Marc Bekoff says the world’s future turns on ‘Rewilding Our Hearts’

Cover of Rewilding Our Hearts by Marc Bekoff

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

If you recognize Marc Bekoff’s name then you probably know he’s the scientist who voraciously collects news stories about animal life around the planet—especially research into the psychology and sociology of animals—and then spreads that news through his popular online columns and occasional books. ReadTheSpirit has featured many stories about his work over the years, including this interview about his book Animal Manifesto and this more recent interview about his book Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed.

Most Bekoff books fill us with so much gee-whiz news about animals that we are eager to share the stories over coffee or dinner with friends—which is precisely Marc’s intention in publishing them.

So, there’s a big difference in tone when you begin reading his latest book Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence.

This is a short book with a big message. It may remind readers of the work of environmental activist and author James Gustave Speth, who shows up in many forms of media these days, including National Public Radio. Speth is a secularist with little personal interest in religion and yet he closes his eloquent book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World, with this surprising admission: “I used to think if we threw enough good science at the environmental problems, we could solve them. I was wrong. The main threats to the environment are not biodiversity loss, pollution, and climate change, as I thought once. They are selfishness and greed and pride. And for that we need a spiritual and cultural transformation.”

Essentially, that’s the departure point for Bekoff’s new book. How do we kick off the “spiritual and cultural transformation” that Speth and many others say we need to save our planet? Bekoff says we can start simply with daily steps to reconnect our consciousness with all living things on the planet—especially all forms of animal life from pets to the world’s wildest creatures. This expansion of our daily awareness, Bekoff argues, will bring with it a deeper compassion for animals (other humans and also non-human animals). If we can increase the world’s compassion—step by step in one life after another—then we have a chance to save Earth from a host of ecological dangers.

“Rewilding our hearts is about becoming reenchanted with nature,” Bekoff writes in his opening pages. “It is about nurturing our sense of wonder. Rewilding is about being nice, kind, compassionate, empathetic, and harnessing our inborn goodness and optimism. … It means thinking of others and allowing their needs and perspectives to influence our own.”

If you think of “wild” as dangerous and predatory, then you are already missing Bekoff’s startlingly hope-filled message. After decades of studying the science of consciousness, psychology and sociology in the world’s animal populations, Bekoff believes strongly that sustainable coexistence really is possible in our world. We don’t have to collapse into an apocalyptic state of savagery because of global warming and other looming ecological disasters. We don’t have to turn the world into a Hunger Games horror story. And in making this claim, Bekoff lines himself up with the likes of Speth and also the teachings of Pope Francis, as well. (You’ll enjoy reading Marc Bekoff’s sidebar to this interview in which he explores Francis’s recent off-the-cuff statement about animals.)

Want something fresh and hopeful, inspiring and also very practical, to read in this New Year of 2015? Order a copy of Rewilding Our Hearts right now. Bekoff closes the book by selling his argument on the basis of his own experience. He has drawn thousands of readers to his work, all around the world, and the reason we keep returning to his columns and books is this: He’s so darned hopeful about our future!

He writes: I have often wondered why I haven’t burned out despite many decades as an activist working for other animals. The reason, I have come to realize, is that I’m constantly rewilding. Every day I connect with nature and the animals around my home, and I hold to the unwavering belief that I’m doing some good in the world. I work really hard on a lot of “ugly stuff,” but I nurture the resilience to keep at it by making sure my life is balanced: I’ve learned how to “get away from it all” for a while and return fully recharged. I believe in what I do, even if there isn’t a gold star at the end of that day. Indeed, I may not live to see the fruits of my labor, but that’s just fine.

Isn’t this an intriguing fellow? Consider inviting friends to read this book and discuss it with you.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talked with Marc Bekoff. Here are …


Marc Bekoff and a friend.

Marc Bekoff and a friend.

DAVID: Americans are deeply divided on climate change: whether our climate really is changing, whether human activity is causing it, and whether we should enact legal limits to curb its effects. University of Michigan sociologist Wayne Baker has reported on these divisions in his OurValues project. What’s your sense, Marc, of why we are so divided on an issue that most scientists tell us is settled by the data?

MARC: Mainly, a lot of people are unaware of the science. Americans lead very busy lives and don’t have time to follow the latest news in science.

We also have this incredible ability to look at something that is staring us in the face, actually impacting our senses, and we deny that it’s there either because we don’t want to believe it’s there—or we don’t believe the data. Some political groups have complicated the problem by telling people that this is a political issue. It’s not. It’s really a-political.

My new book is really an attempt to get people to reconnect with themselves, slow down, pay attention to what is happening and realize these challenges we are facing really are a-political. We’re all affected by this. We can’t put reality aside simply because we heard this from a Right-Winger or that from a Left-Winger.

DAVID: Your central point—that we need to “rewild” or reconnect ourselves with the larger natural world—suggests that we have lost that connection.


MARC: We become unwilded due to education and lifestyle and the busy kinds of lives we lead. What I’m trying to show people is that it’s good for them and good for the world to become reconnected and re-enchanted with nature and other animals.

I stress in the book that this is easy to do. You don’t have to be so rich that you can fund an entire movement. Even if you live in New York City, you can rewild in the middle of Central Park as I’ve done just going into the park, for example, and watching the squirrels and the birds. My message in this book is multilayered, but we can start to rewild our hearts with simple steps that reconnect us to nature and other animals.

DAVID: When I read your book, I thought of the work in recent years by E.O. Wilson and James Gustave Speth. Let me use Speth as an example—he’s certainly not a religious leader and in fact he is a secularist in his personal life. Yet, Speth says: Science is not enough. We’ve got to change hearts.

MARC: When I say that science is not enough, you have to remember that I love science. I’ve spent years studying the cognitive and emotional lives of animals. I write about science all the time. What I mean is that science is not going to make us more compassionate. So, rewilding is a personal transition, a spiritual transformation. By rewilding we will encounter feelings that some of us may never have had. It’s those feelings that can reinforce the need to make change and motivate action.

DAVID: This idea of each person doing a little bit each day sounds good, although I’m sure critics will complain it’s too little too late. I think that a lot of our readers from various religious and cultural backgrounds will agree with you. I am continually surprised by news reports that show incremental changes growing into huge movements. National Public Radio recently reported about the trend toward removing the grassy lawns that take so much water in dry regions of the U.S. That started with just a handful of people and now it’s transforming millions of acres and is saving lots of water.


MARC: That’s right. Maybe more people will realize that a green lawn is nice but it’s too costly in the resources it takes to sustain that. Many people around the world still love ivory jewelry—so we still need to reach a point where people realize that the price of ivory’s beauty is the slaughter of elephants as a species.

The problem is that we treat our own homes better than we treat the earth as a home. What I’m talking about is the process of coming to realize that the earth is our home.

Ask yourself: How often do you go out for a walk? How often do you look at the plants and animals where you live?

Those are very small ways you can begin this process. Set a little time aside at lunch for a walk. If you’ve got a dog, take your dog along as your companion and pay attention to what interests the dog as you walk. (He laughs.) If you don’t have a dog, then take your cat! Seriously, some people do walk their cats. Try it!

There are lots of small changes you can make right now: Do you have an errand you need to run this week? If it’s less than a mile away, try walking. I keep a backpack always ready with anything I might need for a walk or a ride on my bike. Plan ahead and make it easy to spend time outside.

I’m not against technology. I use my computer and iPhone a lot. But I also take time to set them aside during the day.


