The Matthew Fox interview on Meister Eckhart and connecting peacemakers

Wake up your spiritual life with best-selling author, theologian and educator Matthew Fox. In his newest book, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Fox inspires us by connecting dots between the medieval German mystic Meister Eckhart—and the lives of visionary men and women in our times who we, at ReadTheSpirit, would call Interfaith Peacemakers.

For our readers who already love inspirational reading, “Matt” Fox is well known as a global leader in opening up almost-forgotten Christian treasures to help heal today’s fractured world.

Matt has had a long, hard journey to this current popularity. In the 1980s and 1990s, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm was a religion writer for American newspapers and covered the Vatican’s investigation that eventually drove Fox out of the Catholic church. (He is now an Episcopal priest.) The man behind Matt’s inquisition later became Pope Benedict XVI. Then known as Cardinal Ratzinger, he claimed that Matt was dangerous to the Catholic church, because Matt kept insisting that God created the world in an “original blessing” rather than under the Vatican’s doctrine of “original sin.” In that era, Matt Fox headlines were about the international conflict over what became known as Matt’s teachings on “Creation Spirituality.”

FLASH FORWARD—Today, any reader of inspirational books is familiar with names such as Meister Eckhart and also Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century mystic. For example, brief writings from both of their collected works are sprinkled through the pages of Matt’s 365-day inspirational reader: Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations. (That’s a perfect gift, by the way, for friends who want to start a new year with a commitment to daily meditation.)

During their turbulent lives in the Middle Ages, both Eckhart and Hildegard faced critics. Eckhart actually was condemned by the church. However, in recent decades, the Vatican has warmed to both of them: Pope John Paul II publicly wrote about the importance of Eckhart’s writings; Pope Benedict XVI finally declared Hildegard a saint and, much more significantly, Benedict declared her one of the highly respected “Doctors of the Church.” With that official nod, Hildegard became one of only three women (along with St. Teresa of Avila and St. Therese of Liseux) to be so honored as a major, Vatican-endorsed, timeless theologian and teacher.

But, today, many readers have forgotten who began pitching for this fresh appreciation of their wisdom as mystics and teachers—way back in the 1980s. It was Matthew Fox, who produced contemporary English-language books on each of them: the 1983 book Meditations with Meister Eckhart and the 1987 book Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works: With Letters and Songs. These books represented a major scholarly effort and we can still highly recommend those two books to dig deeper into these mystics’ original writings.

NOW, as a new century is unfolding, Matt Fox headlines in the news media are about his work as a writer, educator and popular theologian working toward a more peaceful world. As he has traveled in recent years, he has heard from many of his readers that they want help in connecting spiritual dots in the works of Hildegard and Eckhart with other religious heroes who inspire us today. In his 2012 book, Hildegard of Bingen: A Saint for Our Times: Unleashing Her Power in the 21st Century, Matt has Hildegard “meet” and compare ideas with a wide range of modern heroes from the poet Mary Oliver and the Jungian psychoanalyst and poet Clarissa Pinkola Estés.

This summer, in his brand new Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, Foxx has Eckhart “meet” and compare spiritual notes with such heroes as Rabbi Heschel, Howard Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Marcus Borg and Oscar Romero. NOTE: We are devoting this week’s entire Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website to highlighting our own profiles of these heroes.

As he has many times over the past 30 years, David Crumm interviewed Matt Fox. Here are …


DAVID: I love your technique in these new books, especially this latest one on Meister Eckhart—having them “meet” contemporary men and women as you compare some of their major teachings and show the timeless importance of these ideas. Way back in the late 1970s, I interviewed TV talk-show host Steve Allen when he produced that marvelous series for PBS called Meeting of Minds. For each episode, Steve and his co-writers would have actors dress up as famous figures throughout world history and they would meet, in the TV studio, and talk. Fascinating!

MATT: I do remember watching that series and enjoying it very much.

DAVID: We’ve already dated ourselves, I guess, but let’s fix a dating problem in your Wikipedia entry, today, by establishing your birth date. Based on that Wiki entry, which has been missing your specific birth date, journalists never know your actual age.

MATT: Oh, my birthday is December 21, so I’m 73 right now. I’ll turn 74 in December.

HILDEGARD: ‘Creation formed in love’

DAVID: I’m 59 and I’m so glad we’ve both lived long enough to get past all the controversy over the Vatican’s inquisition in the ’80s and ’90s. Today, we can actually have some spiritual fun in connecting the dots between these medieval figures and people who many of our readers consider heroes. And let’s start, for just a moment, by looking back at the earlier book on Hildegard.

MATT: I wrote that book when I heard that the Vatican was going to canonize her. And I suspect Benedict did that because he’s German and she’s popular in Germany. But, in my book, I call her a “Trojan horse,” because I don’t think the Vatican is emphasizing her most important messages. When she was alive, she was a great proponent of the divine feminine and I didn’t trust the Vatican to emphasize that properly. Hildegard was very much a critic of the patriarchal church in the middle ages and I think that’s one reason she wasn’t canonized for eight centuries.

In fact, I open my new book on Hildegard with this passage: “I heard a voice speaking to me: ‘The young woman whom you see is Love. She has her tent in eternity … It was love which was the source of this creation in the beginning when God said: ‘Let it be!’ And it was. As though in the blinking of an eye, the whole creation was formed through love. The young woman is radiant in such a clear, lightning-like brilliance of countenance that you can’t fully look at her … She holds the sun and moon in her right hand and embraces them tenderly.”

To me that amazing passage from Hildegard’s visions is a tremendous teaching on what I call original blessing.

