A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Best Films on Food and Faith


As the Bible says, we do “not live by bread alone”—but food is vital in our lives and in the movies. Without food our bodies wither away and die—a challenge in the 1993 film Alive, a true story about members of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashes high up in the Andes. Food also is a source of great pleasure, as we see in such films as Julie & Julia or Eat, Pray, Love—a film that emphasizes our spiritual relationship with food. As a film critic for many decades, I am confident that you’ll love many of these movies, which you can find on DVD or, in many cases, live streaming.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 1: Babette’s Feast



Directed by Gabriel Axel. 1987. Rated G. 102 min.

Viewers step back into 19th-century Denmark, where we meet two elderly sisters and their fellow ascetic church members—stern and elderly, all of them. Into their lives comes Babette, a once famous female chef who has fled the French civil wars to become a lowly housekeeper and cook in Jutland. To mark this strict little congregation’s centennial, she prepares a meal so elegant and tasty that it overcomes the members’ vow not to enjoy it. Babette’s grand meal even becomes sacramental by reconciling various members who had been harboring grudges against each other. Only one of the guests, the erudite General who once sought to marry one of the sisters, recognizes the truth behind Babette’s main course. In his speech, he recognizes the grace that has enveloped them all. As viewers, we realize what a Christ figure the now humble cook and house servant is. The film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. And, more importantly for this list, it won “Best On-Screen Recipe” at the 1997 Cinema and Food Retrospective Festival in Italy.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 2: Places in the Heart

Places in the Heart 1984Directed by Robert Benton. 1984. Rated PG. 111 min.

I know, food is not as central in the plot as in the first selection, and yet this film is book-ended by scenes of eating, the opening sequence showing people at breakfast around the village—some alone (one is homeless), others, black and white, gathered as families in homes and the local cafe. During the hard struggle by widow and mother Edna Spalding to harvest the cotton crop early and thus win the purse of money that will save the farm, she, her children, their blind boarder, her sister and husband, and the black itinerant worker Moze become like a family, which the closing sequence affirms. This is set at a Communion celebration in their church. As the trays are passed through the pews, we are surprised to see that even the black man forced by the Klan to leave town and Edna’s husband and a boy, both of whom have died violently, are in the pews partaking, the director/writer surrealistically affirming the reality of the Communion of Saints. The theme of forgiveness/reconciliation is also emphasized when the sister wordlessly forgives her husband as the pastor reads from 1 Corinthians 13.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 3: Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green TomatoesDirector by Jon Avnet. 1991. Rated PG-13. 137 min.

In a small Southern town two women run the Whistle Stop Café where food becomes a symbol of hospitality and counter-cultural racial tolerance. It is during the Depression, and none are turned away, be they hobo or “Negro.” The local sheriff warns the women that the Klan does not appreciate their serving “coloreds” (though the women do bow to custom by serving African Americans outside), but the women refuse to stop. There is a macabre touch later when the sheriff, looking into the disappearance of the abusive husband of one of the women, appreciates the meat sauce. Their story, told by a nursing home resident to a browbeaten wife, empowers her to rise up and assert herself against her domineering husband.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 4: Spitfire Grill

The Spitfire GrillDirected by Lee David Zlotoff. 1994. PG-13. 117 min.

The film’s title comes from the name of the grill in Maine where Percy, a young woman newly released from prison, hires on as a waitress. Of course, she does not immediately reveal her past to this town full of quirky folks. Despite the curiosity that rises around her, Percy manages to bring a large measure of grace to the grill’s elderly owner, to a verbally abused wife, and eventually to the whole town—even though she herself proves to be a terrible cook. There are many subplots in this film, including one about the plight of Vietnam veterans, but Percy clearly is the central character and redemptive force in the story. Although she turns out to be a Christ figure (though very different from Babette), she is, in Henry Nouwen’s phrase, “a wounded healer,” better at helping others than herself.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 5: Antwone Fisher

Antwone Fisher film posterDirected by Denzel Washington. 2002. PG-13. 120 min.

The movie begins with a dream in which a little boy walks into a barn. A huge table is loaded with sumptuous-looking food, and around it stands a large number of men, women, and children, all smiling their welcome to the boy. The boy dreamer, now a grown US sailor in trouble for his constant fighting, tells his therapist that he was given up by his mother and abused by his foster mother and sister. Advised to return to his hometown so that he can get to the source of his problems, Antwone with the help of his girl friend flies back to his Midwestern hometown and manages to find an aunt and uncle. The film ends after a heart-rending disappointment, the pain of which is swallowed up by the lavish dinner his newly discovered relatives have quickly brought together to welcome him into the family, a beautiful foretaste of a Messianic banquet.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 6: What’s Cooking?

Whats Cooking filmDirected by Gurinder Chadha. 2000. Rated PG-13. 109 min.

The film opens with Norman Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving painting—and the rest of the movie shows us how diverse American families have become. It’s Thanksgiving and we meet four American families—African American, Jewish, Hispanic and Vietnamese—all preparing for the holiday. They live in the same Los Angeles neighborhood, but their variations make their dinners a far cry from that Norman Rockwell image. A good deal of the film focuses on the preparations for these meals. What unites these families are all of the surprises and challenges they face as generational expectations collide. While apparently separate through much of the movie, their stories are skillfully brought together at the very end by a surprising event. The great female cast includes Mercedes Ruehl, Alfre Woodard, Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, and Kyra Sedgewick.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 7: Pieces of April

Pieces of April movieDirected by Peter Hedges. 2003. Rated PG-13. 81 min.

Pieces of April is one of Katie Holmes’s most memorable performances as April, the Goth-garbed black sheep of an upstate New York family. The rest of her family regards her as an utter failure—and, at first glance, her humble New York apartment suggests that she and her boyfriend are struggling to survive. Nevertheless, she invites her parents and siblings to her flat for a Thanksgiving dinner, partly to mend fences and also to meet her boyfriend. Her family holds such a dim view of April that they almost do not come. Two plots unfold throughout the film: April desperately tries to prepare a proper dinner, even after her oven quits and other disasters befall her; meanwhile, her parents and siblings fight among themselves as they make their way toward her apartment. Soon, most of April’s neighbors are involved in this event. The delightful climax again suggests a Messianic banquet.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 8: Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

Eat Drink Man Woman sceneDirected by Ang Lee. 1994. Not Rated. 124 min.

Chu, a widower and one of Taipei’s pre-eminent chefs, is the strict father of three unmarried daughters who still live in the large family house, but have distanced themselves from him. He insists that they dine with him every Sunday, but they eat dispiritedly—and one even works at a fast food restaurant. He has lost his sense of taste, a good metaphor for what has happened to them all. Beautiful shots of food preparation and consumption, as well as a new appreciation of each other!

There is an Americanized version of the film entitled Tortilla Soup about a widower Mexican-American chef worrying about the future of his three unmarried daughters. Despite his losing his sense of taste, he continues to cook sumptuous meals once a week for the family.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 9: Alive

Alive movie sceneDirected by Frank Marshall. Rated R. 120 min.

I will admit that the most bizarre choices for this list is Alive, about Uruguayan rugby players, stranded high in the snowy Andes, who find themselves driven to eat the body of a teammate. The survivors have run out of food and see no prospect of being rescued soon, so the dying player seeks to give the only thing he has to help his teammates survive, his body—and by his encouraging words to remove their sense of guilt. What a take on John 15:13! The film is especially moving, because it is based on British writer Piers Paul Read’s 1974 nonfiction book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. That critically praised book was based on the real-life tragedy of a Uruguayan charter flight that went down in 1972. That factual basis gives the emotionally gripping screenplay a real and haunting power.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 10: Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia movie sceneDirected by Nora Ephron. 2009. Rated. 123 min.