DAVID: As I read your book, I thought of something my son Benjamin started a year or so ago. He put a bird-identification book and a pad of paper near the big window at the back of our house and he challenged us to write down which birds we spotted right in our back yard. Very simple. Our backyard is quite small—but we’re now much more aware of the diversity of birds out there.

MARC: Yes, I love that idea! I’m writing it down right now so I can share that idea with others. As I’m thinking about that, you could also start a list of the kinds of flowers you can spot in your regular walk through your neighborhood. Or, here’s another one: If you regularly pass a stream or river, make a note each day about the water level and the state of the stream—make a list of plants you see growing there each year.

The whole point of this is to learn about the many cycles going on around us all the time. If you live in an apartment in New York City, go watch the animals in Central Park. I do that.

One day I was in Central Park, watching some squirrels and this family came upon me and the mother asked what I was doing.

I said, “I’m watching squirrels.”

And the mother said, “But they’re just squirrels!”

And I said, “No they interrelate to each other. They play. Their families relate to each other.”

And what happened? The mother’s children very quickly got enchanted with this idea and began paying attention to the squirrels.


DAVID: There’s a lot more readers will discover in this book. Let me just take one example from the middle of the book: Biophilic Cities, in other words cities that are friendly to a diversity of natural life. First, you cite a study by cognitive researchers on the beneficial effects of simply living near a park; they document lower levels of “mental distress” if you happen to live near a park.

Then, you give examples of projects that some people are undertaking right now to make their cities more “biophilic.” The goal, you explain, is to make sure that our urban landscapes “include more natural areas and take practical measures to protect wildlife from human impacts.”

MARC: This plays off the idea that biophilia is in our genes—we’re born with an attraction to nature. We need to make our cities more attractive to people, to be more like Mother Nature. Again, I’m calling attention to practical ways we can make changes where we live and then it will be easier to “rewild” ourselves and feel an even greater connection to the other animals and the flora around us.

There are so many things that can be done. We need to stop building buildings that mask sounds or that set up reflections so that animals are unable to navigate properly. We keep building too many buildings that cause birds to crash. We lose a lot of animals every day because of the thoughtless way we build skyscrapers.

DAVID: Some cities are getting this right—and attracting residents who care about these things. You mention projects in Vancouver, Chicago and Amsterdam.

MARC: Look at Amsterdam. The city actually has corridors where it’s easy for birds and animals to move through the city and also for people to sit down and appreciate nature. Central Park in New York is a good example, too.

DAVID: Readers who are curious about the ideas you are describing don’t have to simply take your word for it. Like your earlier books, you devote a lot of space—almost 30 pages—to detailed notes so your readers can find out more information about the many topics you cover. You list books, web sites and specific articles.

MARC: Thank you for mentioning that. I’m really proud of the fact that as a scientist, I write about topics that most scientists don’t write about. I’m very careful in noting my sources. People may criticize the idea of rewilding—and critics may say it’s a little bit of a fluffy idea—but I’ve never been criticized for my science. I’m absolutely solid on my scientific sources and I always cite those sources. I want people to know that my claims are credible and it’s important for them to be able to follow my notes if they want to read further.

DAVID: You’re hoping readers will be moved to action, right?

MARC: Yes, rewilding is possible. It’s not a pipe dream. It’s a personal journey. It’s contagious. I like to think of “rewilding” as a meme that will spread.

If someone gets involved in rewilding and, because this feels good to them, they wind up doing something great for the world—then so be it. I’m happy.

DAVID: Let me close with a question about Pope Francis’s recent off-hand comment that our pets may one day be in heaven with us. He isn’t the first Catholic leader to say such a thing, of course. Pope John Paul II made some similar comments, but the fact is: Most people around the world thought it was a surprising thing to hear from the pope. That story went viral. What do you think? Is the pope rewilding?

MARC: I’ll have to think about that. Let me write something about this, after I’ve studied it more.

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


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

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

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

COMING JULY 13, 2014:

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Interview with Barbara Brown Taylor on ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark’

COVER Barbara Brown Taylor Learning To Walk In The Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

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

Got a love-hate relationship with organized religion? Finding more fear than faith in your daily life? Let Barbara Brown Taylor, one of America’s most popular inspirational writers, be your guide in Learning to Walk in the Dark.

A new book from Barbara is big news—an occasion for a cover story in the April 28 issue of TIME magazine! Readers nationwide love and continue to read her earlier memoirs about rediscovering faith in troubling times. But, many of her loyal readers were wondering if she had … well, vanished. Book buyers last spotted her Leaving Church (2007) and then building An Altar in the World (2009). Then, there were no more books for five years.

Taylor chuckles at the suggestion she has fallen silent. “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

Undergraduates at Piedmont College have no trouble finding her. She paused for the following interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in the midst of grading student papers and a busy schedule of end-of-term events. In her endowed chair as Butman Professor of Religion she teaches a wide range of classes on the Bible, creative writing and world religions.

Attendees at many conferences and special occasions, coast to coast, hear her preaching and talking and reading from her books. She maintains a robust schedule of public events.

But when a new book arrives, this is an occasion for individual reading, small group discussion, quoting from Barbara in Sunday sermons and homilies. And for the editors at TIME: It’s a national news event. ReadTheSpirit magazine agrees and we present our own …


DAVID: The first thing we should tell readers: This really is a book about walking in the dark. You tell vivid stories about your experiences in dark caves, walking along dark shorelines, looking at stars. You open the book by describing to readers how you hauled an air mattress out into the back yard, flopped down on your back—and watched the whole symphony of day turning to night. This isn’t just a theological metaphor. This is an invitation to look at the night sky.

Barbara Brown Taylor author of Learning to Walk in the DarkBARBARA: Yes, I did go out and actually experience the darkness. I felt I had to do some of that to rescue this book from abstraction. Talking about darkness is like opening up a Rorschach inkblot and inviting all kinds of associations to unfold. I felt that I had to put some bodily heft into this exploration. I did start with a lot of reading. I read every book that came my way with darkness or night in the title. My reading carried me from visits to observatories to concerns about light pollution to lots of stories about dark emotions—and, then of course, to the “dark night of the soul” and into theology—plus books by people like Karen Armstrong, Phyllis Tickle and Harvey Cox looking at the future of faith in dark times. I read a lot and thought about all of these perspectives—so it seemed very important to engage the concept of darkness in as many physical ways as I could. And, yes, I walked out into the dark myself.

DAVID: There’s a family story in the book that I’m sure will touch everyone who cares about children. You and your husband Ed live on a working farm in northern Georgia. You raise chickens and, one day, a young relative was visiting with you—and you thought you would teach her something delightful about the night. But—it didn’t unfold as you had hoped.

BARBARA: She was about 7 years old when she came to visit. She had been born and raised in the city and had been given all of the good safe guidelines parents give children about the dark. She also had suffered from a sleep disruption, night terrors, so she had some scary experiences of darkness.

When she came to visit, I thought a good thing to do was to invite her to walk with me out to the chicken house at night.

DAVID: You write in the book that the chickens are more docile at night and they sound like they are “chuckling” to one another when you go into the chicken house. The idea sounds delightful.

BARBARA: It wasn’t far from the house, about 50 yards down the hill from our garage across the grass. The moon was bright that night so we really didn’t need a flashlight, but I took one anyway to be sure we could see where we were going. I was walking along, figuring she was behind me, talking to her as I went.