DAVID: And then, as the book opens up, you use this technique of having her “meet” various contemporary figures. I like Joan Chittister’s Foreword to that Hildegard book in which she writes: “Those who have lived well for their own time have lived well for all time.”

MATT: Yes, in that book, I put Hildegard in the room with Mary Oliver, Albert Einstein, Howard Thurman and others and then I used that methodology again in my new book with Eckhart.

DAVID: Just to clarify, let’s explain to readers of this interview that your books are not like Steve Allen screenplays. You don’t actually imagine a dialogue between these figures. So, let’s describe your technique this way: You choose central ideas shared by these pairings of people and, then, in each chapter they “meet” as you compare and contrast their teachings. It’s very creative stuff!

POPE FRANCIS: ‘Making up for some very lost ground’

DAVID: After your many decades of feuding with Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Ratzinger, who later became Pope Benedict, I know you’ve got higher hopes for what Pope Francis might be able to do. One of the heroes in your new Eckhart book is Oscar Romero. Were you surprised by Pope Francis’s decision to go 180 degrees on Romero—from banning him as a candidate for sainthood to putting him on a fast track?

MATT: Your readers will remember that Pope Francis is from Argentina and he’s quite aware of the many sacrifices and accomplishments made by the base-community movement and the liberation theology movement. Francis has made strong statements against what he calls “savage capitalism,” which is in line with what Oscar Romero fought for and died for. Francis sees these Latin American movements as very much in line with the spirit of Vatican II. Thanks to the previous two papacies the Catholic Church has been decimated in Latin America and millions have left the church to join new Pentecostal churches. This pope is trying to make up for some very lost ground.

RUMI: ‘One spark flew …’

DAVID: Let’s give readers some examples of famous figures, we call them Interfaith Peacemakers, who you introduce to Eckhart in this book. Let’s start with Rumi, the Sufi mystic who, to this day, is still a best-selling poet.

MATT: They were from about the same era, but they did not know each other. Eckhart was 13 when Rumi died. But there is this phrase that comes up often in Eckhart, “spark of the soul,” which is similar to passages in Rumi’s writings. There are lots of connections. I also point out in my book that Eckhart liked to refer to the Muslim philosopher Avicenna, who came before Rumi in the Islamic tradition.

DAVID: You mention the similar phrases.

MATT: One of Rumi’s famous lines is, “Ah, one spark flew and burned the house of my heart.” I compare that with Eckhart’s “In the spark of the soul there is hidden something like the original outbreak of all goodness, something like a brilliant light which incessantly gleams, and something like a burning fire which burns incessangly. This fire is nothing other than the Holy Spirit.” So, right there in the opening of that chapter you can see some of the connections.

Eckhart and Rumi were on the same path in many respects. I point out in that chapter that when I published my first big book on Eckhart in the 1980s, the very first response I got was not from a Christian but from a Sufi. I remember he sent me a 12-page article that analyzed passages from Eckhart and he was convinced that Eckhart really was a Sufi. I’ve been thinking about that connection for the last 30 years.


DAVID: So, Eckhart might be seen as thinking like a Sufi, but you point out in another chapter that he almost might be considered a Buddhist. You quote Thich Nhat Hanh saying, “If we bring into Christianity the insight of interbeing and of non-duality, we will radically transform the way people look at the Christian tradition, and the valuable jewels in the Christian tradition will be rediscovered.”

MATT: And I quote Eckhart writing, “Love God as God is—a not-God, a not-mind, not-person, not-image—even more, as he is a pure, clear One, separate from all twoness.”

DAVID: And you point out that the Catholic monk Thomas Merton similarly saw connections. Merton read Eckhart along with his readings in Zen and saw kindred spirits. In the latter years of his life, the Christian-Buddhist connection was a powerful pathway in Merton’s reflections and writings.

MATT: This is another example of Eckhart’s amazing insights as a mystic. As far as I can tell, Eckhart never met a Buddhist in his life and he didn’t study Buddhism. So, how did Eckhart make these connections? Well, the answer is that Eckhart discovered bigger truths by going deep into his soul as a Christian.

Let me read from a passage in that chapter where Eckhart writes about loving God in a way that seems close to Buddhist practice. He writes, “How should one love God? You should love God mindlessly, so that your soul is without mind and free from all mental activities, for as long as your soul is operating like a mind, so long does it have images and representations. But as long as it has images, it has intermediaries, and as long as it has intermediaries, it has neither oneness nor simplicity. And therefore your soul should be bare of all mind and should stay there without mind.”


DAVID: I realize that we’re talking in shorthand here—very briefly touching on some of the topics readers will find in your book. I want to continue, in this way, mentioning a few more people in your book. Our readers may find one name we’ve mentioned helpful, another irrelevant, so let’s list a couple more. And, next, I want to ask about your chapter with Eckhart “meeting” Heschel.

MATT: I have tremendous tremendous respect for Rabbi Heschel. He is one of the great religious minds and activists in the 20th century. He marched with Dr. King in Selma much to the consternation of many people who supported Heschel otherwise. He said he wanted to go “beneath the dogmas and traditional formulations of the Judeo-Christian traditions which so often have served as substitute for the root experiences of biblical faith.” He was a great scholar and teacher, yet he did not stay in the comfortable halls of academia. He went out and prophetically acted. He walked his talk.

In the title of my Eckhart book, I use the phrase “Mystic-Warrior” in the sense of a prophet being a warrior. A prophet interferes with injustice. When it comes to compassion and justice, awe and wonder, Heschel and Eckhart are on the same page.


