United America: Rediscovering Our Common Ground

We are excited!

Many readers—just like you—already are pitching in, helping us to spread the hopeful news contained in Dr. Wayne Baker’s United America: The surprising truth about American values, American identity and 10 beliefs that a large majority of Americans hold dear. Today, we’re going to tell you about just one of the communities pitching in: an inspiring grassroots network near Philadelphia that has sprung up in recent years from an idea that started in just one family—among the children in that family!

ALSO NEW TODAY: Dr. Baker’s book is intentionally designed for discussions in any venue, including public school classrooms, libraries, as well as team-building exercises in corporations and non-profits. But, we know many church-based groups are eager to discuss this book. So, today, we are debuting a free downloadable Bible Study Guide to this new book, developed by a top author of Bible study materials.

And, before we take you to our story from the Philadelphia area—

Here’s all you need to know to join in this nationwide movement of people rediscovering our common ground through these core values documented by Dr. Baker at the University of Michigan’s prestigious Institute for Social Research. To help promote a United America, you can …


WITHIN DAYS OF PUBLICATION, last week, we got an enthusiastic email from Kahra Buss, who lives in New Jersey not far from Philadelphia with her family and their growing community of volunteers. The good news found in United America—that one of the nation’s top social scientists has documented the surprising breadth of Americans’ common ground—is sparking all kinds of fresh ideas, Kahra said.

“When we received your book we were immediately flooded with a host of ideas about how to incorporate it into our programs and lessons,” Kahra said. “We were so flattered to be included, we couldn’t help but get excited about all of the possibilities!”

Kahra and her family appear in the pages of United America. Their inspiring story is one of many short, real-life stories Dr. Wayne Baker shares with readers in the book to demonstrate the potential of these 10 core values to connect and motivate grassroots programs.

Get the book to read more, but here is the story of the life-changing moment for this family living across the Delaware River from Philadelphia in Moorestown, New Jersey—

The moment came quite unexpectedly one night in 2009 at their church. Kahra Buss, her husband and their three children (aged 2, 4 and 9 at the time) volunteered to help with a local rotating homeless shelter, which housed needy families in various churches for a week at each location. The Buss family brought dinner for the families in the program and then spent the evening with them. The kids—the Buss children and the children in the homeless families—did homework together, played together, read storybooks and quickly formed friendships.

Near bedtime that night, Kahra’s family headed toward the church’s parking lot to drive home. “That’s when Grace, who was 4 at that time, looked around the parking lot and saw that we were the only ones leaving the church. Grace asked, ‘Why aren’t they going home like us?'”

As Kahra vividly recalls that night in the parking lot, “We explained to the girls that these families didn’t have homes. Our girls hadn’t fully understood the idea of homelessness until that moment. It was if someone had completely pulled the rug out from under their world.

“The children in the shelter had just become their friends. Our girls now realized that their new friends were not able to get into a car and head home, climb into bed, hug their favorite stuffed animal and listen to a bedtime story in their own bedrooms.

“This truth hit them far harder than we ever imagined. Grace looked at us and said, ‘We need to do something.'”

My husband and I agreed. “We said, ‘We all need to do something.'”

That word “all” turned out to be the sticking point. “We learned that they were too young to do anything in the existing programs around Moorestown,” Kahra said. “They best we could find was a food bank where they could come with us, mainly to get a tour of the food bank. My husband and I feel very strongly that it is important to give children, at that age, an opportunity to get involved in helping other people. Everyone can do something to help, even children at that age. And, if they start at that age, it becomes a lifelong practice.”

Like most young children, the Buss kids’ first ideas were … well, a little impractical. Grace declared: “We should build a hotel where homeless people can stay.”

Kahra explained to her daughter, “We’ll have to wait a while to try that.” Instead, the children decided to organize a local food drive to restock food pantry shelves. And that idea proved so fruitful that … Well, read Dr. Baker’s book to find out everything else the Living Civilly nonprofit is doing in that corner of New Jersey. Working with children, the Buss family’s nonprofit has expanded to a wide array of creative programs from community gardens to distribution of healthy after-school snacks to innovative peer mentoring programs in which older kids help younger kids with homework.

