PBS network’s wonderful ‘Gospel’ series is a ‘multimedia experience with wall-to-wall music’

Click on this poster for the PBS series to visit the extensive website PBS has set up with supplemental materials.

Director of MSU’s Bias Busters

Hop aboard the PBS network’s four-part Gospel docuseries that sweeps through the origins, expansion and future of gospel music. (Click here to visit the extensive PBS website related to this series.)

Host Henry Louis Gates Jr., drives this expedition from The South through the Great Migration to Chicago, then to Detroit and eventually everywhere. Gospel music evolved and picked up steam as it grew out of safe hush harbors to small Black churches to “race music” to choirs, radio, recording contracts, television, mega churches, clubs and white and international audiences.

This project is a layered multimedia experience with wall-to-wall music. It is rare to find moments where there is not both narration or interviews and music. Video and photography as well as crawling lyrics illustrate the story and music. It commands attention.

Gates and a choir of sources—some of whom sing—tell how spirituals, blues and jazz became gospel music and how the art forms continued to change and meld. The project details the ongoing struggle between spiritual and secular performance and settings for gospel music. The dynamic tension between whether to praise or be paid, whether to play the churches or the juke joints, accelerated some careers and stalled others.

With rich archival footage and contemporary interviews, the series goes beyond the headliners—so many stars are featured—to show how the writers, ministers of music, producers, entrepreneurs and business people made gospel grow from churches to communities to the country to the anthem track for the Civil Rights movement. The series drives vertically through time and horizontally through what has become a global audience.

In framing the history, Gates says, “The Black Church has been the home of creative expression and experimentation for more than 300 years. From the beginning, this creativity was driven by the one instrument that Black people could count on when nothing else was available: The human voice.”

Gates is a professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He has authored dozens of books and films.

Gates is always on a roll, and that is true today. His newest book, The Black Box: Writing the Race comes out March 19. His PBS Finding Your Roots show is in its 10th season. A profile in the current February-March AARP magazine says, “Some public intellectuals win their place in society through fierce debate, showing off the sharpness of their minds during verbal attacks. But Henry Louis Gates Jr. took a slightly different path. He did it by being charming.”

That charm—Gates’ knowledge and laughter—make the Gospel docuseries engaging.

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

When my Michigan State journalism class was working on our book, 100 Questions and Answers About the Black Church: The Social and Spiritual Movement of a People, we provided the students copies of  Gates’ The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song (2021) for them. His influence, of course, means that the MSU guide spends some time with gospel music.

How I wish this PBS series had been available to the student authors then! They would have loved this.

Even so, their guide can supplement PBS’ Gospel. The guide focuses on the Black Church more broadly, of course. Among the 100 questions we answer:

Why were Black Churches created?

What characterizes a Black church service?

How did the Black migration to the North affect the church?

How are Black Churches sanctuaries?

What is the minister of music’s role?

What is the Black social gospel?

What role did the Black Church have in the Civil Rights movement?
Why are movement, energy and emotion important to praise?

What is modern gospel?

How do sacred and secular music interact?

Our modest guide includes the briefest but diverse list of gospel artists, a timeline and video in which the Rev. Robert Jones demonstrates how the sacred “I Shall Overcame” became the Civil Rights anthem, “We Shall Overcome.”

The PBS series began streaming for free in February and that free version ends March 11 and 12. The DVD of the docuseries will ship from Amazon on March 19. It has lots of goodies including a Gospel Live! concert companion, trailers, behind-the scenes photos and a Spotify playlist of 162 songs.



Give the gift of Faith & Film for the new year, and become a friend of the remarkably prophetic Edward McNulty

MY MENTOR ED McNULTY IN A HISTORIC SUMMER—This is a rare photograph of the prophetic faith-and-film critic, the Rev. Edward McNulty, taken way back in 1964 when he was part of the life-and-death campaign known as Freedom Summer. That summer at the height of the Civil Rights movement, Ed was assigned to work at the Shaw Freedom Center in a tiny town in Mississippi. While in Shaw, one day, someone convinced him to pose for this photo with some of the young friends who attended that center’s educational programs.

Why should you subscribe to Ed’s Visual Parables Journal for 2024?

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

Among all the journalists I have known over my half a century of reporting on religious and cultural diversity, the Rev. Edward McNulty holds a record: He is the single least-photographed journalist I have ever known.

