Guest Writer Cindy La Ferle on “Why I Still Love Halloween”

TODAY, guest writer Cindy LaFerle visits ReadTheSpirit again with a delightful, new, holiday-themed story:



From ghoulies and ghosties and long-legged beasties,
And things that go bump in the night,

Good lord, deliver us!
A Scottish saying

Halloween always stirs a delicious caldron of memories.
Baby boomers are a nostalgic bunch, and most of us can recall at least one costume we wore in grade school. Wearing yards of pink tulle and a homemade foil crown, I dressed up as Miss America when I was in the first grade in 1960. And who could forget trick-or-treating in packs until our pillowcases were too heavy to lug around the block?

While the holiday suffered a lull in the 1970s, the “season of the witch” now competes with Christmastime as the biggest party season of the year. And with all due respect to religious groups refusing to celebrate it, I never thought of Halloween as inherently evil.

In fact, I always felt a little sad for one of my son’s grade-school pals, whose born-again Christian parents refused to let him wear a costume, attend Halloween parties, or go trick-or-treating
with the neighborhood kids on Halloween night. While I respected the family’s religious devotion, I disagreed with their conviction that the holiday’s pre-Christian history was a threat to their faith. (I wanted to remind them that Christmas trees and Easter baskets also boasted pre-Christian, pagan origins. But I kept my mouth shut.)

British and Irish historians are also quick to remind us that “All Hallows Eve” did not originate as a gruesome night of devil worship—though I’ll be the first to admit that American retailers, film producers, and merchants who cash in on Halloween are guilty of adding their own mythology—and gore. Regardless, in my view, what most of us seem to enjoy about the holiday is the creativity factor.

Stepping over age limits, Halloween extends an open invitation to play dress-up. It inspires us to raid attics and local thrift shops for the most outlandish outfits we can jumble together. If only for one magical night, it gives us permission to drop the dull disguise of conformity.

For flea-market junkies like me, Halloween is reason enough to hoard pieces of vintage clothing and jewelry that, by all rights, should have been donated to charity ages ago. My husband now refers to our attic as “the clothing museum,” and with good reason. Friends who have trouble rustling up an outfit will often call for help during dress-up emergencies. (“Can I borrow one of your medieval jester hats for a clown costume?” is not an unusual request.)

Over the years, in fact, I’ve collected so many crazy hats that we have to store them in a large steamer trunk behind the living room couch. Those hats get the most wear near Halloween, when even the most reserved engineer who visits will try on a pith helmet or a plumed pirate hat and wear it to the dinner table.

And why not? Historically speaking, the holiday has always been a celebration of the harvest, a madcap prelude to the more dignified ceremonials of Thanksgiving.

Halloween’s deep roots weave back more than 2,000 years to the early Celts of Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. It was originally known as the festival of Samhain, according to Caitlin Matthews, a Celtic scholar and author of The Celtic Book of Days (Destiny Books). The festival, she explains, marked the end of the farming season and the beginning of the Celtic new year. Lavish banquet tables were prepared for the ancestors, who were believed to pierce the veil between the living and the dead on the eve of Samhain. It was also time to rekindle the bonfires that would sustain the clans in winter.

“In the Christian era,” Matthews writes, “the festival was reassigned to the Feast of All Saints; however, many of the customs surrounding modern Halloween still concern this ancient understanding of the accessibility of the dead.”

And we can thank our Irish immigrants for the jack-o’-lantern, which reputedly wards off evil spirits. This custom evolved from the old practice of carving out large turnips and squash, then illuminating them with candles. The term jack-o’-lantern was derived from a folk tale involving a crafty Irishman named Jack, who outwitted the Devil.

On cool October nights, when the moon is bright and leaves scatter nervously across the sidewalk, a bittersweet chill runs up and down my spine. I like to recall a favorite quote from Ray Bradbury, whose affection for Halloween surpasses even mine: “If you enjoy living, it is not difficult to keep the sense of mystery and wonder.”

And I think of my beloved Scottish grandparents, who left their exhausted farms in the Orkney Islands to begin new lives in United States in the 1920s. I recall the knee-cracking highland folk dances they taught me, and the silly lyrics to their rural old-country tunes. I remember their hard-won wisdom, and how much I still miss their love.

Like my Celtic ancestors, I’m moved to take stock of my own “harvest”—how much I’ve accomplished throughout the year, and how many things I’ve left undone. My to-do list is yards long. There are parts of the world I haven’t seen; stories I haven’t written; debts and favors to repay. I marvel at the mellow beauty of the season, which has always been my favorite, but also feel a little sad that one more year is drawing to its close.

All said and done, I like to think of Halloween as the big good-bye party we throw for autumn’s final weeks. And a toast to the year ahead. All in good fun.


Cindy La Ferle is a nationally published essayist and author of Writing Home, an award-winning collection of essays. Her writing has been published in The Christian Science Monitor, Catholic Digest, The Detroit Free Press, Michigan BLUE, Reader’s Digest, Victoria, and many other publications. She enjoys posting inspirational quotes with her photography on her blog, “Things that Make Me Happy” Cindy visited ReadTheSpirit earlier with a story about her appreciation for Anne Morrow Lindbergh.

The Marcus Borg inteview on ‘Convictions’

A decade ago, Marcus Borg gave readers his passionate manifesto for renewal, The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, which he described as “scholarship, experience and memory” blended across 200 pages. The book spread like wildfire. To this day, when I travel as editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, if I ask groups of men and women to name a Marcus Borg book they have enjoyed, I most often hear about that little book with the two out-stretched hands on the cover.

Marcus’s nine books after Heart of Christianity range from books about Jesus and Paul to the first volume in what will be a series of novels. But, Heart of Christianity holds a special place in the Marcus Borg library. That book’s passion allowed readers in communities large and small to recognize in Marcus a friend—a faithful and compassionate companion in their spiritual journeys.

The news today is: Marcus is back with a new book that feels like a follow up to The Heart of Christianity. It’s called Convictions: How I Learned What Matters Most and, in this case, although the book rests on Marcus’s considerable scholarship, this book mainly explores the roles of “experience and memory” in our spiritual journeys.

The writing style in Convictions starts with more than 100 short nuggets about various aspects of faith—each with a bold-faced headline. Then, Marcus organizes these nuggets into 11 chapters with thematic titles, such as “God Is Real and a Mystery,” “Salvation Is More about This Life than an Afterlife,” “Christians Are Called to Peace and Nonviolence,” and “To Love God Is to Love Like God.”

Convictions conveys an overall message that is both simple and urgently needed: Change is a good and natural part of Christian life. (Just in case you question that assumption, right off the bat, Marcus devotes 2 pages to a speed-of-light tour of the dramatic changes throughout Christian history from Jesus’s era to today.)