Everything the Live Civilly nonprofit organizes benefits families, especially focused on children—both in receiving assistance and in providing it!


What does it mean to “pitch in” and to “to join in this nationwide movement of people rediscovering our common ground”? We hope you will share fresh ideas with us. Email us anytime at [email protected] Meanwhile, look at the bullet-point list of options at the top of today’s story.

Here is what Kahra Buss and her nonprofit already are planning to do with Dr. Baker and United America. Perhaps one of their ideas is good for you and your group?

PERSONALIZED EDITIONS OF UNITED AMERICA: Our publishing house can modify group orders of United America, directly shipped to you or your group. Kahra’s group plans to order a box of books personalized for Live Civilly with the group’s logo printed on the book’s cover and a half dozen pages added to the opening of the book (actually bound into the books in that box shipped to them in Moorestown), explaining to readers of those personalized editions more about the story behind Live Civilly. That first box of books will go to long-time supporters of their organization and will serve as an outreach tool to new supporters. Rather than giving supporters a logo-stamped water bottle or other typical promotional gifts, these special copies of United America are an inspiring and motivating keepsake. Interested? Email us anytime at [email protected]

HOSTING DR. BAKER FOR AN EVENT: Reading the good news contained in United America inspires readers, just as it did Kahra Buss this week. As you can read in our first story about the book’s release, Dr. Baker already has tested this book with pilot groups in two cities. We have seen the transformative impact of this book. Kahra Buss is talking with Dr. Baker about planning an event in their part of the country, including a keynote talk by Dr. Baker. Interested? Email us anytime at [email protected]

THIS IS REAL NEWS: Grassroots organizations like Live Civilly always are struggling to raise awareness through regional news media. This is a perennial concern for groups nationwide. Kahra’s organization is raising awareness, right now, through national news about United America. The fact that, today, you have read about Live Civilly is a part of that effort. Together, we all can raise awareness of this important kind of community-building. Got an idea about this? Email us anytime at [email protected]

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

VeggieTales reminds kids of Chrisian reason for the season

Either you’re a VeggieTales family—or you’re not. That’s certainly true, after more than 40 original Veggie Tales videos and a host of other TV shows featuring these big-eyed, big-hearted vegetables. This year, VeggieTales is celebrating the 20th anniversary of its first direct-to-DVD film, Where’s God When I’m S-Scared?

Most families know what to expect: Lots of colorful vegetables bouncing around on their rear ends (everyone knows that vegetables don’t have legs!), singing silly songs in high-pitched voices (hey, millions love it when the Muppets do it, right?)—and drawing biblical lessons at every turn of the plot (they’re such universal Christian lessons that it’s hard to imagine any denominational friction).

What’s new in the 43rd VeggieTales?

The producers have convinced the bearded old “Si” from the super popular Duck Dynasty TV series to appear as the on-screen Narrator in VeggieTales: Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas. Overall, he’s an odd casting choice—certainly not as memorable as Burl Ives as the Snowman/Narrator in the original TV special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

The bearded Narrator aside, Merry Larry and the True Light of Christmas is a pitch-perfect slice of VeggieTales silliness. Sure, the jokes are puns worthy of groans—the Veggies themselves are in on the joke. After about the third “turnip” joke in this new movie, even the turnips are groaning. Sure, the songs verge on nonsensical, but they’re called Silly Songs.

In this new tale, the conflict turns on which is more important for Christmas: Glitzy lights at a shopping mall—or the love of God as shown in Jesus’ birth? It’s hardly a “spoiler” to tell you: Jesus wins.

One of the sung refains starts:

“Oh, Christmas shines most bright and true.
“When you give the love God gave to you.”

The Silly Song in the middle of the video is about Larry managing to completely cover himself in Christmas wrapping paper. The refrain:

“Somehow when I was packin’
“I got caught up in all the wrappin’”

No, it’s neither Cole Porter nor Elton John—but I defy you not to start tapping your toe halfway through the Silly Song.

