The Adam Hamilton interview on ‘Revival’ of John Wesley

Cover of Adam Hamilton Revival Faith as Wesley Lived It

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

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

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

Wesley’s life parallels many religious trends today:

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

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

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author.  Here are …

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

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

Why do you think he’s so popular today?

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

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

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

WORLDWIDE WESLEY FAMILY TREE

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

Adam-Hamilton

Adam Hamilton

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

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

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

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

A WESLEYAN PILGRIMAGE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MASTER OF 18TH CENTURY SOCIAL MEDIA

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

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

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

ORGANIZATIONAL GENIUS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What stories make a difference? ‘The Two of Us’

th-Short-Stuff-from-a-Tall-Guy-Cover“Good media builds good community.” That’s as true today as it has been in our religious traditions for thousands of years. Now, you can play a role—and perhaps win a signed copy of my new book Short Stuff from a Tall Guy in the process. Below is a prose poem, based on a chapter from a classic novel published nearly a century ago. The story has shaped lives around the world.

YOUR CHALLENGE—Name the book and author. Because the following is a prose-poem based on and extending from one famous portion of the book, you can’t use Google to find the source of the following text. But, read the text and think about it! Talk to friends. You’re free to repost or to print out this text and share it in your small group. RESPOND by emailing your thoughts to [email protected] From the emails that correctly identify the original book, I will draw a winner and mail out a personally dedicated copy of Short Stuff. Then, I will return online to talk more about how powerful stories shape our lives—and I will tell you the moving story behind the famous novel.

THE TWO OF US

By BENJAMIN PRATT

Oak tree leaves in autumn

OAK LEAVES. (Photo by Pierre Selim, released for public use via Wikimedia Commons.)

We cling to each other
like two oak leaves hanging on
against the chilling blast of
winter’s bitter bite.

It’s an ancient story;
yet only a day has passed since the latest news.
An old friend—
a beautiful, once-vibrant, gracious
breath of life—
fell.
Life’s winter season
racked body and soul.

The storyteller knows our questions:
“Why must we fall?”
And:
“What happens to us when we have fallen?”

We hold gloved hands
and lean into the bitter wind,
determined to complete our daily walk.
We shiver from the bitter news
as sleet begins to bite our faces.
Too cold to talk, our teeth chatter—
we surrender, return home
with heavy hearts and cold parts.

Off come the layers,
out spill the words,
“You never know who’s going to go next.”
For a moment we hold each other,
transferring tender warmth.

The phone rings and a new father bubbles:
“Our child is born!
“Mother and daughter are doing well.”
We laugh.
“Oh, such sweet news. Gentle kisses to
Momma and your new daughter.”

I mumble, “Others come to take our places when we’re gone and after them still others,
and more
and more.”

She says, “Which one of us will go first?”

“There’s still plenty of time to worry about that,” I say.

There is silence.
Then, she replies, “How kind you are.”

We hold each other and our questions:
Do you remember when we first met?
Do you remember how beautiful it was when…?
Do you remember the warm night on the sand when…?
Do you remember when we were so angry that…?

Finally I say it aloud: “Let’s remember.”

Do you remember?

NOW IT’S YOUR TURN …

Identify the original book and author. Email your thoughts to [email protected]

Good media builds good community. It’s a truth that touches the core of our spiritual traditions.

 

The Ragan Sutterfield interview on ‘This Is My Body’

Cover of Ragan Sutterfield's 'This Is My Body'

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

ASHAMED of your body? Overweight? (Millions of us are.) Not attractive? Not athletic? Addicted to chocolate or cigarettes or worse? Are you wondering: Who could love such a body—including you yourself?

If so—then here’s good news. Ragan Sutterfield has written a book just for us: This Is My Body—From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith. And to answer your first two questions: Yes, Ragan’s spiritual journey led him from disgust with his overweight body, his addiction to cigarettes and his problems with physical intimacy to a healthy life. But, no, he’s not expecting readers to compete in extreme sports. This is a book for—well for us, if we find ourselves drawn toward religious life, yet we forget to tend to our bodies.

There’s clearly something wrong in the mind-body-spirit culture within American congregations, Ragan argues persuasively. In many communities, what’s wrong is evangelical preaching that our bodies are wicked and we should only worry about getting our souls into heaven.

He’s not alone in confronting this kind of preaching. Another group of religious leaders trying to counter this “our-bodies-are-wicked” theology are the writers producing www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com where they point out that many body-related issues wind up painfully excluding individuals, and their families, from congregational life. Or, those Third Way writers point out, churchgoers feel pressure to hide their true physical identities.

Ragan’s book zeroes in on one particular issue: the way our understanding of faith shapes our approach to health and to physical contact with those we love. Millions of Americans are caught in patterns of shame, addictive behaviors and a tragic inability to take seriously the physical meaning of our marriage vows. In that last realm, Ragan writes about his own struggles with marriage and the spiritual pathway that led him to loving and caring for his wife Emily in sickness and in health and in all physical conditions.

He opens the book with some startling research data—a 2011 Northwestern University study that shows frequent involvement in congregational life, when young, is linked to greater likelihood of obesity in middle age. When it first appeared, that study sparked headlines nationwide. (Care to read more about the study? Here are a Northwestern summary, a Chicago Tribune story, a US News story, and a report from Science Daily.)

But, this book isn’t only about getting into better physical shape. At an even deeper level, Ragan argues, the way we think about our bodies rests on the foundation of how we think about the world God has created. Is the totality of God’s Creation—this world, our environment, plants and animals and our bodies—fundamentally good? Or is this world an evil place where our wicked bodies lead us astray? Ragan argues passionately that what God has made in this world is good. Grounding our faith in that belief immediately begins to move us away from shame and a spiritual separation from our bodies, he argues. In short: Recognizing that God’s Creation is good is a pathway to spiritual and physical health.

And, this book isn’t just about our own physical health. If we are evangelically focused on abandoning an evil physical world for the paradise that may await us after death, then we also won’t care much about global warming, sustainable farming or the fate of non-human animals who live on our planet. Before writing this book, Ragan was best known as an author and activist promoting sustainable agriculture and care of the earth. Now, in 2015, he is working his way through Episcopal seminary and will emerge in a year or so as a priest serving congregations in his native Arkansas.

Finally, don’t let fear keep you from reading this book. Ragan won’t make you feel even guiltier than you perhaps feel right now. His approach is humble and completely honest about his own rocky journey. “I ask others to join with me in listening to what God is saying about this,” he tells readers. He’s an honest companion, not a task master pushing guilt.