Marcus reminds us: Change is a normal process in Christianity—but change is more than just history—it’s a personal journey. As millions of Americans are aging, he argues, it’s time to talk openly across the generations. It’s time to talk honestly, he tells us, about how our childhood assumptions concerning faith usually pass through what Marcus calls the “conversions” that are a rich part of becoming an adult—and then can deepen into the “convictions” that form a foundation for a long and meaningful life.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcus Borg. Here are …


DAVID: Change is on our minds. That’s true for millions of Americans and people around the world, as well. Recently, we’ve featured interviews with a number of popular authors writing about dramatic changes in Christianity—Barbara Brown Taylor and Philip Jenkins. In a couple of weeks, we’ll publish an interview with Brian McLaren about his upcoming book We Make the Road by Walking, which opens with these words: “You are not finished yet. You are in the making. You have the capacity to learn, mature, think, change and grow.”

They’re all talking about change. Your book argues that change is a natural part of a healthy Christian life. Why are we hearing so much about change, right now?

MARCUS: All of us—all of the authors you’ve just mentioned—are at an age, now, that means we’ve navigated through lives full of change. We grew up in an insular world with a limited view of reality in which we took the conventions around us for granted. I don’t know the ages of Barbara and Philip and Brian, but I know that I grew up in a pre-civil-rights-movement era with all kinds of false assumptions about the relationships between Christianity and the church and the world.

This is true for millions of Americans, as well. Perhaps some of your readers can still remember the lyrics of songs on the radio Hit Parade in the early 1950s. I can still sing some of them today (and he begins to sing) …

Heart of my heart, I love that melody
Heart of my heart, brings back a memory.

And I’m sure some of your readers will remember …

Mr. Sandman, I’m so alone
Don’t have nobody to call my own
Please turn on your magic beam
Mr. Sandman, bring me a dream.

And there was that very popular hiking song, The Happy Wanderer:

I love to go a-wandering,
Along the mountain track,
And as I go, I love to sing,
My knapsack on my back.

I’ll stop right there, but the point I’m making is that many of us, of a certain age, grew up in a world of conventions that were taken for granted by everyone, in a way that we do not experience today.

DAVID: OK, so I’ve been Googling along with you, as you’ve been singing these songs. And, I can confirm that in that trio of songs you just recalled, you’ve just nailed a very precise period of 1953-1954. That’s pretty amazing. Those songs were popular in other recordings, at other times, but you were simply able to reach back into your memory and give us the soundtrack to a specific period when you were 11 and 12 years old. That’s the “childhood” period you reference in your new book. It’s amazing to see how powerfully those early years in our lives stay with us throughout our lives.

MARCUS: That’s my point. And I am not alone in this. Growing up, I thought I knew something about the world; I thought I knew what Christianity was all about when I was just a boy. And yet, our country had not yet fully experienced the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War—I could list so many other major changes in the world that we had yet to experience.

DAVID: You write in your book: “I grew up in the world of denominational division … the great divide was between Catholics and Protestants. In my Lutheran and Protestant context, we were deeply skeptical about whether Catholics were really Christians. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, a major issue was the fact that he was Catholic. Could a Protestant vote for a Catholic president? The issue was not only political, but local and personal—and eternal. We Lutherans—at least the Lutherans I knew—were quite sure that Catholics couldn’t be saved.  … They were wrong; we were right.”

You’re a bit older than I am, but I can recall that Kennedy era, too. Your point here is that people who claim they want to a version of Christianity that hasn’t changed in 2,000 years—well, most of them don’t know what they’re demanding. As Philip Jenkins has pointed out in a whole series of his books, much of Christian history involved painful conflict and, often, blindness to the world’s most needy people. In fact, the history of Christianity is change.

MARCUS: I like the lines you read a moment ago from Brian’s new book: “You are not finished yet.” This is such an important point. So many of us, as Americans, grew up assuming that our own form of Christianity—what we experienced as Christianity in our family and in our community—was the same, was unchanging and that there really was only our one form of Christianity. We were right; all others had to be wrong.

When you mention Barbara and Philip and Brian, I think that we’ve all lived through so many changes that we’ve moved from our original provincial views of reality and of Christianity to one that is pluralistic. We want to talk and write openly about this journey—because lots of people find themselves on this journey today.


DAVID: Online reviews of your book tend to stress two points: One is that this book doesn’t really contain big revelations for readers who’ve followed your writing over the years; the second point is that this book is uniquely inspiring. This book is touching people on a personal level.

MARCUS: I would call it the most consistently personal book I’ve written. Pretty much every chapter begins with what I absorbed as a child growing up in the church, and then I look at the changes that have occurred in the decades since—and then I write about the convictions that flow from those changes. And, because these “changes” are foundational kinds of transitions, I call them “conversions” in the book.

If we were to describe this in three C’s, I go from the Conventions of my childhood through the Conversions of my adulthood to the Convictions I now hold. But this is much more than a personal book, because I’m convinced that there are millions of other people who have experienced these three C’s as well. This becomes a very useful triad for anybody above a certain age to use in thinking bout their life and faith as they read.

I haven’t done a lot of talks out on the road, just yet, about this new book. But when I travel and talk about this book, I’m going to encourage people to try to get in touch with their childhood memories. What did they absorb and internalize about Christianity when they were around the age of 12 or so? Then, I want to encourage people to think about all of the changes in the world and in our own lives. I want to ask people: What were the circumstances that led you to change?

DAVID: And finally, in this process you’re describing in the book, you reach the foundation stones that are described by the title of your book: the Convictions. What does that word mean to you?

MARCUS: I define that as foundational ways of seeing that are not easily shaken. Through this process, I think I am giving people a model for getting in touch with their own life journeys and reaching some of these foundations, these convictions, as I call them.


DAVID: I really like the way you’re posing the invitation—and describing the process—in this book. Here at ReadTheSpirit, I’ve been working with Dr. Wayne Baker on the rollout of his book, United America, which is based on years of research at the University of Michigan into values that actually unite nearly all Americans. I’ve been involved in a series of small groups with Wayne and, I can tell you, when people gather to talk about American values—they arrive with all kinds of anxieties. I can remember one participant showing up for a first session with United America telling me, “There are going to be fireworks tonight!”

But Wayne surprises people when he presents this material. You and I have just talked about the soundtrack of our lives—our memories of music. Wayne often starts his programs by showing participants famous photographs of America. He’s actually put his “Images of America” photo gallery online. He asks participants to remember when they first saw these iconic images and then he invites them to choose a picture that still holds deep meaning. This transforms these gatherings from potential fireworks to communities of people remembering—and talking about the dramatic changes in their lives.

I see your new book inviting readers into a similar process around their religious beliefs.