Have you got children—or an entire family—on your holiday gift list that would enjoy such high-spirited, goofy fun? Click on the image with today’s story and visit the movie’s Amazon page.


The Jane Wells interview on how a Hunger Games Bible study can fire up your congregation—and help others

Where are The Hunger Games taking Americans?

TO THE MOVIES: On November 22, a tidal wave will overwhelm movie theaters for the second blockbuster in the film series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. How big is this? In a word: Huge.

  • Ticket pre-sales are massive: Catching Fire tickets are a lion’s share of all tickets people are pre-purchasing this month. Fandango reports the sales pattern is record setting.
  • The first week will be enormous: In its 2012 opening weekend, the first Hunger Games movie zoomed to third place in all-time U.S. rankings of opening-weekend ticket sales.
  • And, this series has staying power: Since 2012, that first Hunger Games movie has shot past Spider-Man, Jurassic Park and the Lord of the Rings and now is No. 14 in all-time total ticket sales in the United States. (The top three on that list are Avatar, Titanic and Avengers.)
  • Millions still are reading: The three novels remain extremely popular. The first volume remained on the New York Times and USA Today best seller lists for two years! With new movies, book sales will rise again.

WHERE else can The Hunger Games take Americans?

TO CHURCH and INTO THE WORLD to help the most vulnerable men women and children among us. That’s if author and columnist Jane Wells succeeds in her new campaign. Today, through this author interview, we’ll tell you how to join in the movement.

In Jane Wells’ new book—a Bible study for congregations, called Bird on Fire—Jane explains why The Hunger Games is such a hit with readers and moviegoers. Themes in this series of novels and movies tap deep into biblical history, including the lives of Esther, Gideon and David. The main symbols in Hunger Games echo powerful images established hundreds of years ago when mainline congregations first were sweeping across the American landscape. Bringing this new Jane Wells Bible-study series into your congregation not only will draw a crowd—but also can energize young and old to pitch in on popular campaigns to help our world, today.


DAVID: Who are these millions of fans? I expect that a lot of our readers are going to be very interested in organizing a group to go through your Bird on Fire book, but their first question will be: Who should we invite to get involved?

JANE: The movies and books first were popular with teens—teenage girls specifically—but now they also have crossed over so that a lot of adults have read the books and are planning on seeing all of the movies.

DAVID: The first Hunger Games was classified as Young Adult, or YA, fiction. How can such a genre make the leap to adult fans?

JANE: Here’s the key—YA novels leave out the gratuitous sex and violence, but the best of YA novels still deliver all the depth of character and drama we expect in great novels. So there are huge numbers of adults who love these stories—and welcome a chance to enjoy a series without the more explicit sex and violence. A lot of readers not only don’t miss the gore that we find in a lot of crime and suspense novels today—they actually welcome a chance to avoid it! I love well-written YA books for that reason, and I’m certainly not alone. Now, I do realize that a lot of YA fiction doesn’t live up to the standards set by authors like Suzanne Collins. But, in the best of this genre? It’s terrific reading.

DAVID: Well, we just published an interview with HarperOne’s Mark Tauber, who is expecting to rack up serious sales this winter with C.S. Lewis editions. And, of course, a lot of Lewis books are what we would call YA today, although a lot of the people buying and reading those books are adults.

Given the super popularity of R-rated books like 50 Shades of Grey and thrillers oozing blood and guts, what’s the appeal of books that are only PG-13 at most?

JANE: It’s all about the characters. And that’s why, in my new Bible-study book, I connect readers with similarly strong stories about heroes from the Bible: Esther, Gideon, David and more. Millions of us love The Hunger Games, because we care so much about these characters! When we first meet Katniss Everdeen—the main hero in these stories—we care about her immediately.

DAVID: Suzanne Collins’ fictional world is usually called “dystopian”—the dark opposite of a utopia. For a long time, such stories have been extremely popular—and some of these novels are now literary classics: George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 are two great examples. These dystopian tales also are gripping on the big screen. Think of Blade Runner, which still has a vast cult following more than 30 years since its original release. In The Hunger Games, we meet Katniss in the middle of a similarly unjust and terrifying world, right?