Then, I realized she wasn’t answering any more. I realized she had stopped somewhere behind me. I could hear her crying. I realized that my definition of safety didn’t have anything to do with her definition of safety. I tell that story in the book to show that not everyone has the same experience of darkness and the night. I’m not telling readers that everyone should go out, charge into the shadows and explore everything in the night. But I am encouraging readers to explore the things we’ve been taught about the dark and see for ourselves if they’re really true. If we try this, we will be surprised.

DAVID: I don’t think it’s a “spoiler” to tell readers: By the end of this book, you’ve touched on a lot of our fears and anxieties—and our deep desires as well—as we live through these turbulent times. The book closes with a very strong message of reassurance. You’re telling us, to borrow a line we read so many times in the Bible: Do not be afraid. It’s in Genesis, repeatedly in fact, and Moses repeats it in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. It’s in the era of the kings, the prophets and the Psalms; Isaiah repeats it. Then, in the New Testament, angels repeat, “Do not be afraid!” Of course, Jesus says the same thing.


Walker Evans a grave in Hale County Alabama

JAMES AGEE described in detail the graveyard he explored with photographer WALKER EVANS. Graves were marked with hand-hewn wooden headboards and footboards and the red clay was mounded up down the center like “an inverted boat.” These were graves of “the poorest” men, women and children, Agee wrote, but the graves were “decorated” with objects the families loved: milk glass, china dinner plates and, on a number of graves, light bulbs were screwed into the raised red soil. Several of Evans’ haunting graveyard photographs are available from the Library of Congress, although none of the light bulb photos are in the Library’s online collection.

DAVID: By the end of this book, at least some of your readers may learn not to be so afraid of the dark. But you also point out that countless men and women around the world long for light to improve their impoverished lives.

In America, there was a major campaign for rural electrification and many parts of the world don’t have lighting at night, to this day. There’s a very poignant scene in your book in which you describe the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans traveling through the rural South in the 1930s. They happened upon a graveyard used by the poorest of farming families in which loved ones placed symbols of great hopes on the graves.

BARBARA: Reading Agee and Evans, once again, reinvigorated my imagination of that era of rural electrification. I live in a part of the rural South where we now take artificial light for granted. But, not too many years ago, our farm would have been off the grid—not by choice but by economics. As I wrote this book, I kept in mind that—while I am writing about a longing for darkness—there are so many people who long for light.

In re-reading Agee and Evans, there is a passage where they describe this burial ground for poor tenant farmers in Alabama. On top of the graves, their families had placed things people treasured. On top of some graves were dinner plates and pieces of milk glass. They also found lightbulbs screwed into the red clay covering some graves and blue-green glass insulators, too. This reminds us of the economics of darkness, as well, and in many parts of the world, it’s only the relatively wealthy who have the privilege of longing for darkness—because most people are poor and they live in darkness every night.

There are so many ways to think about this. Here’s another: The darkest places in the world are the places where we can see the most stars.


DAVID: There are dangers in the dark, as well. I’m a life-long fan of Larry McMurtry and, in one of his Western novels, a cowboy is far out on the range when he wakes up one night and becomes convinced that he must ride off to someone’s aid. His companions beg him not to do so, because there’s no moon overhead. He does so anyway—and rides right off a cliff and dies.

You tell about hitting a drop off yourself! You walked, in the dark, along a wooden dock that you didn’t realize had been damaged by a hurricane. You didn’t know that part of the dock was missing and you fell about 13 feet, right?

BARBARA: I did! And it hurt! And when I managed to walk back there in daylight I realized that I had fallen very close to a board with nails sticking out. It could have been so much worse.

But I don’t want to dwell on the dangers in the dark. Sure, you can bump into things in the night. But I found so many positive stories that I didn’t expect of people’s experiences in the darkness. For example, most of us may think that it’s dangerous to go out in the dark in a big city. And, I was giving a talk about this book when a young woman stood up at a microphone and she said that she grew up in New York City. And I thought: “Oh, here it comes! Another story about dangers at night in a big city.” But, she surprised me. She said that she loves her memories of going out with her father to look at the night sky between the tall buildings. And she recalled how much she loved it when her father would take her to an observatory in the city.

And remember, there are so many people who have to be out at night. They work at night. I was fascinated by a book about midwives in England who, of course, often had to go out at night. I read about various methods people developed to keep track of where they were going even on the darkest nights.


DAVID: This is a book about faith as much as it is about the real world of sunlight and darkness. And, when you turned to the Bible, your first glance over the material was pretty bleak, right?

BARBARA: There are about 100 references to darkness in the Bible and if you focus just on the word searches, the verdict is unanimous: Darkness is bad news.

DAVID: But you went deeper into the text, of course.

BARBARA: Yes, I started with word searches because there are so many easy ways to do that now. At the linguistic level, darkness is almost uniformly negative from the beginning to the end of the Bible. But when I dug deeper and began to pay attention to narratives that took place at night or under cover of darkness, the whole focus changed from negative to positive. Think of God telling Abraham to look up at the stars in the night sky. Or think of what happened to Jacob at night: wrestling with an angel.

DAVID: And the vision of the stairway to heaven, which came at night, produced the famous line: “Surely God was in this place—and I did not know it.”

BARBARA: These are moments of huge transformation at night. In the Nativity story, think of the shepherds looking up into a sky that is exploding with angels. Think of Magi following a star through the night. Now darkness becomes much more interesting!



JACQUES LUSSEYRAN. (As we publish this interview in spring 2014, the world just marked another Yom Hashoah, a solemn remembrance of the Holocaust. One of the many memorial websites online is Jamie Merriman-Cohen’s YomHashoah Picture Project. Click on this photo of Lusseyran to read Merriman-Cohen’s eloquent tribute to him.)

DAVID: Among the spiritual mysteries readers will discover in your book is Jacques Lusseyran, often called “the blind hero of the French Resistance.” He also was an amazing mystical writer. His most easily available book these days is And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II. But you actually quote from a specific portion of his writings: Against the Pollution of the I. Readers might be able to get that through their libraries, after meeting Lusseyran in your book.

BARBARA: He was compelling to me, first of all, because three different people recommended him to me. When I hear one or two people suggest something, I can ignore it, but not when three people recommend something. When I opened up his works, his language was so remarkable! From childhood, he was blind. He typed on a Braille typewriter, which was how he expressed himself in written word. And his language? He was able to capture mystical experiences because he wrote like an angel. He’s unparalleled in my reading—telling us unbelievable things and yet they become so believable in the way he tells them.

DAVID: He writes about how he experiences light and darkness and the mystical connection he makes is in his connection of love to inner light. Here’s one of his lines: “There was only one way to see the inner light, and that was to love.” Your readers meet Lusseyran in just a couple of pages of your book—but he’s a good example of the unusual people readers will discover here. Learning to Walk in the Dark will take you many places you never expected to go.

And, in the end, one of the places you’re taking us is back into “the church,” to organized religion. You’re an ordained Episcopal priest.

BARBARA: Yes, and I’m proud to be celebrating my 30th anniversary as a priest this year.


DAVID: Much of this book is about fearlessly exploring the world in new ways. But there’s a clear message here: You hope that all of those fearful men and women inside organized religion can find new hope. I was surprised on Easter Sunday, just a few weeks ago, to be attending the church where my daughter is the pastor. She got up and preached her sermon from the Gospel stories of resurrection—combined with illustrations from your new book. I was so pleased to hear that sermon!