That’s appropriate because what Ed wants us to look at is not himself. He wants us to look at the movie screens we all share, these days, and he also wants us to look deeply into the Hebrew and Christian scriptures to discover inspiring and thought-provoking connections.

At this point in his long life as a pastor, peace activist, journalist and author, Ed stands alone as the venerable dean of faith-based film critics. Back in the mid-20th Century, many major denominations had film critics—including the Catholic church. Some of those denominationally based critics had broad influence in that earlier era—but that official role faded in the ’80s, ’90s and now is largely forgotten.

But not Ed. He has been officially anointed and remains the film critic of the Presbyterian Church USA, a still-influential hold-over to that earlier era.

This is a vocation—a true calling—for Ed. In each weekly issue of our ReadTheSpirit magazine, Ed freely gives away faith-and-film reviews of new releases from Hollywood and production houses around the world. He reviews dramas, comedies, musicals, super-hero epics, animated films, bio-pics as well as indie productions, documentaries and sometimes streaming TV series. When he writes, his knowledge of both scriptures and film history is vast.

The one way Ed tries to support his ongoing travels to preview films and continue with his vocation is through selling annual subscriptions to Visual Parables Journal.

Please, right now, if you are a film lover who also cares about the roots of Abrahamic faith traditions, click here to visit Ed’s Visual Parables Journal page in our online magazine and consider subscribing. You’ll enjoy the next 12 issues, each one packed with the latest reviews as well as Ed’s widely used discussion guides for those movies—and you’ll be doing a small part in continuing Ed’s work.

One reason I am writing such an enthusiastic endorsement of Ed’s work is that he is one of my personal mentors—or, in the language of faith, a true guiding saint in my life. At this point, he now has a uniquely influential, inspirational and thought-provoking career in American journalism. I hope that I can continue writing such inspiring and prophetic columns as long as Ed has done—and continues to do.

There are many stories I could summarize here to illustrate my deep respect for Ed.

First, he was baptized by fire in his long-time support for civil rights. In the late 1950s, when he still was an undergraduate at Butler University in Indianapolis, Ed also worked part-time running an after-school program for children at a Presbyterian church. Because he felt moved by his faith to join an early civil rights protest in Indianapolis—aimed at breaking down racial barriers in hiring at a local chain of grocery stores—Ed was punished by church leaders. He was called up on charges in his denomination and was grilled by a Presbyterian panel of white church leaders who did not want their employees publicly siding with the city’s Black residents. You can read his column about that experience here.

Ed survived that psychologically abusive ordeal—ultimately strengthened in his own resolve to support Civil Rights. I admire his courage in 1964 in heading South to serve in the historic Freedom Summer. I was only 9 years old that year, but in my family I read about the courage of those Freedom Summer workers, who risked life and limb to help register Black voters. Today, I am honored to know and work with someone who served in that life-and-death campaign.

In 2014, Ed marked the 50th anniversary of that historic Freedom Summer with a column denouncing the movie Mississippi Burning, because of that film’s diminishment of local Black leaders’ courageous role in the civil rights movement. In that column, Ed shared some of his own experiences in Mississippi—and he agreed to publish the rare 1964 photograph I am sharing (above) today.

To this day, I am astonished at his courage—more than 1,000 people were arrested that summer, 80 of the volunteers were beaten and, most infamously, some were murdered. I also admire and take courage myself from Ed’s stories about that summer, including one of singing civil rights anthems in a small crowd led by Pete Seeger in a little church so hot that everyone’s shirts hung from their shoulders, soaked with sweat. He wrote a bit about that experience when Pete died at age 94.

That’s why my personal appeal, as the founding Editor of this online magazine and publishing house, is: Please, consider supporting the ongoing work of this remarkably prophetic journalist by subscribing to Visual Parables Journal.

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

If you care to read more, the book we publish with Ed is also a great choice for holiday gift giving: Jesus Christ—Movie Staravailable from Amazon.

What’s in that book?

You’ll find complete discussion guides, including tips on selecting short film clips to show to your group, on 12 films. Some are straight-forward depictions of Jesus: The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Jesus, The Miracle Maker, The Visual Bible: The Gospel of John, The Passion of the Christ, Son of God, and Jesus Christ Superstar. Some feature inspiring and thought-provoking stories that have made many moviegoers think of Jesus’s life, including: Jesus of Montreal, Cool Hand Luke, Bagdad Café, Broadway Danny Rose and Babette’s Feast. In addition, the book has shorter overviews of dozens other Jesus-themed movies.