DAVID: You’ve got Howard Thurman in your Hildegard book and he’s also a figure you compare to Eckhart. And I should add: If our readers aren’t familiar with some of the figures we’re mentioning here—I’m hoping they’re going back and forth between this interview to our Interfaith Peacemaker series of profiles. Heschel is profiled there and Howard Thurman, too.

MATT: In many ways, Howard Thurman was the spiritual genius behind the civil rights movement. Everytime Dr. King went to jail, he carried his copy of Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited with him. And Thurman had actually studied Eckhart. As a young man, Thurman studied under the Quaker teacher Rufus Jones, who often cited Eckhart. There are many connections here, but one of them is Eckhart’s sense of social justice.

Eckhart was very aware of the oppression around him in his day and he stood up and was counted by courageously stepping on the toes of the powerful. And that really is what led to his condemnation for many many years—it was a political act against him for his activism on behalf of the poor. Eckhart was the first intellectual to preach in German. At the time, German was associated with the peasants. He was preaching to the peasants in their language about their being noble people who were bringing Christ daily into the world. At the time, this was considered very offensive by the powerful.


DAVID: And I was pleased to see our friends Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan featured in your new book. You write that Eckhart was a pioneer in sorting out what today we would call “the historical Jesus”—separating Jesus the teacher from the Christ figure who is lifted up by Christianity after his crucifixion.

MATT: In that chapter you’re mentioning, I have Eckhart “meet” three figures in the Jesus Seminar—Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan and Bruce Chilton. I’m so struck that Eckhart, in his era, was writing about what is often referred to as a breakthrough in contemporary theology—the assertion that the historical Jesus came from the wisdom tradition of Judaism. Eckhart knew this and wrote about it in his time.

No, Eckhart didn’t reach his conclusions in the same way that Borg and Crossan and the others reached it through their textual and historical analysis. They have resources available to them that Eckhart didn’t have. Crossan and Borg followed different forms of analysis, but ultimately we discover that what we’re hearing from people like Borg and Crossan today actually rests on the similar conclusions drawn many centuries ago by Eckhart, based on his reflections on scriptures as a mystic.

DAVID: So what lies ahead for you as you finish this second book in this “meeting of minds” style? You’ve always got so many projects underway.

MATT: Well, you can give readers links to my website and Facebook page and we try to put my updates there. I definitely will keep traveling and teaching and writing more books. I’m blessed with decent health and I plan to keep going. I’m doing an exciting event in October in Mexico where I’ll be in a program talking about reinventing education, which is one of my major passions. Leonardo Boff, the liberation theologian, will be on that program, too. I met Boff the year I was silenced by the Vatican myself. I went to Brazil to meet and talk with him, then, but I haven’t seen him in person since that time. I’m told this conference likely will draw about 30,000 people and I’m looking forward to the good work we can do together.

Care to read more about Matthew Fox?

MEET THE PEACEMAKERS—Visit our Interfaith Peacemakers department to read more than 100 inspiring profiles of the kinds of men and women Matt Fox includes in his recent books.

VISIT MATT ONLINE—Matt recommends that new readers start with his main website,, where you can learn more about Creation Spirituality, learn about his various public appearances and keep in touch with news about upcoming publications. You also can keep in touch via Facebook by looking for Rev.Dr.MatthewFox

GET THE BOOKS—Click on any of our recommended links above. If you’re interested in his 365-day inspirational reader, you might enjoy reading our 2011 interview with Matt about the preparation of that book.

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


Dare to Downsize Christmas: Recovering its tenderness and hope

A NOTE FROM EDITOR DAVID CRUMM: The moment we read that Pope Francis ordered the Vatican staff to downsize St. Peter’s Nativity Scene, we knew that this prophetic pontiff was onto something!

Then, we read Francis’s recent Christmas message about recovering the “tenderness and hope” in this holiday season—and we knew we needed to publish a column about how to grab hold of the monstrous Ghost of America’s Christmas Present—and wrestle it back toward Francis’s kind of Christmas. In fact, the pope didn’t spend all that much time talking about Christmas in his message, which was published in an Italian newspaper—because he urgently wanted to talk about the plight of the world’s poor families. Now, that’s a pope!

THEN, we discovered Cindy LaFerle’s Downsizing Christmas, which includes a tip that sounds like what Francis must have told the Vatican staff this year about downsizing the Vatican’s huge Nativity Scene. The staff presumably was startled, but Francis must have told them something like: “I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic.” So, here is—with her permission—a Christmas gem of a column by Cindy LaFerle …

Downsizing Christmas


“We feel steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you. … Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings—they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too.” From WEB MD

Christmas is my least favorite holiday, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it.

In newspapers across the country and in blogs throughout cyberspace, scores of fellow grinches are expressing their Yuletide angst. And you know there’s something to it when health and medical Web sites like WebMD publish serious articles on how to survive this stressful season.

My annual winter holiday dread has little to do with religion. In fact, at this point in time, Christmas itself has little to do with religion. Christmas has become a performance art; a commercially manufactured event designed to benefit our nation’s retailers. Even worse, it’s a form of emotional blackmail—cleverly repackaged with Martha Stewart trimmings.

Originally a pre-Christian Roman celebration known as Saturnalia, December 25th was converted to Jesus’s birthday celebration by the Roman Catholic Church. What started out as a rowdy solstice festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness has slowly evolved into a rowdy Christian festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness.

So there you have it. Just don’t accuse people like me of being sacrilegious for wishing the holiday would melt away quietly with the weekend snowfall. Regardless, as Garrison Keillor once said, Christmas is “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all get through it together.”

