ONE & Oprah: How a small-town Dad is inspiring millions

Click the DVD cover to visit ONE’s Amazon page.The story behind ONE sounds like a Hollywood fairy tale: A group of friends get together and decide to put on a show. They pool their resources. Despite the longest of long-shot odds—these eager first timers produce a hit!

That is, indeed, the true story of ONE, although the feature-length documentary isn’t exactly an overnight sensation. A decade ago, Ward and Diane Powers were typical American parents, active in their local Catholic church, when the terrorist attacks hit on 9/11. As ordinary residents of a Midwest community, the Powers thought and prayed a lot about how they could teach their three daughters not to fear the world’s diversity. The Powers knew that the world’s varied religious traditions—at their best—promote a unified call for compassion even in the midst of diversity. Rather than contributing to the overall post-9/11 anxiety, the Powers wanted to help highlight that compassionate message.

Much like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a makeshift Hollywood show, Diane and Ward enlisted their friends in their ambitious project. When they began, they didn’t even own a quality video camera. They were not journalists—they weren’t even writers. They had no experience contacting major religious leaders. Yet, they began making a list of people who ordinary American parents would want to question at such a turbulent time in world history.

Now, after years of barnstorming through film festivals and indie screenings, Oprah is announcing that ONE will air on her OWN network. Later this year, the whole world will see the Powers’ show.

And, what a show it is! Moved by these parents’ sincere request, one major religious figure after another agreed to appear in the film. Now, even as ONE hits a global audience thanks to Oprah, the documentary already has become a cinematic classic—marking wisdom at the dawn of this new millennium from some of the world’s most famous religious sages (some of whom sadly won’t be with us that much longer).

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, as a long-time religion news correspondent, has been covering the ONE story since its inception. Today, David talks with the small-town lawyer and father of three, Ward Powers, who became one of the world’s most unlikely filmmakers.


DAVID: Today, there are millions of filmmakers on YouTube. (And in Part 1 of our coverage of ONE this week, we include several YouTube clips that are out-takes from the movie.) So, let’s begin by stressing that ONE isn’t just another YouTube creation. This is a high-quality, feature-length documentary that took you a couple of years to produce. So, this leads to another question: How old are your kids, now?

WARD: Let’s see. I’m 54. Diane is 52. Our daughters are 17 to 21. When this started they were little kids and we were thinking about what we needed to show them about the world just after 9/11. Now, one daughter is in law school. As a family, we do mark time in relation to ONE. You know, we’ll be trying to place events through the years and we’ll say: This happened or that happened just after we finished ONE.

The whole story began in April of 2002, about six months after 9/11, when war drums were pounding in the campaign to attack Iraq, which our country finally did in early 2003. So, as the idea for ONE came to me, the tragedy of 9/11 already was leading toward another tragedy.

I was really disturbed that, right after 9/11, Americans were being taught that there were a billion Muslims around the world who we were supposed to fear or even to hate. Diane and I realized that this was contrary to the reality of life on this planet. Humanity is an interconnected web. All living things are one. That was a truth we held very close, but we could feel that truth moving away from us in that really fearful time. We were just a Mom and a Dad living in suburban Detroit. But, what we saw going on in our world called us out of our comfortable home. We kept asking ourselves: How can we create something that will focus much needed light back on the truth? And that truth is, as our title says: In this world, we are—ONE.

That April, there was this one particular morning—quite early that morning. I was kind of half awake in bed and my mind was drifting. The idea came to me: We should set off on a journey with our friends and make a movie. For us, it would be a personal journey.

DAVID: When people watch the opening of ONE, they’ll see a generic man waking up in a generic hotel room. Does that represent the morning when you woke up with this idea?

WARD: No, it’s not that specific a reference to my waking up with the idea. But, I can also say: Yes, this is a guy like everyone, you know, waking up in bed and looking for a fresh start in life. This particular nameless character we see is staying in a dumpy hotel room, waking up with some kind of unnamed troubles in his life. And, we see him start his day. We’re trying to encourage everyone to wake up and head out with us on this journey of awareness. And, I should say: This movie isn’t some big crusade to convert anyone to any particular religious tradition. This is a personal call to viewers to get up, start a new day, and take a fresh journey to discover the world’s underlying truths.


DAVID: That is an important aspect of ONE, Ward. We do see an incredible diversity in this film. You’ve got pretty much all the compass points covered.

WARD: For example, a group of atheists were having a picnic for the summer solstice. So we went out and filmed interviews with some of the atheists. About the same time, we interviewed a Christian talk show host. We talked with all points of view. This project wasn’t about us picking and choosing a particular point of view that we were pushing. No, we wanted to capture the whole range of humanity.

This turned out to be the right decision on many levels. When we were interviewing the atheists, we ran into a reporter who was writing a story for a Detroit newspaper. He was fascinated by what we were doing and wrote a story about us. When that appeared, it opened up a whole new range of possibilities. Suddenly, people were aware of what we were doing; we were authentic at that point and the project grew. One day, there was this young guy who just showed up at the front door of my offices. He told me that he had read the newspaper story about the film and he was carrying this book by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. He said, “You’ve got to include Llewellyn in your movie.” Now, at that point, I’d never even heard of Llewellyn, but this young guy made a strong case for our including him. The connections flowed like that: We were at a picnic, there was a reporter, there was a story, there was a kid at the door, there was Llewellyn. That was the magic of how the doors opened.


DAVID: And ReadTheSpirit has just published a fresh interview with Llewellyn. Your film is unique because it includes so many giants: Father Thomas Keating, Robert Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass and others who won’t be with us forever. These are major voices who are speaking for themselves in this film—not their followers or some scholar talking about them—but the real Keating, Thurman, Ram Dass and Thich Nhat Hanh. Figures like Keating, Thurman and Ram Dass go back to the explosion of religious diversity in America from the 1960s into the 1970s. This film still is fresh and inspiring to new viewers. But, already ONE is a must-see classic that captures a particular range of great voices in American faith, culture and history. I don’t think anyone could duplicate this treasure.

