them and people familiar with the labyrinth know that there also are finger labyrinths you can follow with a stylus or your finger. A medieval scholar points out that there are smudges on the original Latin document from Liesborn that indicate someone was using a finger to keep track of where they were on the Prayer Wheel. I’m a fan of the labyrinth and I like the physical contact—to trace my finger along the paths. And, I think that influenced how I approached the wheel.”



Thanks to Jana Riess and her co-authors, we now know that Prayer Wheels can be found in many libraries and archives around the world. In fact, some Prayer Wheels are even more elaborate than the Liesborn chart. In coming years, versions of this circular approach to spiritual discipline may pop up in exhibitions or in freshly re-imagined versions of the Wheel.

However, if any of our readers are planning European journeys, the Liesborn museum is eager to welcome visitors. Check out this Liesborn web page for more details. (Note: If the website pops up first in German on your computer, click on the “Options” in the upper-right-hand corner and select the English translation. Note that this is an auto-translation and the wording is awkward—but you can understand the articles on that page and the photos are intriguing.)

“One thing that drew me to the Prayer Wheel is that it is deeply ecumenical. The references on the wheel are all to biblical texts, not doctrines that Protestants might be concerned about today. The innovation here is putting these particular biblical texts together in fascinating ways,” said Jana. “I remember I had chills when I first encountered it and I continue to love the Prayer Wheel because of all the juxtapositions that invite us to reflect. And, using this as a guide, we know it’s biblical, it’s theology, it’s history, it’s prayer—all in one.”

“The moment I first encountered the Prayer Wheel felt like: Where have you been all my life?” Jana said. “This practice gives us a deeply moving connection to God but also a connection deep into our Christian past.”


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Easter and Passover: A rabbi, a priest and a pastor walk into …

Click the image to find the podcast on iTunes.

Contributing Columnist

A rabbi, a priest, a Unitarian Universalist minister, and a Presbyterian pastor all walk into a recording studio.

That sounds like a bad start to a bad joke, but it was a wonderful start to a rich conversation. Rabbi Hillel Katzir of Temple Or Hadash in Ft. Collins, CO, invited this group together for a conversation on his weekly radio show on KRFC 88.9, “Faith in Progress.” He wanted us to explore the convergence of Passover with Holy Week and Easter. (Note: You can listen to the entire podcast via iTunes.)

Together we discussed how both holidays are celebrations of rebirth. For Jews, Passover represents the rebirth of a people. In the resurrection of Jesus, Christians celebrate the God who brings life out of death and the birth of a new life in Christ. While not all Unitarian Universalists celebrate Passover or Easter, their faith tradition draws from Jewish and Christian themes and earth-centered traditions that recognize the cycle of death and rebirth in the seasons of the year.

Throughout the conversation, the Jewish roots of Christianity were emphasized and explored, along with the ways Unitarian Universalism draws from both traditions. Jesus was an observant Jew who certainly celebrated Passover. In the synoptic gospels of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), the Last Supper is depicted as a Passover meal. Some atonement theories utilize the concept of ritual sacrifice found in first-century Jewish practice to explain the effect of Jesus’ death on the cross. Other views of atonement understand Jesus’ death as the ultimate expression of God’s love for the world.

The theme of liberation runs through both holidays as well. The Jewish celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery is paralleled in the Christian affirmation that the resurrection signifies our liberation from sin and death. This thread of liberation surfaces in the Unitarian Universalist commitment to justice and liberation for all people. Rabbi Hillel reflected that Jewish eschatology insists that until all are free, the end will not come. The Christian hope is that the resurrection of Jesus was just the beginning of God’s unfolding plan to free all the world from slavery. These beliefs are reflected in Jewish and Christian commitments to working for social justice.

The discussion closed with the recognition that Jews and Christians are called to observe the holidays year after year, remembering again the hope of rebirth, the promise of liberation, and the meaningful connections between our faith traditions.


The Rev. Amy Morgan is pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Loveland, CO. Most recently, she contributed to the second edition of Friendship and Faith, a collection of women’s stories about crossing religious and cultural divides to form friendships. She currently serves as Vice-President of the board of Yucatan Peninsula Missions and on the Committee on Preparation for Ministry for the Presbytery of Plains and Peaks. Amy and her husband, Jason, have a son, Dean. They love hiking in the mountains and biking around town.