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve come to believe about Christmas—plus how I’ve learned to cope with it and (sort of) enjoy it:

Giving to a favorite charity always restores my drooping holiday spirit. When the bah-humbugs start biting, there are two antidotes: (1) Roll up my sleeves and help someone who needs me. (2) Pull out the checkbook and make a donation to a good cause.

I remind myself that it’s not my job as a woman (or a family member) to make Christmas merry for everyone. Seriously, we all must STOP relying on women—usually the elderly—to keep cranking the Christmas Machine for us. Either we all contribute to the festivities—in any way we can—or settle for the holiday we get. Unless you’re still in college, you’re too old to hold your mom, your grandma, or your aunts totally responsible for your holiday happiness.

I resist the pressure to bake and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. I love to cook, but I’m not a baker. This is the secret to holiday weight loss. I even purchase pre-made pie crust for our Christmas morning quiche, and nobody seems to mind. My lack of participation in the annual cookie exchange doesn’t mean I don’t admire everyone’s Yuletide talents. Just not my thing.

When Christmas makes me sad or angry, I remember I’m not alone. I’ve grown more sensitive to the fact that many people are grieving losses (including death, health crises, and divorce) during the holidays. With its glaring focus on family unity, Christmas illuminates all the vacancies at the holiday table as well as any emotional distance that separates us from extended family. Talking with my friends, I’ve learned that almost everyone is facing some sort of holiday change and trying to make the best of it. Nobody’s having loads more fun than anyone else.

I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic. Every year, Doug banks our fireplace mantel with evergreens, pheasant feathers, twigs, and twinkle lights. It’s a set-designer’s fantasy that delights everyone who sees it—especially me. That tradition is a keeper. But over the years I’ve pared down to a few sentimental treasures, including a sterling silver bell (dated 1985) that was given to us by a dear friend when our son Nate was born. In recent years, Doug and I have lost interest in putting up a Christmas tree—which baffles some holiday visitors. We reserve the right to change our minds in the future.

I do something ordinary, with people I know and love. Forced merriment is not my idea of a good time. So I have to question the need to cram our calendars with “special events” between December and January. Why not spread the love throughout the year? Likewise, I enjoy giving gifts—but not under pressure and not all at once. What touches me more are the simple, reliable, consistent efforts made all year ’round. I’m nourished by un-fussy gatherings with dear ones who don’t expect me to turn myself into a pretzel just because it’s Christmas.

I’ve lowered my expectations and welcomed the new. Nobody will ever throw a Christmas party like my Scottish immigrant grandparents did when I was a kid. But I usually encounter a dash of their old-country energy and gregarious spirit at the Christmas Eve open house hosted by my son’s Croatian mother-in-law every year. Following my grandparents’ example, I try to bring some Celtic cheer (and a bottle of Bailey’s) to every party I attend. That said, I also privately acknowledge the times I feel mournful or alone — even in a big roomful of partying people.

I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve finally grown up. I cannot return to the home of my childhood Christmases (the house was sold years ago). My beloved father has been dead for more than 20 years, and my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where she doesn’t know it’s Christmas. My son Nate is 28 years old now, and married to a woman we all adore. As much as I love to recall the memory of Nate’s first train set chugging around the tree when he was small, our family’s early traditions and special moments cannot be recreated or reenacted. And that’s the way life is supposed to work—every month, every day, of each beautiful year we’re given.

We grow, we change, we evolve, we endure, we move on. Glory be.


Visit Cindy LaFerle’s website: Cindy is a mutiply talented communicator, working both in words and the arts. The photo illustration with this column was assembled by Cindy. You’ll enjoy her regular columns at You’ll also enjoy her book, Writing Home: Collected Essays and Newspaper Columns.

For more on Pope Francis: Read Holidays columnist Stephanie Fenton’s fascinating overview story about Christmas, which includes two news items about Pope Francis.

The Brennan Manning interview with Greg Garrett

BRENNAN MANNING is the reason we’re talking with Greg Garrett this week. Since ReadTheSpirit online magazine was founded in 2007, Greg Garrett has been a frequent guest, talking about each of his new books with Editor David Crumm. But, The Prodigal: A Ragamuffin Story is unique among Greg’s long list of titles. In the months before Brennan Manning’s death on April 27, 2013, Greg collaborated with Brennan to fulfill a final wish: to write a novel embodying Brennan’s central theme about Grace.

Brennan has such a huge following that, in the weeks since this novel was finally released, the book has racked up 25 reader reviews in Amazon, 24 of them raving about the book with 4- and 5-star reviews. That’s a remarkable outpouring of affection. In a preface to one of Manning’s earlier books, the popular musician and worship leader Michael W. Smith tries to describe Manning’s huge appeal. Smith uses words like “refreshing” and “life-changing,” “dangerous” and “transformative.”

Brennan’s chosen term was “Ragamuffin,” which he used to describe his own deeply troubled life. Grace means that God loves us, even when we are at our most troubled in life, he argued. We don’t earn God’s love. God loves each and every person, even Ragamuffins, all the time.

The journalist and best-selling author Philip Yancey knew Manning and loved his joyful compassion and his utter honesty about his many failings. In trying to capture Manning’s appeal, Yancey quotes Leonard Cohen:

Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.

David Crumm talks with Greg Garrett about his new book, written with Brennan Manning before his death …


DAVID: Most of our readers will recognize Brennan Manning’s name and maybe the term, “Ragamuffin,” but—truth be told—a lot of readers won’t know much more about him. So, let’s start with a little background: Brennan Manning was born in New York City in the depths of the Great Depression. He served as a U.S. Marine in Korea. He was ordained as a Franciscan priest in 1963 to work with the poor. He also was an alcoholic. He destroyed many relationships in his life. And eventually, he became a worldwide sensation for preaching a message that—even in the darkest depths of our lives—God never stops loving us. Is that a fair summary?