This list would not be complete without including the Queen of the Kitchen and television’s first world-famous celebrity chef: Julia Child. The great Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay, but like the previous film on this list, Ephron’s screenplay is based on historical fact. Blogger Julie Powell, the author of Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, attained celebrity status with her online columns about cooking her way through Child’s famous cookbook. The Ephron movie intertwines the blogger’s life with the life of the famous chef and her devoted husband Paul. Although I enjoyed Julie’s portion of the film, I wanted less of Julie and more of Julia’s and Paul’s largely unknown story. Wow, they both worked for a US spy agency and got caught up in the McCarthy era anti-Communist frenzy! Tell us more! (Wonder about the specific connection between Julia Child and spiritual themes? Consider reading David Crumm’s Our Lent: Things We Carry, which includes a chapter on this connection.)

Best Films on Food and Faith, 11: Big Night

Big Night movie sceneDirected by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. 1978. Rated R. 107 min.

Two brothers have come from Italy to New York to open their dream restaurant, which they call Paradise. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the genius in the kitchen and Secundo (Tucci) manages the books and the customers. Primo refuses to cater to his customers’ wishes, and so the restaurant is failing for lack of business, whereas the one across the street serving mediocre food is a big success. That owner offers to ask the famous singer Louis Prima and his band to play at Paradise, which will attract a crowd and also the press. Most of the film is the preparation of the gourmet dishes and then, with a restaurant full of customers, waiting for the singer to show up. Where are the religious themes in this film? In short: Everywhere. To this day, college courses discuss the transcendent symbolism in the film. Or, as Roger Ebert put it more simply: The film “is about food not as a subject but as a language—the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.”

Best Films on Food and Faith, 12: Mostly Martha

Mostly Martha movie sceneDirected by Sandra Nettelbeck. 2001. Rated PG. 107 min.

This German film is about the transformation of a domineering chef forced to take custody of her eight year-old suddenly orphaned niece Lina. Chef Martha Klein is as abrasive with her staff and critical customers as is Chef Primo in The Big Night. The romance, and conflict arises when Italian sous-chef Mario arrives, his sunny, playful disposition changing the frigid atmosphere of the kitchen. Whereas the obsessive Martha had failed to bring Lina out of her depression, Mario quickly rekindles the girl’s interest in life—and food. Martha soon sees Mario as a threat, and Lina causes no end of crises for all three of them. As in The Big Night, there are many levels of spiritual reflection in Mostly Martha. At one point, for example, Martha is so exasperated in her attempts to make Lina behave that she tells her: “I wish I had a recipe for you, that I could follow.” The 2007 American remake is worth seeing—after all, it stars Catherine-Zeta Jones—but you should first see the original!

And to make it a Baker’s Dozen: Fordson—Faith, Fasting, Football

Fordson Faith Fasting Football sceneDirected by Rashid Ghazi. 2011. 92 min.

Read the Spirit Editor David Crumm (who I mentioned above) recommended that we include this 13th film and I must explain that it is the one feature on this list that I have not seen myself. David recommends this documentary because it is a rare feature-length film exploring the Muslim experience in America with food—and the lack of food—during the annual fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this week as Stephanie Fenton’s story about Ramadan explains. You won’t find this movie on Netflix or on Amazon, at this point, but here is director Rashid Ghazi’s website for the movie. The documentary is remarkably moving as it follows a group of teen-aged football players, trying to observe Ramadan’s strict fast without food or water during daylight hours. This deep commitment to faith and family traditions runs up against equally deep pride in their community, school and football team. How can athletes hope to prepare for the big game when they are denied food and water, day after day? There is a lot to inspire us—and to discuss—in Fordson.

Care to read more about Faith and Food?

Every week, Bobbie Lewis’s Feed the Spirit column tells stories (with delicious recipes!). 

Care to read more from Edward McNulty?

Everybody’s buzzing ’bout The Bible (As Seen on TV)


THE BIBLE—As Seen on TV. Those six words capture what faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty describes as a “spectacular new series”—great for individual viewing and small-group discussion—if we watch with a bit of skepticism.

UPDATE FOR MONDAY APRIL 1, 2013: Don’t miss McNulty’s fourth column on The Bible series—just in time to catch the fourth part of the series on the Lifetime network tonight. Today, McNulty writes: “I can say that this series has really hit its stride.”

The Final Week: The New Testament portions are “far superior” to earlier episodes.

For Week 4: Highlights of the TV epic now focusing on the life of Jesus.
For Week 3:
Here is McNulty’s analysis of Week 3 in the History Channel epic.
For Week 2:
Here is McNulty’s analysis of Week 2 in the series.
For Part 1:
Continue reading—this article (below) is McNulty’s series overview and look at Part 1.

McNulty and ReadTheSpirit are not alone in reporting on this phenomenon. The Bible is truly—”show biz.” Executive Producer Mark Burnett is the man behind Survivor, The Voice and Celebrity Apprentice. Best-selling pastor Rick Warren is publicly promoting the series. The New York Times’ Neil Genzlinger, like McNulty, gives the series a mixed review. More important than Genzlinger’s text was the buzz behind it: The Times splashed full-color coverage across the front page of its Arts section.

Here is Edward McNulty’s original overview and invitation to our readers …

‘The Bible’ As Seen on TV:
Spectacle, Skepticism and
A Great Opportunity for Congregations

By Edward McNulty

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0302_Moses_in_History_Channel_The_Bible_series_Joe_Alblas.jpgPHOTOS FROM ‘THE BIBLE’: Top shows Jesus walking on water from an unusual perspective. Here is Moses during the Exodus period of the story. Below is Samson and his mother. Photos by Joe Alblas, released for public use with the series.AN AMBITIOUS and spectacular new series, The Bible, begins on the History Channel this Sunday, March 3. The 10-hour series covers highlights of the Old and New Testaments, beginning with stories from Genesis (Abraham is prominent here), the saga of King David, the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the beginning of the work of the apostle Paul’s ministry.

My review today is based on seeing portions, but not all, of the series. My advice to viewers is this: There is much to admire—but you will want to take some parts of this drama with a grain of salt.

Today, I invite you to bookmark this article and come back periodically to add your comments. I’d like to know what you think and I’m sure many other readers will welcome your thoughts. I will update my own thoughts and questions as we go through the series. This is a great time to invite friends to view with you.

SUNDAYS on HISTORY: Each episode debuts in prime time on Sunday nights, but “History” repeats itself, so this series is easy to watch or record.
MONDAYS on LIFETIME: Both the History Channel and Lifetime are owned by A&E Networks—so each episode also will air Monday nights in prime time on Lifetime.
DVD SET: The Bible series has not yet been released on DVD, but is available for pre-order.


SACRIFICE OF ABRAHAM: This sequence is very well done and brings out the drama of the father’s agony over carrying out what he perceives to be the will of God—as well as the boy’s puzzlement and fear over what his father is doing. Added to this is the cutaway to mother Sarah, becoming aware of her husband’s intention and rushing frantically up the mountain to stop the terrible proceedings. Viewers are likely to gain a deeper appreciation of the humanity of the biblical characters.

This portion of the series is a great discussion-starter with friends: What do you think about this epic story that is a sacred junction point in Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions? What does your particular tradition say about Abraham? (Versions of this story can be quite different, even within a single faith.) Today, tell us what you think in a comment, below.

THE SAGA OF MOSES: The other major story in the first week’s two-hour presentation is that of Moses. I appreciate the special effects in this sequence, although some viewers may wonder why the voice from the bush doesn’t tell Moses to take off his shoes. That’s what I mean about skepticism. This is a made-for-TV version of the Bible, not the Bible itself. I also like the flashback sequences we see from Egypt, where the young Moses kills a man.