Please, whatever your faith tradition may be—consider meeting Ed McNulty through his Visual Parables Journal or through Jesus Christ—Movie Star.

Make that a New Year’s Resolution for 2024 to kick-start your own engagement with peace and justice—through faith and film in our world today.

Did you know it’s healthy to observe ‘Sabbath’? Martin Doblmeier’s new film shows how ‘Sabbath’ revives us

Pastor Michael Mickens walks down a hallway in Jackson, Mississippi, in a scene from Martin Doblmeier’s documentary “Sabbath.” (Clicking on this photo will take you to the filmmaker’s website where the film is streaming in addition to its release on public TV.)

‘Sabbath is the perfect spiritual technology’

Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine

There’s a whole lot of wisdom in the 3,000-year-old Commandment: “Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.”

Anna Serviansky holds the wine while a camper holds the braided candle at Havdallah at camp Ramah Darom in Georgia, a scene from filmmaker Martin Doblmeier’s documentary “Sabbath.” (Clicking on this photo will take you to the filmmaker’s website where the film is streaming in addition to its release on public TV.)

On June 1, filmmaker Martin Doblmeier is debuting his two-hour invitation to Sabbath on public television—at a time when millions of us are overwhelmed with pandemic anxiety, loss of loved ones and fears about the future of our country and our planet’s resources. We all wonder if we’re running out of time.

“Time is our only non-renewable resource,” J. Dana Trent—a pastor, scholar and author of For Sabbath’s Sake—tells us early in this new documentary. Dana is among 26 interviewees from various religious traditions featured by Martin in this film.

Because the film is debuting on public TV channels nationwide starting on June 1, Dana and Martin talked with me in a Zoom interview this week and Dana expanded on the film’s central theme:

Sabbath is good for us!

“This film could not be more timely,” Dana said. “We are just coming out of this devastating pandemic and we now have an epidemic of loneliness. Our Surgeon General Vivek Murthy right now is talking about the need for a healthy culture of connection. Isolation, loneliness and a lack of connection is dangerous. This film ‘Sabbath’ shows us how people are embracing this ancient practice of Sabbath as a way to rest, renew and reconnect. We all want a healthy culture of connection, as Dr. Murthy is saying—and I like this phrase that I heard from a rabbi describing the importance of Sabbath. He said, ‘Sabbath is the perfect spiritual technology.’ ”

“Technology?” I asked Dana in our interview.

“Yes, I like that word. That word points out how Sabbath works with us and through us,” Dana said. “Practicing Sabbath can be a spiritual technology.”

As a publishing house, we wholeheartedly agree with Dana. If you are a regular reader of our online magazine, then you have seen at least a dozen columns over the past two years about our book: Now What? The Gifts and Challenges of AgingBased on research into the Social Determinants of Health, that book even includes a chapter titled “Connecting with a Congregation” that lays out all the research into the public health benefits of regular participation with congregations.

In this new documentary, Martin crisscrosses America showing us vivid ways that men, women and children are celebrating Sabbath all around us—translating that ancient wisdom every week into healthy and spiritually enriched living. In fact, this film’s production and its release through public TV is so focused on practical benefits that Martin also is providing these free online resources for his audience:

How You Can See This Film—
and Contribute to the Nationwide Effort

Right now, under an agreement with the documentary’s funders, Journey Films is allowing individuals to stream the entire documentary for free online. You can watch the film on your smartphone, tablet or computer. Or, the film could be played on the main TV in your home if that TV is internet-enabled or you might be able to screencast from your digital device to your TV.

Starting June 1, the film also will be available on public television websites, as well. Some public TV stations will schedule broadcasts of the film, which viewers could save to their DVRs, if they wish.

“These offers really are based on scout’s honor that people will visit our film for a site license if they want to show this film to larger groups, which I would say is 20 people or more,” Martin said. “We realize that people could use their individual access to show this film to their classes or small groups at church, but we are asking people to visit our website and pay a public screening fee of $250 if you are planning to show this as a public event.”

That’s a reasonable fee to help support Martin and his small filmmaking crew.

If you would like to view and discuss this documentary in your community, please visit the “Screening Store” at Journey Films for the link to pay this film’s $250 fee. When you visit that page, you can learn about paying similar fees to publicly show other inspiring documentaries Martin has produced.