MARCUS: You’ve just described the potential of this kind of process very well. This is a journey and I am inviting groups to try a process that follows the three parts in my book: Think about your memories; think about major changes in your life; think about your convictions today. Groups may choose to do all three things in one setting, or they may prefer to begin with the first couple of elements and spend some time talking about their memories and the changes in their lives. They may want to talk about convictions right away, or later in the process. Each group can decide, of course.

The book is very flexible. People could enjoy this book by themselves. Or, they could use this book with a discussion group. Or, they could plan a special program or retreat.

Some readers may find in this book a model for a longer spiritual journey and it is possible to spread out the process of reading and reflecting and discussing over a period of, oh, over an entire year if people choose that route.

DAVID: Let’s close this interview by earmarking our next interview. For the benefit of our readers, what will be talking about in our interview next year?

MARCUS: The second novel will come out in the second half of 2015, if all goes well. I hope to have it done in four or five months and then, of course, there’s a whole process of publishing the book. So, next time, we’ll talk about the second novel.

DAVID: Well, until then … keep writing.


ReadTheSpirit has published an almost annual series of interviews with Marcus Borg. Here are some of the subjects we’ve discussed …

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

The Mitch Horowitz interview on ‘One Simple Idea’ (Positive Thinking)

“The power of positive thinking” surrounds us so completely that most of us don’t recognize this idea as an American innovation in spirituality and psychology—or what Mitch Horowitz calls a “genuine and still-unfolding Reformation of the modern search for meaning.”

The message is everywhere we look from Disney’s “Wish upon a star,” to Reagan’s “Nothing is impossible,” Obama’s “Yes, we can,” Nike’s “Just do it.” This idea is the rocket fuel that has launched a host of celebrity brands: Oprah, Dr. Phil, Joel Osteen and many more.

So, it’s startling to realize: This idea that our thoughts can produce a better life is actually a concept developed by a crazy-quilt of men and women over the past two centuries. About 180 years ago, a man named Phineas Quimby—a talented watchmaker in Belfast, Maine—jumped from engineering time pieces to spreading European ideas that the mind can control the body’s inner mechanisms. Never heard of Phineas Quimby until this moment? In his book, Mitch argues that this absolutely fascinating man—all but forgotten today—was as influential as other major religious founders: the John Wesleys and John Smiths and Mary Baker Eddys of American religious life.

As Mitch puts it in his book, this idea of “positive thinking” was the product of “a determinedly modern” group of American men and women. “These experimenters, sometimes working together and other times in private, resolved to determine whether some mental force—divine, psychological or otherwise—exerts an invisible pull on a person’s daily life. Was there, they wondered, a ‘mind-power’ that could be harnessed to manifest outcomes?”

Welcome to Mitch Horowitz’s grand 278-page tour of this odd assortment of pioneers, prophets—and profiteers as well—who gave us one of the central pillars of American culture today: the power of positive thinking.

Who is Mitch Horowitz? He’s the head of the Tarcher-Penguin publishing house, where he produces some of the most important books on America’s and Europe’s great spiritual teachers. (Last year, we interviewed one of Tarcher’s top authors, religious historian Gary Lachman, when Tarcher published his new biography of interfaith pioneer Madame Blavatsky.) We also highly recommend Mitch’s own earlier book (currently published by Bantam), Occult America: White House Seances, Ouija Circles, Masons, and the Secret Mystic History of Our Nation.

Want to see Mitch’s video? He produced a 5-minute introduction to his new book. Well worth watching!

Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Mitch about his latest book (published by Crown), One Simple Idea: How Positive Thinking Reshaped Modern Life.


DAVID: In One Simple Idea, you invite readers to explore the largely untold history of the idea that screams at us from the magazine racks, every day, as we check out at the grocery store. You’re talking about the foundational idea behind celebrity coaches such as Oprah, Joel Osteen, Dr. Phil and Dr. Oz, right?

MITCH: Absolutely. They all are a part of this movement that I explore in the book. This idea of “the power of positive thinking” has touched every aspect of therapeutic and religious life in this country. It forms the operating instructions for every expression of self help and everything in medicine that seeks to probe a mind-body connection or the newer research that seeks to explore the placebo responses in life and health. This movement has reshaped our advertising and our political language. You can’t understand the story of how America formed itself over the past two centuries if you don’t understand the growth of this idea.

Just think for a moment about how slogans from this movement have reshaped American politics. We’ve seen the triumph of this idea in politics over the last several decades. Ronald Reagan used this so frequently: “Nothing is impossible.” People may not realize this, but if you look back: Dwight Eisenhower didn’t sound this way. Richard Nixon didn’t sound this way. Lyndon Johnson didn’t talk about the war on poverty in this way. The tenets of positive thinking changed the way presidents were expected to talk and Reagan demonstrated this so persuasively that Obama’s slogan, “Yes we can,” picked it up from him and took it further and touched people all across the nation. Remember that George H.W. Bush complained that he couldn’t get a handle on “the vision thing”—and it cost him a second term.


DAVID:  Your book points out, of course, that there are many mind-power threads in global culture. Some forms of this theme show up in Asian culture and, more than two centuries ago, a very specific form of the idea was spread in Europe by Franz Mesmer (1734-1815), Americans didn’t invent the idea of a mind-body connection. However, as you show us in your book, Americans took the notion that mind and body are connected, codified it with a new set of assumptions and enshrined it in our culture to an extent the world had never seen before.

MITCH: Yes, of course. There is an international component to this. There are mind-body ideas in other world cultures. And there also was a vast therapeutic movement that arose in the 19th century, involving a lot of European innovations in understanding the mind. This all rested on the idea of a practical shift in human perception and the belief that you can objectively alter your experience of life going forward.

In his era, Mesmer was very good at arriving at an early very rough estimation of the unconscious mind. He didn’t possess a vocabulary that today we would consider “correct.” For example, he talked about “animal magnetism” and he had other ideas we dismiss today. But Mesmer did do enough in his work so that others could leap into this field and build something more concrete.

What Americans built from this is distinctive and Americans have done a very good job of dispersing our positivity gospel to the rest of the world. But there are other related movements in other parts of the world.

DAVID: One example of a European thinker, in your book, is Victor Frankl, who we recently profiled.

MITCH: Frankl is an example of a 20th-century European philosopher who wrote in a related area. Frankl was forced to live through some of the most catastrophic conditions imaginable. He emerged from the unspeakable tragedy of the Holocaust with the idea that humans, even in the most depleted of conditions, can find some sense of meaning. One could argue that it’s unfair of me to identify Frankl as connected to the “positive thinking” movement, but we can see him as a distant branch of this movement. It shows how far this positive-thinking project ran.

DAVID: Let’s go back to the beginning, for a moment. Some of our sharp readers may do the historical math in what we’ve already said in today’s interview and they will realize that Mesmer died long before Phineas Quimby jumped from designing watches to designing mind-body connections. So, here’s the link with Mesmer: Quimby attended a program by a traveling “mesmerist”—this was a couple of decades after Mesmer himself was dead—and this brilliant Maine watchmaker was so convinced by what he heard that he pretty much dropped his previous life to leap full force into a new line of work.