Like Abraham, Moses is a patriarch spanning all three Abrahamic faiths. If you have a chance to discuss this series with a diverse circle of friends, Moses is another good choice for starting the conversation. You may be surprised by the perspectives you will hear on this figure you thought you knew so well.

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0302_Samson_and_his_mother_The_History_Channel_The_Bible_series_credit_Joe_Alblas.jpgWEEK 2—SAMSON and DAVID & GOLIATH: Adventure lovers will appreciate the stories of Samson and David and Goliath. Especially intriguing is the choice of black actors in portraying Sampson and his mother. Once again, remember my advice: Enjoy the series but take some details with a grain of salt. For example, on his way to meet the huge Philistine champion, David recites Psalm 23. Not historically accurate—but certainly a nice dramatic touch.

WEEKS 3, 4 and 5—LIFE OF JESUS: This History Channel series lines up nicely with the current Western and the later Eastern Lenten seasons this year. The stories of Jesus coincide with the conclusion of Western Lent. Eastern Christians will have just started their Great Lent. So, from East to West, this series becomes a welcome opportunity for congregations.

While some characters, such as Samson, are cast in innovative ways for this production—the actor playing Jesus is the usual Euro-American actor. Obviously, Jesus was Jewish and of Middle Eastern descent. The actor playing Jesus this time is Diogo Morgado, born in Portugal and currently a very popular TV star across Spain, Portugal and Brazil. Nevertheless, Morgado gives us a dramatically satisfying portrayal of a strong leader. One interesting touch in the Jesus episodes is the inclusion of Mary Magdalene with Jesus’s followers in the boat during the walking-on-water scene. That is historically justifiable, since women were a close part of Jesus’s inner circle, and it may please many TV viewers to see her in such a prominent role.


The series website is packed with helpful features. Look for the Questions to Reflect Upon and other materials. Clearly, producers Mark Burnett and his wife Roma Downey are hoping millions of us will discuss these stories. It is good to see the History Channel getting back to its original purpose—the entertaining presentation of history.

Where to find more from Edward McNulty …

Rediscover John XXIII, a Pope who stunned the world!

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Good_Pope_by_Greg_Tobin_cover_with_interview.jpgCLICK THE BOOK COVER to visit its Amazon page.MORE THAN 1 BILLION CATHOLICS around the world are wondering: Can a new pope revive our deeply troubled Church? Millions of those Catholics also wonder: Is it possible that another pope could “throw open the windows of the Church”? That’s a reference to Pope John XXIII, the pope who stunned the world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962—the historic global gathering of Catholic leaders that finally set the Mass in common languages, moved altars forward to make parishioners feel that they were a part of the Mass, changed countless other church structures and, most importantly, ushered in the modern era of interfaith relations. John did not live to see the end of the three-year process he set in motion. Yet his legacy continued! In the Second Vatican Council’s final days (led then by Pope Paul VI), the Council overwhelmingly approved Nostra Aetate, the declaration ending two millennia of Catholic condemnation of Jews (and also opened the windows to new relations with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others). Peacemakers and interfaith volunteers around the world look to John XXIII as an unlikely hero who surprised Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Greg Tobin about his new book, The Good Pope; The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church—The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II.

UPDATE IN FALL 2013: Tobin’s book now is also available in a less-expensive trade-paperback edition.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0218_Greg_Tobin_biographer_of_John_XXIII.jpgGreg Tobin. Photo courtesy of HarperOne.DAVID: I really enjoyed this book and I hope readers will buy it—because this is a very readable introduction to John XXIII and an era that changed the religious world. You tell the story well, both for people like me who remember the era—and for those who are discovering it for the first time. Why did you think it was important to write a new book about this pope, now?

GREG: I’m glad you had this reaction to my book. That is what I’m hoping readers will find. Why did I write it? The challenge is that—for most people alive today—John XXIII is a distant memory, if people are aware of him at all. Pope John Paul II eclipsed all the popes who preceded him for the vast majority of people around the world. This summer, it’ll be 50 years since John XXIII died. I think it’s important for the world to take a fresh look at this truly amazing figure.

He is responsible for the most significant religious event of the 20th century—the Second Vatican Council, or many people call it Vatican II. In the book, I also explore the remarkable man Angelo Roncalli who became John XXIII. He was a man of great holiness, a truly and genuinely humble spiritual person who suddenly was catapulted into this position of worldwide prominence.

The main thing readers will discover is: He surprised the world! His election was a surprise and it was a surprise that he convened the Council. This coincided with other revolutions in global culture at that time. I try to show readers that it also was a surprise how, through it all, he could remain this farm boy from northern Italy.

He had an enormous influence in his very short period of time on the world stage. His work influenced not only major religious issues, but also world peace and our understanding of mass communication in relation to faith. He became a unique celebrity—such a celebrity that people from John F. Kennedy to Charles de Gaulle wanted to have their photos taken with him.


DAVID: Your claim about the Second Vatican Council being the most significant religious event of the 20th century begs questions: What about the rise of Pentecostalism from the Azusa Street Revival in 1906? What about the Scopes Trial in 1925 and the unfolding battle between science and religion? And, many historians of religion now credit the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 as the birth of a new kind of lay-led, nondenominational religious movement. Many claim that the century’s major genocides—Armenians and then the Holocaust—were religious milestones. Or, what about the role of religion in the end of Communism? Or, the resurgence of Islam as a political force?

This was a tumultuous century in terms of religion. So, tell us more about your rather expansive claim about the Second Vatican Council?

GREG: First, you’ve set the context correctly in those questions. Here’s why I say that the Second Vatican Council ranks at the top of these historical milestones in terms of religion. At the time of John XXIII, the church was approaching the ripe old age of 2,000 years. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit works—and will continue to work—through human history and through the life of the Church. But the Church had not seen this kind of large-scale change before. The Council also matters because of the massive, global scale of this church—more than a billion people. It’s the largest organized religious body in the world.

When the Council wrought its changes, this had an impact on lives all around the planet, changing lives pretty much for all time to come. In the Mass, people started worshipping God in their own languages for the first time. Some of these changes the Council wrought were in response to horrors of the 20th Century like the Holocaust. The world’s biggest Church came out of that period of the Council with new teachings, a new way of expressing itself both around the world and in people’s daily lives at Mass, and new relationships with the world’s other major religious bodies, especially Jews but also other non-Christians as well.


DAVID: I’m sure a lot of people will continue to debate the claim of “most important” in ranking 20th century religious events. But I do understand your argument and I certainly would agree that Vatican II was one of the most important milestones in religious history. No question about that.

The relationship of Christianity toward non-Christians changed in the 1960s at the Council. Even though Pope John Paul II was accused of trying to roll back reforms of the Council, one thing John Paul continued to emphasize was this friendly  new attitude toward other world religions. Even nearing the end of his life, as he approached the year 2000, he wrote an impassioned letter to the world in which he encouraged Christian leaders to move even faster on improving relationships with non-Catholics.

GREG: Yes, I agree, and it excites me to see that you are emphasizing this point in relation to the Council and my book. Something happened from the heart of the Second Vatican Council that was radical. It was truly revolutionary. It was a very positive change in the world—the beginning of a brand new era of teachings and interfaith work that we had never seen before in Christianity.

Another way to look at this is to remember that, for centuries, the Catholic Church had been in defense mode. Few people even remember that there was a Vatican I, a First Vatican Council, in 1869-70 that was convened to talk about the church and the world. That Council also looked at the internal structures of the church, but the only thing of significance that came out of Vatican I was this controversial new definition of “papal infallibility.” So, the church remained in an even stronger defense mode.