BARBARA: And I love hearing you tell that story!

I get invited to a lot of churches and events with church leaders. When I walk into some churches, these days, it feels like a hospice. I can smell the anxious sweat in the air. The first questions people ask me are: What can we do to reverse the tide? What can we do about losing members? How can we—well—they’re really asking: How can we not die?

It seems to me that it’s time to stop all of that worrying. All that hand wringing is only convincing people that they don’t want to come inside here with you. It’s time to say: Let’s take inventory and see what is here and see what is life giving. It’s time to decide to be alive in a new way.

Now, I can’t say that without adding: I also visit lots of vibrant churches celebrating what is truly life giving. But, I think anyone who has ever loved a community of faith has—at some point or other—been disappointed by that community. In writing this book, I discovered a lot of new guides—men and women—who calmed me down, consoled me and got me ready for whatever is next.

DAVID: I’m going to jump way back to the beginning of your book and point to a line that I’ll bet is going to be quoted in countless church bulletins and sermons in coming months: “Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show. Next you sign a waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first.”

BARBARA: That’s the story of this book. And that’s the living definition of what it means to have faith: I’m not assured that everything’s going to be safe and all right—but I am assured because of all the others who have walked this way before. Their walking before me—and around me—convinces me that this is the way of life.



Links to several of Barbara Brown Taylor’s earlier books are at the top of this story. You can order her book from Amazon by clicking on the book cover, at top.

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

The Marc Bekoff interview on Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship and Conservation

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

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

THE FULL TITLE of Marc Bekoff’s latest book is Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation.

In our interview today, Marc admits the first part of the title is to catch the eyes of new readers. Yes, he does address those two topics in his book, but they’re only part of this absolutely marvelous, world-circling voyage into the minds, emotions and values of non-human creatures.

If you haven’t discovered Marc Bekoff’s unique work until today, then you’re in for a real treat!

He has emerged as the world’s leading scientific voice translating the latest research on the psychology of animals—and human-animal relationships—into everyday language for general readers. He writes regularly for Psychology Today magazine. He writes so regularly, in fact, that he has produced more than 500 columns over the past five years. Don’t worry if you’ve missed this treasure-trove, until today. His new book collects the best of those hundreds of columns for readers … just like you.

At ReadTheSpirit magazine, we’re excited to tell you about this book—so excited, in fact, that in addition to this interview featuring our Editor David Crumm and Marc Bekoff … our colleague Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

Eager to find out more?
Let’s jump right to …


DAVID: Since we’re a magazine about spiritual and cultural diversity, I have to ask: Isn’t your basic message about the inherent value in animal life something that we’ve seen for centuries in Eastern religions—and, in the West, in the teachings of those Christian leaders who were sensitive to animal life? We all know about St. Francis, of course, but there were other Western Christian voices as well. The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, was famous for preaching that animals will be in heaven with us when we leave this world.

So, my question is: In this book, you’re really touching on a universal theme, right?

Marc Bekoff with a friend

Marc Bekoff with a friend. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

MARC: Absolutely. I was at a conference in 2012 at the School of Oriental and Asian Studies at the University of London and there was a good discussion there about how this relates to Jainism. In my earlier book, Minding Animals: Awareness, Emotions, and Heart, I wrote about Buddhism and compassion for animals. There is a strong Buddhist emphasis on compassion for all beings and the unity we share.

I believe: We all are one. I don’t mean that in any frivolous sort of way. What I mean is: We all depend on one another. We all work very hard to have good, social, amicable relationships with one another. We need to be very careful about separating ourselves from other animals.

I’m not bashing humans. I do believe that humans are exceptional. We’re a wonderful species. We do horrific things, yes, but we also do amazing things.

DAVID: Then, the second question is: What you’re reporting in this new book is solid science as well. How do you do that?

MARC: When I write for Psychology Today or in books like this one, I take scientific work that’s being reported around the world and I make the findings digestible to non-researchers. And, I do provide all the references to the scientific work on this, so readers can go deeper if they want to learn more.

DAVID: You’ve got 326 footnotes neatly listed at the end of this book, if readers want to check further into what you’re describing in the chapters. How do you manage to find all of these studies?

MARC: I read widely, but I also have lots of people who are in touch with me constantly, sending me links to new articles and essays being published both in popular and scientific journals. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning and my email is so overwhelming that I almost want to shut it down! But don’t misunderstand me when I say that. I love this work! Love it! You can’t go a day or two without finding a new headline about animal behavior, psychology and cognition.

DAVID: Here’s one of your columns that caught my eye—and I wound up telling friends about it: You wrote about rats helping each, motivated by what appears to be a clear sense of empathy. I certainly wouldn’t have expected empathy among rats. But you write that this is consistent with studies of mice and chickens that showed those species were capable of empathy and what you call “pro-social action.” You describe a study that was first reported in the journal Science in which researchers documented untrained laboratory rats trying to free some companions who were restrained—sparked to free them by empathy for those other rats. What floored me was when the researchers tried to keep the rats from paying attention to their restrained companions by giving them an option to go eat chocolate—and the rats still helped each other.

MARC: The pro-social behavior didn’t surprise me—but the chocolate part of their study, that did surprise me a bit. I’ve been studying social animals for decades. People tend to set up these basic boundaries in which they separate us from other animals. They’ll say, “We’re the only animals who show antruism.” And that’s obviously not true. What we’re seeing here are pro-social behaviors among these untrained rats—even when they’re offered chocolate not to do so.


DAVID: When people read your book, they will discover a whole host of careers that—honestly—I knew little about until you explained them to us in your columns. Some of these admittedly are emerging fields, so please give us Marc Bekoff’s thumbnail explanation of each one, OK? And let’s start with Anthrozoology.

MARC: Anthrozoology is basically the scientific study of human-animal relationships. It’s the study of how we interact with other animals. This is broadly interdisciplinary work. You’ll find biologists involved in this kind of research—but you’ll also meet people in university English departments who are working on this, too.

DAVID: OK, next: Ethology.

MARC: Ethology is the study of animal behavior and it’s differentiated from comparative psychology by more of an interest in the ecology and evolution of behavior. People sometimes define ethology as the study of animal behavior by biologists rather than psychologists.

DAVID: Then, Cognitive Ethology.

MARC: Cognitive Ethology is the study of animal minds—asking questions about the evolution and ecology of animal minds. This is being done by a broad spectrum of academics: biologists, psychologists and even philosophers and theologians are involved in this. It’s called cognitive ethology mainly because, in order to fully understand the evolution of mind, cognitive skills and emotional interactions, you have to pay attention to what animals do in the wild. You can study animals in the lab, but that may be quite different than what we would see in the field.

DAVID: One more: Conservation Psychology.

MARC: I think of Conservation Psychology as a branch of Anthrozoology mainly because it deals with human beliefs and attitudes towards other animals and the environment. It’s really growing. Susan D. Clayton at the College of Wooster in Ohio is one of the leading figures in this field. She earlier published a book called, Conservation Psychology: Understanding and Promoting Human Care for NatureThen, she was the editor for the new Oxford Handbook of Environmental and Conservation Psychology.

DAVID: Thanks for running through the titles of those emerging fields. We have a lot of readers who are parents, educators and media professionals. Many of our readers may know of young people who are interested in studying an emerging field. If so, there are four of them. Read Marc’s book and you’ll learn about even more types of research.