I’ll wager that most of our readers have never heard of Quimby until today’s interview—and perhaps they’ll go ahead and buy your book to discover his story. Tell us just a bit more about him.

MITCH: Quimby was the classic American religious experimenter and in some respects was the grandfather of mental healing—the forerunner of positive thinking. He was a clockmaker born in New Hampshire, although he spent most of his life in Maine. He found himself suffering from tuberculosis and he had nowhere to turn, like most Americans in that era, in seeking reasonable medical care. What passed for medicine actually made things worse. Throughout much of the 19th century, health care was dominated by an almost medieval approach to medicine. Physicians still thought it was a good idea to create open wounds to drain liquids from the body. Physicians would try to flush disease out of the body by giving people various toxic substances. At first, Quimby was given a treatment of calomel, a mercury-based toxin, and he wound up suffering from mercury poisoning. The poor man was losing teeth.

Quimby was faced with a crisis of suffering that was made worse at the hands of the professionals who were supposed to be helping him. Then, one day, he took a raucous carriage ride through the countryside and he found that the excitement of this ride improved his spirits and he also found some relief from his symptoms for a while. He began to wonder about this effect. He wrote, “Man’s happiness is in his belief.” He became quite interested in mesmerism and the connections between the mind and body. He began using prayers that today we would call affirmations and visualizations as a healing regimen. He began in the early 1840s treating people with disorders that had resisted medical treatments or had grown worse as a result of medicine. He became the nation’s first mental healer and he continued until his death in 1866.


DAVID: This book is far more than a history lesson. You connect the dots throughout your book with modern figures—for example, Norman Vincent Peale whose Guideposts magazine and website remain a mainstay in American culture two decades after his death.

MITCH: Peale wrote the book that would bring this message into just about every household in America: The Power of Positive Thinking.

DAVID: The book sold millions of copies and was on the New York Times bestseller list for 186 weeks in the 1950s! To this day, his magazine, founded just after World War II, reaches millions of readers and the magazine runs some very popular websites, as well. Your book gives us a balanced portrait of Peale, both his spiritual genius and also his tragic limitations. For example, you include Peale’s anti-Catholic bias against John Kennedy. You chart the highs and lows of Peale’s life in that section of the book.

You’ve included a lot in these pages. You look at Reagan’s use of this idea. And you also give us a sampling of recent scientific research, too.

MITCH: At leading institutions like Harvard, research is going on right now—we’re seeing new reports from this work all the time—exploring mind-body connections. But there is this disconnect in the way we understand where these ideas arose, so that’s why I thought this book was so timely. In medical research today, very few people feel any debt in their scientific work to the positive-thinking movement. In its best expressions, this movement did produce early rough estimates of some ideas that science is validating today about the mind and the body.

DAVID: I appreciate your historical balance. You’re not trying to advocate for positive thinking—and you’re not trying to dismiss it. Whether your readers like or dislike positive thinking—you make the case that it’s a movement we all should understand. To borrow your own words: “The whole notion that the mind is causative is the most radical religious and psychological idea of our times.”

We’ve talked already about some of the positive outcomes of the movement. What are some of the mistakes?

MITCH: I think the biggest mistake of the movement is that a lot of men and women in this movement have tried to simplify the power of the mind into something like a big mental law. Many of them have given us their own version of that law. But there is no verification of one great, unified, mental super law. Does that mean that all the insights of the positive thinking movement are wrong? No. I would say it this way: The mind is one “cause” among many.

I think the truth is: We live under many laws. Many forces are at work in the world. We suffer. Things happen that we can’t control. Does the mind have real power in our lives? Research is showing us: Yes, it does. But it’s not the only power. For all of its limitations, though, the positive thinking movement has always been on the edge of redefining humanity’s view of itself. There is real value in understanding this movement.

DAVID: One last thing I want to point out to readers in this interview: If this subject is intriguing, then your book also serves up one of the most impressive “Notes on Sources” sections that I’ve seen in a long time. You give readers a 43-page section that serves as a road-map to learn more about the whole wide range of topics you raise in your book. That Notes section is a great reason to buy this book.

MITCH: I appreciate your noticing that. I wrote those Notes to be read. They’re not a technical afterthought. They’re not tedious, I hope. This is where the reader can go beyond this book. I want people to be able to reach this section of the book and feel as though I’m showing them beneath the floorboards, taking them up in the attic and guiding them toward places they can go to read much more, if they are interested in what they’re discovering.

Want more?

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

Ann Morisy Interview: Hope always … springs up.

“HOPE has never trickled down. It has always sprung up.”
Studs Terkel

That’s the final line in theologian Ann Morisy’s manifesto for discouraged congregations, Bothered and Bewildered: Enacting Hope in Troubled Times. Her books are loaded with research drawn from sociology, political science, economics and theology. From that solid foundation, she raises her call to arms: The revival of Christianity—and the accompanying revival of communities—begins with small circles of men and women unleashing the power of their faith, their compassion and their creativity.

If you have never heard of Ann Morisy’s name until today, you should know that she stands in a long line of prophetic British writers whose appeals to conscience have crossed the Atlantic and built huge followings in America. That line certainly includes Charles Dickens (ReadTheSpirit is starting a Dickens reading group this week) and includes C.S. Lewis (see our earlier cover story on Lewis’ enormous legacy). That prophetic line also includes writers, teachers and musicians who have sprung from Scotland’s Iona Community (as examples, see these profiles of John Philip Newell and John Bell).

Care to read more on UK-US connections? All this week, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker is writing about our up-and-down trans-Atlantic relations in his daily columns.

Care to see and hear Ann Morisy? She occasionally comes to the U.S. and will appear March 21-23 at the First United Methodist Church of Ann Arbor adjacent to the campus of the University of Michigan. Sorry—yes, we know that most of our readers don’t live in Michigan, where ReadTheSpirit’s core staff is based, but we couldn’t resist heralding Ann’s visit with this interview.


There are echoes of Dickens, Lewis and the Iona writers in Morisy’s work. She preaches that congregations should not wallow in their anxieties about the future. Congregations are not poor, besieged outposts waiting for some do-gooder to come save them. In fact, every congregation is made up of men and women, and the truth is that each person can contribute in an “economy of abundance,” one of Morisy’s favorite phrases.

In other words, even if your options in life are extremely limited—perhaps you are wheelchair bound in an assisted living community—you still have a lot you can share with the rest of the world. Your contribution to abundance may amount to your compassionate smiles and encouraging words to others. There is no excuse for refusing to share, she argues. And, in fact, the vast majority of men and women are not so extremely limited—and can give far more on a daily basis.