WARD: It takes the background of someone like you to appreciate this about ONE. It’s true: These voices all have unique things to tell us. Yet, they somehow all come together here in ONE. It helped that we were keeping our own orientations out of what we were filming. We looked East and West. We looked for traditional religious language and more contemporary language. But this idea of ONE-ness permeates all of these voices. We opened up a welcoming space where all of these voices felt comfortable sharing their perspectives.

DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we value journalism—accuracy, balance and the goal of conveying someone’s voice honestly to our audience. That kind of balance is part of the value of ONE. You’re not a religious leader. In fact, you’re an attorney. You’re trained in critical-thinking skills; you’re schooled in techniques of careful observation through your profession. Do you think that your professional background help you?

WARD: Yes, I think it did. In fact, after ONE was finished, I wound up traveling and speaking at a number of bar associations around the country. We tend to think of trial lawyers, which is my own specialty, as people who are pitted against each other as advocates for their one side against another side. By showing ONE and talking about it with other lawyers, I was able to address my own profession and say: Let’s look at what we do again. The reality of what we do, beyond beating somebody on the other side, is to serve justice. And justice is something bigger than winning. The law is intended to give people a language and a place to breach their differences and to work out and compromise and resolve their differences. The goal of law is to find justice and balance again. After those bar association programs, I had some remarkable and rewarding responses from trial lawyers. We all need to realize that we’re part of something bigger.


Click the cover to visit the book page.DAVID: This is a really important point: There are strong secular and civic reasons to see a film like ONE. Let me give you an example from another colleague: Stuart Matlins of the SkyLight Paths publishing house has found that a book he publishes, How to Be a Perfect Stranger, is popular among professionals in international business. “Cultural competency” is a hot skill set to develop right now.

WARD: A lot of people have started using the film in that way. For example, there was one banking professional who began using the film with his professional colleagues. Later, for a while, he worked out of my offices, designing some educational programs using clips from ONE for different audiences: high school and college students, executives, corporate groups embarking on tasks together. That’s an amazing outgrowth of ONE.

DAVID: There are many professional groups interested in this information: medical personnel, public safety officers, on and on. In this film you have authentic, high-level voices from the world’s religious traditions. In ONE, viewers are getting the real deal.

WARD: Quite honestly, I like ONE more now than when it first came out. As I have seen it stand the test of time, I am appreciating the larger value of the film. I do keep seeing new connections. That’s partly because the world keeps turning and news keeps coming out about people and ideas related to ONE.

Another reason it’s so valuable is this isn’t one more message about how to make a fast buck, how to get what I want, how to get more stuff for myself. That idea of success and personal satisfaction—dream your own dream and grab your own success—is very popular in Western culture. I understand the appeal, but that idea has its limitations.

DAVID: ONE was born out of post 9/11 anxieties, but flash forward to this current era of global economic crisis. People around the world are realizing that, even though they may live in a developed country, their lot in life isn’t going to be better than their parents’ generation. That’s a huge shift in global anxieties. One limitation of prosperity preaching is that it’s a tough sell in the midst of such a crisis. But, ONE is very appropriate in this era. You’re not offering cheap avenues to personal success through spirituality. ONE is talking about ideas that might actually help us in these troubled times.

WARD: I’m glad you said that. Yes, ONE is about finding our way back together again in this divided world. The movie starts with this down-and-out guy waking up in his bed and wondering what this new day holds. ONE is about the catalysts that can shake us out of our own individual corners. The whole idea of ONE is to offer a place where what seems so divisive in our world—our religious voices—can offer a gateway back to unity. That’s why ONE remains so powerful. There are things in that film that I could never have dreamed would be relevant with each passing year. But, ONE takes people wherever they’re at today—and it talks to them about some big truths they may have been missing in their lives. This film touches people in new ways with each new viewing. That’s why this whole journey has been so magical.

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Bible scholar Bart Ehrman talks about Did Jesus Exist?

BART EHRMAN. Photo used courtesy of HarperOne and Bart Ehrman.In Part 1 of our coverage of Bart Ehrman’s new book, we published some of the author’s own words from Did Jesus Exist? This new book is a great discussion-starter in congregations. Yes, once again, Bart shares his own provocative understanding of Jesus’ historical role as a Jewish teacher, a viewpoint that may not be welcome in some traditional congregations. However, the main focus of this new book is providing a detailed proof of Jesus’s reality as a person living 2,000 years ago. That’s a historical case that most Christians couldn’t make without some help—such as the help you’ll find in these pages.

Today, we welcome Bart Ehrman back to our pages for a new interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm …


DAVID: You’ve written a lot of books. As a journalist, I’ve been interviewing you for years. So, how many books have you published, now?

BART: This book is number 25. The books are all biblical studies and are almost entirely focused on New Testament and early Christianity.

DAVID: In Part 1 of our coverage, we will share with readers your own words about why this book may surprise people. But, the truth is: You don’t see this as a change of direction.

BART: That’s right. Most of the views I have of the New Testament have been standard scholarly views for a long time and this is another example of that. Scholars agree that Jesus lived. What I’m doing is making that scholarly consensus public. I don’t see myself as a debunker of traditional views of the Bible. I see myself as a historian writing about what really happened in history. That means I sometimes write about the contradictions and conflicts that are present in the New Testament. But I’m a historian, not someone setting out to debunk someone’s tradition.

DAVID: There’s such a huge body of literature bout the historical Jesus now. You reach back in your new book, for example, to Albert Schweitzer. When I was a boy growing up as a pastor’s kid, I remember we had a big coffee-table book about Shweitzer’s life in our living room. He’s all but forgotten today, so I’m glad you include him in your book. But this leads to the question: Why did you write this book, going over this particular subject, right now? This is long-settled territory.

BART: To my surprise, I couldn’t find anyone else who has done a book like this—just providing the proof that Jesus lived for general readers. I don’t think anyone thought there needed to be such a proof laid out, before now. This kind of book was necessary to counter the rise of these people I call mythicists—writers who want to argue that Jesus was a myth and never existed as a real person.


CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.DAVID: I’m a big fan of Bill Bryson’s books and I particularly enjoyed his book on Shakespeare that, among other things, railed against the people who want to claim that Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays.

BART: My wife, Sarah Beckwith, is a Shakespeare scholar and she wrote a rather scathing analysis of the movie Anonymous for furthering this old idea that someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

DAVID: We’ll provide a link to Sarah’s article about the movie Anonymous, because it sounds like husband and wife scholars are battling similar questions in their respective fields of study. Here’s a line from her commentary on Anonymous: “But when something is shouted loudly enough and often enough and to enough people, with no checks on the accuracy of what’s being shouted, an ignorant, downright silly claim can come to sound like a long-suppressed truth.” I’m quoting that from Sarah because it sounds like it could be a passage from your own new book about Jesus!

BART: My brother is a classical scholar and, in classics, they have these debates about the Iliad and the Odyssey. Some people don’t think that Homer actually lived. My brother’s line is: “Oh, yeah, he didn’t write them. Some other guy named Homer did.” Yes, I think all of these debates are comparable. We’ve got limited evidence about the people who created these amazing bodies of material—and someone always is ready to debate the case that they actually existed and were responsible for the body of work.


DAVID: Let’s clarify a key point for readers of this interview. A lot of people are going to expect your book to take on Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and the rest of the so-called new atheists. In fact, you’re not writing about them, at all. You’re actually countering a range of writers who have drawn a following, but who are not household names. You’re actually more famous, Bart, than the folks you’re attacking here.

BART: No, I’m not writing about Harris or Dawkins or Hitchens. And the mythicists I am addressing are not household names, but they do have a large following. When you read my book, if you look around the Internet for the people I mention, you’ll find that they’re all over the place. A number of them have written books arguing that Jesus didn’t exist and they also have Internet sites arguing that Jesus didn’t exist. You have to remember that, in some parts of the world, this has been a dominant view for many years. In the former Soviet Union, it was the dominant view because Lenin was convinced of this in the early 20th Century. Today, it’s also apparently a dominant view in parts of Scandinavia.

DAVID: What are their motive in making this claim that Jesus was pure fiction? Give us a sense of what you’ve concluded.

BART: They have a basic message that organized religion is a dangerous thing and has done a lot of harm. The form of organized religion that these writers are most familiar with is Christianity, so they set out to debunk Christianity. They see themselves as debunking a dangerous force in the world.

DAVID: So, there is some convergence here with books by Harris, Hitchens and the others in that atheist movement. They do see organized religion as dangerous. But, in my reading of their work, they don’t seem to debate that Jesus actually walked the earth, right?

BART: No, it’s not a point they try to make. They probably would be open to the idea that Jesus didn’t exist, but it doesn’t seem to be a point they’ve looked into much. I do have a lot of readers who like their books, who are humanist or skeptical or atheist.

DAVID: You give a good example of this in your book.

BART: Yes, I was given an award last year by a humanist association. It’s a group I actually hadn’t heard of before, but they did honor me and I went to meet with them. I was surprised at how many of the people there were in fact mythicists, as I describe that term in my book. People with that point of view, it turned out, were surprised to discover that I didn’t share it.


DAVID: This is a good point in the interview to ask you to describe your religious affiliation. I know that I’ve asked you this question over a number of years and your answer—as you’ve explained in other books—has changed over the years. Famously, you’ve gone from an almost fundamentalist background to great skepticism about faith today. How do you describe your own religious life now?

BART: I’m a happy agnostic. (laughs) Two words: happy agnostic. The reason I say it that way is: I used to tell people I once was an evangelical Christian and now I’m an agnostic. They would say: “Oh, how sad.” But I don’t think that’s sad at all. No, I don’t believe in the Christian God. I don’t believe there is a greater power in the universe that is actively involved in our world. Then, people would ask me, “Isn’t there any greater force behind the universe?” And my reply would be, “How would I know?”

I am an agnostic and I say, now, that I’m a happy agnostic to make that point clear. I’m not a sad person! But people sometimes want to go on to say: “Then, are you telling people to forget about Jesus as a real person?”

To that I say: Jesus is without question the most important figure in Western civilization. There’s nobody who even comes close to Jesus. As a historian I naturally find that is important. I think it’s important for us to find out how Jesus was firmly rooted in his own historical context. The problem with the mythicists is that they shoot themselves in the foot by taking a position that no other reasonable and informed person in the world takes.

The real problem in understanding Jesus isn’t that he wasn’t historical at all—but that he is too historical. He was rooted in a 1st Century world.

DAVID: You write a lot about that in your book. The Christian church, you argue, later enlarged upon Jesus’s life and teaching to give the world a religious figure far larger than his actual ministry intended.

BART: I do think that it’s possible to re-describe Jesus’s vision for life in this world in a way that makes a lot of sense to us today, 2,000 years later. For example, Jesus taught that we should fight against the forces of evil and I agree that we should fight against the forces of evil. I think we should love our neighbors as ourselves, as he taught.


DAVID: Reading this particular portion in your book, I began to wish that we all could hear a dialogue sometime between you and N.T. Wright. We just featured an interview with Tom Wright about his new book, “How God Became King.” You pretty much say in this new book that you plan to address a similar theme in your next book. Obviously, there’s a long list of points on which you and Tom Wright disagree, but I’m intrigued by this focus both of you make on Jesus’s urgency with confronting the evil powers and principalities in the world.

BART: I think there is a consensus to some extent. I agree with Tom that, for my money, this is what really matters in Jesus’s message. Everything in his adult life is oriented toward this message. Where Tom and I disagree is that I think, when Jesus made an apocalyptic proclamation about what was going to happen very soon, he actually meant it. I think Jesus really thought that the Son of Man was going to come on the clouds of heaven and set up a kingdom on earth. I think Jesus thought it was going to happen in his own generation. Tom, of course, reads that differently. And, if I were a Christian, I would take a line of argument similar to Tom’s viewpoint. I would say: This might sound like a 1st Century idea, but it’s not. I would argue that this teaching has resonance throughout history and we are still confronted with the powers of evil, today.