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John Dominic Crossan on ‘Resurrecting Easter’ and re-envisioning our relationship to Jesus

John Dominic Crossan at work. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

“All great religions offer humanity parables bigger than themselves. So also here. When Christ, rising from the dead after being executed for nonviolent resistance against violent imperial injustice, grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, he creates a parable of possibility and a metaphor of hope for all of humanity’s redemption.”
John Dominic Crossan in ‘Resurrecting Easter’


Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

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

How do you envision the Resurrection?

It’s a timely question as 2 billion Christians around the world soon will mark the most important global holiday in this 2,000-year-old religion: Easter. (April 1 for Western Christians and April 8 for Eastern Christians in 2018.)

Close your eyes. What do you see? Is it a Superman-like image of Jesus soaring up-up-up into the sky triumphantly shedding the bonds of earthly mortality? Or, if you’re steeped in Western Protestant imagery, is it a friendly Warner-Salman-style Euro-Jesus surrounded by shimmering lights?

As you ponder these images—consider this fact: Even though this is the central belief at the core of Christianity, the four Gospels never describe the actual moment of resurrection. They do describe many sightings of the risen Christ, but not what unfolded at the moment of resurrection.

As you ponder that mystery, look again at the opening quote (above) from John Dominic Crossan’s beautiful new illustrated book about the Easter story. As Western readers, have you ever heard that during his resurrection Jesus “grasps the hands of Adam and Eve”? In fact, what Crossan and his colleagues reveal in this book is that the Eastern half of Christianity many centuries ago began envisioning the resurrection as connecting Jesus first and foremost with the world’s First Couple: Adam and Eve.

Puzzled? Intrigued? That’s the hope of this remarkable team: Crossan and his photographer wife Sarah Sexton Crossan (along with some early help in the research from the late Marcus Borg and his wife Marianne). Order a copy of this book today from Amazon and you should have it before Easter. Show this to your friends, your Sunday School class or your Bible-study group—and you’ll be sure to spark spirited discussion as friends explore these extensively illustrated pages with you.


John Dominic and Sarah Crossan. (Photo courtesy of the authors.)

What turned into a 15-year treasure hunt began back in the years when our mutual friend Marcus Borg and his wife Marianne were regular traveling companions with the Crossans. Over time, the Borgs and Crossans turned their own two-couple travels to the “Holy Lands” into one of the world’s most sought-after tours.

“In the year 2000, Marianne and Marcus had been doing some pilgrimages to Israel focused on Jesus and they invited Sarah and myself to do a trip to Turkey on Paul,” Crossan said in our interview. “Sarah and I said we’d love to go with them. We started going every year to Turkey with about 40 people to walk in the footsteps of Paul to show the Roman world in which he lived and worked. We did that every year—but in 2007, the four of us started going a week ahead or staying a week after to spend time on things we wanted to see.”

Marcus died in January 2015 of a chronic lung disorder and, for a time before he died, he could not travel. The bulk of the research and writing about images of Jesus’s Ressurection—in other words, the heart of the book Resurrecting Easter—was carried out by the Crossans. (Note to regular readers: The Borgs are mentioned briefly in this new Crossan book. And, if you want more from Borg’s perspective, then stay tuned! Later this spring, we will feature an interview with Marianne Borg, who has gathered unpublished materials by Marcus for a new book, Days of Awe and Wonder.)

As Crossan looks back over their years of traveling, he describes the concept behind Resurrecting Easter as emerging from an accidental accumulation of details as they visited ancient sites.

“In fact, when we finally realized that there was this remarkable difference in the Eastern and Western depictions—basically whether Jesus rose alone or Jesus was shown pulling Adam and Eve along with him—we looked back through images and notes we had collected on earlier trips. I remember pulling out one of those folding postcards we bought during a trip we made in 1999 to a Coptic church in old Cairo. The postcard showed the church’s icons and we looked very closely at the photos. Finally, we saw what we had missed before! There it was! Jesus was yanking Adam along with him. The image was right there in that Cairo church, but we had overlooked it back in 1999.”