The problem, Morisy argues, is that our societies—especially in the UK and the US—are tragically out of whack. Most Americans, today, know about the yawning wealth gap between the “rich 1 percent” and the rest of us. But Morisy’s preaching and writing doesn’t let the 99 off the hook. She asks audiences: Are you a Baby Boomer? Then, to those in that generation, she says: You’re contributing to the imbalance. Aging Baby Boomers—and she is one of them, she admits—are demanding that the majority of the world’s resources flow toward them. In other words, even if you’re among the “99 percent,” you’re not free of a moral responsibility to share.

“I write as a Baby Boomer, and on reflection it does indeed seem as if I have had an uninterrupted stream of benefits throughout my life,” Morisy writes in her book, Borrowing from the Future: A Faith-Based Approach to Intergenerational Equity. “But maybe I and my fellows are in for a shock. Our confident expectation of financial security rolling steadily into deep old age is threatened. The collapse of banks and the ensuing unsustainable mountain of debt that nations face mean that the future is going to be tough—even for the blessed generation of Baby Boomers. All the components are lining up for an intense bushfire as Baby Boomers and younger generations have come to terms with their—oops, I mean our—hampered desire to acquire and consume.”


As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I have conducted many of our Cover Story author interviews via long-distance connections with other countries, including the UK. However, Ann is based in Streatham on London’s south side, working out of a home office that runs on an intentionally modest budget. Her own telephone connection is via the Internet and has such limited capacity that our 90-minute interview was interrupted dozens of times. Eventually, Ann turned off all the lights and other electrical devices in her office in the hope that it might improve her connection. It didn’t. So, in the end, it was impossible to publish a typical ReadTheSpirit Question-and-Answer transcript.

Here are some of the things Ann did say, between Internet disconnects.

She is proud to be part of the laity in the Church of England; although she is a theologian, she is not ordained as a priest. She says: “To distinguish myself from academic theologians, I call myself a community theologian because I like theology that grows from the ground up.”

Ann is 61 and teaches a lot, these days, about the need for older men and women to keep learning—and contributing to the larger community. “As Baby Boomers are getting older, we are a pioneering generation entering this very long old age that people are experiencing today.” She works across the UK training communities in multi-generational dialogue. “We try to encourage churches not just to respond with pastoral care in relation to older people—but to encourage older people to think and reflect—and do their damnedest—not to be a pain in later life. … If we fall prey to being a pain in later life, we can really wreck the lives of those around us—for decades.”

That kind of in-your-face preaching and teaching is guaranteed to spark some anxious responses, and Morisy says she has not been eager to establish a personal website or other online column. Shifting to slang, she chuckles and says, “I like me privacy. I like to keep me head down.”

Fortunately, although she values her privacy, Ann isn’t shy and chooses when to emerge with her best shots—sometimes in book form and often in public workshops and talks, usually across the UK. This week, she brings her prophetic ministry to Michigan. We encourage our readers to find out more about this remarkable teacher. No, we won’t see most of you in Michigan—but you can sample Ann’s books and you can seek her out in the future.

This report is by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. You are free to repost and quote from this column.

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

Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee: A Sufi master invites us to pray

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.This week, ReadTheSpirit welcomes Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, a British-American Sufi mystic and teacher who is known to many Americans through his books, lectures and appearances in documentaries about interfaith unity. For most Americans, understanding Vaughan-Lee’s work is challenging. After all, the majority of us call ourselves Christian­—between 7 and 8 out of 10 Americans according to Gallup. Yet, more than half of Americans can’t name the four Gospels when pollsters ask. In America, George Gallup famously said, religion is “miles wide and inches deep.”

So, this week, we are introducing Vaughan-Lee to our readers in the U.S. and around the world—and we are drawing connections between his teaching and those of other religious voices we have featured in our pages. Come back later this week for our interview with Vaughan-Lee about his efforts to promote peace between the world’s religious traditions.

We asked readers what they know about Sufis, and many responded: “Wasn’t Rumi a Sufi?”
The answer is: Yes, and we have published stories about that famous poet, like this one featuring Rumi translator Coleman Barks.

Others asked: “Are Sufis the people who dance and whirl?” The answer: Yes, some Sufi traditions encourage dance and ecstatic whirling. But, Vaughan-Lee represents a “silent” branch of Sufism that practices quiet contemplative prayer perhaps closer to Catholic Father Thomas Keating than to Whirling Dervishes .

Today, we are recommending Vaughan-Lee’s new book, Prayer of the Heart in Christian and Sufi Mysticism. In less than 80 pages, he packs a concise and sturdy guide to global approaches to prayer that welcome everyone to pray—whatever your religious tradition may be. His teachings remind us of the work of Keating and Celtic Christian mystic John Philip Newell as well.


A good example of Vaughan-Lee’s convergence with Newell is the chapter called Prayer for the Earth.
A brief excerpt from Vaughan-Lee …

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.In whatever way we are drawn to pray, there is a vital need to include the earth in our prayers. We are living in a time of ecological devastation, the catastrophic effect of our materialistic culture on the ecosystem. Our rivers are toxic, the rainforests slashed and burned, vast tracts of land made a wasteland due to our insatiable desires for oil, gas and minerals. We have raped and pillaged and polluted the earth, pushing it into the dangerous state of imbalance we call climate change. Creation itself is now calling to us, sending us signs of its imbalance, and the soul of the world, the anima mundi, which the ancients understood as the spiritual presence of the earth is crying out. … Those whose hearts are open may hear it too, the cry of the world soul, of the spiritual being of our mother the earth. …

We are the children and the inheritors of a culture that has banished God to heaven. Early Christianity persecuted and ultimately largely extinguished any earth-based spirituality, and the physical world became a place of darkness and sin. Then after the Age of Enlightenment, the prevailing world view that grew out of Newtonian physics framed the world as an inanimate mechanism we could easily master, indeed were meant to master; we simply needed to discover its laws to tame it to our own ends. As a legacy of that view we have developed a materialistic culture that treats the earth as a commodity that exists to serve our own selfish purpose. Our greed now walks with heavy boots across the world, with complete disregard for the sacred nature of creation. …

Our Western culture no longer knows how to relate to the world as a sacred being. Now the world needs our prayers more than we know. It needs us to acknowledge its sacred nature, to understand that it is not just something to use and dispose of. It needs us to help I to reconnect with its own sacred source, the life-giving waters of creation that can save it from destruction. It needs us to remember it to the Creator. We are needed now to reclaim our sacred duty as guardian, or vice-regent, of the natural world. …

There are many ways to pray for the earth. First it is essential to acknowledge that the earth is not “unfeeling matter” but a living being that has given us life. It can be helpful to ask ourselves: How would we like to be treated? Just as a physical object to e used and repeatedly abused? Then perhaps we can sense the earth’s suffering: the physical suffering we see in the dying species and polluted waters, the deeper suffering of our collective disregard for its sacred nature. Perhaps, if we open our hearts and souls to the being we call the world, we will be able to hear the cry of the anima mundi, of its soul. For centuries it was understood that the world was a living being with a soul, and that we were a part of this being, the light of our own soul a spark, a scintilla, of the light of the world soul. As a culture we have forgotten hat, but this understanding is foundation of the prayer that is needed now. Through it we make that connection conscious again; we help bring our light back to the world soul.