At Vatican II, we saw no condemnations of heresy. Instead, there was a positive, forward-looking, outward-looking, unified voice that runs through all the documents that were issued. The actual reforms reflected this new spirit. What’s interesting is that, as the Second Vatican Council opened, the early ideas for declarations on working with other religious bodies got stalled along the way. But those ideas were resurrected before the Council ended and Pope Paul VI himself supported these ideas. He encouraged the Council not to give up on them, including the declarations on opening new relationships with non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate came at the very end, in 1965, as the last major act of the Council.


DAVID: The obvious question is—Will the spirit of John XXIII resurface? Could it resurface, given the kind of traditionalist bishops that John Paul and Benedict spent decades placing in high positions? One possibility is a revival of his memory around canonization. He was beatified by John Paul II in 2000, so he’s on his way toward official sainthood.

GREG: It’s impossible to predict when his canonization might occur, but I do think it will come. I would not say it is inevitable, but I do think it’s likely. John XXIII inspires many people around the world to this day. He embodied holiness in a humble, human, accessible way that I can’t recall seeing in anyone else at that level of church leadership. That is something that continues to intrigue and attract so many—leading people to learn more about this remarkable man.

DAVID: Thank you for talking with us!


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Not_Less_Than_Everything_Catholic_Writers_on_Saints.JPG.jpgALSO NEW FROM HarperOne:
Catherine Wolff has pulled together an inspiring collection of stories about real-life Catholic heroes who threw themselves completely into a life of faith—despite tragedy and sometimes in the face of great danger. Called Not Less than Everything, ReadTheSpirit also is reviewing and recommending that book today. In her Introduction, Wolff credits John XXIII as one of her own inspirations. She writes about growing up in “the time of Vatican II, the great council called by Pope John XXIII to throw open the windows of the Church, to read the signs of the times, in effect to come to terms with modernity. There was a tangible sense of hope that things were changing—the Church that seemed increasingly rigid and authoritarian even to faithful Catholics was reaching out to us and to the wider world. That optimism sustained us through many changes both in the Church and in society.”


FATHER THOMAS REESE on the Next Pope: Who will elect the next pope? Europeans form the majority of the voting cardinals.

DAVID BRIGGS on Catholic Growth: Is the Catholic Church fading in America? No! It’s booming and church leaders need to plan for that growth.

CATHERINE WOLFF on Catholic Heroes: Her new book is Not Less Than Everything, gathering two dozen talented writers to explore two dozen amazing Catholic lives.

TERRY GALAGHER on Catholic Critics: American Catholics wonder: Should we stay? A week-long series of OurValues columns exploring the push-and-pull felt by millions of American Catholics.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

12 Best Books for the Holidays of 2012

REVIEWED BY ReadTheSpiriT Editor David Crumm—For the Delight of Young and Old …

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, NO. 1: The Smoke-Free Santa Claus

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Smokeless_Twas_the_Night_Before_Christmas.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.We laughed when we saw this—in spite of ourselves! A wink of the eye and a twist of the head soon gave us to know we had nothing to dread. That’s a fitting review of this year’s most controversial Christmas book. ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile and I got to know Pamela McColl recently during a retreat for new-media developers in New York City. She told us her story of creating a version of Clement Moore’s classic ‘Twas the Night before Christmas without the detail of Santa smoking. Pamela is a Canadian writer who cares passionately about reducing smoking among girls and boys who could grow up to be addicted adults. So, she assembled the creative team behind a colorfully illustrated version of the poem minus the words: “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.”

Sounds so simple, right? Yet one would think she had published a Bible with only 9 Commandments! If you jump to Amazon to order a copy of her book (just click the book covers today), you will find 165 enthusiastic 5-star reviews—and 50 furious 1-star reviews from customers who collectively regard her as a dangerous heretic. That anger seems out of place. In fact, millions of children, teens and young adults envision Santa Claus from TV specials and movies—including such perennial hits as Tim Allen in The Santa Clause. Most of these recent versions of Santa are missing the clouds of tobacco smoke. While ReadTheSpirit promotes great children’s literature, we can’t imagine kids objecting to this slight revision.

Now, is this edited version of Clement Moore’s poem going to keep anyone from smoking? That claim is a stretch, but McColl makes a different kind of argument. Millions of American families include a relative who has died with complications of tobacco addiction and, especially in those homes, the association of one of the world’s most beloved figures with a cloud of smoke can be painful. To that argument, we exclaim as we continue our tips: ‘Happy Christmas, Pam McColl!’ Smoke won’t pass our lips.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1126_smaller_St_Nicholas_Santa_Claus_book_cover.jpgClick the cover to visit the Amazon page.Anyone who cares about the Christian roots of Christmas will enjoy this new biography of the original St. Nicholas. The author is Dr. Adam English, a scholar who specializes in the early Christian church. For several years, English immersed himself in all of the latest research on the ancient fellow who would transform into our modern Santa Claus. For those serious readers wanting to dig much deeper into the history of St. Nicholas of Myra, English provides his own roadmap for further reading in more than 30 pages of notes at the end of his book. But most of us simply will enjoy English’s delightfully written 200-page story of this saint who moved the whole world to greater compassion toward the poor. As remarkable as this may seem to modern Christians, Nicholas took the world by storm because his heart was focused on helping the most needy and vulnerable in his day. Back in that era, civic and religious leaders did not assume that was their role in the world. Poor people had to survive or perish on their own, or so the conventional thinking ran until Nicholas began his campaign to change hearts and minds. If you care about Christmas traditions, and especially if you care about the Christian roots of compassion, we highly recommend this book. Want more? Read our Holiday story about the December 6 Feast of St. Nicholas. And: Come back next week to meet Adam English in our author interview.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-El_Iluminado_graphic_novel_Steve_Sheinkin_et_al.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.We can’t imagine a better Hanukkah present than this! For five years, we have recommended the graphic novels of historian, artist, storyteller and educator Steve Sheinkin. Here is one of our earlier interviews with Steve about his most famous creation, to date: Rabbi Harvey of the Wild West. Sheinkin divides his professional efforts between graphic novels and serious history books for kids. His lifelong passion lies in bringing history to life—to encourage a new generation to become fascinated with the heroes, villains, dramas and weird quirks of history. After all, that’s what hooked Steve on history when he was a kid. His history books—such as The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery and King George: What Was His Problem?—explore corners of American history that more stodgy text books ignore. Leaping into graphic novels, his Rabbi Harvey was a brilliant collage of centuries-old rabbinic tales coupled with a sort of Clint Eastwood vision of the Wild West. However, unlike Eastwood, the courageous black-garbed Harvey favored spiritual wisdom over firearms. Now, in El Iluminado, Sheinkin takes his graphic novels a step closer to the historical record. This is an entirely new, non-Harvey adventure based on the discovery of Crypto-Judaism taking root centuries ago during ruthless persecution against religious minorities in the American Southwest. Right there, anyone familiar with the ancient story of Hanukkah sees the holiday connection.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Book_of_Revelation_Chris_Koelle.JPG.jpgClick the book cover to visit its Amazon page.Fans of comics and graphic novels will love this gift! Zondervan has been producing bibilical graphic novels for years, but never in this lavish, full-color format. Got a comic fan on your shopping list? Trust us: The new Book of Revelation will immediately become a collectors item. Beyond comic fans? If you’ve got someone who loves Bible study and is especially drawn to the mysteries of Revelation, this graphic novel is based on a new translation of the ancient text, coupled with gorgeous, dramatic, full-color scenes on every page. The translation was perpared by Greek Orthodox Bible scholar Mark Arey, so the language has a fresh feel for most American readers. The scenes were designed by filmmaker Matt Dorff and graphic artist Chris Koelle. This landmark production began with Avery’s text of Revelation. Then, Matt used his screenwriting talents to divide the story into comic panels, showing us this timeless epic from the point of view of the startled narrator envisioning these divine revelations. Finally, Chris Koelle had the huge challenge of turning what amounted to Matt’s “screenplay” into cartoon panels. Chris prepared an elaborate series of reference photographs, then spent nearly two years drawing and coloring this book. Want to know more? Come back in December to meet Matt and Chris in ReadTheSpirit interviews about their collaboration. This book wil be popular long after Christmas and is great for individual enjoyment and small-group discussion.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Shema_in_the_Mezuzah_by_Jewish_Lights.jpgClick the book cover to visit its Amazon page.Don’t limit yourself to the publisher’s recommendation that The Shema in the Mezuzah is for children ages 3 to 6. We believe that well-designed children’s picture books can be enjoyed by all ages. Remember that most Americans’ knowledge of religion is minimal at best. The majority of American Christians can’t name the 4 Gospels in the New Testament in annual surveys. Jewish kids do better at picking up their own religious traditions, because their minority faith tends to make parents more active in explaining customs. Nevertheless, its safe to say that the vast majority of Americans don’t know much about the curious little fixtures on Jewish doorframes—let alone that there is something inside these traditional cases. Even for those steeped in religious diversity, the lesson of the mezuzah’s placement on the doorframe will come as a refreshing tale. Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is a longtime teacher and writer—and veterans of interfaith programs nationwide may recognize her name. She is the second woman ordained a rabbi (1974); and she is the first rabbi to become a mother. She holds a doctorate in ministry and still is active in interfaith efforts. We won’t spoil the book’s plot—but we can assure you that it is wise, funny and very welcome. It’s a perfect gift for families of any faith.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Elephants_Friend_and_other_tales_from_India_Marcia_Williams.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.For our regular readers, all we need to say to recommend The Elephant’s Friend is this: Our friends at the multi-award-winning Candlewick Press published this picture book for children and the adults who love them. We think it’s a great idea for families to help our next generation understand the culture of the world’s largest democracy: India. Call it interfaith relations, cultural competency or appreciation of diversity—or simply call it a wondrous opportunity o enjoy some engaging folklore. But, order a copy of this vividly colored picture book as a gift. The book includes a series of stories, designed halfway between traditional picture-book formats and graphic novel panels. The title story involves a royal elephant befriending a most unlikely creature—and turns on what happens with this odd friend suddenly is taken far away.  Other tales are called The Scrawny Old Tiger, The Talkative Tortoise, The Wise Little Pebet (a mythic bird from Eastern folklore), The Golden Swan, The Monkey and the Crocodile, The Tale of the Three Large Fish and finally The Foolish Lion.  We love the pitch-perfect voice of these ancient yarns, retold in modern Indian-English. At one point, when a villain is finally unmasked, we hear his captor declare: “You heartless rascal!” Parents will have great fun reading this book!