GREG: Yes. We could say: If you wrote Brennan Manning as a character in a novel, people would have trouble believing he was real.

DAVID: Be careful there. You actually cast a Brennan Manning kind of character in this new novel you wrote with him, The Prodigal. So, tell our readers more about Brennan’s life.

GREG: Brennan was a muscular Christian in the sense that he was putting faith into action in all sorts of places and all sorts of ways. Often his faith was lived out in manual labor. He worked as a dishwasher; he worked around the docks in New Orleans; at one point, he lived in a cave in the desert. All his life, he battled with his alcoholism. He left the priesthood to get married and even that relationship didn’t work out. Central to his understanding of his own life and his understanding of God was that, in our strength, we are failures. But, with God’s help we can be something closer to what God wants us to be. The inspirational message that people took away from his talks and sermons and books was that we are loved, we are forgiven.

Many readers know that I’m a recovering fundamentalist myself, so I understand why Brennan’s message is such a breath of fresh air to so many people who live with guilt every day. One of Brennan’s central teachings is that God loves us even when we are at our most un-loveable. That doesn’t mean God wants us to remain doing un-loveable things, but God loves us even as imperfect people—even, as Brennan describes it—as Ragamuffins. That’s the radical love and forgiveness and grace that informs everything Brennan wrote and taught. And it informs this new novel—his final book—as well.


DAVID: I’m sure readers will want to know how you collaborated on this novel. You live in Austin, Texas, and Brennan lived in New Jersey for the final phase of his life. How did this work?

GREG: Brennan knew he was in decline and the end was coming, so he had two last wishes. First, he wanted to leave a memoir and he did that with a co-author in 2011 in a book called, All Is Grace: A Ragamuffin Memoir.

Then, his final wish was to write a novel. People who have followed his work over the years know how much importance he placed on telling stories. He understood that, while many people will read and respond to nonfiction, there is an incredible power to move people through fiction. We share the same literary agency and, as Brennan became more feeble, his agent and my agent talked about this project. They wanted someone who wasn’t traditionally known as a “Christian novelist.” My name came up pretty quickly, I’m told. I have written novels, which we might describe as literary novels. So, the agents got us together and we started this process in the spring of 2012.

We began moving back and forth with ideas, very fast, and the process was simpler than I had imagined. At that point, he already was in long-term care in New Jersey. So, we wrote this novels as pen pals. He’d have an idea and I’d receive that. Then, I’d add to the ideas and we’d go back and forth.

DAVID: One way this new novel is described is with the question: What happens the day after The Prodigal returns? And we’re talking here about the world-famous “prodigal son” from Jesus’ parable about the selfish, wayward young man who flees from his family home and makes a complete mess of his life. Then, surprisingly, in the depths of his despair, the young man’s father welcomes him home. The prodigal’s brother resents this, because this faithful brother stayed at home and did all the hard work while the prodigal was out partying. Nevertheless, the father insists on welcoming him home with open arms.

GREG: That story had been foundational throughout Brennan’s writing and teaching and I think I said something, in one of our early exchanges, like this: The place where the prodigal story starts to get interesting for me is what happens on the second day. How do you come back from your mistakes? How do you begin to make things right? How do you begin to live in a different way? These are questions Brennan always wrote and taught about. They became the core of the novel.


DAVID: I don’t want to spoil the novel by revealing too many details in this interview, but in the opening pages of the novel we learn that the Rev. Jack Chisholm, the celebrated pastor of a megachurch in Seattle, has been caught in a terrible lapse of judgment. His drinking and his affair with a woman are caught by witnesses on social media and this firestorm engulfs him very rapidly. He has been estranged from his own father and he hasn’t returned to his little hometown in many years. But, as he’s becoming almost suicidal, his father shows up and welcomes him home. Tell us a little more about the plot, but we won’t spoil any of the surprises, OK?

GREG: Sure. What we can say is that Jack falls from grace in a very big way, as you’ve just described. He’s not a serial cheater, but he does have an affair. When it all becomes public, he loses his family, he loses his church, he loses his book contract. He tries to drink himself to death in Mexico. Then, his father invites him to come home. It’s the prodigal story with some changes. The brother, who stayed at home in the original story, is now a sister in this novel, for example.

DAVID: Within Jack’s fall and his gradual climb toward reconciliation is also a dramatic change in Jack’s understanding of the Christian faith, right?

GREG: Jack is famous as a preacher for this kind of neo-Calvinist theology that says God is not very fond of you, and that you don’t deserve to have God be fond of you. It’s a damaging theology. His catchphrase is, “We have got to do better.” He’s basically teaching that we can somehow earn our way into God’s favor.

I didn’t model him after any specific megachurch pastor, but I can tell you that there are a lot of people out there who are like Jack in some ways.

DAVID: Readers won’t have any trouble recognizing Jack as a realistic figure among today’s religious elite, a kind of composite of a number of big names.

So we don’t spoil the plot developments in the book, let’s describe this story by actually casting this book as a movie, OK? When I finished this novel, I thought right away: Oh, someone is going to make a movie of this! So, let’s say Hollywood rolls out a big budget and a producer could have his pick of actors.

Who would play Jack Chisholm, the central character?

GREG: It needs to be a person who can project both self-confidence and brokenness. I’ve really liked Bradley Cooper’s work recently. At his core, Jack is an absolutely broken person and his own theology has grown out of his own self loathing. Bradley Cooper has shown us in movies like Silver Linings Playbook that he can portray someone who we care about, yet who can wind up doing some terrible things, and who still can have the potential for change.