DAVID: OK, I think we’ve given readers a tantalizing overview of your new book’s major points. Before we wrap up, though, let’s turn to a few examples of myths that you do debunk in your work as a scholar. One of them actually is a plank in your case that Jesus really lived. I think even practicing Christians will find this fascinating. A good place to look is page 165 in your new book, where you argue that it is evidence of the truth of Jesus’ story that he suffered and died. No one expected a suffering messiah. So, because Jesus suffers and dies in the Gospels, you argue, that’s good evidence of his existence. No one would have made up such a story, right?

BART: Yes, that’s an important point and, of course, it’s difficult for most Christians to believe today because they’ve been told that’s what a messiah is supposed to do. But, in fact, this was not a view in Judaism at the time. We don’t have any Jews prior to Christianity describing the messiah in that way. So, if someone wanted to invent a messiah called Jesus, this wasn’t the way that a made-up story would go.

DAVID: You directly address the passage from Isaiah that Christians usually quote, at this point.

BART: Any reader who wants to quote Isaiah 53 should simply go back and read it again. You won’t find the word messiah there. It’s not talking about the messiah. People will say: Well, the word messiah may not be there, but that’s what it’s talking about. And my reply is: No Jews in the 1st Century would have interpreted the passage in this way. The Christians were the first who said this was referring to the messiah.

If someone set out to make up Jesus as a messiah in the 1st Century, they would have made up the story in light of what most people expected. You wouldn’t make up a story about a messiah who didn’t wind up conquering the enemy. You wouldn’t have created a story about a suffering messiah. The suffering messiah idea actually is evidence that Jesus was a real person.

DAVID: So, let’s debunk another myth—and I should warn readers that it’s not really a major point in this particular book. But this myth keeps cropping up in the work of famous writers like Deepak Chopra. You say that the real-life Jesus could never have taken a side trip over to India as Chopra and others suggest.

BART: That’s not plausible. There’s actually a history to his legend about Jesus going to India—and it’s a legend created in the modern era. You’re right, I don’t talk about that in this particular book, but I do touch on it in my earlier work.

DAVID: Anything new that readers may want to check out in coming months?

BART: I am starting a blog that’s not completely set up, just yet, but will be going live this spring. It’s

DAVID: It’s an intriguing concept for a blog. You’re charging a small fee for membership; I’m sure that’s to discourage the drive-by critics and to encourage people with serious interest. You’re giving the money to charity. We’ll provide a link for readers who want to find out more about the blog. Plus, we’ll also provide that video clip you’ve produced for Did Jesus Exist?

Jump back to read Part 1 of our coverage of Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist?


Click on the video screen below to watch a short clip of Bart describing key points in his new book. (If you don’t see a video screen, below, try reloading this story in your browser.)


GET THE BOOK: Bart Ehrman’s new Did Jesus Exist? is available from Amazon.

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

Bart Ehrman’s provocative question: Did Jesus Exist?

Click the cover to see the book’s Amazon page.This may shock some readers—as Ehrman himself acknowledges in his new book: This spring, the famously skeptical Bible scholar has gone from charging that much of the New Testament is “Forged,” last year, to defending the truth of Jesus’ life against skeptics in Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth.

Is this really a role reversal?
Short answer: No. But this move certainly is shaking up some of the skeptics who assumed that Ehrman questions Jesus’s very existence as a real person 2,000 years ago. Ehrman says as much in his new book.

Today, we will let Bart Ehrman explain this move in his own words.
Later this week, we welcome Bart Ehrman for our author interview.
Want to catch up on Ehrman’s background? Read our 2011 interview with Bart on Forged.


From the opening section of Erhman’s new book …

Every week I receive two or three emails asking me whether Jesus existed as a human being. When I started getting these emails, some years ago now, I thought the question was rather peculiar and I did not take it seriously. Of course Jesus existed. Everyone knows he existed. Don’t they?

But the questions kept coming, and soon I began to wonder: Why are so many people asking? My wonder only increased when I learned that I myself was being quoted in some circles—misquoted rather—as saying that Jesus never existed. I decided to look into the matter. I discovered, to my surprise, an entire body of literature devoted to the question of whether or not there ever was a real man, Jesus.

I was surprised because I am trained as a scholar of New Testament and early Christianity, and for thirty years I have written extensively on the historical Jesus, the Gospels, the early Christian movement, and the history of the church’s first three hundred years. Like all New Testament scholars, I have read thousands of books and articles in English and other European languages on Jesus, the New Testament, and early  Christianity. But I was almost completely unaware—as are most of my colleagues in the field—of this body of skeptical literature.

I should say at the outset that none of this literature is written by scholars trained in New Testament or early Christian studies teaching at the major, or even the minor, accredited theological seminaries, divinity schools, universities or colleges of North America or Europe, or anywhere else in the world. Of the thousands of scholars of early Christianity who do teach at such schools, none of them, to my knowledge, has any doubts that Jesus existed. But a whole body of literature out there, some of it highly intelligent and well informed, makes this case.

The sundry books and articles, not to mention websites, are of varying quality. Some of them rival The Da Vinci Code in their passion for conspiracy and the shallowness of their historical knowledge, not just of the New Testament and early Christianity, but of ancient religions generally and, even more broadly, the ancient world. But a couple of bona fide scholars—not professors teaching religious studies in universities but scholars nonetheless, and at least one of them with a Ph.D. in the field of New Testament—have taken this position and written about it. Their books may not be known to the general public interested in questions related to Jesus, the Gospels, or the early Christian church, but they do occupy a noteworthy niche as a very small but often loud minority voice. Once you tune in to this voice, you quickly learn just how persistent and vociferous it can be. …

Those who do not think Jesus existed are frequently militant in their views and remarkably adept at countering evidence that to the rest of the civilized world seems compelling and even unanswerable. But these writers have answers, and the smart ones among them need to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than to show why they cannot be right about their major contention. The reality is that whatever else you may think about Jesus, he certainly did exist. That is what this book will set out to demonstrate. …

What I do hope is to convince genuine seekers who really want to know how we know that Jesus did exist, as virtually every scholar of antiquity, of biblical studies, of classics, and of Christian origins in this country and, in fact, in the Western world agrees. Many of these scholars have no vested interest in the matter. As it turns out, I myself do not either. I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda. I am an agnostic with atheist leanings, and my life and views of the world would be approximately the same whether or not Jesus existed. My beliefs would vary little. The answer to the question of Jesus’s historical evidence will not make me more or less happy, content, hopeful, likable, rich, famous or immortal.