JANE: We do. We learn that, when she was only 11, her father died in a mine explosion. After that, her mother sinks into this deep depression. Her family is on the verge of starving to death. Katniss learns to hunt and gather food just to keep her family alive. Then, she winds up having to compete in this life-and-death competition—the “hunger games” that become the series title—in which young people fight to the death for the viewing pleasure of the powerful people who run this terrible world.

DAVID: Once again, Suzanne Collins is borrowing this whole plot from thousands of years of literature. We only have to think back to the ancient tales of Theseus—stories that suddenly are getting a revival this winter thanks to JJ Abrams (see Jane’s Faith Goes Pop news item on Abrams’ new project). In one version of the Theseus myths, the evil King Minos of Crete conquers the Athenians and orders that, every nine years, seven Athenian boys and an equal number of girls must battle the Minotaur—which meant certain death for the king’s viewing pleasure.  Theseus is the hero who agrees to risk life and limb in these deadly games. That’s just one direct parallel to Collins’ tale and there are many more similar tales through the history of world culture.

In fact, Collins has been widely accused of borrowing the plot of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, which was translated from the Japanese into English in 2003—five years before her first book was published. She denies that she borrowed his plot—but, her novels are so similar to events in Battle Royale that the accusations continue to be raised. I noticed that Target stores just started selling DVD sets of the Battle Royale movies, with English subtitles, just in time to cash in on the latest Hunger Games movie craze.

JANE: Yes, these kind of stories have found audiences for thousands of years.

The best thing Suzanne Collins did in writing The Hunger Games was the creation of Katniss Everdeen as her main character. I’ve read a lot of books in this genre and I don’t recall a character quite like her before this. Yes, there have been lots of girls as main characters and even girls as heroes. But, here, it’s almost coincidental that Katniss is a girl. In this kind of novel with a girl as a main character, we usually see the writer paying a lot of attention to the hero’s gender. But, Katniss isn’t “girly” at all. And, Katniss doesn’t use her femininity to “play” anybody. She uses her skills, her mind, her strength. She really doesn’t spend any time thinking about what it means that she’s a girl. She’s a person who simply refuses to put up with the kind of hazardous, scary, unjust world in which she finds herself.

DAVID: There are some distinctive issues concerning her gender, though.

JANE: Yes, one way that she is distinctively female, as a character, is that she is motivated by not wanting to bring her own children, someday, into the world she finds around her. Her gender also shapes her story because the laborers who must work in the mines do appear to be mostly men in Collins’ world. But overall, Katniss is this very strong hero who goes out and risks her life for justice. I think that Katniss—as this bright and heroic and skillful and motivated young woman—is a different kind of character than we’ve seen before.


DAVID: Katniss may be unique in contemporary YA fiction. But, as you point out immediately in your book, Bird on Fire, there are ancient heroes who mirror Katniss’ courage and wisdom. One of them was Queen Esther, the starring hero of the Bible’s Book of Esther.

JANE: Yes, as I thought about Hunger Games and my strong response to these stories, I remembered that this is the same basic skeleton of Esther’s story. According to the Book of Esther, a decree goes out in the ancient Persian empire for a high-stakes competition that the king stages to show his power over the people. He calls for beautiful young girls from across his empire to come before him in this competition to find a new wife.

DAVID: Our readers probably know the basic story. For centuries, Esther was a classic subject for painters. Then, Hollywood produced at least four different movies from this story; and, now, there’s even a VeggieTales version for kids. This story also is retold each year in the Jewish festival of Purim.

JANE: In the first part of Esther’s story, she wins this competition. But the story doesn’t end there. She is chosen to be a wife for the king, but then the question becomes: What will this woman do with the power she she got through these experiences? That’s where we find Katniss in this second movie, Catching Fire. In the first book, she won her competition. She survived. She could, then, fade into the background and enjoy everything she has won. That’s the same moral question Esther faces: When she sees great injustice taking place around her, can Esther sit back and remain silent and live in comfort for the rest of her life? In Esther’s case, if she remains silent, her uncle will die and a lot of other innocent people along with her. Katniss faces similar moral choices.