DAVID: That was pretty heavy-duty science, so let’s tackle the title of your book. Anyone who buys this book hoping to discover “Why Dogs Hump …” well, I think we should warn them. You conclude: We don’t know. There’s no scientific consensus on this behavior.

MARC: We put the phrase on the cover of the book because it’s an attention getter. But there is an important point in that chapter. It’s an important point that I’m trying to make throughout the book: People just assume we know everything about animal behavior—and we don’t. Here’s a behavior that we’ve all seen and people will tell you that they know what causes it. They’ll say it’s sexual. Or, they’ll say it’s a dominance behavior by dogs. But, the research shows neither explanation accounts for this behavior. We don’t know why this happens. There’s so much research needed even on very common behaviors we think we understand. That’s the point I make in that chapter.

DAVID: I’ll admit the phrase is attention getting. And, OK, it’s a valid point: Animal behaviors are greater mysteries than we may assume. One of the eye-opening chapters for me was about jellyfish. I’ve watched jellyfish along the ocean shore and I can’t imagine a less-intelligent creature. They look about as simple as empty plastic bags floating in the water. But you report on research that shows jellyfish are actually interacting with their environment in a more sophisticated way than people ever imagined.

MARC: We’re too mammal-centric in our thinking about the world. In fact, many of us are basically primateocentric—just paying attention to primates. Most humans are interested in big-brained animals, but what we’re learning in science today is that big brains don’t necessarily rule. For example, honey bees have small brains—but, as I write in this book, they can get depressed. They show the same neural psychological changes that we get when we get depressed. What I’m saying is: Keep the door open on what other animals can and cannot do.

DAVID: You argue that many animals are what we, as humans, would call “moral beings.” They are not simply driven by instincts and natural urges. You pose this, from the beginning of the book, as a provocative conclusion you see emerging from all of this research.

MARC: I pose that thought starting with a biological way of looking at this. I use Darwin’s ideas about evolutionary continuity, which means that the differences among species are differences in degree rather than differences in kind. I like the bumper sticker about animals that says: “If we have something—they have it, too.”

We see lots of examples of animals taking care of other animals in in need. You’ll read about an elephant who was taken care of by other animals in her group. She couldn’t walk without a l imp. She’d been injured for many many years and had a deformed right-rear leg. Other elephants waited for her. The matriarchs in her group made a point of seeing that she was fed. But we see this behavior beyond mothers looking out for others. There are many examples where animals seem to understand clearly that others are in need—and help them.

DAVID: And I’d say we’ve come full circle to the first question in the interview. If animals are moral beings, then Buddhism and Jainism and John Wesley were correct in pointing out that there is an over-arching spiritual connection we share with non-human animals.

MARC: Yes, this gets back to that Buddhist notion that there’s an umbrella of compassion, a unity. People may say to me: Why do you care about aninals? You should care about humans! Well, I do care about humans and it’s true of a lot of people who work with animals. But, the reverse is not always true. A lot of pepole who care about other people don’t always display compassion to other animals. I want to encourage more of that.
DAVID: I’m going to conclude our interview by recommending that people also read our 2010 interview, when you and I talked about your book, called, The Animal Manifesto: Six Reasons for Expanding Our Compassion Footprint. I began that interview by telling readers that your overall goal is “to win people over with the pure good-hearted logic about scientific and ethical positions.” Once again, today, you’ve made that eloquent point. We’ll talk again when your next book is published.


ReadTheSpirit publishes two popular books with stories about human-animal relationships: You can learn more about Conversations with My Old Dog and The Spiritual Wanderer in our bookstore.

AND, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker has decided to devote his entire five-part series this week in the OurValues project to issues raised in Marc’s book.

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

Retreating (close to home!) by Cindy LaFerle

THIS WEEK, ReadTheSpirit is recommending books by poet and  journalist Judith Valente. (And, don’t miss Judith’s own column on 10 steps toward rediscovering peace.) However, when we read such stories, we might get the mistaken impression that retreats are only for well-to-do people who can travel great distances. So, we invited author and columnist Cindy LaFerle to share this chapter from her book Writing Home about a simpler solution she has found.

(Close to Home)


Photo for public use from Wikimedia Commons.

Photo for public use from Wikimedia Commons.

Four times a year, I indulge in a ritual that puzzles my neighbors, not to mention my family.

It goes something like this: I rise at dawn on a weekday and load my car with two large tote bags—one crammed with books, the other with pajamas and a toothbrush. I back out of the driveway quickly and disappear for twenty-four hours. The next day, I come back looking as if I’d spent a full week at five-star spa.

My sacred escape, as I call it, is a mere twenty minutes from home, but seems a universe away.

“So, did you have fun at the monastery?” my husband teases when I return.

My hideaway isn’t exactly a monastery—but it’s the next best thing. Secluded on a wooded estate in Bloomfield Hills, Manresa Jesuit Retreat House remains one of the best-kept secrets in my part of Michigan. It’s where I go when my shoulders lock up and I can’t quite silence the white noise buzzing in my head. It’s where I turn when I feel unappreciated, uninspired, overtaxed and overwhelmed.

No, Manresa doesn’t offer facials, glycol peels, pedicures or therapeutic massages. And while the historic Tudor-revival mansion graciously opens its meeting facilities to business functions and networking events, it remains, at its heart, a place for the spirit. Religious artwork and gilded icons decorate the hallways, while Stations of the Cross and Catholic statuary anchor its manicured acres of tranquil garden paths.

And nobody goes home hungry. On a recent overnight retreat, three church friends and I enjoyed heaping portions of “Jesuit cuisine”–a divine menu of real comfort food, including roast chicken, green beans, and divine, buttery mashed potatoes. And, as we quickly discovered on a midnight kitchen raid, there’s always a plate of homemade cookies left for snacking.

After dinner, my friends and I usually set aside time alone for reading and reflection. While I also read inspirational literature at home, I enjoy this genre most in the sanctuary of my private room at Manresa. (The paneled library downstairs, in fact, is where I first discovered the writings of Henri J. M. Nouwen.)

Spending just a few hours this way, I feel as if my frazzled parts had been gently polished and refastened.

I highly recommend retreating to everyone, regardless of religious affiliation. Women, especially, need to give ourselves permission to step aside for a breather, even if our loved ones think we’re being unsociable, or, heaven forbid, neglectful. Our devotion to family and career seldom allows time to quench the soul, and few of us have a quiet place where we can pause to refuel.

Unlike health spas, where the lodgings are typically deluxe, religious retreat houses offer minimal amenities. Expect no television and very few distractions. Manresa, for example, enforces periods of silence that must be respected by all guests.

A spiritual retreat can be held in any secluded location, but be sure to plan well in advance. Leave secular worries behind and cell phones turned off. And if you’re not attending a guided retreat, prepare your own list of spiritual activities–group discussions, personal journaling, meditation, or prayer focus.

Wherever you retreat, your aim should be to return to your daily responsibilities with fresh perspective and a renewed spirit to share with others.

Care to read more?

Look around your region of the U.S. for retreat centers that are open to the public at a reasonable cost. Because retreat centers vary so widely, you might try asking a pastor, rabbi or imam in your area about sites they may recommend. If you ask friends from a similar religious background for suggestions, you’re more likely to feel comfortable when you arrive.

This column was reprinted with Cindy’s permission from her book Writing Home, which ReadTheSpirit also highly recommends. You’ll also enjoy her regular columns at

The Kent Nerburn interview on Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy

Great Plans vista

Cover Kent Nerburn The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo

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

For thousands of Kent Nerburn fans, all we really need to say is: Kent’s back on the road on the Great Plains! Come along! Click the cover, at right, to visit the book’s Amazon page and start reading!