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Message_and_the_Book_John_Bowker.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.Looking for more adult choices to promote awareness of the world’s great religious traditions? Yale University Press brings us a substantial volume by John Bowker, a professor of religious studies who has taught at several universities, including Cambridge. He is an honorary canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a consultant for UNESCO, as well as a BBC broadcaster and author and editor of many books. Using his half century of immersion in the world’s religions, Bowker now gives us this hefty, illustrated book to help people interested in faith find appropriate pathways into the sacred works of: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism—and more! You will find helpful references to 400 sacred works. Bowker’s book will be helpful to students studying world culture, community leaders hoping to understand diverse populations—even business leaders and medical practitioners trying to navigate cross-cultural challenges. But don’t mistake this for a dry encyclopedia. Bowker’s many years of broadcasting and writing for general readers ensure that his first mission is engaging his audience. In this case, he hooks us by connecting dots across our world’s seemingly vast mosaic of spiritual ideas. I especially enjoyed his section on Japan, where Bowker’s takes huge leaps. While discussing cherry blossoms and the Samurai code, he leaps back a millennium to the world’s first novel (The Tale of Genji) and then rockets to 19th-century Europe to Vincent Van Gogh! We recommend: Enjoy touring the sacred world with Bowker’s book and you will come back far wiser for the journey.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-On_the_Chocolate_Trail_by_Rabbi_Deborah_Prinz.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.Now, here’s a tour of cultural treasures you can taste! The best way to recommend On the Chocolate Trail is to list some of the recipes you will find in these pages: Chocolate Matzah Brickle, Red Chile Bizcochitos (Little Cookies), Cayenne Chocolate Kicks and Cocoa Nibs Citrus Salad. Hooked already? But wait—this is far more than just another chocolate cookbook. It’s not even an entirely Jewish exploration of chocolate. Rabbi Deborah Prinz is a noted expert on chocolate, related Jewish food customs—and the world history of chocolate. This review may not yet be summoning your social conscience—but consider that the collision of Old and New Worlds 500 years ago set off centuries of yearning for sugar, chocolate and the ruthless repression of entire populations in pursuit of those addictive treats. Rabbi Prinz takes us through some of that history as well as contemporary tips about shopping for the very best chocolates—as well as “green” chocolate that is ethically produced and marketed. At the end of her book, she has a mouth-watering 20-page guide to chocolate producers, landmarks and even chocolate museums worldwide. Even if you’re not likely to board a plane and try chocolate tourism yourself, many of these listings include websites so a virtual tour of chocolate gems may be in your future.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Voice_Bible_Step_into_the_Story_of_Scripture.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.You also may enjoy reading our ReadTheSpirit interview with Thomas Nelson Bible-research professor David Capes, one of the key figures behind the complete Voice Bible—an ideal gift for any Bible-lover on your holiday list. Our conversation with Capes about the massive effort behind The Voice is our featured author interview this week. Given the tidal waves of Bible translations in recent decades, many Christians may have overlooked the individual sections of the Voice that have been published by Thomas Nelson over the past half dozen years. Now, the entire Protestant Bible is finished, including Old and New Testaments. This particular project has strong evangelical roots, as would be expected with a Thomas Nelson imprint on the cover—but a number of prominent mainline figures also were involved in The Voice. The most important thing to understand about The Voice is its origins among pastors, preachers and teachers who wanted a rendition of the ancient text that was accurate yet also was presented in a format that made reading the Bible easier in congregations. For example, some sections of the text that are essentially dialogue between various men and women are presented in screenplay format. That makes it easy to organize a group reading. At this point, Nelson has announced no plans to produce a Catholic or Orthodox version of The Voice with the additional books of the Bible used in those Christian denominations. Nevertheless, whatever your Christian background—The Voice is well worth exploring for eye-opening insights into Scripture.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Art_of_Faith_by_Judith_Couchman.jpgCick the cover to visit this book’s Amazon page.We had to struggle to keep our review copy of The Art of Faith from scooting out of our offices in the hands of curious churchgoers—once readers actually cracked the front cover and discovered what was inside. The book’s title may sound tiresome—like an art-appreciation lecture you were supposed to appreciate as an undergraduate yet had trouble following without a few yawns. But wait! Think about this book, instead, as a very cleverly designed toolbox for suddenly expanding your appreciation of churches around the world! This book is a Swiss Army Knife for unlocking all kinds of wonders embodied in confusing—even if colorful—details in the windows, woodwork, stone carvings, vestments and fabric arts of churches both new and ancient. At ReadTheSpirit, we are longtime promoters of visiting houses of worship. However, even for Christians, walking into a new church is like trying to read hieroglyphics in an Egyptian museum exhibit. The symbols are exotic and mysteriously appealing, but most of us don’t have a clue what they mean. Truth be told, most of us can’t understand the symbols in our own churches! Now, before you get defensive about this review—Judith Couchman, the art historian who created this must-own reference book, admits that even she was unable to find a proper Christian Symbols 101 guidebook to tuck into her own shoulder bag while touring churches. That’s why she wrote this one. We say: Thank you, Judith!