This is a book you’ll find both inspiring and personally challenging—and that is sure to spark spirited discussion in your class or small group.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH RAGAN SUTTERFIELD ON
‘THIS IS MY BODY’

DAVID: I was struck by the Northwestern study you describe in the opening of your book. There’s a lot of research showing that involvement in congregations is actually quite healthy—especially for older adults. And the Northwestern study still leaves a lot of questions unanswered—but it really is an ominous report. You also include some other research to back it up. Let’s share just a couple of lines with readers. You write:

“Theology has consequences. A church where the soul alone and not the body is saved becomes a place where the body is left to other stories or no story at all. Because the body doesn’t matter to our eternal salvation in this view, Christians tend to adopt secular views of the body or simply ignore it and its health altogether. Research has borne this out. According to a Northwestern University study that tracked over 2,000 participants for 18 years, adults like me, who attended evangelical churches as youth, are 50 percent more likely to be obese than our unchurched counterparts. Other research based on census data has shown that Southern Baptists and other, more evangelical denominations, are the heaviest of all religious groups.”

When I read it, I bookmarked that page. I thought: Wow, 50 percent more likely to be obese!

Ragan Sutterfield author of This Is My Body Photo by Paul Brown

RAGAN SUTTERFIELD (Photo by Paul Brown, used by permission of the publisher.)

RAGAN: I found that statistic really interesting because as I was growing up in a conservative evangelical context, we knew that our bodies were held in low esteem. Yes, we used to hear, “Your body is a temple,” but that mostly was the way adults warned us against smoking, drinking and sex. The real message was that these bodies we’re living in aren’t important—and we really need to pay attention to our souls. When you’re sharing those assumptions, it’s hard to take care of your body in a proper way.

DAVID: Your book is mainly a real-life story of how you—and some of the people around you—struggled along this spiritual journey to find a healthier, more integrated understanding of your life. It’s a true story with lots of interesting anecdotes, but you do pause in the narrative to teach us things along the way. And one of those lessons you teach early in the book is that the Bible’s Hebrew and Jewish roots don’t regard the body as some wicked, throw-away husk of life.

In the book, you sum it up at one point this way: “In Hebrew thought that most formed the imaginations of the writers of the New Testament, the body and the soul were inseparable.” And, you write, none of the early Jewish followers of Jesus “would have imagined a disembodied soul in the Greek sense. If there would be eternal life, it would have to come from the resurrection of the person, the whole package: body and spirit.”

You wrap up that section by telling readers in a 4-word paragraph: “We are our bodies.”

‘PART OF THE GOODNESS OF GOD’S CREATION’

RAGAN: I think my biggest hope for this book is that readers will walk away with a greater sense of the gift of our bodies. I want people to understand that our bodies are a part of the goodness of God’s creation.

DAVID: Let’s go back and fill in a bit of the timeline for readers.

RAGAN: I was born in Arkansas in 1980 and I’m moving into my 35th year. Right now, I’m about half way through Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, Virginia, and in 2016 I hope to be returning to Arkansas with my wife Emily and Lillian who is now 3 and in January we welcomed our second daughter Lucia.

DAVID: Some readers may know you from farming. You wrote Cultivating Reality: How the Soil Might Save Us. And you’ve been active nationally—and internationally, too—in organizations that promote sustainable farming and a concern for the environment. In this new book, there are some sections where you talk about your time as a farmer. So, give us a little update about your departure from agriculture.

RAGAN: I left farming, first of all, to work for Heifer International for a time, mainly working on their websites. Then, eventually I came to seminary.

DAVID: There’s no family farm in Arkansas to which you’ll be returning?

RAGAN: No, and the time I was farming was the time my body was heaviest and I got into some unhealthy habits. Someday, I might like to do a little small farming again, but I came to realize that full-time farming is very hard.

DAVID: I’ve been a fan of Wendell Barry myself and, in this book, you talk about Barry and also Henry David Thoreau.

RAGAN: Yes, I was inspired by Wendel Berry and other writers so much that I wanted to farm, too. So, I began an apprenticeship with a farmer in Arkansas and worked in varying capacities for several years. At one point, I was leasing land myself.

I had this  idea that I would work hard to provide healthy food for others—but I discovered the life is much harder than I had realized.

DAVID: You weren’t overweight as a child, but you’ve had issues with weight since your youth, right? For example, by high school, your weight prompted some teasing. We’re very involved in anti-bullying efforts, as an online magazine. Overweight teens face some tough challenges. That’s been a running theme, this season, on the TV show Glee, for example.

RAGAN: I was heavy enough in high school that I would get comments on it, yes. But it really was while I was farming that I gained the most weight.

DAVID: How big did you get?

RAGAN: I was so ashamed of my weight that I didn’t want to step on the scales, but I was upwards of 260. I was working so hard at this goal of healthy farming that I wound up eating convenience foods and drinking sugar-filled drinks. I’d even drink Red Bull to keep myself going.

DAVID: And now?

RAGAN: Well, I’m 5-foot-9 and now I stay under 180. I finally quit smoking a couple of years before Emily and I were married in 2011. I go up and down a little, but I’m able to stay at a healthy weight.

‘FITNESS IS A FAMILY PROJECT’

DAVID: At one point as you were getting back into shape, you did some pretty extreme training to get ready for big physical challenges—races and other competitions. Toward the end of your book, however, you make it clear that part of your awareness of health and spiritual balance means that, today, you’re making sure to spend plenty of time with your family. In other words, you enjoy a balanced approach to fitness.

How about this year? What’s on the horizon for you?

RAGAN: This past fall I completed my first 50-mile ultramarathon, which is something I had wanted to do for a long time. But I’m not a racer per se. I don’t ever expect to be standing on the podium at the end of an event. My aim is to complete them and complete them well. This spring, I’m going to be in the North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington D.C. In the fall, I’m planning on doing a half ironman—basically doing half of all the ironman distances, a 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike ride and 13.1-mile run.

DAVID: Fitness is a family activity, right? Your wife Emily is a swimmer.

RAGAN: She doesn’t compete in biking or running but she’s an avid swimmer. She teaches swimming and coaches swimming for adults. She has worked with triathletes.

‘WHAT IT MEANS TO BE CREATED BY GOD’

DAVID: As readers get into your book, they’ll discover that you’re a humble storyteller. You’re not glorifying your own accomplishments like some of the celebrity trainers these days. Your real goal is to convince readers that caring for our bodies is an important part of caring for God’s entire creation, right? You drop reminders of this idea throughout the book.