But as a historian I think evidence matters. And the past matters. And for anyone to whom both evidence and the past matters, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch , or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things with relative certainty about him.

In any event, I need to admit that I write this book with some fear and trepidation. I know that some readers who support agnostic, atheist, or humanist causes and who appreciate my other writings will be vocal and vociferous in rejecting my historical claims. At the same time certain readers who have found some of my other writings dangerous or threatening will be surprised, possibly even pleased, to see that here I make common cause with them.

Come back later this week for our interview with Bart Ehrman about his new book.

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

Interview: Bishop John Shelby Spong on the Bible

In Part 1 of our coverage of Bishop John Shelby Spong this week, we introduce his new book Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World. ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm also provides a mini-profile of Spong and his work.
Now, here’s Part 2, where you will meet Jack Spong (as he prefers to be called by colleagues) in …

Highlights of Interview
with Retired Bishop
John Shelby ‘Jack’ Spong

DAVID: I don’t have any polling results, but you’ve probably got as many foes as fans out there. The usual knock against you from critics is that you want to tear down Christianity and the Bible. This book proves, I think, that you care passionately about the Bible, right?

JACK: I love the Bible. I just refuse to let it be corrupted and twisted around by people for their own personal or political agendas.

DAVID: Wikipedia says you’re “a liberal Christian theologian,” among other things. Agree?

JACK: Yes, I like to own the word “liberal.” It’s become a bad word in American politics probably from the era of Mr. Reagan onward—so, now, even liberals don’t like to own the title. But, I think it’s a good word.

I think the real issue in theology is whether you’re competent or incompetent and whether you’re open or closed. What happens in the biblical and theological world is this: There is really no such thing as liberal or conservative biblical or theological scholarship. There’s competent and incompetent scholarship. For example, Jerry Falwell was a Fundamentalist preacher—he wasn’t a Bible scholar. He was popular with his supporters, but he just hadn’t learned much about the history of the Bible. We’ve had biblical scholarship available for at least 200 years and it just hasn’t caught up yet with Fundamentalists like Jerry. They’ve closed their minds.


DAVID: We just featured interviews with two of the world’s top scholars on one of the central issues you raise in your book—the long and tragic history of people misunderstanding the Bible’s encouragement of violence. We talked with Philip Jenkins about the Bible’s very troubling passages of violence. And we talked with James H. Cone about the American tradition of lynchings in the South, often promoted by church members in that era.

JACK: What I’m providing for readers in this new book is a whole different way of looking at the Bible, based on the actual scholarship on the Bible and its history. This isn’t just a matter for preachers to debate. There are serious issues here we need to address. The Bible calls for the execution of children who talk back to their parents and it calls for the execution of people who worship a false god. There are some very troubling passages in the Bible that demand things that people simply shouldn’t stand for today. I think it’s terribly important to understand this often-confusing book by using the best knowledge available.

These issues matter in people’s lives. Just the other night I was watching a TV news report on some foster parents who were arrested on charges of abusing children. It turns out they were following some right-wing religious person’s advice to them that the Bible says: spare the rod and spoil the child. They were terribly cruel to the children in their care because, they claimed, they were instructed to do this in scripture.

I grew up in the South where people were taught that the Bible supported segregation and the oppression of women. These ways of using the Bible are profoundly ignorant. That’s the kind of use of the Bible that we must counter.

CLICK THE COVER to jump to Amazon and order a copy.DAVID: Here’s a question on behalf of your longtime fans. If we already own your earlier books, what’s different here?

JACK: It’s fair to say that every author reworks material through various books. But hopefully each new book I’ve written is different and offers a more advanced look at some aspect of my work than previous books. This book started as a series of lectures I gave on the Bible. People turned out in great numbers and with great enthusiasm to hear these talks. In the audience were lots of successful people, educated people—but in their lives they hadn’t taken time to really study the Bible. Their knowledge was pretty much Sunday School knowledge that stopped somewhere around the fourth grade. These people showed that they were eager to hear something based on the latest scholarship about the Bible. So, seeing their very strong interest, I decided to go through the entire Bible and literally take readers on a Bible 101 course from Genesis to Revelation.

DAVID: Americans love their Bibles. Many studies over the years have shown that the Bible is, by far, the most-owned book in the U.S. And pollsters routinely turn up huge numbers of Americans saying they regularly read it. So, there’s something of a puzzle here, right? How can we love it so much, yet be so ignorant of it?


JACK: All their lives, people have heard and read certain passages from the Bible, but that doesn’t mean they’ve studied the entire Bible or understood the Bible properly. Here’s an example: Lots of books and movies use biblical quotations in their titles, but most Americans, when asked, don’t recognize and can’t identify those phrases.

DAVID: You’re right. Another example: Polls show that a majority of Americans can’t name the four Gospels. What’s fascinating in your current work, I think, is that you level the same charge of biblical ignorance against the so-called new atheists. I’ve read most of their major books and I do have to agree with your argument in this sense: Overall, they take a literal reading of the Bible and argue that’s what people of faith must believe. When we publish Part 1 of our coverage of your new book, we will quote a little section of your book on this point.