But, first, you might want to read this new interview with Kent, the best-selling author of 16 books and a longtime friend to our online magazine. If you are meeting Kent Nerburn for the first time, here are a few things you need to know about him:

His vision is vast: Best known as an author, Kent also is a scholar, theologian and artist. He studied in the U.S. and Europe and finally earned a doctorate in religion and art. His sculptures, many on religious themes, are in collections around the world.

He invites us on pilgrimages: Best known for his books exploring Euro-American relationships with Native Americans, Kent also sees himself in a long and rich tradition of American arts and letters about the nature of journeys and cross-cultural connections. His road trips start humbly and we are half way through the bumpy ride before we discover these truly are pilgrimages.

He shares his wisdom in many forms: Some of his best books—such as Ordinary Sacred: The Simple Beauty of Everyday Life—are spiritual reflections drawing on Kent’s broad knowledge of faith and culture—but not necessarily focusing on Native American themes.

Ultimately, Kent is a unique American theologian—working his way through cycles of stories and artworks, travels and talks, toward developing an authentically North American theology rooted in the geography and peoples of this continent. It’s a grand goal—an immense lifelong project—and we all are richer that, once again, we are invited to hop into Kent’s old car and roll down back roads in The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo: A Child, an Elder, and the Light from an Ancient Sky.

Now, Kent talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about his travels, his new book and the grand vision behind it all …


DAVID CRUMM: You have touched lives around the world with your art and your stories. This year is the 20th anniversary of Native American Wisdom, the first collection you published jointly with your wife Louise Mengelkoch, the journalist and educator. We’ve been on the road with you, Kent, for quite a while.

Author Kent NerburnKENT NERBURN: For me, the journey began long before that. My Dad was an American Red Cross regional director for disaster relief and, as a boy in the 1950s,  I would go with him in the car to places where he took care of people in the midst of great distress. I remember a big apartment-house fire one winter where he was called to help with the people who had lived in the building. There was one woman in her 80s who Dad showed over to our car and asked me, “Just stay with her.” I was 12 years old and I remember trying to console her as best I could, sitting beside her in the car and listening to her. Of course, I was confused. I was young. I remember her talking, over and over again, about her hope that they could get her cat out of her apartment. These were experiences that most people, at that young age, would never encounter. In those experiences with Dad, I suppose that I saw too much too early that was far too large for me to understand.

And so, I became a watcher. Even working as an artist, I didn’t sign my sculptures. I didn’t want to put my name on the pieces. I wanted to step back from them and be the watcher.

DAVID: Let’s remind readers that you are not a Native American. You’ve never claimed to be Indian and your books really are about how Euro-Americans can bridge the gap after so much pain and death—to build new relationships with Native Americans. Am I saying that correctly?

KENT: That’s right. I have never claimed to be Native American. You’ll never find me putting on native trappings or trying to claim native ceremonies. And, I have no patience with Euro-Americans who go out and claim Native American ceremonies as their own and start teaching them. There is a lot of legitimate anger on the part of native people who have seen their world appropriated in so many ways by non-native culture. I don’t want to be one of those who tries to take their culture from them, once again.

But I am helping in the retelling of our American narrative in a way that includes Native Americans. Our national narrative is so badly served by the way it is commonly retold. One of the central problems is this unresolvable tragedy at the heart of our American narrative when we look at what we did to the people who lived here first. Not only did we expunge the native history from our history books for a long time—we took generations of Native American children into boarding schools and tried to expunge their history from them by force. A lot of the struggles with Native Americans over the years have come because of these efforts to destroy—to erase—their stories from our national story.


DAVID: This connects with the much larger vision behind nearly all of your books. You argue that all of us living on this continent are called to envision a larger North American theology—a philosophy of this place, this geography, and our ultimate place in it. And you argue that the native peoples on this continent could have been—and still can be—an essential doorway in that journey.

KENT: Around the world, monumental forces have shaped people’s understandings of the gods and of our ultimate human concerns. People who live in mountainous regions tend to understand the gods differently than those whose culture is based along oceans. In North America, we ought to have a spirituality that speaks to the great forces embodied in this continent. As you know, I studied theology. My academic background is in theology and the arts. Native Americans have a connection to the theology of this land, a connection we worked for centuries to eliminate.

Now, I want to be clear: I’m not trying to create some artificial pan-Indian theology. Native people tell us not to do that. Native American traditions varied widely. But there are elements they hold in common. One is the sense that God is in every rock and river and aspect of the landscape. We European Americans have this assumption that nature is just out there for us to conquer. We have this idea of building cities on hills. Native people know that God is in the hill itself. Native peoples are mindful on a much deeper level of every hill, every stream, every cloud that passes through the sky.


DAVID: One of the central arguments that runs through all of your work is that we will never connect with this continent if we don’t leave our homes and start traveling around in this vast land. Most important in traveling is getting to know the people we encounter. When I read the opening pages of your new book, The Girl Who Sang to the Buffalo, and I read about this woman asking you to drive her to the cemetery for a visit—wow!—right away my mind was connecting with one of your most famous stories: The Cab Driver, or sometimes it’s Called The Taxi Driver. These stories span your entire career.

KENT: Hey, you’re a sharp guy! I wouldn’t have thought of that connection—but you saw it and, sure, there it is! Yeah. We have to go out into the world and meet people and talk to them. That’s what I’ve done all my life. That’s what the cab story is all about. It’s true: I really did work as a cab driver and I encountered many experiences as powerful as that one I wrote about. I wish I’d kept better notes or a journal. Today, I’d have 100 stories like The Cab Driver from that time. That’s just one I managed to write down from that time.

Highway in the Great PlainsDAVID: You’ve been making a much bigger case through the decades. The quintessential American story is a tale of the road. We could list all the writers from Melville and Twain to Steinbeck and Kerouac. The list could go on and on. You’re trying to tell us something about repairing and clarifying what we might call The Great Story of America and, at the core of it, you’re telling us is a great, wide, nearly endless road.

KENT: The journey is my American experience. The road is my path. When I was very young, The Beats fascinated me. I actually did go out and hop freight trains. I hitchhiked. I can tell you some stories of experiences on the road that, now, I realize could have ended my life far too early. I didn’t know much, but I knew that I had to travel. I had to keep moving. I had to look everywhere to meet people and learn their stories.

For me, a kid from Minnesota, I always looked West. That part of the American mythic journey—looking West—is part of my life story as well.

DAVID: Let me read a passage from the middle of this book. It’s just one of many descriptions of the road itself—literally the act of driving across the seemingly limitless expanse of the Great Plains. I’ve crossed the Plains a good number of times myself, as a journalist, and it’s hard to describe this kind of driving. Here’s how you put it:

We rode on into the growing twilight. The tar strips beat a hypnotic rhythm beneath us as the lonely asphalt highway cut a meandering line through the treeless hills toward the horizon. It was a peaceful, almost empty landscape. Every few miles, a gravel road would cut off from the main highway, and a small house could be seen sitting alone and isolated far up in the hills. Here and there a rusted car body sat solitary in a field, or a broken farm windmill rose above the landscape on its spindly, triangular stilts. But mostly it was just earth and sky and the thin ribbon of roadway coursing like a fierce, dark river through the great, unpopulated land.