RAGAN: I’m glad you picked up on that. Our sense of embodiment and our sense of ourselves as beings created by God go hand in hand. In the kind of Christian church where I grew up, we tended to reject the goodness of creation and to reject the human body along with that. The problem is: If we regard our bodies as just something that will burn up or slough off on our way to heaven—then we lose a proper sense of what it means to be created by God. To be a healthy person, we need to realize that we are wrapped up in a whole ecology of other living beings. There are organisms all around us and even inside of us—healthy organisms in our digestive tract that help us to digest foods—that are a part of our lives.

DAVID: Given your past work—your writing and activism—I would call you an environmentalist.

RAGAN: Yes, certainly. I’m a long-time environmentalist. I was interested from a very early age in exploring the creation all around me. In college, I got very interested in how working landscapes fit into that—not just preserving pristine environments, but exploring how working landscapes like farms are a part of our relationship with creation. I wanted to be part of the effort to encourage both the flourishing of human beings and creation, as well. That’s the way Wendell Barry influenced me and a lot of other people in my generation.

Ekklesia_Project___Fostering_conversations_about_the_Church_among_theologians__pastors__and_congregations_DAVID: In our online magazine, we are publishing a number of interviews with authors who are part of emerging religious  movements. Last week, our cover story featured Doug Pagitt, who is connected with a couple of those new networks. So, I want to ask you about a group in which you’ve been active: The Ekklesia Project.

RAGAN: Yes, I’m an endorser of the Ekklesia Project and I’ve been involved in their conferences for several years, although my schedule prevents me from being involved in their gathering this summer in Chicago. I’m going to be doing clinical pastoral education this summer, as part of my seminary work, so I can’t go this time.

I would describe Ekklesia as a place where clergy, lay people and academics can come together with a common commitment to living out the faith in a really concrete way in the world. People involved in this project are very committed to justice and peace issues and creation care. We want to help Christians maintain an allegiance to their faith over against the competing ideologies of our world today: things like consumerism or nationalism.

DAVID: I want to close our interview by pointing out, once again, that your new book has a compassionate voice. You’re not here to bully us and you’re also well aware that our bodies can’t all wind up running marathons. Our online magazine does a lot of work with the many caregivers living among us.

RAGAN: I realize that we live in a world that is filled with a lot of brokenness and that sometimes includes our bodies. I’ve had health issues myself. I know people who live in deep chronic pain. This summer, my pastoral work will be in a retirement facility. I’m well aware that lots of people have a hard time accepting the idea that our bodies are a good gift from God.

But I do hope readers will walk away from reading this book with a sense of our bodies as part of the creation that God called very good—and that, even with the current brokenness we may feel in our bodies and in our world, there still is hope.

I hope that readers will leave this book encouraged to embrace our bodies and our world in a new way.

STAY TUNED!

ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious ideas and movements emerging. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:

Look for these “Cover Story” author interviews on Mondays in March, April and May 2015. Make sure you get all of our upcoming stories: Sign up for our free email updates as new stories are published by clicking on the “Get FREE Updates by Email” link at the top of this page. Or, visit us anytime via our new Facebook page.

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The Doug Pagitt interview: Why do we need to be ‘Flipped’?

Cover of Flipped the new book by Doug Pagitt

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

Millions of churchgoers nationwide care about the future of their communities. And, millions of “Nones”—people who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation—are searching for spiritual pathways that make sense to them. Whichever side of that divide you call home—you should meet Doug Pagitt, a pastoral pioneer trying to forge new connections in our communities coast to coast.

The terms to describe what Pagitt and his influential friends are trying to accomplish are as diverse as their approaches: Emergence, Convergence, Reformation and Blue Ocean are several of the common terms this year. Famous names include Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Ken Wilson, David Gushee, Peter Rollins and Phyllis Tickle. (For the names of more cutting-edge writers see the “Stay Tuned” note at the end of this interview.)

Collectively, their work sometimes is described as a “movement,” but at this point it really is a growing community of communities—a network of networks.

The surprising truth is this: Americans already are far more united than most of us imagine and these visionaries are inviting men and women from diverse religious backgrounds to take that truth seriously. As Pagitt writes in his new book, there is far more that unites us than divides us. (You may be asking: Could Americans actually be united in our values? That’s the conclusion of years of research by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, reported in his book United America, for which Brian McLaren wrote the Preface.)

Doug Pagitt's ConvergenceUS web logoTo learn more about this newly forming religious landscape, Pagitt recommends visiting ConvergenceUS, a website that explores issues shared by a wide array of new religious activists. Why is this effort so urgent? “We, our children, and our grandchildren face an unprecedented convergence of global crises: global warming and environmental collapse, the danger of cataclysmic violence enhanced by weapons of mass destruction, the rise of unaccountable elites, and the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the multitudes,” that website says.

Who are these people? They’re a surprisingly broad array of Christians—with some men and women from other faiths collaborating as well. The particular ConvergenceUS website that Pagitt recommends puts it this way: “The Convergence Movement is bringing together forward-thinking Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, along with ethnic and peace churches and other willing colleagues, in a growing movement-building collaborative.” But, that website is only one of many that are springing up as this nationwide movement expands. Another key site is the www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com, hosted by Ken Wilson and his co-pastor Emily Swan. More related websites already are going up this year, including an upcoming site for the Blue Ocean movement.

What does this have to do with Pagitt’s new book? Everything. The book is called Flipped: The Provocative Truth That Changes Everything We Know About God. In 200 pages, Pagitt lays out his vision of a religious community that focuses far more on the way God unites us—than on our own individual claims about the little pieces of God we may own.

How does Pagitt describes this “flip”: The “flip” is about our giving up a selfish focus on God “in me—and discovering the far healthier community that forms when we appreciate that “we all are in God.” Making that spiritual “flip” opens up new freedom, compassion and also real urgency to address the world’s many dire needs. Faith becomes less about “me,” and far more about “us.” In describing the potential “flip” this way, Pagitt dramatically opens up community connections around the world—if his audience is listening carefully and if we respond. Going forward, this could include powerful prophetic voices from the secular community like the environmental writer James Gustav Speth, who has been calling for years for religious communities to rise up and take their responsibility in the global community seriously.