If you already are familiar with Martin’s work for Journey films, you may wonder:

Can I buy a DVD copy? “There is no DVD or Bluray available of this new film. We’re hearing that those formats are not what they used to be,” Martin said. “So, we’re only offering the streaming or, if you pay the fee, you can download the film.”

Is this film 1 or 2 parts? It’s both. Martin has released a version of the documentary divided into two parts that can be shown in two one-hour time slots on public TV. That version has transitional material added to the end of the first part and the start of the second part to help orient viewers. However, the version streaming from Journey Films runs straight through without a break.

Are there multiple tiers of fees? In the past, Journey Films did offer a higher-priced tier for larger public showings. This film is being released with a simple one-price fee.

“We’re telling people: Pay this one fee and you can stream it or download it, if you want, and you can show it as many times as you like in perpetuity,” Martin said. “We know there are ways around this, but we also know our viewers and we know they appreciate and support the good work we are doing. We’re asking people to help us by paying the fee—it’s a reasonable fee—if they want to use the film in their communities.”

Care to Learn More?

Religion News Service reporter Yonat Shimron has published an in-depth Q&A with Martin, headlined, “A new documentary takes a deep dive into the ancient and modern practice of Sabbath.”

That article begins:

(RNS)—In his book The Sabbath, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote that Jews did not build great cathedrals into space. Their great accomplishment was a cathedral in time—the Shabbat, or 24-hour period of rest. “Six days a week we live under the tyranny of things of space; on the Sabbath we try to become attuned to holiness in time,” Heschel wrote. That cathedral in time is part of filmmaker Martin Doblmeier’s latest two-part documentary called “Sabbath.” 

Yonat’s article also was picked up and republished in The Washington Post.

Celebrate our 10th anniversary with Visual Parables by giving yourself and friends a gift of Faith & Film


Pop some popcorn and invite your friends.


Editor of Read The Spirit magazine

CLICK ON THIS COVER IMAGE from the November 2022 issue of Visual Parables Journal to visit a page explaining how to subscribe. You also will see a blue “button” you can click to read this November issue as a sample of what you’ll get in coming months.

For a decade, Read The Spirit magazine has appeared every Monday with a popular Faith & Film section closing out our weekly issues. We’ve heard from readers around the world who enjoy Film Critic Edward McNulty’s thought-provoking reviews along with the connections he draws to religious wisdom.

Each week, McNulty freely posts those new reviews in our online magazine for readers to share—and thousands of readers have done so from the more than 500 issues of Read The Spirit since he joined our team.

Meanwhile, McNulty has supported his work by selling annual subscriptions to the PDF-format Visual Parables Journal, which our team publishes as a paid monthly supplement to our online magazine. Every issue of Visual Parables Journal—which is easy to download and read on any digital device—is packed with complete discussion guides for the wide array films McNulty has been reviewing that month. Those discussion guides range from family films to the latest Hollywood blockbusters—and from provocative documentaries to special “indie” releases.

At this point in his celebrated career, McNulty has devoted nearly half a century to reviewing films—with a distinctive emphasis on connections he draws to faith. For the first four decades of his efforts as a film critic, his reviews were widely shared across the religious world via various magazines, websites and newsletters. Some of his collected discussion guides even appeared as paperback books. We especially recommend his Jesus Christ: Movie Star, a collection of discussion guides exploring a dozen different film depictions of Jesus.

In 2013, Read The Spirit agreed to become the host of McNulty’s wealth of faith-and-film materials—and to become the monthly publishers of his Journal. That’s why we say we’re coming up on the 10th anniversary of publishing with Edward McNulty.

A Growing Trend:
Congregation-Wide Faith & Film Festivals

Over this past decade together, we’ve also been hearing from a growing number of congregations nationwide where folks like to schedule their own faith-and-film festivals. They often are held in January, since it’s fun to go to the movies together during the darkest winter months.

We’ve also heard from small groups in congregations that enjoy their own faith-and-film discussions in an ongoing way throughout each year. Of course, the Visual Parables Journal is the perfect companion for such groups.

Finally, we know that many individuals simply enjoy reflecting on the many questions McNulty weaves into the discussion guides that make up each issue of the Journal.

Discovering Delightful Movies ‘No One Is Talking About’

What is the best thing about Visual Parables Journal, according to subscribers who have sent us feedback over the years?