DAVID: So, Bradley Cooper stars as Jack Chisholm in your ideal movie version. Then, who plays Jack’s father.

GREG: Robert Duvall. Now, I know that he’s a kind of predictable “go to” choice for that kind of role. But we need a strong actor for the father who, for years, has been this kind of forbidding, scary character. Yet, this father is coming to the end of his life and he’s trying to find a better way to live, as well.

DAVID: Jack’s older sister? Who plays the stay-at-home sibling who was so dutiful that she resents Jack’s return? I’m thinking Holly Hunter.

GREG: Well, that could work, although the sister is in her 30s, or maybe as old as her 40s, and Holly Hunter is now in her 50s. You’ve got the idea, though: a Holly Hunter kind of actress.

DAVID: And the small town preacher in your book—who plays him? He’s really the Brennan Manning voice in the novel.

GREG: Hmmm, Father Frank. Who could play Father Frank? He’s a character in his ‘60s. I was thinking of someone like Jeff Bridges, especially the kind of Jeff Bridges role in that movie about the aging country singer, Crazy Heart. In the novel, Father Frank is someone who, like Henri Nouwen or Brennan Manning, can turn his own brokenness into the core of his ministry.

DAVID: Yes, I like that idea of Bridges in that role! I’m beginning to “see” this story in a new light now that we’ve cast the stars in the movie. Maybe it will help readers to glimpse the really compelling nature of this story—without spoiling details.

I want to ask one last question that I’m sure readers will ponder: Did Brennan Manning live long enough to read the final novel?

GREG: I finished my work, as his collaborator, in March. And, because we worked as pen pals, I wasn’t there beside him in those final weeks and I’m not sure if he read the entire novel. He certainly went back and forth with me on the versions up until the end.

DAVID: Well, I’m glad to see it’s being received in such a warm way by his many fans.

GREG: I did hear from HarperCollins that booksellers blew through the first printing of The Prodigal and they’ve already had to run a second printing.

There are a lot of people who loved Brennan and this book does have the special appeal of being his first novel—and his last book—all in one. I’m hearing, already, from clergy who are asking their entire congregations to read this in preparation for talking about this as a congregation.

I feel very good, today, that Brennan and I were able to finish this project before he died.


READ GREG GARRETT’S ONGOING COLUMNS Greg writes regularly within the Patheos website. The link here takes you to Greg’s index page for recent columns.

VISIT GREG ON FACEBOOK He’s already got nearly 2,000 friends, but there’s room for you, too, especially if you’re involved in ongoing discussion of Greg’s books and you want to follow his new releases.

THE OTHER JESUS If you like Greg’s approach to faith in today’s interview and in The Prodigal novel, you’ll definitely want this 2011 book. The link takes you to our 2011 interview with Greg about moving from a religion of fear to a faith in the love of God.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO U2 Early in his career, Greg Garrett was a rock journalist for a time and this book on the band U2 provides a great doorway for congregations to discuss the significance of U2’s music and activism.

‘HOLY SUPERHEROES!‘ We’re linking, here, to Greg’s most recent piece for ReadTheSpirit on comic books. A life-long fan of comics, Greg literally wrote The Book on the religious themes in comics. This 2011 piece reflects on some recent super-hero movies and also describes Greg’s book, as well.

‘IS HARRY POTTER “CHRISTIAN”? That was the provocative question we put to Greg in 2010, when a new Harry Potter blockbuster was opening. Once again, Greg wrote The Book on how congregations can spark inspiring discussions about the J.K. Rowling novels and movies.

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

Read the interview in which Pope Francis startles the church

In a stunning move, Pope Francis coordinated with journalists in a carefully orchestrated, in-depth interview published simultaneously by Catholic media around the world. In English, the complete version of the lengthy interview appears in America Magazine.

NEWS ANALYSIS by David Crumm, Editor of ReadTheSpirit:

To be clear, Pope Francis did not change church doctrine. Not a line of the church’s canon law was revised by this interview. But—in a shot heard round the world—he broke open a window into what the world’s billion-plus Catholics consider to be the Mother Church. Then, he stood at this newly opened portal and waved the reluctant toward what he regards as Home.

As a journalist, I have reported from the Vatican a number of times during the reign of Pope John Paul II, who was followed by Pope Benedict XVI. During those papacies, the Vatican sought to gather more and more authority in an effort to purge the church of what Benedict viewed as heresy. Benedict openly talked about the need to lead a smaller, purer church in an era of history that he viewed as a threat to faith itself. During those decades, traditionalists in the church’s grassroots and Catholics with a political agenda—in growing numbers—would conduct their own witch hunts in regions of the church and send charges directly to the Vatican. In this interview, Francis clearly rejects that approach and urges that most future disputes over doctrine be handled “locally.”

For all the high liturgy and all the media glitz of Francis’s election and inauguration in March, this seems to be the true deck-clearing start of Pope Francis’s papacy. Remember that, for decades, his official motto has been miserando atque eligendo, drawn from Bede‘s homily on Matthew 9:9–13 in which Bede wrote: “because he saw him through the eyes of mercy and chose him.”