That’s why the new book Flipped is a must-read this spring. Right now all across America, groups of church leaders—and Nones, as well—find themselves talking about their hopes for the future in these troubling times. Flipped is terrific for sparking creative discussions about those yearnings that so many of us share.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Doug Pagitt. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DOUG PAGITT
ON ‘FLIPPED

DAVID: Let’s dive right into the book’s core concept—the flip. It’s “flipping” our understanding of faith, or some might say our understanding of our “religion” or our “spiritual path.” You want us to become aware that we’re already all “in God”—and a key step toward flipping our awareness is identifying what you describe as a dangerous and destructive temptation toward what you call a “transactional” or “If/Then” faith. As you describe it, that “transactional” term refers to assuming that religion is a deal we’re each making with God. It’s a spiritual focus on what I, as an individual, must do each day to maintain my religious “deal”—my connection to a distant God.

Obviously, the Christian journey is a constant search for greater compassion and love. We want to improve ourselves all the time. That’s the message from Jesus to John Wesley to the current Pope Francis. And you, of course, agree with that in your book. But, here’s the key—you’re talking about confronting the malignant patterns that form when we become obsessed with our own daily transaction with God—and all of the rules we want to slap on the people all around us as we compare them to our own holiness.

Mid-way through the book you write that too many of us want “God to be forgiving—but only when the conditions are met. That fits the transactional system, and somehow it seems right. It’s only fair that a person in need of forgiveness do something to merit being forgiven.”

Doug Pagitt author of the book FlippedDOUG: When we live in that old transactional system, we keep asking: Am I a greater or lesser possessor of God today than I was yesterday? Do I have more God in me than you do? Are some people beyond God’s love? People really struggle with questions like these that come from that kind of transactional system.

Sometimes when I’m with people who have a deep religious commitment, I begin to feel that many of them want nothing more than to have God be distant from them—and to think of Jesus as this cord or cable that connects them to this distant God.

DAVID: You write in your book that this kind of thinking appeals to people who worry that people won’t be faithful if they’re not scared of losing God. I was just reading Carl Kell’s new book, The Exiled Generations, about the aftermath of the fundamentalist takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention. Then, I interviewed Carl and he describes the old-school appeal of being born again and getting baptized as “fire insurance.” In other words: Better do it—or you’ll burn in Hell.

In your book, you describe this fear as based on the idea that “without the threat of losing God’s love, people won’t be motivated to grow and be better. Why would anyone be driven to improve if there were not the very real possibility of losing favor in God’s eyes? This type of transactional view feels right, in part, because it’s consistent with an incentive-based market economy. If we don’t give people a sufficient financial incentive to work hard, they will just be lazy. Likewise, if we don’t scare people into living right, they’ll thumb their noses at God.”

The problem with this argument, you point out is: “Love is not the reward—but the initiator.”

WHEN CHRISTIANITY BECOMES ‘TOXIC’

DOUG: When I talked about this with Peter Rollins, he told me that he’s also disturbed by this transactional understanding of faith.

As soon as you let yourself think that God is distant and that we need to work to maintain our connection to God, then we’re turning faith into a deal, a transaction. We bob and weave throughout our lives, trying to keep up with this transaction we’ve made. We begin to tell people that you have to follow these steps, or those steps, to be properly purified and to be connected with God most purely.

That’s an unfortunate pinch point in Christianity—and it just doesn’t make sense to so many people today. Maintaining that transaction just doesn’t feel good in our lives. Most of my friends who’ve left Christianity have left over this issue. They want a faith, or a spiritual expression of life, that doesn’t amount to a transactional deal. I’ve heard from early readers of this book that their first reaction is—relief. They feel relief to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.

DAVID: Now, some readers may be thinking: Well, too bad! Religion is about rules that force people to be good—or else. And that’s exactly how it should be—faith is hard. Having just read Carl Kell’s book about the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s obvious that there are lots of evangelicals out there who would make that argument.

But the problem you’re describing in your book runs much deeper than just giving people a sense of relief for the sake of making faith simpler. That’s not your aim. The deeper problem has been explored by writers like Peter Rollins—or, to point out another important writer on this subject: Larry Dossey’s Be Careful What You Pray For explores the dark side of this kind of transactional faith. Dossey is a famous physician, researcher and best-selling author who is best known for books about the power of prayer. In Be Careful, however, he explores prayers that attack others, toxic prayers—prayers in which one person who feels confident in his or her own deal with God prays to manipulate others in ways that amount to assaults on them.

If we don’t recognize the negative aspects of this transactional approach to faith, it can become toxic.

DOUG: The last 15 years of evangelicalism has become so toxic for so many people that they’re leaving and saying: “Screw it! I’m not even interested in hanging around to reform it!” They just walk away.

Right now, I’m traveling on a book tour and I’m appearing with a musician who told me she was very hesitant to do this tour with me—until she read the book. She told me, “I didn’t know we could talk about Jesus like this, until I read your book.”

There are a lot of people out there who say, “I’m not a part of any church or any expression of Christianity—not because I want to be out here, but because what I see in churches is toxic to me.”

EXPERIENCING THE FLIP AT SOLOMON’S PORCH

Doug Pagitt congregation near Minneapolis Solomon's Porch

Click the logo to visit the congregation’s website.

DAVID: So, let’s talk for a moment about your home congregation: Solomon’s Porch, near Minneapolis. Even the website for your congregation shows visitors that you’ve already flipped around a lot of expectations about “church.” One page says, “This church is a church of people, not an event created by the leaders.” Another page says, “You will not find statements of what our community believes on this site. Belief is a dynamic, lived reality and doesn’t lend itself to website statements.”

And here’s another way you flip expectations. A lot of famous Christian authors come from mega-churches. Solomon’s Porch certainly isn’t that, right?

DOUG: It’s about a 300-person community. I worked in a megachurch and one of my biggest worries was that I didn’t want Solomon’s Porch to become another megachurch. We have 11 employees who work part time and they all do other things.

DAVID: In other words, this compelling new message in Flipped is actually describing insights that have shaped your ministry for many years, right?

DOUG: Yes, I’ve been Christian since 1983 and I’ve been thinking about these things since then. This book is the best articulation of my experience over the last 32 years. You’re right: This isn’t a brand new idea that just occurred to me. This whole notion taps into the roots of my thinking for a long time.

A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY

DAVID: The book is easy to read—and I mean that as high praise. You invite us into your story and carry us along for 200 pages. I kept wanting to see where your story was going, page after page. In one section of the book, you were sharing some of your earliest influences decades ago in what I’d call the Jesus movement—and we follow your stories right up to the prophetic voices in Christianity today.