JACK: I’ve met Richard Dawkins, enjoyed being with him at a dinner at Oxford. I’ve read him and I really like him. He’s warm and personable and articulate. I think he’s truly questioning and searching. The problem I have with his writing is that he’s rejecting the same kind of god that so many theologians also reject, but he doesn’t seem to be aware that many of us reject these same propositions that he’s rejecting. He doesn’t acknowledge that there are other possibilities for people to approach the Bible than through this one reading that he rejects. I encourage people to listen to and to read people like Dawkins and the others. We should engage in this dialogue. What I’m trying to accomplish in this book is to provide people with the biblical scholarship they need to engage in an intelligent dialogue. One thing the atheist writers understand is that people are leaving the Christian church with great rapidity because the god they meet in their churches is simply not big enough for the life they experience all around them.


DAVID: In your book, you challenge Bible publishers to quit making Bibles look like encyclopedias or dictionaries with that traditional two-column format and all sorts of other notations that make it look more like a reference book than a narrative of faith.

JACK: Pick up a lot of Bibles, flip the pages and they look a lot more like telephone directories than a book you’d ever want to read. With these formats, we encourage people to look for a single answer listed in a column. People love to proof text from the Bible and Bibles published like that encourage this approach. When people fall into that practice, they tend to retreat into their own Fundamentalist ghetto and close their minds to the modern world. They may come out to shout at other people, but they simply aren’t honestly engaging the world around us. I just can’t bear to see that happen, anymore, and a lot of people who’ve had that same reaction wind up in the other major religious movement today: the church alumni movement, people who are simply giving up and moving away from it all.

I don’t want to join that movement, either.  I want us to help people wrestle with these questions. There’s a great difference between Christian education and Christian propaganda. Propaganda assumes that you’re pushing information to people and you’re assuming that they will adopt your answers. You’re imposing Christianity on an audience. True Christian education means that the questions are open and you invite people to move with you in an exploration that moves us toward truth. That’s what I’m trying to do.

Want more from ‘Bishop’ Spong? You may also want to read our 2009 interview with Jack Spong about his earlier book, Eternal Life: A New Vision.

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

Bishop Spong is ‘Reclaiming the Bible’ for today’s world

“Bishop Spong”—as he’s known around the world—actually retired from Episcopal office 11 years ago, but he’s more important than ever in mainline congregations nationwide. Of course, he’s also infamous for “controversy.” As a religion writer for American newspapers since the 1980s, I’ve interviewed Jack Spong many times both in the U.S. and in other parts of the world—and the news stories we published always seemed to include either that c-word or words like “provocative,” “dissent” and “debate.” In most cases, those terms were dead-on accurate.

Jack Spong—as he prefers to be known to friends and colleagues today—is a bold pioneer or, in religious terms, he’s a fearless prophet. Unlike millions of religious leaders who are timid about expressing their own doubts and questions, fearing that they might unsettle their congregations, Jack Spong always speaks his mind. Sometimes he speaks his mind so strongly that he flat-out offends people.

In recent years, however, his popularity is soaring. I’ve seen that myself in traveling around the United States and talking with men and women in congregations large and small. Some years ago, even a mention of his name was an occasion to brace oneself as a journalist—because reactions to him could be so emotionally charged. Now, some people who know his name still disagree strongly—but, more than likely, I’ve found that mainline Protestant and Catholic congregations include key lay people who have read his books and find his transparent, common-sense approach makes a lot of sense.

Perhaps even more important at this moment in America’s religious life, there’s hardly another Christian scholar more perfectly poised to stand in the center of the debate between defenders of religion—and the new atheists who are bent on taking an axe to what they perceive as a worm-eaten old tree. Spong defends neither side—calling for an honest middle path for faith that leaves behind out-dated claims and yet also intelligently defends the enduring values of our religious tradition.

Come back later this week for ReadTheSpirit David Crumm’s interview with Jack Spong.
Today, enjoy this brief excerpt of Spong’s book that may show you why you’ll want your own copy of Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World


From the book’s opening chapter …


We have in our world today the reality that many people are still clinging quite frantically to the biblical formulations of their past. Some spend enormous energy fighting Darwin, attacking secular humanism as it arises in the society and liberalism, all of which are s symptoms of the lack of scholarship available in many churches. That is why in the United States we continue to take seriously the religious vote, the television evangelists and even a pope who visited Africa with its civil strife, its rampant spread of AIDS and its poverty, and conveyed as his only message a condemnation of the use of condoms! Religious leaders seem to believe that if they allow one crack in their carefully constructed religious or biblical defense system, then the whole thing will collapse in ruins. That is the stance of hysteria, not the stance of either faith or hope, though it masquerades as both.


The primary response to this mentality, and it is a response that is growing rapidly, is to abandon all religion and to take up citizenship in the “secular city.” Proponents of this stance no longer see any relevance in religion or the Bible for their lives today. They are not interested in twisting their minds into first-century pretzels, in order to read the Bible or into fourth-century pretzels, in order to say the creeds, or into thirteenth-century pretzels in order to engage in contemporary forms of worship. They find it impossible in their modern frame of reference to conceive of a theistically understood deity, living somewhere external to this world, endowed with supernatural power and ready to invade history to come to our aid, to answer our prayers. They find the concepts of miracle and magic to be outside their worldview. They dismiss readily ideas like that of a “fall” from perfection into “original sin,” which is supposed to account for evil and which requires an external rescuer to save us from our sins. These ideas are completely foreign to what they now know about the origins of life and its evolution. They see no alternative to dismissing all religion in general and Christianity in particular, regarding it as something left over from the childhood of our humanity, and they want little to do with it. For such questioners either biblical literalism or the rejection of all religion seems to be their only choices.


One factor that both of these responses have in common is that they share a similar profound ignorance about the Bible. The fundamentalists who quote the Bible as their final authority clearly know little about how the Bible came into being and, thus, why that approach is so totally incompetent. Those who do not find any value in the biblical tradition wind up rejecting the very things that biblical scholars themselves almost totally reject, but these secularists know so little about the Bible that they are not aware of this fact. When I read books written by the new breed of militant atheist writers, who have become both best-selling authors and household names, I have no desire to attack them or to rise to God’s defense. The religion, the Christianity and Bible that they reject are the same religion, Christianity and Bible that I reject. My problem with such writers is not located there. It is rather in the apparent fact that they do not seem to know that there is another way. Why should they, since the church has worked so hard not to allow other possibilities to become visible?