DAVID: There are a lot of reluctant biblical heroes. In  your book, you also compare Katniss to Gideon, among others.

JANE: Yes, you’ll find a lot of Bible references in Bird on Fire. I liked drawing comparisons with Gideon because, like Katniss, he was this young person from this small town who was called to face a challenge. Eventually, he did it—Gideon went out and destroyed some idols in his town—but that wasn’t the end of his story. Like Katniss, he was called on to face bigger challenges after that. I like Gideon’s story, because he answers the question: Can one little person make a difference in a big world? Gideon also reminds us that, just because we win one battle, that doesn’t mean God is done with us.


DAVID: Even the Hunger Games symbol of a bird in a circle resonates down through religious history, right?

JANE: I love this part of the story. When I was writing this book, Bird on Fire, I was remembering the logos on the novels and the pictures associated with the movies, too. The movie images add flames with the bird. And I realized that these symbols are from my own denominational background: the Church of the Nazarene. Our logo shows a bird with a flame behind it. There are lots of similarities in these images. In both Hunger Games and my church, the bird represents freedom. In my church, we say it’s freedom through the Holy Spirit. There are other similarities, too—including the flame that represents purifying fire. I was amazed as I got to thinking about this.

Then, David, you and I got to talking about these themes—while I was still working on this book—and you pointed out that John Wesley used a bird-and-encircling-snake symbol to decorate his beautiful chapel in London. It represents a verse that I don’t think many Christians recall out of Matthew 10, when Jesus tells his followers: “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”

I don’t remember seeing any churches that kept the snake symbol that Wesley used, but I think Wesley was right to display it in his chapel. It’s such a wonderful reminder that, as Christians, we are not supposed to turn off our brains. We are given minds to think; it’s a God-given gift. We’re supposed to be analytical and critical of the world around us and to carefully evaluate what we see around us in light of truths we see in the Bible. Very powerful.


DAVID: There are stark moral questions in The Hunger Games. One of them is the question of what it truly means to be bringing peace into the world. Today, we have a great deal of respect for men and women who agree to be what we call “peacekeepers”—folks who put their lives on the line in some of the world’s most combustible hot spots. But in the novels, “peacekeepers” are bad.

JANE: In The Hunger Games, peacekeepers are just tools of the Capitol, the evil force ruling the world. The peacekeepers are concerned with maintaining the status quo, which means keeping people compliant. The peacekeepers keep President Snow in power and, if that means shooting some people to accomplish their mission, then so be it. For these peacekeepers, the classic excuse is: “We’re only following orders.” Their power is absolute and deadly.

I think it’s fascinating to discuss how “peacemakers” can be quite different than the “peacekeeper” model we find in The Hunger Games. I would recommend that readers look at the books by Daniel Buttry, especially his Blessed Are the Peacemakers. Dan does a great job in that book of reporting true stories about people who have taken huge risks to make peace. Some of his stories come from the civil rights era, when people literally were willing to lay down their lives.

I want people to realize: Yes, the civil rights era is now a generation or so removed from our time, but there still are huge gaping holes in society that we need to address today.

DAVID: I’m impressed with the guests you’ve invited to take part in your book launch this week, here in Michigan. (Care to go? See information below for details.)

You could have planned all sorts of things for the book launch, but you’ve deliberately chosen to highlight contemporary slavery and hunger issues, including food insecurity, at your launch event. Our readers know—from our past coverage including our interview with David Batstone of the “Not for Sale” campaign—that many congregations nationwide already are joining in the grassroots movement to end modern slavery.

JANE: The message is simple and powerful: If you’re a fan of The Hunger Games, you should realize that these problems exist in our world, today. Millions of American children face hunger every day. Millions live in “food insecure” households, meaning that these families struggle to put enough food on the table and don’t always have enough to provide meals.