So let’s close by comparing your way of describing this new kind of Christian community with the way Ken Wilson and Emily Swan and other leaders in the Blue Ocean Faith movement describe this next wave. Ken, who produces www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com with Emily and other writers, likes to call this “center set” Christianity rather than “bounded set” Christianity. This week, one of their new columns is headlined, “When One Group is Excluded, You Wonder—Am I Next?

Here’s something Ken said to me in an interview: “The church shouldn’t be a place that’s defined by external boundaries of belief and practice so much as it’s a place where people can come in and move toward the center, which is Jesus. This is a centered-set rather than a bounded-set organization. Bounded-set organizations have clearly defined boundaries and they’re hard to get into, or get out of. In a centered-set organization, you’re welcomed and you feel welcome as long as you’re there continuing to take steps toward the center which is Jesus.”

Your new Flipped message feels similar, but I think you’re pushing even further, right?

DOUG: Well, first, I’m 100 percent liking what I’m seeing from the Blue Ocean people. I’m 100 percent thinking they’re on the right path. I know them and I like what they’re doing. I’m working with Blue Ocean’s Dave Schmelzer on some things.

But, you’re right: I’m taking one more step toward a “relational-set” or “network-theory” of what the church needs to be.

One way to think of this is to remember how most of us were first taught about atoms in school. Remember that? The hard little ball in the middle with these spokes sticking out to the electrons? Well, that’s probably how I would have thought about atoms to this day, but I’ve had opportunities to talk to physicists and that’s not how an atom is understood today. There’s no hard little ball in the center. An atom is a series of microconnections that hold the atom together.

And, Solomon’s Porch is not a center-set organization that requires people to move together toward one center. People are engaged in a web of relationships. It’s through all the microconnections that our community forms, not by a strong center pulling everyone inward.

Now, perhaps we’re not talking about different things here. I could also argue that what people are starting to talk about when they say our communities should be “center set” is really what I mean when I’m describing a “relational set.”

In the end, we’re all talking about the importance of one-ness. When I talk about this “in God” theology, I’m sharing a story of healing and integration and harmony in God.

STAY TUNED!

ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious communities emerge. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:

Look for these “Cover Story” author interviews on Mondays in March, April and May 2015. Make sure you get all of our upcoming stories: Sign up for our free email updates as new stories are published by clicking on the “Get FREE Updates by Email” link at the top of this page. Or, visit us anytime via our new Facebook page.

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150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death: How do we hold his memory today?

Lincoln on his death bed in Peterson House from Harpers weekly May 6 1865

LINCOLN on his deathbed, an illustration in Harper’s Weekly, 1865.

“The tragic splendor of his death, purging, illuminating all, throws round his form, his head, an aureole that will remain and will grow brighter through time, while history lives and love of country lasts. By many has this Union been helped. But if one name, one man, must be picked out—he, most of all, is the conservator of it, to the future.”
Walt Whitman, April 16, 1865 (the day after President Lincoln died)

By DUNCAN NEWCOMER

Lincoln lay still those last nine hours.

His final night was in a narrow room in a boarding house across from the Ford Theater. The bed too small, his knees bent. As his personal silence began—a great gasp, a roar of dumb grief crossed the land.

A score and more of somber men crowded the small room—the fallen president a figure of spiritual comfort, even though many who kept the vigil were titans of war. They noted, oddly, how strong his long bare arms were. If he had one quip left if could have been, ”The better to hold our country with!”

Hold.

Almost everyone held his words, words from our history, our documents, our declarations, the words from Gettysburg that changed a killing field into a birth place. Such a transformation may we hope for in our time and in our lives to this day.

At Hancock, Massachusetts, the Shakers, those people of the Second Coming, inscribed in their large ledger, in double-sized script, “President Lincoln has been killed.” They who gave him one of their handmade rocking chairs, and received a note of thanks, knew his godly views. They were a community of sacred visions. They would hold him.

Hold.

Lilacs blooming in a dooryardWalt Whitman, one of Lincoln’s greatest champions, loved that word and used it eight times in his famous hymn of loss: When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. In one instance, he wrote:
A moment I linger—for the lustrous star has detain’d me;
The star, my departing comrade, holds and detains me.

The fragrance of lilacs would remain an annual memory of the loss, Whitman wrote:
Yet the lilac, with mastering odor, holds me.

Walt Whitman challenged all of us to hold Abraham Lincoln’s memory and to wrestle with it—knowing that it would be a struggle. Whitman’s first use of “hold” in Lilacs issues that warning: “O cruel hands that hold me powerless!”

Whitman had spent years observing and thinking about Lincoln during the presidential years, which is why he was poised to commemorate his assassination with one of America’s greatest poems. Whitman said in a talk he often gave about Lincoln’s death, “For my part, I intend until my dying day, whenever the fourteenth or fifteenth of April comes, to annually gather a few friends and hold its tragic reminiscence.”

Now 150 years later, what might we “hold” in such a gathering of a few friends? How might we remember Lincoln and remember his tragic death?

I propose we hold such meetings this year. Whitman thought he was too close to the event to know what might eventually “filter” through to the American people from Lincoln and his murder. To hold such a time for talking with a few friends might raise some important ideas and feelings for us now as Americans and as people of spiritual life.

LET’S TALK …

Where shall we start? Here are three possibilities.

One. Historians tell us that John Wilkes Booth became the Confederate Killer because he had heard Lincoln’s recent speech on reconstruction and believed it meant what we now would call racial integration. Booth’s fury at the mere idea of equal association and legal status with blacks pushed him from kidnapping to murder, and from plan to impetuosity.

Is Lincoln’s death meaningfully associated with his increasingly open views on racial equality? What dangerous racial lines still divide us in America?

Two. Whitman tells us that huge numbers of singing, shouting Union soldiers marched up through North Carolina with General Sherman after Sherman’s defeat of Atlanta and march through the South. There “continued, inspiriting shouts…at intervals all day long…wild music…triumphant choruses…huge, strange cries…expressing youth, wildness, irrepressible strength…” until they heard word of President Lincoln’s assassination.

“Then no more shouts or yells for a week.” Hardly a word or laugh “…a hush and silence pervaded.”

Is there a truth in Lincoln’s death that muffles national triumphalism? Is there something about the spirit of military might that Lincoln’s death changes?

Three. There are two words often associated with Lincoln: humor and melancholy. He was being entertained at a funny play on the night of Good Friday when he was killed. He was laughing that night as he would often do. Yet of all the sorrowful times of his life nothing is quite as sorrowful as his death. Is there a balance in life between joy and sorrow, between success and failure, between a new birth of freedom and its tragic implications? Is there a balance we as a maturing nation are ready to hold?