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Mere_Christianity_Gift_Edition.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.In 2006, Christianity Today ranked the 50 most influential Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals. Number 3 on the list, outranking a host of evangelical super-stars, was C.S. Lewis and his Mere Christianity. If you have a person on your Christmas list who actively talks about his or her Christian faith, they probably have read this classic and likely have a well-thumbed copy on their bookshelf. Mere Christianity is Lewis’ attempt at making a common-sense argument for the Christian faith—aimed at general readers whose lives have been fairly secular. The popular approach of these texts is no accident. Mere Christianity began as a series of BBC broadcasts by Lewis during World War II. Later, they were edited and collected into a series of three short books. Eventually, they became the one volume that has been a best seller for more than half a century. No, Mere Christianity’s sales do not rank in the Stratosphere with The Chronicles of Narnia, some volumes of which have sold well over 50 million copies. Nevertheless, it is a hugely influential book and a smart choice for someone on your holiday list. There are various editions available both new and gently used. But, this 2012 “Gift Edition” adds some unique and welcome features: The type is big and bold; illustrations are sprinkled through the text; and key points are highlighted in even bigger gold lift-out quotations. Stick a copy in someone’s stocking this year.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-James_Bond_Omnibus_001.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.James Bond is all the rage this winter. If you doubt that claim, read our earlier story on why Bond will remain at the crest of popular culture for months. Perhaps you’re contemplating giving a gift of the $100-plus boxed set of all the 007 movies to a Bond fan in December. More than likely, though, the price tag for those two dozen movie disks is simply too high. So, in our 12th Best Books selection for holiday gift giving, we are recommending a book that was released three years ago: The James Bond Omnibus 001. At just a little more than $10, this is a great stocking stuffer for the 007 on your list. And, if you love the idea of giving James Bond collectibles, that Amazon page for volume 001 also links to volumes 002 through 004. The final volume was just released in October 2012. Beyond the appeal of collecting an unusual piece of Bond memorabilia, why would readers care about these comic strips first published in the 1950s in British newspapers? One reason is that, although Ian Fleming originally opposed 007 comic strips—he later embraced the idea. The comic strips arguably depict Bond closer to Fleming’s own image of the spy. Some sources from the 1950s claim that is so. There’s no argument that these comic strips are closer to the original novels than the movies. So, as a quick refresher of the original books, these 300-plus-page collections are lots of fun. Volume 001 (the one shown above) contains Casino Royale, Goldfinger, Dr. No—and more—all in one thick paperback. And you can’t beat that for pure adventure this holiday season!


YOU CAN CLICK ON ANY BOOK COVER (above) and jump to the Amazon page that way. Or, you can use these text links to find the books we recommend.

  1. Twas The Night Before Christmas: Edited by Santa Claus for the Benefit of Children of the 21st Century (Smoke Free)
  2. The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra
  3. El Iluminado: A Graphic Novel by Steve Sheinkin and Ilan Stavans
  4. The Book of Revelation: A Graphic Novel by Matt Dorff, Chris Koelle and others
  5. The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other
  6. The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India
  7. The Message and the Book: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions
  8. On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao
  9. The Voice Bible: Step Into the Story of Scripture
  10. The Art of Faith: A Guide to Understanding Christian Images
  11. Mere Christianity: Gift Edition
  12. James Bond: Omnibus Volume 001, Comic strips based on the Ian Fleming novels that inspired the movies, bound as graphic novels


PLEASE CONSIDER SHOPPING READTHESPIRIT BOOKS, TOO? Visiting our new ReadTheSpirit Bookstore to explore our great titles for individual reflection and group discussion.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.


Review: Free Men, a Holocaust story you’ve never seen

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1005_Free_Men_Ismael_Ferroukhi_DVD_cover.jpgCLLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE FILM’S AMAZON PAGE.Review:
Free Men

By ReadTheSpirit Editor
David Crumm

As a journalist covering religion and diversity, I’ve reported for many years on the rise of Holocaust awareness in popular media. The event that set off this wave was the debut of the 1978 TV melodrama The Holocaust with Meryl Streep. The subsequent explosion of public interest in capturing Holocaust memories on video eventually was championed by Steven Spielberg. Now there are more hours of Holocaust video, counting Spielberg’s vast library of Shoah Foundation videos, than a single person could watch in a lifetime.


At ReadTheSpirit, we’re always looking for that exceptional, unusual Holocaust resource that you’d likely miss without our help. We’re looking for accuracy. We’re looking for top-quality production. And we’re looking for compelling films and books that will hold an audience. All of those things are true of Ismael Ferroukhi’s gripping drama, Free Men, now available on DVD from Amazon thanks to the folks at Film Movement.


Since the release of Free Men last year, the film’s storyline has been controversial. For the most part, Muslim and Arab leaders across Africa and the Middle East during World War II were not helpful to Jews trying to avoid the Holocaust. Visit Yad Vashem in Israel and this point is driven home in the historical galleries about the Shoah. However, there were indeed some notable cases of Muslims risking their lives to save Jews—and one of the most poignant stories happened in the heart of Paris at the historic central mosque involving a world-class musician, Salim Halali.

Salim Halali, a one-man beacon of diversity

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1005_Ismael_Ferroukhi_Free_Men_scene.jpgFROM THE MOVIE, FREE MEN: The film’s fictional main character, at left, talks with the singer Salim Halali to warn him about a new Nazi crackdown.If you’ve never heard of Salim Halali, you’re certainly not alone! Try to find him on Wikipedia or in any standard Holocaust history book and you’ll come away scratching your head. I know, because I tried after watching this impressive drama—and was on the verge of concluding that Halali was some kind of fictional figure. Then, I found quite a number of French-language websites and magazines that have profiled the famous musician. After using Google-Translate on these compiled clippings and comparing the facts—this true story emerges:

In 1920, Salim Halali was born into a Jewish family, originally from Souk Ahras, Algeria. In the 1930s, he was working mainly in France as a successful Arabic-language flamenco singer in Parisian nightclubs. He also toured Europe and North Africa, until the German occupation. As a Jew, he was at risk in Nazi sweeps of Paris, but the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit, decided to save his life. The rector managed the mosque, but he also was a musician and scholar and loved Halali’s genre of Arab-Andalusian music. Under the rector’s direction, Halali was given forged papers and protected through an elaborate charade that included the creation of a headstone etched with the name of his father that was placed in the Muslim cemetery in Paris.

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1005_Salim_Halali_album_cover.jpgCLICK THE CD COVER TO VISIT ITS AMAZON PAGE.After the war, Halali founded the Oriental Folies Ismailia, a club that was the toast of Paris in the late 1940s. Later, he moved to Morocco and opened a club in Casablanca that drew rich and famous guests in the 1950s. Halali toured the world performing his distinctive genre for his fans. He retired in the 1990s and died in 2005.

Both the Halali character in the movie and the rector of the mosque look remarkably like the original historical figures. Vintage photos on some French-language websites confirm the visual accuracy of both men. What’s more? As it turns out—you still can order a CD collection of Halali’s melodies via Amazon and, among the offerings, I recommend the collection called: Jewish-Arab Song Treasures.

Verdict on accuracy in Free Men

First and foremost, the basic story about Halali, the rector of the Paris mosque and the elaborate deception is accurate. Beyond that, the film’s handsome young hero, shown on the cover of the DVD, is a fictional composite of Muslims who must have interacted with Halali and the rector during the Nazi crackdowns in Paris. That’s how filmmaker Ismael Ferroukhi describes the creation of his fictional “main character” and it makes sense—this is a suspenseful drama and this young French “everyman” can connect the dots between historical events. In addition, the filmmakers say that they have historical documentation about two little Jewish girls who the Muslim characters also try to save. Overall? This movie is far closer to the accurate history than a lot of movies supposedly “based on a true story,” these days. This verdict matches the conclusions of a lengthy story analyzing the movie in the Jewish Daily Forward by Benjamin Ivry.