What’s the connection with Celtic Christian writer John Philip Newell?
Read our earlier interview with Newell, or consider re-reading his book Christ of the Celts. Here are a few lines from Christ of the Celts that echo Vaughan-Lee’s writing, but approach the same theme from Newell’s Celtic-Christian perspective. From Christ of the Celts …

I heard within me what the ancients call “the music of the spheres.” The Celts were familiar with this music. In the Hebrides of Scotland, it was common practice well into the 19th century for men to take off their caps to greet the morning sun and for women to bend their knee in reverence to the moon at night. These were the lights of God. They moved in an ancient harmony that spoke to the relationship of all things. And they witnessed also to the eternal rhythm between masculine energies and feminine energies that commingle deep in the body of the universe. …

Not only is creation viewed as good, as coming out of the goodness of God, but it is viewed as well as theophany or a disclosing of the heart of God’s being. Eriugena, the 9th century Irish teacher, says that if goodness were extracted from the universe, all things would cease to exist. For goodness is not simply a feature of life; it is the very essence of life. Goodness gives rise to being just as evil leads to nonbeing or to a destruction and denial of life’s sacredness. The extent to which we become evil or false is the extent to which we no longer truly exist. Eriugena and the Celtic teachers invite us to look to the deepest energies of our bodies and souls and to the deepest patterns and rhythms of the earth as theophanies of the goodness of God. And they invite us to see Christ as the One who speaks again this forgotten goodness, the Word that comes to us from the Beginning. He is the memory of the first and deepest sound within creation. It is an invitation to listen for the sacred not away from life, but deep within all that has life.

Read More: Enjoy our interview with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee.

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Interview with Shane Claiborne on Common Prayer

Click the cover to visit the Amazon page. NOTE: This link takes you to the newest volume, the paperback Pocket Edition at less than 200 pages. If you want the bigger 600-page Common Prayer book, click on the text link to Amazon in our story, at left.Nearly everyone prays, including 9 out of 10 Americans, suveys show. But Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove realize that traditional common prayer, today, represents a radical departure from the individualistic directions in which Americans have been pulling their prayers. Prosperity preachers, televangelists and other pop gurus latch onto Americans’ taste for individuality and turn prayer toward self-centered desires. Shane, Jonathan and their colleagues realize that the true power of prayer lies in uniting people through the seasons and across communities that circle the globe. They have found that united prayer is a way to transform entire cultures, or to help a single neighborhood survive tragedy. That’s why their 600-page Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals includes special prayers for all-too-common experiences, like a tragic occasion when someone is killed in a neighborhood. Throughout the year, their prayers celebrate contemporary and classic saints.

Now, in 2012, they have added the Common Prayer Pocket Edition to make this practice more portable. As they say in the book:

“This little version will open up some new possibilities that may be trickier with a big ole 600-page book, like being able to take it to class or to work or on your bike or on a hike with a few friends.” You may wonder at that word “ole,” but that’s Shane’s Southern drawl coming through in that personal preface. Read our other two stories in this series to understand more about Shane’s work:

Part 1: Why Shane Claiborne & Woody Guthrie want Jesus as President (and why Shane’s multimedia kit from Zondervan is a valuable toolbox).
Part 2:
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Shane about the Jesus campaign.
Part 3 (here):
David interviews Shane and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove about Common Prayer.


Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Photo courtesy of Jonathan.DAVID: One of the first reactions I get, when I carry a copy of your Common Prayer book with me, is this: “Who do these guys think they are in claiming to have invented common prayer?” The idea of daily hours for prayer goes back to ancient Judaism within our own religious tradition. Christians have encouraged formal hours of prayer for at least 1,500 years. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer is approaching its 500th anniversary. In more recent decades, I’ve reported on Phyllis Tickle’s work in reintroducing ecumenical fixed-hour prayer. So, first, explain how you see your book’s place within that long tradition.

SHANE: Yes, there is a long tradition and a whole community of people around this work we are doing. We knew full well, from the start of preparing our book, that we were building on the work of others. The more recent effort to encourage everyone to pray in common involves so many people. We’ve got Catholics, Celtic Christians and people like Phyllis Tickle. One of the first things we did was to get Phyllis involved in our work. Phyllis agreed and so did Andy Raine of the Northumbria Community, which has been doing Celtic daily prayer. Richard Rohr got involved. Mennonites got involved. We’ve worked with Orthodox Christians. Many people worked with us to free up permissions and copyrights so we could publish the book. We had about 30 people in one of our first meetings on Common Prayer and we had an advisory team on top of that. Jonathan and I feel like we’re directing a symphony more than writing a book. In the book, we list people who helped from so many different traditions. Phyllis’s earlier books on Divine Hours are an incredibly important contribution to this whole movement.

JONATHAN: What Phyllis recognized, and I think it was truly an inspiration, is that the church has had prayer manuals going back centuries. But most of them are extremely complicated to use. To crack open some of those classic guides to prayer you need a degree in liturgy. The Divine Hours—the volumes Phyllis created—were both very accessible and very usable for individuals in their daily devotional life. Her work was a great gift in understanding both the big challenges of what we were trying to do and the logistical issues we faced in dealing with all of these liturgical materials from so many different sources.


DAVID: Clearly, you see other major figures in this movement as collaborators rather than competitors. You’re trying to pull together all the threads. But, more than that, you’re trying to make Christians aware that prayer isn’t a self-fulfilling practice for us as individuals, right? Prayer is about connecting with people around the world who are praying along with you. Do I have that right?

SHANE: Yeah! Yeah, absolutely. There’s an understanding of common prayer that I think we’re seeing grow, more and more. When I travel, I hear from people who are deeply touched that our common prayer takes time to remember some of the terrible tragedies that have happened around the world. The more I travel, the more I see how important it is to each population to see that their history of the good and the bad is remembered by others. And we’re not just remembering the bad. We’re remembering each other’s heroes, too. We are learning each other’s songs. We are reminding ourselves that we are a global family praying together. We’re all trying to live in the light of the history that shines through the biblical narrative.

DAVID: Let’s pick one example from your prayer books. At one point in the cycle, you remember the imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. As a journalist, I’ve been to Manzanar and I’ve reported nationally on the legacy of the detention. How did this milestone wind up in your book?