These and other reminiscences of Lincoln could be part of an annual gathering held on the night of April fourteenth or in the day of April fifteenth—as Whitman called us to do. It would be an event as different as Christmas is from Easter, as Lincoln’s birthday is from the date of his death.

Care to read more?

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

The Benjamin Pratt interview on ‘Short Stuff from a Tall Guy’

COVER Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff from a Tall Guy full cover proof

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

“You hold in your hands a human heart,” writes Day1 radio host Peter Wallace in the preface to Benjamin Pratt’s new book, Short Stuff from a Tall Guy: Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey. “It is the heart of a minister. A caregiver. A storyteller. It is the heart of a fellow sojourner on the path to a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.”

“As I read it,” Peter continues, “I couldn’t help but feel that I was having a heart-to-heart conversation with this beloved brother, Ben Pratt. Ben reveals himself within and between these lines in a multitude of wise ways—and in so doing, helps each of us see ourselves more clearly as fallible human beings yearning for meaning and love and grace and purpose in life. Sometimes finding it, oftentimes losing it, but always grateful for it when we experience it.”

In her foreword to the new book, popular Buddhist writer Geri Larkin points to the courageous compassion that Ben Pratt tries to foster among his readers.

“At a time when crime stories are topping best-seller lists, here is a book that offers an entirely different experience,” Geri writes. “Each story, anecdote and poem offers an antidote to the negative messages we get pummeled by on a daily basis by popular media.”

Instead, Geri writes, Ben “invites us instead to pause, to notice, and then appreciate the more heroic aspects of each other—our ability to sympathize, to provide comfort, to openly mourn loss, to genuinely and openly love everyone.”

At ReadTheSpirit, we highly recommend this book for anyone who already is a fan of works by Peter and Geri—or books by writers such as Barbara Mahany, Judith Valente, Robert Wick, Richard Rohr, Shirley Showalter and the Knuths. If any of those writers already is among your favorites, we guarantee you’ll recognize Ben’s latest book as a brother in that family of writers. Beyond the book’s value for individual readers, Ben Pratt is a popular speaker and retreat leader and many of the stories in this new collection will spark lively discussion in your class or small group.

(To learn more about Ben, visit his author page within our online magazine—or his author page within Amazon. To order his book, click on the cover image with this interview.)

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Ben Pratt. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BENJAMIN PRATT ON
‘SHORT STUFF FROM A TALL GUY’

DAVID: In recent years, Ben, you’ve written weekly columns that have been widely shared across our own website, the website of the Day1 radio network—and other online newsletters, too. You’ve heard from countless men and women about the ways your true stories touch their lives. What’s at work here? How are you able to take small stories from your own life and connect with so many readers?

BEN: That amazes me and it always pleases me to hear from readers. Apparently, by sharing these stories from my own daily journeys, I encourage people to think about meaningful experiences in their own lives and their relationships with other people.

Earlier in my life, I served as a pastor and wrote primarily for preaching. Usually, I got responses like: “Good job, pastor.” Short comments like that. But, I still remember a day when someone told me, “Listening to you preach today, I thought you must have been in our house this week.” That kind of response shows a much richer, deeper connection with people. I want to be speaking and writing in ways that connect with people where they’re living.

My effort now is to put my own musings and experiences into words so that I can help trigger such thoughts in other people. And the comments I get now, after a new column is published, often describe that kind of connection. Through what I write, I’m with them where they live.

DAVID: You refer to the stories in this book as “Wisdom Gleaned from Life’s Daily Journey.” You don’t describe these stories in terms that are typical in inspirational books. You don’t call these “meditations,” for example. They’re true stories from your daily life. Why do you describe it that way?

BEN: I don’t think of myself as a person who meditates in the formal way. A couple of times I have been part of groups that were training people in meditation, but somehow that never fit into my life. I find thoughts and images and insights coming to me when I’m playing in my garden, or mowing my lawn or even vacuuming the house.

DAVID: In your writing, the images often come before the words, right?

BEN: That’s usually how my writing begins. Eventually, those images form into words and the writing evolves.

My prayer life, too, is much more about images, putting myself where other people are and experiencing images. We have to pay attention to what is happening around us in life. We have to keep our eyes and ears open.

DAVID: That’s a frequent teaching by Geri Larkin, who wrote the foreword to your book. Geri likes to remind people to “Pay attention!”

‘EACH DAY CAN BE A PILGRIMAGE’

BEN: One prayer that I pray each day is known as the Prayer of St. Francis: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace …” With that prayer to start your day, you’re never out of a job. There are always moments in which we can be of service, love, caring, forgiveness, hope.

That way, each day can be a pilgrimage.

DAVID: That’s a key theme in your writing—that our most important spiritual experiences usually don’t take place inside the walls of a church.

BEN: Within the church, we usually are preaching to the choir. We’re evangelizing the already evangelized. I’m much more interested in speaking to people in their daily lives—even though many of the people I encounter may be outside what we might think of as a formal faith community.

I don’t want to speak in traditional religious jargon. I want to talk about the real stuff we experience in our daily lives.

DAVID: So, let me pose the question another way: What’s a really good day for you?

BEN: (Laughs!) “A really good day?” Oh my! Well, a good day is when I laugh a lot, when I have meaningful interchanges with people: people I know and love—as well as strangers.

‘I’M INTERESTED IN THE STORY’

Benjamin Pratt Short Stuff color flyer thumbnail

WANT TO GET YOUR FRIENDS EXCITED ABOUT READING THIS BOOK? Click on this thumbnail of a full-color flyer for Ben Pratt’s new book. You’re free to save, share or print out that flyer and show it to friends. This book is ideal for a series of small-group discussions. Ben is a veteran teacher, speaker and retreat leader.

DAVID: Talk more about meeting strangers. You actually dare to talk to strangers—something most of us don’t risk doing on a daily basis.

BEN: Well, you have to be intentional about this, I think. Sometimes I get intentional about the quick encounter with a clerk at a register. I’m very quick to read the name on their name-tag—and I thank them by name. The encounter might be as simple as that.

There are many ways to start a conversation. I find tattoos fascinating. People tend to either love tattoos or hate them, but these often are amazing pieces of artwork that tell important stories from people’s lives. If someone has an obviously visible tattoo, I’ll often ask about it—I’m interested in the story.

These moments make the day delicious.