KENT: I’m so glad you read that passage. There’s nothing I love more than observing the passing landscape, whether from a train or a car. I can’t remember exactly where I was when I wrote those lines. But I was in South Dakota. As I was moving through that landscape, it was all about the watching and the emotion I was feeling. Then, later, I would recollect that journey and write down the telling details. I do make notes as I travel. I noted: windmill with broken vanes, road going back into the hills … Things like that. But, then, I go back and in memory I recapture the emotion and the essentials to put down on paper.


DAVID: You write so beautifully in this new book, not just about the landscape, but about the culture stolen from native people through the whole array of institutions where Indians were locked away for so many years.

In your earlier book, the second volume in this Neither Wolf nor Dog trilogy, you wrote about the boarding school era. Then, in this book, you write about other kinds of prison-like institutions that were set up. Now, more and more Americans are learning about what took place in our collective name over so many years. The “boarding school tragedy” is becoming a part of our common knowledge. But one thing that is so crucial to convey is the voices of people who actually experienced being locked away until their culture was—in many cases—literally beaten out of them.

Let me read from later in the book, a man describing how the boarding schools left him:

Every day I was scared of dying. I was scared of being beat. I was scared of burning up in the Christian god’s fire. I was scared of dying in a white man’s bed surrounded by the bird women and men with the yellow teeth. I was scared and lonely, and I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be. But I knew what I was supposed to do. I was supposed to follow the rules. So that’s what I did. That’s all that I did. I didn’t say nothing. I didn’t do nothing. I didn’t smile. I didn’t cry. All I did was keep my mouth shut and follow the rules.”

KENT: Again, thanks for reading that passage. I do want to say that, in these books, I am not trying to beat readers over the head with the endless litany of horrible things that took place. Many of these horrors now are well documented. There are lots of tragedies I could have described—but, in our world today, there are so many tragedies and murders that our hearts become inured to it all.

I remember once I was teaching a class and I began to show the students Claude Lanzmann’s film, Shoah, and this one girl raised her hand. She asked: “Why are you making us watch this? I don’t need to be aware of this.”

Of course, I thought she was wrong but I understood that response. In this new book, I tell a story through the voices of one or two main people.

DAVID: And it is a lively and engaging story. It’s part a travelogue, part a cycle of great tales from the Great Plains, part a vivid slice of Indian life today. But there is this subtext to the book, always asking us to remember what was done in our collective name. As people learn more about the boarding school era, they’re likely to be shocked to learn that a lot of this occurred right up into the 1960s and 1970s. This isn’t ancient history. There are people living today who were locked away in schools and other institutions. There were international parallels, of course. In Australia, where the national government now has come to terms with the tragedy more completely than our government has even attempted, this pattern continued right into the 1970s, as well.

KENT: And often the people running these places were doing it with what they perceived as the best of intentions. We should say that the worst of the boarding school abuses ended by the 1950s, but these institutions did continue. There are some boarding schools today, although they are of a different kind than the schools we’re describing in these earlier eras.

I went to visit one of these places. I was invited to talk to some clergy and, while I was on that trip, I stopped by a cinder-block cafe at a time when it was almost empty. There was just one old man at a table. I asked if I could join him. He said, “Sure.”

I asked, “Did you go to this boarding school when you were young?”

He said, “Yeah, I went.”

“How was it?”

He said: “I learned good language. I learned good Christian.” Then, he paused. Finally, he said, “And now I’m no longer myself.”

To me, that was a dagger in my heart. This was a kindly man, a good man. And yet he was telling me that the boarding school experience had taken a boy and made him into someone who was cut off form his roots. The boarding schools did give many young people a good trade. It taught them good English. It gave them a warm place to stay and regular meals at a time when many on the reservations were starving on those reservations. So the whole experience is a very mixed narrative.

DAVID: I want to close by asking you about the loyalty of your fans. I went into Amazon and looked at the reader reviews of quite a few of your books. You’ve accumulated hundreds of reviews—and the vast majority are 4 or 5 stars. In fact, most of them are 5-star raves. To what do you attribute that strong enthusiasm for your books? Maybe that’s an unfair question to ask. But do you have an answer?

KENT: Yes, I actually do have an answer. I’ve thought about this and I think the response is: It’s because I really try to write from my best self. I don’t let my ironic self or my sarcastic or angry self get into my books. I had a professor in graduate school who ended a seminar on Creativity and the Sacred with these words: “I don’t care where all of you come out spirituality, but I hope you all realize you have a ministry.”

I understand exactly what he meant. As a writer, I have a ministry. That ministry is to write from the heart.

I don’t live from the heart every day. I often feel like I’m a troll beneath a bridge holding up an angel on a stick. People look down and see me, that troll down there, but what I’m interested in doing is having them focus on the angel I’m holding up. It’s easy to write with a wry edge or to drip sarcasm on the page. I am sometimes like that in my life—full of sarcasm. But that’s not the ministry with readers.

I’m called to hold up the angels. I’m giving readers stories with heart. I’ve worked very hard on this. I’ve had years of spiritual formation. I’ve spent years developing this voice from an open heart. And readers respond—because they recognize a good heart when they encounter it.

Care for more from Kent Nerburn?

Get the books! Click on the linked book titles, above, to visit their Amazon pages.

For more on the two previous books in the “Neither Wolf Nor Dog” trilogy—including more historical details on the Native American boarding schools—read our earlier interview with Kent Nerburn. That interview focuses on Kent’s second book in the trilogy, “The Wolf at Twilight.”

Shopping for great reading? Please, visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore anytime. Support our work by buying our recommended books—and telling friends.

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

The Art of Spiritual Living never looked so inviting

SkyLight Paths Publishing The Art of Spiritual Living Series

Click on any of the covers shown with this column to visit the SkyLight Paths webpage for these books.



Sacred Art of Lovingkindness by Rami Shapiro SkyLight PathsAmericans are soaked in religion, compared with the rest of the world’s peoples. Based on the World Values Survey, we rank with Pakistan and Iran in the intensity of faith. Yet, in sharp contrast with other religiously saturated cultures, Americans also feel an overwhelming desire to express ourselves. On that scale, we rank with those outspoken Scandinavians!

We demand faith on our own terms. That’s true whether you choose to be a lock-step fundamentalist or a free spirit.

We’re unique in the world for our intense mix of desires. New religious movements rank among America’s most valuable exports. A century ago, a shockingly mixed bag of men and women met in what the Los Angels Times called a “tumble down shack” on Azusa Street. Their Pentecostal celebration eventually blew the top off traditional worship around the world.

In the 1930s, Bill W and Dr. Bob were religious innovators in launching the world’s first lay-led spiritual movement with an interfaith definition of God as a “higher power.” The list could run on and on—from Shakers in the 1700s to Joseph Smith in the 1800s. After World War II, the spiritual floodgates broke wide open. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his Guideposts took the world by storm, Bishop Fulton Sheen became a 1950s TV star with Life Is Worth Living and, by 1965, millions of Americans heard The Gospel According to Peanuts.

In the new millennium, the matriarch of serious American religion writing, Phyllis Tickle, launched a mighty effort to tug wayward Americans back to ancient spiritual disciplines—such as praying at the Christian Divine Hours with a series of weighty new books. Eventually, Phyllis convinced the evangelical publishing house Thomas Nelson to produce eight volumes on Christian disciplines. She assembled a Who’s Who of authors to tackle topics including prayer, sabbath, tithing and fasting. All of Phyllis’s books are terrific. All are substantial offerings for Christians who are ready to dive deep. In other words, she and her co-authors left lots of room in the spiritual marketplace.