SHANE: The simple answer to your question is: Someone on our advisory team told us that this is a date we dare not forget. We must remember this to truly honor a history of a large population of people. That’s how the whole process unfolded. Look through the prayer books. You’ll see lots of dates. You’ll see names of Native Americans remembered. This was an open-sourcing project among so many people. You know, like Wikipedia? We may add more stuff, someday, when we come out with a Version 2.0 of the big book. We continue to follow the leading of the Spirit and we continue hearing new ideas.

But I’ve got to say this: We’re remembering both the good and the bad in our history together in this world. This isn’t an attempt to make people feel bad every morning and to force them to go stick their fingers in a wall socket. We chose these things we included as a way to point people toward the possibility of transformation even while remembering the great pain we have experienced as humanity.


DAVID: ReadTheSpirit has reported a lot, over the years, about Celtic Christian teachers like John Philip Newell and the importance of their work within Christianity—a contribution that is far larger than their numbers. You tapped into that tradition through Andy Raine and Northumbria.

JONATHAN: These folks were talking about “new monasticism” years before we were around. We didn’t realize how much they had done until we started talking about our own ideas and we realized that they were much further along in this whole process. The Celtic tradition seems to be much better suited than American Christianity for cultures where the church has drastically declined. That’s the case in much of Europe. In talking to Andy, he reminds us that our context is recovering an ancient tradition of evangelism in a world that has largely forgotten this wisdom. Here in the United States, we still have a lot more of the Church around us. We have a lot more vibrant congregational life in our neighborhoods. That’s a big difference between the Celtic revival in other parts of the world and the work we’re doing here, but they have contributed a lot to our work together.


DAVID: We recently published a fresh interview with Iona’s famous musician and hymn writer John Bell. One of the strong points John made was that he isn’t some lone wolf creating music and dropping it, fully finished, into the world. Everything he does, including the completion of new hymns, is done in community. That’s a radically different idea than our American culture that idolizes the lone wolf, right?

JONATHAN: I would say the same kind of thing John Bell is saying about music when I talk about our process of developing common prayer. One of the reasons we feel great about promoting it is that this is not self-promotion at all. It is the product of many communities working over many years. It grew out of our desire to root our faith in ancient practice, but also to express our needs and our experiences in the realities of today’s world. This has become a resource that draws on the best of our tradition but also speaks to the experience of our communities now.

For example, because we were praying in neighborhoods like those in which we live, we knew that our prayer book had to have a prayer for when someone is killed in your neighborhood. This happens a lot more frequently than we would like, but none of the prayer books we found in our research had anything like that. Yet that’s at the heart of our experience today. We need resources for that kind of all-too-common experience.

DAVID: That may shock some people. Prayer for a murdered neighbor?

SHANE: Hey, a question like that tells me you don’t live in a big city.

DAVID: Actually, I worked for years as the religion writer for Detroit’s morning newspaper and I’ve reported on lots of candle-lit vigils and street corners where heaps of flowers and teddy bears show up after a murder. So, yes, I do understand the value of that special prayer you added.


JONATHAN: One of the things we learned is that the church has important ways of opening up a space in a community where tragedy strikes. The church can open space for both silence and for words. That’s true when important things happen in the life of a community—both bad things and good things, too. In our book, we try to help people formalize a structure of good words to say in the space that opens up after something big happens. People do circle and pray on street corners afterward and we’re helping people hallow that space and invite everyone to participate by providing thoughtful words. That’s the gift of good liturgy: We draw on the words and the wisdom of the whole church, including the wisdom of people who have lived in generations long before us.

SHANE: The problem is that the Chicken-Soup-for-the-Soul stuff may feel good, you know, but none of that typical stuff helps when somebody in your neighborhood is murdered. Then, where do you turn? Where do you look for words to speak? We’ve heard from people all around the world, telling us that this is their reality. People need a way to connect the sometimes really hard reality in which they wake up each morning with the movement of the Spirit. They need to find words that can reconnect them with each other. That is the gift of good liturgy, yeah. We’re not talking about fluffy stuff. We’re talking about real life for people around the world. Our prayers should be said like the daily breath that gives us life.


DAVID: As we draw our interview to a close, this is a good point to remind readers of one of the most radical aspects of your ministry, writing and teaching. You’re not calling people to leave existing churches in the dust and go establish new ones. That marks you as quite different from a lot of restless young preachers out there. Your work is focused on revitalizing the church. Have I got that right?

SHANE: Certainly the institutional church is ill. It’s hemorrhaging young people at an astronomical rate. There are financial bankruptcies in many parts of the church. No question about that. But we see the possibility of reimagining and revitalizing the church. For example, in my own neighborhood, it’s considered normal for pastors to be bi-vocational. One of our local pastors is also an electrician. Look at the model of Alcoholics Anonymous, spreading across so many lives without any paid staff as it spreads through communities.

Yes, like you’re saying, in some ways we are very old-fashioned in our commitment to the institutional church. We’re not church planters. We are community planters and, as we work in our communities, we join local churches. Jon joined a historic Missionary Baptist church in his neighborhood. In our neighborhood, some of us attend Mass at local Catholic churches. Others attend Pentecostal churches. There is real value in these local congregations. For me, a lot of it is the value of the sacraments we share. In neighborhoods like ours, the churches provide stability.

Certainly, this common prayer project has taken years of energy, but we see it not as a way to leave our individual churches, but as a movement we hope to see permeate the larger Church. I’m going to Willow Creek again this year and I see that as a way to help connect with a post-denominational mega-church that’s wanting to reconnect with good liturgy. That’s promising! We know the Church wasn’t born 200 years ago. It’s encouraging to see some of the post-denominational churches actually wanting to reconnect with the story and the prayer life of the larger Church.

DAVID: We hear so much from writers and scholars about the problems churches face. It’s great to talk to you two about all the hope you see out there!

SHANE: Hey, somehow Jesus’s reputation has survived all the embarrassing things that Christians have done in his name. Jesus still has a really great reputation and the Spirit is still moving. I’ve got a lot of hope for a generation that takes Jesus seriously, once again.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
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Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Iona hymn writer John L. Bell talks about touring the U.S.

Iona Abbey, heart of the worldwide Iona Community on the isle of Iona off Scotland’s western coast. Photograph by John Hile.John Bell is a hot ticket for congregations, clergy conferences and Christian communities around the world, but the truth is:
He’s a tough guy to track down!
On Sunday, Bell talked with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about the start of his current U.S. (and Latin American) tour. He is sought after by Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational churches around the world. But, Bell started our interview by quickly dismissing interest in the online realm.

“I am happy to talk to you,” Bell told Crumm on Sunday, “because you know the Iona Community and the work that I am doing—but I don’t have much use for online media. The things written online aren’t all that accurate. Sometimes I am sitting at a conference, waiting to be introduced, and I realize that the person who is introducing me must have gone to Wikipedia for the details. I don’t ever to go Wikipedia or anywhere else online to read about myself. But I can tell you: There must be things online that aren’t very accurate about my life and work, because they do keep popping up as I travel.”