DAVID: Delicious!? Strangers are scary, aren’t they? It’s tough to convince people to speak to someone they don’t know.

BEN: I don’t think that way.

First, I don’t think of the people I encounter each day as strangers. I always trust that there is some bridge we can walk across to connect. Sometimes, we need to build the bridge as we’re walking across it toward each other. That means we need to listen carefully to the people we encounter.

If we allow the world to move us toward fear of the people all around us each day, then we’re in bigger trouble than anything we may fear. I always anticipate a connection—and that lets me meet each new person with a simple smile. And, we go from there. Sometimes, it’s just the smile.

DAVID: I like the fact that you ask about small details you notice in the people you meet. I’ve often found that’s a great first step in connecting. Someone who snaps on a lapel pin before leaving the house is hoping that people will see it. If a person has a book under his arm as he’s waiting somewhere—he usually will welcome a question about what he’s reading.

BEN: I believe that all of us, on one level, want to be noticed. Now, we do have to be careful about over-reaching. (Laughs!) My children sometimes have told me I can overdo this! But, we’re talking here about appropriate conversation: Simply saying hello to people. Smiling. Asking a simple question—because you’re really interested in their stories.

‘AT THE BACK OF THE ORCHESTRA’

DAVID: Readers of this book will quickly discover that you don’t make yourself the hero of these stories. For years, you worked as a pastoral counselor. You’ve been a teacher and retreat leader. But, in these stories, you’re not instructing readers. Instead, these stories invite readers to take a moment and think about their own lives—with you as a friend in the process.

BEN: Here’s a way to describe it. I know that I never will conduct a symphony. If I’m fortunate, I might be able to serve by playing the triangle at the very back of the orchestra.

I live my life like that. Near where we live, there’s a rotating shelter hosted by a number of churches—providing places to come find a warmth, safety and a good meal. I volunteer in that program. I show up and help serve the meals. I’m just one of the people in the background of that program. And, when I volunteer, I always find that I learn from the people who come into the shelter—as much as they will ever learn from me.

Small things do make a difference. This is the third book I’ve written and I’ve contributed to a couple of other books. And I’m amazed at all the people out there who have written to me to say that I’ve touched them with my writing.

‘WE ARE PEOPLE OF A STORY’

DAVID: Why tell stories? Every week, ReadTheSpirit online magazine publishes a couple dozen new stories by a wide range of writers—often including a new story by you, Ben, if we’re lucky that week. We keep doing this, because we think it matters to send these stories into the world. Why are we so drawn to telling stories?

BEN: If we hope to truly know ourselves, and then let others know us, that basically happens through our story. It’s important to know our story and to be honest about it. For people of faith, we are people of a story. All of the major religious traditions are rooted in story.

The other night, my wife and I visited some long-time friends for dinner. Before dinner, it was one friend’s turn to say a prayer. But, he surprised us. He said: “Instead of a prayer tonight, I’m going to tell you a story about my grandchildren. And, after I tell a story, I want each of you to tell a story from your families.”

I’m still thinking about what he did and said. “Instead of a prayer … I’ll tell you a story …” I think: That’s a beautiful way to pray together.

I do know this: Ask people to tell you their story—and you’ll never meet a stranger.

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

The Greg Garrett Interview on our love of angels and demons

Entertaining Judgment by Greg Garrett

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

We love our angels and demons!

Pew’s massive study of American religious life shows nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe that angels and demons are active in our world. We’re also certain about cosmic realms from which these creatures emerge. More than 7 in 10 Americans believe in Heaven with our collective belief in Hell lagging a bit behind that.

Now, an intrepid explorer of the connections between popular culture and the spiritual realms invites us to travel with him as Dante did with his guide Virgil 700 years ago into Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso—a classic tale that we know as The Divine Comedy. Our new guide already is familiar to thousands of readers nationwide: Greg Garrett, a noted scholar at Baylor University and author of 20 previous books. He calls his book, Entertaining Judgment: The Afterlife in Popular Imagination.

Greg is well equipped to serve as our guide after decades of exploring religious themes in comic books, movies, music and American literature. As we set off with him on this great cosmic journey, he says: “This book really is the culmination of years of research. I hope readers will have fun with it.”

Note that this book is published by Oxford University Press so the standard of research is high and Greg lays out an extensive series of notes at the end of his book if readers dare to dive deeper into some of the strange corners they will discover in this adventure.

We can highly recommend the book both for individual reading, for any teachers or preachers who like to touch upon these issues and especially for small-group discussion in religious or secular settings. You’ll have lots of fun in your small group, bringing in video and audio clips to touch off discussion on the chapters in Greg’s book.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed the author. Here are …

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH GREG GARRETT ON
‘ENTERTAINING JUDGMENT’

DAVID: Wow! Talk about a whirlwind tour! The entire cosmos from Heaven to Hell—including visits with angels and demons, comic book super heroes, TV stars, great authors and even strange characters in video games—all in 200 pages!

Greg Garrett author of Entertaining Judgment

Greg Garrett, the 2013 Centennial Professor at Baylor University.

GREG: Well, for many years as a journalist, you’ve been covering the same kinds of connections I’ve been covering—and this book really does bring a lot of things together in one place.

DAVID: How did you cast the net for this book? Every page drops another intriguing character into the mix. How did you amass this cast of characters?

GREG: I had all of my own research over the years, then I asked people to recommend stories about the afterlife—stories of the undead, angels and demons—and I got a ton of recommendations! A lot of my clergy friends had powerful stories they had used in their preaching. My literary and cultural friends told me about a lot of things they were researching. And I also crowdsourced this. I asked people questions like: What’s your favorite angel story? Then, I’ve consumed so much popular culture throughout my lifetime that I had tons of things to draw on—perhaps with the exception of video games but I even played my way through Diablo for this book.

DAVID: Many of our readers love to make these kinds of connections. Our online magazine hosts Ken Chitwood’s FaithGoesPop series and, every week, we’re exploring similar links between faith and popular culture.

In fact, I’m going to do a shout-out to our readers: What’s your favorite angel story? Go into Facebook or Twitter and tell us. Add the hashtag #FaithGoesPop so that we spot it easily.

GREG: If they want to add another hashtag that I’m starting to use for the book, they can mark their ideas #EntertainingJudgment and I’ll take a look, too.

IS ‘LOST’ REALLY PURGATORY?