A large portion of children across the country now are signed up for free or reduced-price school meals. Think about the heartbreaking situations in homes each summer or over holiday periods when these kids don’t have those school meals and may be making do with one meal-a-day at home—or less. It kills me as a mother myself to think about my own kids. How can we stand by and know that there are so many kids out there living in homes where parents can’t provide food?

The demand on food pantries and feeding programs is growing. We all need to ask: How can we help out? Yes, we can donate bags of food occasionally. But there may be other ways we can help. This isn’t a novel. It’s real life today for too many families.

Hunger isn’t science fiction.

DAVID: I love that line and I think it could make a terrific handbill or poster for a small group planning to discuss your new book. Take a color picture of your book cover, put it on the handbill, then headline the page: “HUNGER ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.” Then, invite people to the discussion series. Or, you could make up handbills with the other theme: “SLAVERY ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION.” That’s also something you’re urging people to discuss.

JANE: Slavery isn’t directly in the title of Suzanne Collins’ series, as “hunger” is, but forms of slavery also run through her novels. And, as a lot of congregations already know, slavery is still a problem in our world today.

DAVID: According to Wikipedia’s overview of “contemporary slavery“—the United Nations estimates that there are 27 to 30 million slaves in today’s world.

JANE: When I began looking into this problem, I was shocked me to discover that there are more slaves in the world today than ever before in history.

DAVID: The sheer numbers are enormous and the forms of slavery are many. There are child slaves, sex slaves, huge mining and industrial operations in many parts of the world that are run entirely with slave labor—the list goes on and on.

JANE: Most slaves today are laborers and, by the nature of their work, they’re not tied up in closets or locked away in secret places. They’re often working in plain sight. I live in a farming area of Michigan and, even in our state, there are questions about how migrant farm laborers may be used or abused. In some cases, farm laborers can find themselves financially bonded in such a way that they’re powerless. They can become slaves, even in the middle of America. That’s why I invited a Michigan State Police officer to speak at my launch event, a woman who works on new laws and regulations to help combat human trafficking.

When you finish reading The Hunger Games—or when the movie is over—I want you to ask yourself: What am I called to do in our world right now?


We welcome many perspectives on The Hunger Games. In coming weeks, we will be establishing a Resource Page to help our readers find a wide array of thought-provoking materials on this theme. One of the first additions is a sermon by the Rev. Bob Roth, a peace activist and campus minister, titled Redemptive Violence? An Alternative Perspective.


FIRST, please support Jane’s work by buying her book. Learn more and find easy links to purchase the book in our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.

DO YOU LIVE NEAR SOUTHEAST MICHIGAN? Jane is devoting her book launch to helping fans see the connection between Hunger Games and dire needs in our communities today. She is pulling together the YMCA—as well as advocates of combating both contemporary slavery and hunger. From 7 to 9 p.m. on Thursday, November 14, Jane Wells will appear at her local YMCA along with one of Michigan’s leading investigators into patterns of modern slavery—and a regional leader in interfaith feeding programs. The event is free and open to the public at The Monroe Family YMCA, 1111 West Elm Avenue, Monroe, MI.

AROUND THE WORLD: We know that, since we began ReadTheSpirit in 2007, our active readers circle the globe. You live in communities from Australia to Panama, from New England to Los Angeles. If you purchase Jane’s book and organize a local discussion group, please email us at [email protected] and tell us what you’re doing. We’d like to share your news with the rest of our worldwide readership. AND, if you’d like to arrange to bring Jane to your corner of the world—email us and we’ll be happy to put you in touch with this author. Please note: Her schedule fills quickly, so plan ahead!

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

The Jim Wallis Interview: What Abe Lincoln, C.S. Lewis, Narnia and Puddleglum can teach us about the Common Good

THE COMMON GOOD. When is the last time you heard that phrase? Perhaps it came from a memorable high school teacher, a beloved mentor in your profession, or a wise aunt who taught you a lot about life. Now, best-selling author and social-justice activist Jim Wallis is barnstorming the country trying to rescue that phrase from the cob webs of nostalgia.