Edward McNulty is known, each month, for looking beyond the most popular blockbusters. He likes to surprise readers with news about independent productions, films from around the world and he especially likes to find unusual movies about subjects of deep social concern. You’ll discover movies in Visual Parables Journal that you won’t hear about anywhere else.

Plus, ever since the pandemic began in early 2020, McNulty has been on the lookout for movies that viewers can stream online for free, or perhaps for a small rental charge. You can enjoy many of the films he writes about in the comfort of your own home.

Please, check out Visual Parables

Want to get started right now? Here’s a link to the web page that introduces Visual Parables Journal, which includes all the information you’ll need to subscribe.

Want to see more samples? Here’s the Visual Parables Journal page that features recent issues, so you can get an idea of the films Edward McNulty features.

PBS shows us 30 viewpoints on what it means to be ‘American’

Editor of readthespirit.com

Had your fill of those British-made video tours of grand estates inspired by Downton Abbey? As spring unfolds and Americans think of our summer travel plans, why not feast your eyes on 30 intriguing corners of the United States that made our nation what it is today?

Check your local PBS listings, because on Tuesday (April 5, 2016) the public TV network nationwide will air the first of three parts in a series called 10 That Changed America. Don’t confuse this with the 2013 series 10 Buildings That Changed America, although WTTW-Chicago was behind both projects.

This is TV you definitely want to watch, record for viewing later—or, if you can’t find it on your local PBS schedule, seek it out online later. Planning to travel a bit this summer? You’ll find 30 destinations you might want to add to your list.

More importantly, this large-scale documentary series is part of the effort to tell “our” national story as Americans without neglecting the frequently ignored millions in communities ranging from Native Americans to the urban poor to waves of immigrants from many lands.

As a veteran journalist who is invited to speak to groups about the future of media, I often tell community leaders that America needs a new generation of men and women like Jacob Riis and Nellie Bly. Her life still is famous enough, including her daring work that exposed abuse of the mentally ill, that Nellie’s work was described in a recent episode of the Madam Secretary TV series. But Riis? He’s not as well known. Reporting in the 1880s from the worst tenements in New York City, Riis was among the first American photographers to use a European style of “flash photography” to document the life-threatening conditions in those teeming New York neighborhoods. He took his readers right into dingy apartments, packed with people and often no light or indoor plumbing. Both Bly and Riis sparked major changes in public health.

So, I was thrilled to discover the first of the three parts in this new series—the episode called 10 Homes that Changed America—introduces Riis and the importance of his work in forcing tenement owners to bring at least a few very basic amenities to these families.

When hearing about this new series, does the subject of tenements surprise you? You’ll discover that this series is not a typical made-for-TV tour of the playgrounds of the rich and famous.

The series opens with the significance of the 600-year-old Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. Two Native American spokesmen show us around the pueblo and talk about the powerful cultural legacy of living in a safe and healthy community that was designed while Europeans were still emerging from the dark ages.

Yes, this series also includes some opulence to make viewers smile and pencil favorite locations into summer-time travel plans. Across the three programs (April 5, 12 and 19), our 30 stops include Thomas Jefferson’s amazing “essay in architecture” Monticello, the Hudson River castle Lyndhurst, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, San Antonio’s colorful River Walk, and even Salt Lake City and its soaring temple as an example of how faith shapes urban design.

As we tour these locations, we get intriguing commentary both from residents and experts in the history of design and American culture.

Planning ahead for your travels this summer? For now, make 10 That Changed America your destination for TV viewing in April.


St. Walt Disney: ‘There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow …’

We made a spiritual pilgrimage to Disney World.

Three generations of us, led by our matriarch who was determined to visit Orlando one last time with her family. Her late husband, a Midwest dairy farmer, hated leaving the farm for any vacation except—the fantasy lands where he could truly relax and laugh with characters he loved!

We’re certainly not alone in feeling this way. GodSigns author Suzy Farbman also writes, this week, about her family’s love of Walt’s inspiration. And here’s a fun challenge for you: Suzy shares her favorite quotes from Disney characters—and asks you to share your favorites, too. Add comments to these columns. Or, on Twitter, mention #ReadTheSpirit, or just email us: [email protected]


You might call our family’s trip—just a typical American “vacation.” As you read my story here and Suzy’s too, you’ll probably recall your own vacation to a Disney park. After all, Walt’s worlds far outshine any other chain of amusement parks with more than 130 million men, women and children walking through Walt’s gates every year. Major League Baseball has been called a kind of American religion, but all teams combined last year drew an attendance that was half of Walt’s crowd. Or, you might ask: What about the size of the world’s bona fide religious pilgrimages? Mecca hosts 2 million Muslims a year; tens of millions of Hindus bathe in sacred waters during Kumbh Mela; but only the total Chinese homecoming migration at the Lunar New Year tops the vast tide of humanity flowing in and out of Walt’s worlds.