We restless Americans always are itching to discover the next spiritual shore. This has fueled a host of religious fads—and it’s not worth dragging those out of blessed obscurity by naming them. Suffice it to say that the late George Gallup Jr. surely is nodding his head somewhere, repeating his motto: “Faith in America is miles wide—and a quarter inch deep.”

That’s why the ambitious project undertaken by Stuart Matlins and his talented crew at SkyLight Paths Publishing is such a milestone. These books are authoritative—and wildly compelling. Yes, they take us deep, but each one is an exciting invitation to dip one’s toe into these waters for the first time. Christians are welcome, but so is anyone of any faith.

Over the past seven years, SkyLight has sent into the world a small library, each volume following SkyLight’s core principle:

“Through spirituality, our religious beliefs are increasingly becoming a part of our lives—rather than apart from our lives. While many of us may be more interested than ever in spiritual growth, we may be less firmly planted in traditional religion. Yet, we do want to deepen our relationship to the sacred, to learn from our own as well as from other faith traditions, and to practice in new ways.”


Cover Thanking and Blessing the Sacred Art Jay Marshall SkyLight PathsClick on any of the book covers shown with this column today to visit the SkyLight Paths overview page for the series. From that online gateway, you can explore the full range. In 2006, this series debuted with an especially keen choice: Rami Shapiro’s The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness. One team of sociologists poring over the World Values Survey crunched the global numbers to identify the core character strength of each nation. The scholars found that America is unique in the world with a core character strength of “kindness.” So, the SkyLight series began with a perfect topic. As a nation, we see ourselves as kind; the anxiety we feel is largely due to our current lack of kindness. You may want to start your pilgrimage through this series with Shapiro’s book, which strikes at the heart of our spiritual quest as a people.

You will find many disciplines that cut across the major world religions:

  • Pilgrimage—The Sacred Art: Journey to the Center of the Heart;
  • The Sacred Art of Chant: Preparing to Practice;
  • Giving—The Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity;
  • The Sacred Art of Forgiveness: Forgiving Ourselves and Others through God’s Grace;
  • Thanking & Blessing—The Sacred Art: Spiritual Vitality through Gratefulness;
  • Decision Making & Spiritual Discernment: The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way;
  • Hospitality—The Sacred Art: Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome
  • The Sacred Art of Fasting: Preparing to Practice
  • Lectio Divina—The Sacred Art: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer

In choosing from that list for your first small-group discussion in your congregation, you’re likely to pass muster with pastors and lay leaders who serve as gatekeepers in almost any mainline denomination—Protestant or Catholic. Start with those and you’ll be well on your way toward a couple of years of lively small-group experiences. Some communities may want to challenge themselves to organize a congregation-wide “read” of a book.

And a special note for clergy who are reading this column: You’ll be marking pages, mumbling, “Yeah, that’ll preach!”


Once you get this series in the door, the results will be obvious. If properly organized, your group will grow; people will talk about what they are exploring over coffee or an evening meal; you’ll want more and more.

The secret of growth in many big churches lies in unlocking parishioners’ affinities. One classic megachurch example is a group of guys (and often some gals) who love fixing cars—but nothing else motivates them to get off the couch. So, the church invites them to form a prayer-and-service group to spiritually support each other week by week. Then, in many big churches, these “car nuts” provide free service for older parishioners, single parents, poor families—and suddenly these folks who never set foot in a house of worship are highly engaged. No, Stuart and his SkyLight crew have not yet found an author to produce The Spiritual Art of Car Care. But, there certainly is room in the market for such a book, given that the classic in this tiny niche of motor-oil spirituality, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is approaching its 40th anniversary in 2014. The time is right.

SkyLight already is summoning many affinity groups. Among them:

Cover Spiritual Adventures in the Snow by Marcia McFee and Karen Foster SkyLight PathsFly-Fishing—The Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice; Running—The Sacred Art: Preparing to Practice; and Spiritual Adventures in the Snow: Skiing & Snowboarding as Renewal for Your Soul. These are terrific choices to grab and go with friends from your community. Among this trio, I highly recommend the winter-themed book right now. It’s packed with all kinds of engaging material: spiritual reflections, stories by “real people,” practical ideas. You’ll love the section in which “exuberant novice” Ann Lamott describes the spiritual high of skiing (and falling).

Writing—The Sacred Art: Beyond the Page to Spiritual Practice and Haiku—The Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines. Two volumes in the series are geared toward the writers in your community. I especially recommend the Haiku book. When I have been invited to teach journalism courses, over the years, I begin with a Haiku exercise. Journalists who feel overwhelmed with a major news event find that, first, turning a big story into a Haiku quickly clarifies the challenge.

Everyday Herbs in Spiritual Life: A Guide to Many Practices. This global exploration of herbal themes, projects and even a few recipes taps into the always strong pull of nature in our spiritual journeys—and the growing interest in rediscovering the food practices that connect with our spiritual and cultural traditions. The text is fascinating, but you’ll especially enjoy the dozens of detailed herbal projects.

Recovery—The Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice. The SkyLight series wisely acknowledges the enormous debt we all share to the courageous circle of friends who, amid great personal anguish, hammered out the principles of 12-step programs. This is truly deep wisdom.

About an hour west of the SkyLight team’s headquarters in Woodstock, Vermont, is the hamlet of East Dorset where Bill Wilson was born in his family’s tavern and inn. Today, it is an international shrine and pilgrims’ sobriety tokens often are left on Bill W’s humble gravestone. Clearly, the SkyLight team has taken Bill W’s spiritual genius to heart. At the end of every book in this series, readers find this note:

SkyLight Paths sees both believers and seekers as a community that increasingly transcends traditional boundaries of religion and denomination—people wanting to learn more from each other, walking together, finding the way.

Go on. Buy a book. Jump in.

Wherever they are hovering with their higher power these days, George Gallup Jr. and Bill W will smile down upon you.

DAVID CRUMM is the Editor of online magazine and publishing house. For 40 years as a journalist, David has covered the impact of religion and cross-cultural issues around the world.


This Cover Story is Special: Throughout 2013, dozens of leading authors and media producers who care about America’s religious diversity are jointly raising awareness of the best in current publishing. In this Cover Story, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’m at the center of this coordinated national effort. Collectively, we’re shining our spotlight on this very important series of books that are coming from SkyLight Paths Publishing in Vermont.

I researched and wrote this cover story, “The Art of Spiritual Living never looked so inviting.” Then, this same cover story that I wrote also is being published by our California-based friends at The Interfaith Observer magazine. (You may want to check out their October issue, which includes a version of this same story.)

Why are we doing this? Those of us who devote our lives to the best in spiritual and cross-cultural writing—and that includes the folks who work at the Interfaith Observer and SkyLight Paths—realize that there is a real danger that important voices (authors, artists, publishers) could fall silent as traditional media networks crumble. We want to be part of the rebuilding of inspiring, authoritative networks promoting healthy approaches to faith and diversity. We are working hard, together, to keep these important voices raised.

What can you do? Read today’s cover story. Tell friends. Share the news on Facebook. Choose a new book that interests you—and buy it. (And, in addition to SkyLight Path’s webpage for the books, above, we also recommend that you check out our own ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.)

Together, we can make a huge difference.

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