This idea is so powerful, Wallis argues, that it may hold the key to finally resolving the political and cultural wars that have brought America and the rest of the world to a standstill.

In today’s interview with ReadThespirit Editor David Crumm (below), Jim Wallis talks about how this idea suddenly resurfaced in his own life—during a retreat in a remote forest where he says he could almost feel the great Lion Aslan from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels walking at his side. This is part of the inspiring story that Wallis tells in his new book: On God’s Side: What Religion Forgets and Politics Hasn’t Learned about Serving the Common Good.

All this week in the OurValues column, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker will explore the practical implications of the Common Good in today’s political, cultural and global crises. If you order a copy of Jim’s book (click the book cover, above, to visit its Amazon page), you will find that this interview and Baker’s OurValues series cover the book’s two major parts: Part 1, Inspiring the Common Good, and Part 2, Practices for the Common Good.

Here is David Crumm’s interview with Jim Wallis …


DAVID: Your book makes an eloquent Christian case for rediscovering the Common Good; you show how this concept flows upwards to us from the roots of Christianity in Jesus’s teachings. You explain how C.S. Lewis’s Aslan the Lion reminds you of this truth. However, before you introduce readers to Aslan, you introduce Abraham Lincoln. You quote, at length, from his Second Inaugural. The Common Good is a deeply religious idea, you argue—but, first, you point out that it’s also an American civic ideal as articulated by Lincoln and enshrined in Washington DC. Why did you decide to start with Lincoln?

JIM: Readers actually meet Lincoln right on the book’s cover. That cover is a lovely photo of the Lincoln Memorial at night. It’s my favorite of all the monuments in Washington—and I love the Second Inaugural. When I was tutoring inner-city kids and trying to help them learn to read, I sometimes would take them to the Lincoln Memorial and ask them to sound out word-for-word the Second Inaugural, especially: “With malice toward none, with charity for all …” In his final years, Lincoln was working so hard to bring the nation back together that he was no longer interested in simply identifying who was right and who was wrong.

There is so much in the Second Inaugural that we should study today. He actually talks about how Americans on both sides of the Civil War “read the same Bible and pray to the same God.” Then, he points out that “the prayers of both could not be answered.” What Lincoln is describing here is conflict resolution. In the real world, we do resolve most of our human conflicts without resorting to violence. We resolve conflicts—large and small—in a peaceful way every day. War really is a failure, Lincoln is saying.


DAVID: This is a good point to ask a practical question on behalf of our regular readers: If we already own some of your other books—why buy this one? And I think you’ve just touched on that unique, central theme of this new book. Right after quoting Lincoln in the book, you argue: “Lincoln had it right. The biggest problem with religion is that people, groups, institutions, nations, and all of our human sides sometimes try to bring God onto our side. When people and groups are sure they are right, they want to confidently say that God agrees with them. … The much harder task, and the more important one, is to ask how to be on God’s side, as Lincoln is suggesting.”

JIM: This is really the first time I’ve focused a book on the common good, which is such an old idea and yet is almost forgotten today. In our various traditions, the common good really is a powerful notion that we are all accountable for each other. If we can restore that sense of the common good, we can move forward. In the book’s subtitle I say that politicians don’t learn about serving the common good anymore. Now that I am touring the country and talking about this book with readers, I actually wish I could go back and make that subtitle even stronger: Now, I’d say “Politics is the Enemy of the Common Good.”

DAVID: In the new book, you’re also saying something quite provocative about the nature of your own Christian faith. You’re saying that Christianity is not about each person grabbing a ticket to heaven. More than that, you argue that the purpose of religion is not to prove that we’re right and then to impose our slate of pre-determined values on others. You write that Jesus’s “better way of life wasn’t meant to benefit just Christians, but everybody else, too.” Am I fairly summarizing this?