But, did our family really make a spiritual pilgrimage?

That’s the question Mark Pinsky asks on the opening page of the defining book on Disney and spirituality, The Gospel According to Disney. Researched and written while Mark was the religion writer for the Orlando newspaper, he wrote:

Mickey Mouse and faith? The world’s most famous rodent and his animated friends say more about faith and values than you might think—they’re not just postage stamps. Peter Pan taught us that “faith, trust, and pixie dust” can help you leave your cares behind. Jiminy Cricket showed Pinocchio—and millions of moviegoers—that “when you wish upon a star” dreams come true. Bambi stimulated baby boomer support for gun control and environmentalism. Cinderella became a syndrome. The Little Mermaid illustrated the challenges of intermarriage. The Lion King hinted at Hindu tradition in the Circle of Life. Walt Disney wanted his theme parks to be a “source of joy and inspiration to all the world.” Some have compared them to shrines to which American families make obligatory pilgrimages, parents reconnecting with their own childhoods while helping their kids experience a cartoon fantasy Mecca. Even Disney’s detractors see tremendous symbolic value in his cartoon characters.

Mark wasn’t kidding! I saw proof of Walt’s inspiration first hand as our matriarch—Joan Weil—led me and my wife (her daughter Amy) and her grandchildren (our daughter and son in law, the Revs. Megan and Joel Walther, and our son Benjamin) on this five-day pilgrimage: a day to arrive, a day to return and then one day each at the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Sure, we missed Animal Kingdom—but this was a journey to revisit places where our late patriarch and founder of the family dairy farm, Leo Weil, had grinned broadly, often breaking out into laughter and later reminding us, “Now, that was good!”

Since our matriarch was “Grandma” to three of us, for this trip, she was Grandma to all of us.


Before we boarded our flight, a special box arrived with our high-tech equivalent of medieval pilgrim badges.

No, a traveler’s symbol wasn’t one of Walt Disney’s many innovations. Pilgrim badges were mass produced across most of the last millennium in Europe. To this day, more than 200,000 Christian pilgrims annually look for centuries-old, scallop-shaped symbols to guide them to the shrines along the vast Camino de Santiago (The Way of St. John) across Europe.

Here in our American home, we snapped on our chip-equipped Mickey-shaped wrist-bands and headed to our own version of beloved family shrines: It’s a Small World After All, the Hall of Presidents, the Enchanted Tiki Room, the Carousel of Progress, plus Spaceship Earth at Epcot and the Wizard of Oz realms recreated inside the Hollywood Studios ride.

Not spiritual? Then you haven’t stopped to ponder the cultural connections within these rides.


Our first stop was the often-maligned It’s a Small World After All, a multi-media ride originally designed by Disney for the UNESCO pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair. The Orlando version of the show obviously has been updated in many ways—the figurines are squeaky clean and the sets look freshly painted for the most part. And before you deride that song—you know the one you can’t get out of your head—consider this:

I snapped a photo of Grandma looking fondly at the colorful children singing in the show—then I posted that snapshot to social media and I got 24 likes right away. (So there, detractors!)

The notes included University of Michigan campus minister Bob Roth, who told us all that “riding this at Disneyland in California in the 1960s sparked in me some kind of global perspective early on.” The veteran leader of spiritual retreats Dee Chapell called it “one of my favorite rides.” Free Press senior writer Patricia Montemurri added a triumphant: “After all!” The comments kept rolling toward me across the Internet for days—in many forms.

Walt knew how to inspire. Walt also knew how to connect.

Everyone we met inside Walt’s worlds was happy to share inspirational moments: A family from Louisiana holds its reunion in Orlando every year and, this year, 16 men, women and children were in the parks for a week. “When I think of our children growing up and our parents growing older—I think of them here,” a Mom in that family told us, becoming quite emotional as she described their many pilgrimages.

Want to talk more about this? Come follow me on Twitter. I have devoted my adult life to exploring the cutting edge of media that lets us connect our diverse cultures to build healthier communities.