That entire passage from Matthew 9 says: As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax booth; and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. And as Jesus sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”


In the thousands of news media reports about Pope Francis’s interview, one of the most overlooked sections of the interview is his explanation—through several Questions and Answers—of his own dramatic evolution in understanding church leadership. He admits and actually seems to apologize for being too authoritarian as a young man, thrust into a position of power in the church in his mid-30s. Now, he realizes that earlier style was wrong. Here’s the key paragraph in which he describes the true wisdom of the Church:

“The people itself constitutes a subject. And the church is the people of God on the journey through history, with joys and sorrows. Thinking with the church, therefore, is my way of being a part of this people. And all the faithful, considered as a whole, are infallible in matters of belief, and the people display this ‘infallibilitas in credendo,’ this infallibility in believing, through a supernatural sense of the faith of all the people walking together. This is what I understand today as the ‘thinking with the church’ of which St. Ignatius speaks. When the dialogue among the people and the bishops and the pope goes down this road and is genuine, then it is assisted by the Holy Spirit. So this thinking with the church does not concern theologians only.”


Then, here is a sample of the portion mid-interview where Francis startles the world:

“I see clearly,” the pope continues, “that the thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds…. And you have to start from the ground up.

“The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all. The confessor, for example, is always in danger of being either too much of a rigorist or too lax. Neither is merciful, because neither of them really takes responsibility for the person. The rigorist washes his hands so that he leaves it to the commandment. The loose minister washes his hands by simply saying, ‘This is not a sin’ or something like that. In pastoral ministry we must accompany people, and we must heal their wounds.

“How are we treating the people of God? I dream of a church that is a mother and shepherdess. The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan, who washes, cleans and raises up his neighbor. This is pure Gospel. God is greater than sin. The structural and organizational reforms are secondary—that is, they come afterward. The first reform must be the attitude. The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of the people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost. The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths.”


Here is the key section, which often is quoted only in phrases or single sentences in news media reports:

“We need to proclaim the Gospel on every street corner,” the pope says, “preaching the good news of the kingdom and healing, even with our preaching, every kind of disease and wound. In Buenos Aires I used to receive letters from homosexual persons who are ‘socially wounded’ because they tell me that they feel like the church has always condemned them. But the church does not want to do this. During the return flight from Rio de Janeiro I said that if a homosexual person is of good will and is in search of God, I am no one to judge. By saying this, I said what the catechism says. Religion has the right to express its opinion in the service of the people, but God in creation has set us free: it is not possible to interfere spiritually in the life of a person.

“A person once asked me, in a provocative manner, if I approved of homosexuality. I replied with another question: ‘Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person?’ We must always consider the person. Here we enter into the mystery of the human being. In life, God accompanies persons, and we must accompany them, starting from their situation. It is necessary to accompany them with mercy. When that happens, the Holy Spirit inspires the priest to say the right thing.”


In English, the complete version of the lengthy interview appears in America Magazine.


This year, the world is rediscovering Pope John XXIII—especially since Francis plans to canonize him as officially recognized saint.

Two saints at once! Pope Francis’s ‘brilliant move to unify the church’

The Rev. Thomas J. Reese, S.J., is the new Senior Analyst for the National Catholic Reporter. This long-time journalist’s three books—Inside the Vatican, A Flock of Shepherds and Archbishop—are now standard reference works for understanding the worldwide Catholic Church. Here is Tom’s analysis of the news from Rome …

In a brilliant move to unify the church, Pope Francis approved the canonization of Pope John XXIII and John Paul II. Pope Francis realized that most Catholics like both popes, but some liberal Catholics love John XXIII and think John Paul was too authoritarian. On the other hand, some conservative Catholics love John Paul and think that John XXIII pushed the church into chaos.

With the joint announcement, Pope Francis is saying we do not have to choose between popes; we can honor and revere both as holy men who served the church well in their times.

The pope would agree with St. Paul (1 Corinthians, Chapter 3) who criticized those who said “I belong to Paul,” or “I belong to Apollos.”

“What is Apollos, after all, and what is Paul? Ministers through whom you became believers…for we are God’s co-workers.”

What matters is that we all belong to Christ.

What was most remarkable about the announcement was the decision by Pope Francis to waive the requirement of a second miracle for the canonization of John XXIII. If Francis had not done this, John Paul’s canonization would have moved ahead of his predecessor’s. Pope Francis found this unacceptable.

According to Divinus Perfectionis Magister (The Divine Teacher and Model of Perfection), the church rules for canonizations adopted in 1983, one miracle is required for beatification and a second is required for canonization, except for martyrs who only need one miracle.

Since this is a legal requirement and not something based in doctrine, the pope has the right to wave it. In fact, prior to the revision of the rules for canonization in 1983, a number of theologians and experts like Father Peter Gumpel, S.J., argued for eliminating the requirement for any miracles.

Once again, Pope Francis has shown that he is willing to ignore tradition and change the rules to do what he thinks is best for the church.


This column was originally published at the National Catholic Reporter online and is republished here with permission.

Care to read more about Pope John XXIII?

You’ll enjoy our in-depth interview with Greg Tobin, biographer of Pope John XXIII.

Faith & Money: What matters most? Survey says …

Gardens of earthly and spiritual delights

By David Briggs

Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to [the] poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this statement, he went away sad, for he had many possessions.
Matthew 19: 21-22

What delights us in this world?

Religious teaching encourages followers to discover true happiness in their faith, and in particular in the love of God and one another. A relentless consumer culture urges us to find meaning and satisfaction in material goods.

The 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey asked a series of questions on this topic to a random sample of 833 worshipers. And the winner is … our possessions.

Forty-two percent of respondents said they were “extremely delighted” with the things they own. There were no differences among Catholics, conservative Protestants and mainline Protestants, with more than four in 10 in all groups saying their possessions were a source of great delight.