LOST tv seriesDAVID: Let’s use this interview to showcase some of the very intriguing connections you make in this book. There are far too many to list them all in our conversation, but we can hit some highlights. So, let’s start with that mysterious middle-realm: Purgatory. You point out in the book that the word “Purgatory” never appears in the Bible and the vast majority of American Protestants think of Purgatory as a Catholic belief.

However, Greg, you argue that—in effect—millions of Americans are attracted to the idea of Purgatory through books, songs, movies and TV shows like Lost.

GREG: That’s a good place to start because Purgatory really was the starting point for this book. For a number of years, I had been talking about doing a book with my editor at Oxford, Cynthia Read, and then one day she asked me: “Why is it that most American Protestants think that Purgatory is ridiculous theologically but they believe that people do undergo hardship and transform their lives?”

And I told her: “You’re right. We have an operational belief in Purgatory even if Protestants think it doesn’t make sense theologically.”

That question opened up the whole book for me. One of the most primal stories we share is that people can go through Hell and emerge with a transformed life at the end of it.

DAVID: When I was reading that section of your book, I immediately thought of Dr. Wayne Baker’s research in United America. When you talk about this “operational belief in Purgatory” that rings the bells of several core American values that Dr. Baker has documented.

GREG: A perfect example of this is 12 Years a Slave—it’s a story of Purgatory, which in this case essentially means going through Hell with an expiration date when our hero emerges with a transformed life. In fact, it’s hard to watch some of the things you see in the film, unless you can keep reminding yourself: Hey, it’s only 12 years. He will emerge from this.

Or for a Purgatory comedy, think about Bill Murray in Groundhog Day. Over and over again, he is tried and tested with the hope of emerging as a new and improved being.

Purgatory was built into the DNA of Lost. From the very first season, there was this whole debate among fans about whether the island itself was Purgatory. And the creators of Lost said no it wasn’t. But this led to the idea of creating, later in the series, a “sideways” world—a world in which the Lostees never crash landed on the island and are presented with challenges they failed in their first time around. Even Dr. Linus, the show’s biggest villain, gets an opportunity to redo an awful choice he made and get it right.

BATMAN, BURNE-JONES AND STAINED GLASS

DAVID: There are dozens of other movie and TV references in this book from It’s a Wonderful Life to the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. But let’s jump to very different forms of media: comic books, paintings and stained glass. You connect all those dots, too!

Batman the dark nightAnd that starts with Batman, who makes appearances throughout your book. The story of the “dark knight” is back on prime-time TV in the hit series Gotham. This new series takes us back to Batman’s boyhood as Bruce Wayne, which starts with this little boy’s absolutely terrifying experience of witnessing the cold-blooded murders of his parents. From that kind of trauma, other characters in Gotham become blood-thirsty criminals, but Bruce Wayne emerges as a heroic figure who wants to use his powers to do good.

While Superman may be America’s oldest super hero, Batman has far more fans keeping his legend alive and his fans continually morph Batman into new forms of this angel-demon figure. I think he’ll be a connection point in your book for lots of readers and, of course, there are a lot lessons that can be drawn from comics. ReadTheSpirit has even established our own comic section called Bullying Is No Laughing Matter. So, I was very pleased to find Batman, in particular, showing up as a recurring character in your new book.

GREG: Batman is one of our most pervasive cultural stories. When I wrote about Batman and Superman back in my book Holy Superheroes, I did not realize that those two archetypal stories would continue to follow me around.

In the story of Batman, we think of Gotham as this Hell on Earth and we can think of Batman as a demon—a fierce creature of the night who, instead of using his powers for evil, chooses to use them for good. So, we’re tracing a character who was born in Hell and chose to rise above it. He casts aside everything he ought to be after those early experiences—and instead chooses to devote his life to doing good or others.

That’s the central element of the Batman story: A person can rise above a tragic setting and prove to be a hero for the ages. The question about Batman is: Demon or angel? And we could say he’s both—a devil who chooses to be an angel.

DAVID: Well, I was also pleasantly surprised to find in your book a lot about Edward Burne-Jones, the famous Pre-Raphaelite painter and designer whose images are still splashed across Christmas cards, church windows and lots of other decorative arts. You point out that Burne-Jones was influential in rescuing the idea of an “angel” from the Italian artists who wanted to turn them into cute little babies with wings. Burne-Jones gave us angels with real super-hero size and shape.

Dark knight in Edward Burne-Jones The Briar WoodIn fact, I was just comparing some of the popular images of Batman—the dark knight overlooking a sleeping city—to Burne Jones’s famous painting The Briar Wood, part of a cycle of paintings that he did in collaboration with his friend William Morris. Basically, a dark enchantment has made nearly everyone fall down in a deep sleep. And in The Briar Wood, which was painted in 1890, we see a very Batman-like dark knight overlooking this sleeping town.

GREG: Burne-Jones is really interesting because he did help to restore some gravity to these narratives about angels. As angel imagery had evolved, it looked as though the basic story was going to run off the rails into sentimentality. Throughout scriptures—whether we’re talking about the Hebrew or Christian testaments or the Muslim holy scriptures—angels are described as imposing, frightening, powerful. But, by the time of Burne-Jones, artists had turned angels into these cutesy little babies with wings. In paintings and stained glass and in other images, Burne-Jones restored the powerful nature of angels.

DAVID: And this is not just a matter of aesthetics or interior design. This transformation of angels into super heroes speaks to the terrible nature of the global challenges we faced in the 20th century and face again today. If our spiritual imagination is going to keep up with the world’s terrors, then we need super heroes, right?

GREG: Flying babies don’t do the job for us when we need a really serious pipeline to the Divine. I think that whenever our culture threatens to turn angels into cute little domesticated figures, then we’ve lost the main story about angels.

DAVID: We could go on and on—but I want to urge readers to actually order your book to continue the adventure. Let me close by asking you to sum up how you hope readers will respond to your book.

GREG: There were two things at the heart of my desire to write this book.

First, I wanted to spotlight how important stories of the afterlife continue to be in our lives. A vast majority of Americans continue to believe in Heaven and Hell and in manifestations of angels and demons. And that’s more than just a casual belief. My colleagues in research at Baylor report that a majority of Americans believe they’ve been helped by a guardian angel. So, the first thing I wanted to say is: These are very important beliefs in our lives today.

Then, second, I wanted readers to think about this: We’re consuming so many of these stories very uncritically. I want to invite people into a thoughtful consideration about this. What do we believe about the afterlife? What do we believe about the way the afterlife shapes our everyday life in pursuing faith and justice?

CARE TO READ MORE GREG GARRETT?

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