My desire is to work in that very arena and to close the gap in knowledge at least in regard to the Bible. I am not the enemy of the Bible. I am the enemy of the way the Bible has been understood and the way the Bible has been used. … I want to take my readers into this Bible in a new way. I want to plumb its depths, scale its heights and free its insights from the debilitating power of literalism. I want to make some of its characters come alive—those who probably have vestiges of history attached to them, like Moses, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. … I have wrestled with the Bible for more than 60 years. I have broken open my own fundamentalism, walked through valleys of meaninglessness in which I was certain that God had died and then found my way back, not to the security of yesterday’s religious certainty, but to an understanding that does not hesitate to go through the Bible in order to transcend it, and thus that provides no security. I want to help people to develop a faith that goes so deeply into the essence of Christianity that they can walk beyond Christianity into that toward which Christianity can only point. I seek to enter and to introduce others to what Paul has called “the glorious liberty of the children of God.”

READ PART 2: ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm’s interview with Jack Spong.
Remember: You can order a copy of John Shelby “Jack” Spong’s new Re-Claiming the Bible for a Non-Religious World from Amazon now.

Want more from ‘Bishop’ Spong? You may also want to read our 2009 interview with Jack Spong about his earlier book, Eternal Life: A New Vision.

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, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

702 Science Vs. Religion Interview, Part 2

we’re devoting stories in both ReadTheSpirit and this week to some of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s most important findings. You’ll find links to our entire series at the end of today’s Part 2 of our interview …

Highlights of ReadTheSpirit Interview
with Elaine Howard Ecklund, Part 2

DAVID: You’ve really opened a big doorway for future studies. I want to ask you about more of these new categories you raise in the book. One of those categories is “Boundary Pioneers.” The main example you name is Dr. Francis Collins, who scientists across the country point to in a positive way for his work in building bridges with religious people.

ELAINE: That’s right, scientists in my study mentioned Francis Collins most frequently. He was talked about—by both religious and nonreligious scientists—in the most positive light as encouraging dialogue. Richard Dawkins was mentioned by the scientists—again, both religious and nonreligious—as a negative force, cutting down on dialogue.

Holmes Rolston IIIDAVID: We’ve recommended books by a number of these Boundary Pioneers: E.O. Wilson, James Gustave Speth and we’ve had a lot of readers respond to an interview we published with Holmes Rolston III. Are these the kinds of people you’re describing as Boundary Pioneers?

ELAINE: Yes, this is the kind of person. A Boundary Pioneer has to be someone who is highly respected in the scientific community already for the excellence and importance of their own scientific work. These folks, like Francis Collins, are senior people. It’s much less likely that you’d find a true Boundary Pioneer doing work in a junior position somewhere. They wouldn’t be able to foster real dialogue in the academy and their work in this area might have consequences for their future work in science.

Who Are The “Spiritual Entrepreneurs”?

DAVID: Here’s another category you’re proposing: Spiritual Entrepreneurs. You write that these are “scientists looking for new ways to hold science and faith together yet still free of the constraints of traditional religion. These entrepreneurs have a spiritual impulse that is ‘thicker’ or more substantial, marked by a search for truth compatible with the scientific method, belief in a meaning that is greater than the individual, a coherence that unifies the various spheres of life, and, for some, engagement with the ethical dimensions of community living.” These men and women sound sort of like Thomas Edisons tinkering with the whole idea of spirituality, trying to invent new approaches to understanding the meaning of life.

ELAINE: About 65 percent of the respondents see themselves as spiritual to some extent and, out of those, a portion between 25 and 35 percent are what I would call Spiritual Entrepreneurs. These people are very disconnected from traditional religion but they want some spirituality that flows from their work as scientists that will give them a larger sense of meaning outside of themselves. They want a moral compass.

DAVID: You say that they’re different from people in the general public who say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” How are these scientists different?

ELAINE: They resist using religious terminology and don’t want to be connected to traditional religion. In the general public, people who say they’re spiritual actually tend to pick and choose from various existing religious traditions. They put together their spiritual lives from traditional religion. But these scientists are doing something different. I would say that they are drawing some of their ideas from the Transcendentalists like Emerson, but they’re not consciously talking about it in those terms. A few of them mentioned the Transcendentalists, but we need more research to see what’s happening with this group. I agree that it’s a very interesting group.

Father Thomas KeatingDAVID:  Well, I certainly jotted lots of notes in the margins in that section of your book. You point out, for example, that the Dalai Lama has lectured widely on “embracing meditation within science.” Here at ReadTheSpirit, we published a major interview with Father Thomas Keating, the co-founder of the contemporary Centering Prayer movement. Keating’s lectures regularly draw on physics and astronomy and medical research. I would say that Keating is a Spiritual Entrepreneur coming from the direction of traditional religion. I think this is one of the most exciting areas you’ve identified.

Where will you go from here?

Where Research May Take Us in Science Vs. Religion

ELAINE: There are many issues raised in this study that call for more research. One thing we question in this study, for example, is the common belief that a person goes to a university, studies science and that experience makes them lose their religion. That commonly repeated narrative is not borne out in this new data.

I’d like to know more about the lives of scientists. We do have indications that one’s background in life is very important. We didn’t study the lives of scientists over time, but I think there is a lot to study there. It might be that a certain kind of person with a certain kind of background will gravitate toward science.

I’ve already started working on a study funded by the National Science Foundation where I’m looking at highly successful scientists who are both men and women—trying to find out what actually made them go into science. For minority groups and women there are particular kinds of challenges. This kind of study may actually change the way we look at science and who studies science.

DAVID: Well, keep in touch with us as your work continues. I’m sure readers will be eager to hear what you’re finding in future research. Are you working on anything else?