Care to read more about this true story? It’s a chapter in the book Interfaith Heroes 2, which is available to read online.

Support culturally diverse cinema!

In the cut-throat competition to provide home access to feature films, major media companies are slashing their way to the cheapest forms of distribution. This also means that countless films with valuable stories are being lost to American viewers. Fewer and fewer feature-length DVDs are being released and sold, especially foreign-language films. We want to encourage distributors like Film Movement to keep doing what they do so well. Earlier this year, we recommended the superb Film Movement feature, Foreign Letters, about an Israeli girl and her Asian friend. You also may want to learn about Film Movement’s monthly DVD series for home viewing. Or, if you are a librarian or are interested in a group showing of Film Movement movies in your part of the country, click here to learn about Film Movements various options for “Non-theatrical Screenings.”

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Where to find DC’s first Muslim Green Lantern hero

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0916_Green_Lantern_0_Simon_Baz_debut.jpgIf you know a Muslim family, ask the kids about the new superhero in the DC Comics universe. Frankly, ask any comic fan about this. Given the Green Lantern’s legions of followers over the superhero’s 70-year history—millions of Americans have heard of the new hero: He’s Simon Baz, the newest Green Lantern, an Arab-American Muslilm hero from Dearborn, Michigan.

Who is Green Lantern
and What’s His Origin?

AMONG THE OLDEST AND MOST COURAGEOUS: From his debut in 1940, Green Lantern now ranks as one of the oldest and most popular super heroes—even if the 2011 Green Lantern movie wasn’t greeted with the same kind of rave reviews lavished on Batman, Spiderman and Avengers movies.

GROUNDBREAKING SOCIAL CONSCIENCE: His reputation for having a larger-than-life conscience is longstanding. Back in the late 1960s, a restless, young generation of artists and writers emerged at DC Comics and chose the Green Lantern as one of their standard bearers. Through most of the 1960s, mainstream comic books had avoided dealing with serious social ills. Then, in 1970 and 1971, DC dared to put issues like drug addiction and racism on the covers of superhero comic books. It was a salute to the brave and venerable reputation of Green Latern that he was chosen to co-star in that series with another old-school hero, Green Arrow. Just this summer, DC released a full-color volume of the Green Lantern and Green Arrow series from 1970-71, which now is available from Amazon.

FROM WORLD PEACE TO COSMIC PEACE: Most Americans know a good deal about Superman, Batman and Spiderman—individual heroes trying to do the right thing. Green Lantern is different. Think of the knights in King Arthur’s round table. Think of the Jedi Knights in the Star Wars saga. The origin of his power resides with a cosmic round table, the Guardians of the Universe. These Guardians have distributed many power rings through the universe to all shapes and sizes and genders of heroes. The most famous “current” Green Lantern is American test pilot Hal Jordan who received his ring as shown in the 2011 movie—and suddenly found himself a cosmic peacemaker. Of course, in the realm of superheroes, peacemaking involves more battles than quiet negotiations. Think of the Seven Samurai from Japan or the Magnificent Seven from Hollywood Westerns—battling to restore peace, or so their stories go.

How Did a Muslim Get a Green Lantern Ring?

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0917_DC_Simon_Baz_gets_his_ring_as_an_Arab_Muslim_Green_Lantern.jpgNow, we’re in the heart of the story unfolding in the latest DC Comics.

The re-launch of the entire Green Lantern saga occurred in 2011, when DC Comics re-started all of the longstanding superhero series. You can catch up on the latest storyline through Green Lantern Vol. 1, containing the first half year of the new Green Lantern comics in a single volume from DC and carried by Amazon. By this summer, it was becoming clear that at least a couple of green lantern rings—the official connection with the Guardian-authorized power—were likely to be on the loose. By early next year, the entire first year of individual Green Lantern comic books will be available in book-length collections. For now, though, the debut of Simon Baz is only available in Green Lantern #0 “The Introduction and Origin of a Surprising New Green Lantern!” That individual comic book is available through Amazon resellers and at comic stores, if they’re not already sold out. Some Amazon resellers already have their prices jacked up by more than three times the original $2.99 cover price. This is sure to become a classic.

Detroit Free Press staff writer Julie Hinds has published some of the best coverage of this landmark in Muslim media representations. In her first story about Simon Baz as Green Lantern, Julie accurately pointed out that there have been other Muslim and Arab characters in superhero comic books. In fact, some years ago, a team of Muslim comic creators launched The 99, an elaborate multi-media universe of male and female super heroes representing the best values in Islam. (Here’s a ReadTheSpirit story on a documentary film about The 99 that’s fascinating viewing for anyone who cares about these issues.)

In her second story, Julie covered DC executive Geoff Johns’ visit to metro-Detroit, where he was celebrated by Dearborn Arab and Muslim families. Julie wrote in part: Now based in Los Angeles, Johns grew up in Grosse Pointe and Clarkston and graduated from Michigan State University. To make sure he got all of the details of Baz’s heritage and hometown right, he consulted on the script with the museum in Dearborn. “He did his research,” said Matthew Stiffler, the Arab American National Museum researcher who worked with Johns. “He came to the museum because he didn’t want to reinforce stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims. He’s really helping to break down stereotypes.”

Simon Baz is introduced to readers, beginning with a flashback to the terrorist attacks on 9/11/2001. The comic then very quickly summarizes the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim bias that followed, even though the vast majority of Arab-Americans and Muslim Americans are deeply patriotic American citizens. Unfortunately, as a young man, this fictional Simon Baz gets caught up in an international web of investigations and—well, without spoiling the comic, it’s safe to say … he winds up with a green ring.

Our Recommendation: Sometimes interfaith peacemaking involves attending conferences and joint worship services; sometimes it takes long-term education and negotiation; and sometimes peacemaking is picking up some comic books and engaging kids in a fresh perspective on our world.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. 
You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed.
Plus, there’s a free Monday morning Planner newsletter you may enjoy.

Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Brian McLaren on why interfaith peace begins at home

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0914_Brian_McLaren_author_Why_Did_Jesus_Moses_the_Buddha.jpgBrian McLaren’s new book is prophetic, as we explained in Part 1 of our coverage. That also means there’s real heat surrounding the book’s launch—at least in some quarters. Clearly, Brian now has legions of fans who follow his books for their inspiration and their fresh ideas. We dug into those ideas in …


DAVID: You’ve faced firestorms. It’s got to hurt when some other evangelicals claim that you’re no longer a Christian—or say worse things. As a journalist covering religion in America for nearly 40 years, I can tell that you’re clearly one of the most passionately committed Christian voices, today. So, how does it feel when you sometimes face misguided fire?

BRIAN: It’s always a little hurtful and sad. It’s ironic, too. If a Christian Fundamentalist says I’m not a Christian, I think: Well, I’ve met other Christians—Eastern Orthodox Christians for example—who think that American Fundamentalists aren’t Christians. So, the truth is: Everyone defines their terms in different ways. Some people don’t realize how big the Christian pond truly is.

DAVID: This new book, your first book really focused on interfaith relationships, is likely to fuel more fire, right?

BRIAN: All I can say is that I’m 56 now and I’m glad that I didn’t have to deal with this when I was 26. It would have been devastating then. Now that I’m older, it’s not as hard to deal with this kind of response. What we’re seeing in those responses really is an anxiety within our religious community. When we’re anxious, we immediately guard the doors and gates. We guard them not only because of who might get in—but because of who we fear might get out.