Where did those images emerge? And how far did they range across the known world?

“This book really is a detective story,” Crossan said. “Why did these images differ so dramatically from East to West?”

In the opening passage of this new book, then, Crossan concisely lays out the adventure that will unfold in the next 200 pages:

Resurrecting Easter is a debate about ideas and images or, better, a debate about ideas presented in and by images. It is a tour through thought and theology, an expedition across geographical space and historical time, and, finally, a passage from religious tradition to human evolution. It concerns a struggle between two visions of Christ’s Resurrection, studies a conflict between two images of Easter’s icon, and asks what is here at stake both inside and outside Christianity. This is how the problem unfolds.

The major events in Christ’s life and therefore the major feasts in the church’s liturgy—from the Annunciation to the Ascension—are described in the Gospel stories and so they can be depicted in any medium. … But there is one exception in that overall sequence, one event in the life of Christ that is never described in any Gospel story. Furthermore, this is not some minor happening, but the most important and climactic one of them all. This is the moment of Christ’s Resurrection, as it is actually happening. This—unlike all other Gospel events—is never described in itself.

Now are you intrigued? Are you already asking questions about Crossan’s claims?

He welcomes and anticipates that internal dialogue as we read! For example, one question you may have right away, if you are a regular Bible reader, is this: What about all that Gospel language and artistic imagery of the empty tomb? Isn’t that a depiction of the Resurrection? Read Crossan’s book to find out how he addresses that question and distinguishes between these various narratives, images and traditions.

Questions rise in each new chapter. The Crossans track down evidence through centuries-old artifacts and icons in many exotic locations. They answer the questions in text, charts and photos. Then, each chapter leaves us with new questions. You’re likely to find yourself turning one page after another—especially to see more of their fascinating full-color photos.


Like most great international treasure hunts—from fictional potboilers like Dan Brown novels to real-life research by serious scholars—there’s a “treasure” looming at the end of this long, dusty search for answers. This valuable nugget takes the form of a summing-up message from the Crossans in the closing pages. That final chapter is likely to be embraced as both timely and inspiring by readers familiar with earlier books by Crossan. In his view, Jesus was confronting the full, crushing force of imperial power with a message of nonviolence.

Here’s how Crossan connects this new appreciation of the Eastern Resurrection imagery with his past research into Jesus’ life and times:

“All great religions offer humanity parables bigger than themselves. So also here. When Christ, rising from the dead after having been executed for nonviolent resistance against violent imperial justice, grasps the hands of Adam and Eve, he creates a parable of possibility and a metaphor of hope for all of humanity’s redemption. Even though Christ is crucified for his nonviolent resistance, this Crucifixion and Resurrection imagery challenges our species to redeem our world and save our earth by transcending the escalatory violence we create as civilization’s normal trajectory. And the universal resurrection imagery makes it clear that we are all involved in this process.”

In our interview, Crossan said, “These days in Western culture, we love our super heroes, don’t we? So, one way to ‘read’ the Western images of Resurrection is that Jesus is a super hero who has a terrible Friday but he bounces back and lives happily ever after. But, that can lead us to assume: Don’t worry too much about this world because, even if we blow ourselves up, that’s OK. We’re all going to a better place.

“I hope readers will think about these questions as they read this book and discover all these new images of Resurrection that we have documented. What message are we getting from these images? What claim should we be making?”


Care to Read More?

DIG DEEPER INTO CROSSAN’S WORLDOver the past decade, ReadTheSpirit has featured annual interviews with Crossan about his ongoing work pursuing these basic themes through many aspects of media: books, lectures, tours, videos and documentary films. For example, in 2010, we explored The Lord’s Prayer with Crossan, because of his new book on that topic. If you’re just discovering Crossan’s work, today, then you also might want to visit Crossan’s Amazon Author Page and choose one of his earlier books to enjoy.

VISIT OUR BOOKSTORES—You’ll find lots of books that are great for small-group discussion in our own ReadTheSpiritBookstore and our new Front Edge Publishing Bookstore.

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