ELAINE: Another project I would like to pursue is looking at different religious traditions themselves, trying to understand how they teach children and youth in particular about matters of science. Right now, most of our public conversations about religion and science are focused almost exclusively on conservative forms of religion. I think there’s a much larger range of ways that science is included in religion and religious teachings.

I’m also interested in cross-cultural understandings about religion and science and ethics. This study I’ve just published shows us that many of our common assumptions are wrong. Now, it’s clear: There’s so much more we need to know.

Read all the parts of our “Science Vs. Religion” Series:

We welcome your Emails! Email [email protected]. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Huffington Post, YouTube 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

701 Science Vs. Religion Interview: Elaine Howard Ecklund

The Washington Post’s coverage of Elaine Howard Ecklund’s landmark book, “Science Vs. Religion,” summed up the importance of her research this way: “Though ‘Science vs. Religion’ is aimed at scientists, her myth-busting and her thoughtful advice can also benefit nonscientists. For Ecklund, the bottom line is recognizing and tolerating religious diversity, honestly discussing science’s scope and limits, and openly exploring the disputed borders between scientific skepticism and religious faith.”

We agree with the Post, which is why we’re devoting stories in both ReadTheSpirit and this week to some of Elaine’s most important findings. You’ll find links to our entire series at the end of today’s Part 1 of our interview …

Highlights of Interview With Elaine Howard Ecklund on
“Science Vs. Religion,” Pt 1

DAVID: Let’s start with the big news in your book that’s attracting attention nationwide: You found that—rather than 1-in-10 scientists believing in God—more than a third believe in God and fully half of them are religious. That’s startling. Were you surprised yourself?

ELAINE: Yes, I was very surprised. As I began this research five years ago, I bought into the conventional idea that, when people learn more about science, they throw off the shackles of religion. I also bought into the conventional idea that there is conflict between religion and science. So, yes, I was personally quite surprised by what I found.

Scientists are more religious than I thought they would be, but in different ways than I anticipated. I was surprised, for example, to find so many scientists interested in spiritual matters, but not associated with religious organizations.

DAVID: You began by conducting a large survey. Then, the initial data raised these surprising insights. That led to the hundreds of personal interviews that allowed you to dig deeper into the lives of scientists. Is that a fair summary?

ELAINE: Yes. When I started the survey in 2005, I grouped the questions in the same way we group them in studies of the general population. But, I did make one change: I didn’t include the skip patterns we usually use in surveys. Normally, if a survey participant says that they do not believe in God, for example, then we skip the question about whether you attend church. We assume that, if you don’t believe in God, then you’re not part of a congregation. But I didn’t use those skip patterns in this study.  That led to my discovering, for example, that there are atheists and agnostics among scientists who also are quite involved in religious organizations. And, I found that there are atheist scientists who also consider themselves spiritual. I didn’t expect that at all.

Because the survey findings were emerging in such unusual ways compared with the general public, I decided that I should go out and interview people face to face. So, I took another scientific sample of 275 scientists and I interviewed them in person. That whole process took over two years. This was a big collection of data. In the end, I had more than 5,000 pages of transcribed materials to examine. I did most of this work as a post-doctoral fellow at Rice between 2004 and 2006 and we actually had a team of about 12 undergraduate students and some graduate students as well who helped me analyze all this data.

DAVID: Here’s one of the biggest questions that I kept asking myself as I read your book: Why is this surprising? There must be some major disconnect here. Why are our assumptions about scientists’ religious lives so far off the mark?

ELAINE: A big reason is that scientists generally don’t talk about religion. You need to remember, too, that I did the initial work in 2005 and this is when there were a lot of public debates in the news about whether evolution should be taught in public schools. So, in general, scientists are unlikely to talk publicly about religion and, on top of that, some of those news stories scared them. Most scientists are worried about being perceived as anti-religious.

DAVID: Why worry? There are big names like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and others writing best sellers attacking religion.

ELAINE: Many scientists don’t want to be perceived as having any connection with the new atheists. Many regard Dawkins, Harris and the others as having a negative reputation with much of the public, so even atheist scientists aren’t eager to be associated with them. The situation backfires, because the loudest voices then tend to be the most negative and the general public assumes those are representative of all scientists. That cuts down on the dialogue even more.

Who Are The “Spiritual Atheists”?

DAVID: Let’s talk about some of the really fascinating religious groups you discovered among scientists. Let’s start with “Spiritual Atheists.” In your book, you point out “in the general population, spirituality is almost inherently linked with some conception of God.” But a significant minority of scientists consider themselves both atheist and spiritual. You found that these men and women have many different explanations for this, but there are at least two groups among them. One group finds spiritual value in nature and in the awe-inspiring discoveries of science. Another group draws heavily from Eastern religions like Buddhism and, of course, Buddhism doesn’t require a belief in God.

ELAINE: Yes, this is one of the most interesting parts of the study. It could be that there are more people in the general population who are part of this group, but we just haven’t been asking the right questions to find them. Or, people haven’t been talking about this in public.

DAVID: Yes, you could be picking up religious movements like Buddhism, which is relative small in the U.S. And, it’s not just Buddhists who don’t see God as an essential belief. There’s a movement within Judaism also that doesn’t believe in God, called Humanistic Judaism. That’s a small but important movement that holds Judaism is a spiritual and moral tradition that should be preserved, but a belief in God isn’t essential.

ELAINE: Yes, a few people in our study did identify with a Jewish identity but not a belief in God. So, there are existing groups in the world that might hold these two positions.

DAVID: As a group, these scientists really are—well, you use the term “pioneers.” Although they’re hesitant to talk in public about religion, they’ve got some very interesting viewpoints.

ELAINE: These scientists are particularly interesting, I think, because of the nature and status of elite scientists. Top scientists at leading institutions feel they have a special kind of authority. They feel they have a kind of liberty to define things in new ways.

DAVID: You’ve opened a big doorway for future studies. I want to ask you about more of these new categories you raise in the book. (CONTINUED IN PART 2.)

Read all the parts of our “Science Vs. Religion” Series:

We welcome your Emails! Email [email protected]. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, Huffington Post, YouTube 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