Every year, I give talks to groups with titles like, “500 Years after Gutenberg—Still Revolutionizing Media.” So, as we started our day at Epcot, I snapped a photo of the animatronic Gutenberg checking over a proof page from his famous Bible, produced with the world’s first moveable type five centuries ago. I Tweeted it out with this message: “Epcot’s Spaceship Earth shows us Gutenberg starting our modern cycle of innovation, which we’re part of right now.”

Tarcher-Penguin Editor in Chief Mitch Horowitz immediately made that Tweet a “favorite” and I returned my appreciation: “Thanks Mitch! It really is true: We are Gutenberg’s grandchildren and need to dream big.”

And so it went. Our pilgrimage connected with a national conversation.


After their long journeys across Europe, the strongest and luckiest of pilgrims along the Way of St. James reach the thousand-year-old shrine of St. James the Great in northwest Spain. Our little band of pilgrims reached two final shrines—and watched our matriarch visibly light up at both.

One was the Carousel of Progress—the other exhibition Disney helped design for the 1964 World’s Fair. An animatronic American history lesson, the Carousel of Progress also has a catchy theme song written by the Sherman brothers—the same guys who wrote the Small World tune and music for Mary Poppins, the Jungle Book and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, as well. The brothers knew Walt very well and described their Carousel song as “Walt’s theme song, because he was very positive about the future. He really felt that there was a great big beautiful tomorrow shining at the end of every day.” Other Disney associates called it simply, “Walt’s anthem.”

There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
Shining at the end of every day.
There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow
And tomorrow’s just a dream away.

The Carousel theater moves in a circle around four animatronic panoramas of everyday family life in a typical American home in 1904, on July 4 in the 1920s, Halloween in the 1940s and, in the current rendition of the Carousel, Christmas around the year 2000.

Grandma’s face glowed. She grinned. This was a time machine, whisking her back, back, back. As we toured the 1940s, she exclaimed: “That refrigerator! That’s the same refrigerator my mother ordered for us from an ad in the newspaper when they first became available. That was the first time we ever had an electric refrigerator.” That exhibit and its jaunty music was like a tonic, connecting her with a whole circle of lives now long gone from our visible world.

Overall at 88, Grandma is in good health, but her increasing fragility is obvious. She still can walk, but usually she waivers, needs a cane and only walks short distances. In Disney World, we pushed her in a wheelchair.

She planned for this journey as a last big, daring adventure—and a reconnection with her fondest family memories. As we took our journey through Disney realms and family heritage, we wheeled her into every shrine she had hoped to revisit.

Only one eluded us for a couple of days. She kept saying, “I do hope we see Mickey.” And the elusive Mickey never was within our grasp.

But good always triumphs in the Disney cosmos if we only wish steadfastly enough—and she certainly did! Late on our last afternoon, we learned that Mickey was appearing in a kind of Oz-like throne room, minus an actual throne. He simply was standing there, wearing his blue hat from the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, grinning and waving at a long line of families queued up to greet him.

My adult children simply pushed their Grandma’s wheelchair into the throng, taking a place at the end of the ropes. At first, Grandma didn’t realize what was happening, but finally she caught on that this throng was patiently awaiting an audience with Mickey.

“Oh, I don’t need to be here,” she said. She looked at other parents and grandparents, most of them with children in strollers or in hand. “Let’s leave. Can we? I’m going to take up someone else’s time. I shouldn’t do that.”

Then, someone else’s Mom leaned across the ropes and touched her shoulder. “You stay put. You belong here. Take as much time as you want.”

Before long, she was rolled toward Mickey in his sorcerer’s robes. And then, she confidently rose out of her wheelchair, walked without her cane to stand proudly beside Mickey.

I could argue that she had a kind of healing in Orlando. With family around her for five straight days, more well-balanced meals than she normally makes herself at home, exercise in the sun and of course Walt’s relentless inspiration—it was a healing.

Then, after our return flight landed and we decided to have one last meal together at a nearby restaurant before driving to our separate homes—this woman who previously would totter as she walked slowly across a room suddenly stood up. She strode confidently along a sidewalk, strolled into the restaurant and ordered another great big wonderful dinner!

Tomorrow? It’s going to be beautiful.

Thanks, Walt.

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

The Greg Garrett Interview on our love of angels and demons

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 …


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: 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.


DAVID: 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.


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!

And 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.

In 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?


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