DAVID: I’ve researched this and we can say that you’re the person who has coined the new term CRIS, shorthand for Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome. That phrase describes people who are, indeed, committed Christians but who find the label “Christian” full of troubling baggage and likely to cause misunderstandings.

BRIAN: It’s funny to see how far that term I started using a year or so ago is spreading. I came up with it to describe what a lot of people are experiencing today. We are Christians, but the term is loaded for so many people—so we wind up going through all these explanations and adding all these adjectives to describe the kind of Christian we are to others.


DAVID: In your book, you write about Anne Rice’s turbulent relationship with Christianity. I know that you’ve had some contact with Anne Rice as she began writing her series of Christian books.

BRIAN: I read an early version of her first book about the childhood of Jesus, Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt. I was asked to read the manuscript and see if there were things in the story that might be offensive to Christians from my background. I remember there were two or three things that I thought should be revised. These were things she had picked up from extra-biblical traditions and I just thought they threw up some red flags that she didn’t need to provoke. I recommended she take them out and she was very gracious and hospitable to my suggestions. Writing about Jesus and Christianity was a whole new world for her. I was impressed with her.

DAVID: She’s in your new book because you describe how she has sort of rejected Christianity, or at least she has rejected the power structure of “Christian” leaders who like to beat up on vulnerable people like Rice’s gay friends.

BRIAN: That’s the problem I’m describing. This problem of Conflicted Religious Identity Syndrome really came to a head with Anne Rice, when she said she was quitting Christianity. She announced her change on Facebook. She made it clear she still loves God and believes in Jesus, but she didn’t want to be associated with a community that seemed so hostile toward nonmembers and toward people who didn’t agree on any number of matters.


https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-0914_Brian_Mclaren_Why_Did_Jesus_Moses_Buddha_Mohammed_Cross_the_Road_cover.JPG.jpgCLICK THE COVER to jump to the book’s Amazon page.DAVID: OK, so here’s where it gets interesting. CRIS isn’t a problem just for Christians, right? That’s a point you make in your book.

BRIAN: Right. You see this problem in so many forms. I was just talking with some Mormons yesterday and when I raised this point, they laughed. They said they certainly feel this. They see themselves as Christians but many other Christians say they’re not.

DAVID: And, Christians aren’t alone in condemning fellow Christians. I know lots of Muslims and Jews and Native Americans and people of other faiths who publicly reach out across religious boundaries—and other members of their groups condemn them as betraying the core faith. You’re saying we share this problem with people of other faiths.

BRIAN: Yes, that’s one of the most important points in the new book. I don’t think we will achieve greater harmony and understanding among the faiths by minimizing our differences in belief and practice. But one of the things we hold in common is that there are features of our identity and our internal conflicts that we all do experience.


DAVID: You’re a good friend of Rob Bell, who has followed a similar vocational course. He’s now left his big Midwest pulpit for the independence of life in California and the freedom to preach and write in any way he sees fit. Having recently interviewed Rob and seeing all these similarities in your career paths, let me ask: Are we in an era when our world is more in need of prophets than pastors?

BRIAN: Rob and I have been friends for years and, yes, we are frequently on the phone sharing advice with each other about different things. We both come from very conservative evangelical backgrounds. As pastors, we were growing, thinking human beings who publicly went through changes in our thinking. I read your interview with Rob in ReadTheSpirit and I hope other people read it, too.

We do have examples today where pastors are prophetic, but it usually means that they’re prophetic on behalf of their congregations. All good pastors are trying to bring their congregations along in their ongoing preaching and teaching. I hope that Rob’s books and my books and ReadTheSpirit all are helping pastors. If pastors can encourage people in their congregations to start reading websites like yours and books like the ones we’re writing now, then that puts a pastor in a much better position as a moderator for what the congregation is reading and is discussing. It’s a lot better, as a pastor, to be in the role of advocate and moderator helping your congregation think through the new things they’re reading.


DAVID: I’ve described this as your first interfaith book, but it’s not like most of the other “interfaith” books on my library shelves. This really is a deep exploration of the barriers that Christians throw up against their neighbors of other faiths.

BRIAN: One of the biggest insights that came to me, as I was researching this book, is the realization that it’s not our differences that are keeping us apart. What’s keeping us apart is something we actually have in common: The way we often try to build our own identity through hostility. Leaders build loyalty among “us” by building hostility toward “them.” It won’t work to simply rush off into interfaith dialogue until we deal with some of the deep work within our own identity. We won’t get far in our relationships with others until we deal with some of the often hidden ways we have defined ourselves through our hostility.

Perhaps we can see this problem more easily in the political campaign going on right now. If you took away hostility toward Democrats, I’m not sure how much substance is left in the Republican Party. And, if you took away hostility toward Republicans, I don’t know how much substance there is in the Democratic Party. The same problem exists in our religious communities.


DAVID: That’s a key insight and, when readers actually go through the book, they’ll see that you explore this in detailed ways. You look at liturgy. You look at our missional outreach. You look at the Christian calendar. You get down into the nuts and bolts of parish life. I would describe your message as: There’s almost more danger to our diverse communities in the way we talk amongst ourselves, inside our houses of worship, than what we actually say in public. Or maybe: Interfaith peacemaking begins at home.

BRIAN: Yes, that’s fair to say. Think of it this way: Even if 10 or 15 percent of us are involved in interfaith experiences—or, let’s even say it reaches 25 percent of us who are doing these things—the problem is that leaves 75 percent of us isolated and stoking fires of hostility in our home congregations. Sooner or later, we have to deal with that identity issue.

DAVID: As I read your book, I turned down corners of pages and circled words. The opening half directly addresses the many ways we stoke the fires. Dozens of times, you use words like tension, hostility, conflict, attack, threaten, rivalry and violence. Then, in the second half, when you get into the nuts and bolts of building healthier and more welcoming communities, your chapters are full of terms like benevolence, generous, harmony and unity. Is that a fair way to express the movement between the first and second sections of your book?


BRIAN: Yes. That’s the challenge I’m asking readers to grapple with in the book. When we build our identity around hostility, it’s a very strong identity. Then, we begin to fear that, if we reduce the hostility, we will weaken our identity. If I say that it matters less to me that you’re Muslim—then does it also matter less to me that I’m Christian? Does it have to be like that?

I think the phrase “spiritual but not religious” is one sign people are giving that they want to end the hostility that they perceive is part of “religion.” We can build a strong and benevolent society—we can choose to do that and pursue it. But the second half of my book really is looking at the obstacles we have to overcome in building a Christian identity within our society that is strong, robust and highly committed—but that achieves this strength without defining itself against people who don’t share our identity.

DAVID: Before we end this, let’s update readers on where you’re based now.

BRIAN: For 24 years, I was a pastor in Maryland just outside of Washington D.C. Then, six-and-a-half years ago I left the pastorate for more time writing and speaking. For a couple of years, I continued to be involved in the church where I was pastor. Then, three-and-a-half years ago we moved here to Florida. I live in southwest Florida in a small town and I go to a small church where I don’t think anyone has read my books. It’s been wonderful to go from the pulpit to being the guy who sits in the fourth row from the back.

DAVID: And what’s next?

BRIAN: The next project looks at the whole church year. I have been working on an outline for 52 sermons and a kind of alternative lectionary that would give people a fresh introduction to the Christian faith. What I’m envisioning now is something that, when it’s finished, will be useful for a single family, or a congregation or even a whole diocese to adopt for a year. Individuals could sit around a table together, once a week, and go through the year together—or a whole region could do it together. Right now, the most important challenge I see is to help people take a fresh look at what it means to be a Christian in our world.

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