Actually, the things they own was tied at the top of the list of extremely delightful aspects of their lives along with close relationships with family and friends. But there was not the same unanimity in this area among religious groups, with Protestants much less likely to say they were extremely delighted with such relationships.

What may be equally surprising as the value worshipers put on their possessions was the relative lack of satisfaction they reported with other central aspects of their lives. Consider these findings:

Thirty-four percent of worshipers said they were extremely delighted with their own happiness. Slightly less than a third expressed the same satisfaction with their spiritual lives. Twenty-eight percent of worshipers said they were extremely delighted with what they had achieved in life, the lowest level of satisfaction reported on any of the nine areas surveyed.

What areas of your life make you extremely delighted?

This column originally was published at Beyond the Ordinary: Insights into U.S. Congregational Life. For many years, David Briggs has been one of the nation’s leading journalists covering religion. His columns appear both in Beyond the Ordinary and at the Association of Religious Data Archives. This column was reposted with permission.

Pope Francis, the Jesuits & the Dirty War in Argentina

On March 18, 2013, the New York Times also published an analysis of the Dirty War controversy.

President Cristina Elisabet Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina keeps this photograph of her meeting with then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio on her public website. Photo now in public domain via Wikimedia Commons.


RUMORS AND QUESTIONS are circulating about Pope Francis and the time when he was the Jesuit provincial of Argentina and his relationship to two imprisoned Jesuits and the Argentine military dictatorship.

The Society of Jesus is filled with intelligent men who are passionate about their ideas and work, so of course there are arguments and disagreements just as there are in any family. I have had debates with other Jesuits over dinner where voices were raised, but that does not mean I don’t love them and would not be willing to die for them. We are a family.

Father Bergoglio, like Pope John Paul, had serious reservations about liberation theology, which was embraced by many other Latin American Jesuits. As a North American I have trouble understanding these disputes since John Paul and Bergoglio obviously wanted justice for the poor while the liberation theologians were not in favor of violent revolution as their detractors claimed. But clearly this was an issue that divided the church in Latin America.

Part of the problem was the use of the term “Marxist analysis” by some liberation theologians, when they sought to show how the wealthy used their economic and political power to keep the masses down. The word “Marxist,” of course, drove John Paul crazy. Meanwhile, the Latin American establishment labeled as Communist anyone who wanted economic justice and political power for workers. Even many decent but cautious people feared that strikes and demonstrations would lead to violence. What is “prudent” can divide people of good will.

There were also disagreements about how to respond to the military junta in Argentina. As provincial, Father Bergoglio was responsible for the safety of his men. He feared that Orlando Yorio, S.J., and Franz Jalics, S.J., were at risk and wanted to pull them out of their ministry. They, naturally, did not want to leave their work with the poor.

Yorio and Jalics were arrested when a former lay colleague, who had joined the rebels and then been arrested, gave up their names under torture as people he had worked with in the past. This was normal practice for the military. The junta did not get information from Bergoglio. Contrary to rumor, he did not throw them out of the society and therefore remove them from the protection of the Society of Jesus. They were Jesuits when they were arrested. Yorio later left the Society but Jalics is still a Jesuit today, living in a Jesuit retreat house in Germany.

The Jesuit historian Father Jeff Klaiber interviewed Juan Luis Moyano, S.J., who had also been imprisoned and deported by the military. Moyano told Klaiber that Bergoglio did go to bat for imprisoned Jesuits. There are disagreements over whether he did as much as he should have for them, but such debates always occur in these circumstances.

Adolfo Esquivel, the Argentine who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980, says Bergoglio was not involved with the military and did try to help the two Jesuits. He himself was imprisoned by the military and his son is married to Mercedes Moyano, the sister of Juan Luis Moyano.

Other rumors circulating say that as archbishop, Bergoglio allowed the military to hide prisoners in an archdiocesan retreat house so that they would not be seen by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights visiting the ESMA prison. Fact: Bergoglio was not archbishop when this took place. Horacio Verbitsky, an Argentine investigative journalist, says that Bergoglio helped him investigate the case.

It is also said that there is written evidence in the Argentine foreign ministry files that Bergoglio gave information on the Jesuits to the military. The alleged conversation took place when Bergoglio was trying to get the passport of one of the Jesuits extended. Not only did this take place after they were arrested and after they were released, it was after they were safely out of the country. Nothing he could say would endanger them, nor was he telling the government anything it did not already know. He was simply trying to convince a bureaucrat that it was a good idea to extend the passport of this man so he could stay in Germany and not have to return to Argentina.

More recently, Cardinal Bergoglio was involved in getting the Argentine bishops to ask forgiveness for not having done enough during the dirty war, as it was called in Argentina.

In the face of tyranny, there are those who take a prophetic stance and die martyrs. There are those who collaborate with the regime. And there are others who do what they can while keeping their heads low. When admirers tried to claim that John Paul worked in the underground against Nazism, he set them straight and said he was no hero.

Those who have not lived under a dictatorship should not be quick to judge those who have, whether the dictatorship was in ancient Rome, Latin America, Africa, Nazi Germany, Communist Eastern Europe, or today’s China. We should revere martyrs, but not demand every Christian be one.


A LEADING EXPERT ON THE CATHOLIC CHURCH Father Thomas Reese SJ posts his columns on many major newspaper and magazine websites, including The Washington Post and the National Catholic Reporter. This column was originally published by the National Catholic Reporter. His most important book, right now, is Inside the Vatican: The Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church,published by Harvard University Press. For decades, Father Reese has been one of the leading American experts on the Catholic church, quoted in newspaper, magazines and TV news stories. Father Reese also has organized an extensive index to Papal Transition stories, hosted by America magazine online.