One problem is that Bell shares a name with nearly 50 other John Bells listed in Wikipedia, including athletes, artists, politicians, scientists—and other musicians. It takes some savvy online searching even to locate John Bell’s current American schedule. He doesn’t have his own website or blog.
So, to help John Bell accurately kick off his 2012 American tour …


John Bell in one of the few online photographs available for republication.John Bell draws a crowd! Not only is he personally responsible for a long list of hymns and anthems sung in churches around the world, but he also is a popular teacher on Iona-Celtic-Christian approaches to prayer, worship and work with the world’s most needy communities. (ReadTheSpirit has published many stories about Iona’s important Christian influences. Here’s a 2011 interview with John Philip Newell, another influential Iona writer. And, from 2009, here’s an earlier interview with John Bell about his book on reviving Christianity. NOTE: All ReadTheSpirit stories can be republished, as long as you link back to our website. See our Creative Commons sharing license below.)

Coming soon: February 1-4, Bell is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at a Presbyterian educational conference. Then, February 3-5, he is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at First United Methodist Church for a global music weekend. From February 13-15, he is in Phoenix, Arizona, for a clergy conference. And, February 23-25, he is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a clergy conference. In March, Bell is in Atlanta. He also is visiting two countries in South America. In May, he is in Atlanta, Tulsa and Bangor, Pennsylvania. By June, he is in North Carolina.

Best place to find details about his U.S. tours? Iona Community New World Foundation keeps track of his plans and posts updated event information—and some links for further information. The Foundation also posts a helpful index to a wide range of Iona-related links, including the Wild Goose organizaton that is John Bell’s professional home base in Scotland. Want to go right to the source in the UK realm of the Internet? The Wild Goose Resource Group also maintains a short profile of John Bell.

Interview: Iona hymn writer John Bell

Iona Abbey and cross. Photograph by John Hile.DAVID: Let’s start with biographical details. You’re John L. Bell—to distinguish you from the other famous John Bells out there. And, I believe you’re 62 right now.

JOHN: Yes, that’s right.

DAVID: Where do you live these days? That’s not clear to me from some of your online biographies.

JOHN: Glasgow, Scotland, is home, but I’m on the road between eight and nine months of most years. Right now, I’m over here in the U.S. for eight weeks doing different events. I’m also taking care of some business with my publishers and I plan to visit a small community in Paraguay. So, I’m doing some public events, some private events and some personal visiting.

DAVID: Why is Paraguay on this trip?

JOHN: We have a relationship with a small community there. Every year, volunteers come to us in Scotland from Paraguay. I want to visit their home, see where they come from, and experience some of their culture. This year, I’m also traveling in mainland Europe and in parts of England and Ireland.

DAVID: You’re an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland and you’re famous for composing music used in churches around the world. But, how do you prefer to introduce yourself before a group?

JOHN: I say that I’m a resource worker in areas of worship and spirituality. That’s really what I do. Sometimes, I work in universities and seminaries. Sometimes I work at conferences. Sometimes I work at local churches. I focus on different things in different places. I may work with congregational music and show ways that music can be improved; or I may talk about scripture and help people lose their fear of engaging with scripture; or I might help to prepare men and women getting ready for ministry in seminary; or I might work with people trying to deepen their individual spirituality.

DAVID: You have a unique perspective as an outsider, traveling widely across the  U.S. Can you tell us anything about trends you’re seeing in American Christianity?

JOHN: Oh, America is such a huge country that if I make any comments, I can immediately be contradicted by people with contrary examples. So, I would not want to make any specific comments. But, I can say this generally: I see a lot of what we might call non-liturgical churches that now are interested in styles of music and worship that have a much more ordered sequence. They are reaching out for more traditional forms. And, at the same time, I’m seeing some more liturgical churches that are trying to open up.  I see conferences organized by more traditional churches inviting people from nondenominational churches or megachurches to address them. And I’m seeing some nondenominational churches inviting people from more historical churches to speak at conferences.

DAVID: So, you’re seeing something of a crossover in Christian culture. Do you think American churches are looking for some kind of new middle ground?

JOHN: I don’t know if they’re trying to find a middle ground. But, I can say this: I would hate to see the church become so intermixed in traditions that we wind up with a sort of morass of grayness. For example, if your gift in the church is lively song and a strong emphasis on social justice like the Mennonites, then that’s an important and distinctive gift to share with others. Orthodox and Catholic churches have gifts for exploring the mystery of God and those are true gifts. Some traditions have gifts in their welcoming nature and in showing hospitality. I would say: Major in your gifts! A failure of ecumenism would be to merge everything into a sort of shapeless mass of sameness. God made us different to represent the full spectrum of all colors within Christianity.

DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we have covered some of these movements back and forth through Christian tradition. For example, Shane Claiborne—a very popular American speaker and author among innovative Christian leaders—now is heavily promoting Common Prayer. There’s a new edition coming out this week of his book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

JOHN: Yes, I have friends in Britain who already are using his Common Prayer book and appreciate that, because it’s rooted both in traditional practices and in contemporary language. He draws on the spirit and wisdom of a whole lot of people in his Common Prayer book. I think that approach is much more attractive to people in this postmodern society—rather than telling people that they have to spend endless hours wrestling with tangles of archaic religious language in some prayer book from an earlier era.

DAVID: You and John Philip Newell and other Iona writers are now known around the world. Do you think of yourself as a global voice?

JOHN: No. I don’t think about it that way at all. I believe that for my work to have any authenticity, it has to be rooted in the place from which I come. All my own writing and composing is done in Scotland. I don’t write anything while I’m traveling—with one exception. I do believe that it’s important for me to engage with and learn form people in the developing world.

But, I never write something with the thought that I expect it to be translated into other languages. I never stop to think whether someone in a distant country—Finland or Argentina or some other country—will want me to come talk about what I’ve just written. If I thought like that, then I would have taken my eye off the ball. Spirituality must be localized and nurtured in the soil from which it has grown.

And I don’t think of what I write as coming directly from me to the world. That’s not how I work at all. I would never write a book where the material hadn’t gone through friends and colleagues and people I trust in our community. My work is developed in conversation with other people. I have a very strong feeling that God has blessed me and given me gifts that come out of a particular geographical and historical situation. As long as I’m true to that—then what I do may have value elsewhere. But if I were to think of myself as some kind of global writer, then I would lose the spiritual plot of my life. That may not be true for everyone, but it’s true for me. I live in Scotland; I’m a person who is Scottish; my heritage draws on the experience of the Celtic church; and our faith has been formed by living and working among impoverished communities. These are my spiritual roots. These are what give me energy.

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