JIM: Yes, you’re doing well in explaining it. We are called for the sake of other people, not just ourselves. That’s the point of the whole thing. We live in a  pluralistic society—religiously and politically—so I’m asking: How do we evoke our faith in a context that is democratic? The whole idea is that we cannot lead by control, by imposing our control on others. But we can lead others by example, by lifting up the values we can all hold for our common good. This is a servant posture, not a posture of campaigning to impose our will on everyone. Dr. Martin Luther King never said: I get to win because I’m a Christian. He never said that. He said: We have to win the debate about the common good. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were not just good for blacks or for Baptists. These laws were a part of restoring and protecting the common good. King understood that.


DAVID: In the second chapter of your book, you shift from Lincoln and your critique of the sorry state of American politics to the heart of your own faith—Christianity. You put it bluntly: Christians disagree about the main message of Christianity. You write: “If Jesus is mostly a private figure for our individual lives, our faith will be primarily personal and not much engaged in the societies in which we live. If Jesus just provides us a pathway to heaven, we won’t be much concerned with what happens on this earth. Or if we create a Jesus mostly in our own image, he won’t be very useful to ‘others’ who are unlike us.” Then, you add a crucial “But”!

You continue: “But if Jesus came because ‘God so loved the world,’ he will be a different Jesus for us. … If Jesus came to create a new community and not just save people, then that community’s collective life in the world will be of crucial importance. And if we as individuals are so drawn to Jesus that we want to learn the ways he would have us live, he becomes the Living Teacher who walks among us. All of which brings me to a lion.”

That’s how you introduce the section on Aslan. So, Jim, tell us about your encounter with Aslan the Lion.

JIM: I devote a whole chapter to that story. I began the sabbatical I took to write this new book by taking a retreat with a monastic community overlooking the Pacific Ocean. I’ve always loved Lewis’s stuff; I own all of his books. I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia to our boys. We’ve seen the movie versions. I’ve been very familiar with the stories for years. But, there in this isolated retreat, I found some old copies of the Narnia novels in a little library they had organized for guests. I pulled out The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the first Narnia novel, and decided I would re-read just that one.

DAVID: In describing this dramatic new encounter with Narnia, you write: “Sometimes I felt like Aslan was walking beside me, up and down the coastal hills to the sea, teaching me again what it means to be a Narnian. The lion helped inspire my hope to write a biblical and theological defense of the common good, something that has been almost lost in an age of selfishness.”

JIM: As you know, I didn’t stop with the first novel. In my retreat, I wound up going through all the novels. Aslan struck me as the archtypical leader for the common good in Narnia, particularly for the most vulnerable creatures. What is so very important is the ongoing personal relationship that Aslan has with many of Lewis’s main characters—the children who travel to Narnia and also some of the creatures from Narnia. They could walk along side him. They could reflect with Aslan about their own decisions and challenges and choices.

Sometimes, walking among the redwoods and along the ocean on that retreat, I did feel that Aslan was walking along side me. This really got me thinking about the image of Jesus as the loving teacher who walks among us in an ongoing way—rather than Jesus as a remote Savior who many traditionalists like to describe as having gone off to Heaven to prepare a place for us. I don’t want to sound overly judgmental in describing two extreme images of Jesus like this. What I’m trying to explain is how important I think it is to realize that Jesus is a living teacher who walks among us, reminding us of the common good we need to restore and protect in this world.


DAVID: That’s Aslan’s message and purpose in Narnia. Yes, I think Narnia fans will understand your point here, right away. But you go an important step further—because the truth is that we can’t all go off on intense retreats all the time and feel Aslan walking with us in a paradise landscape. You point to one of my own favorite characters in Narnia—the “marsh-wiggle” known as Puddleglum who appears in The Silver Chair. When I was growing up in the early 1960s, my father’s hardback copy of The Silver Chair was the first Narnia novel I ever read—and I loved this strange half-amphibian-half-human sort of figure. He lives in the marshes and can easily blend into the green landscape.

You actually quote nearly as much of Puddleglum in your new book as you do of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.

JIM: Yes, the real question is: When we return from these intense periods, like the one I experienced on the retreat, how you keep believing in things even on days you don’t feel it? How do we keep the vision of the common good in front of us?

DAVID: For readers who don’t know Narnia—or have forgotten Puddleglum—the young heroes of the Narnian stories encounter him way out in a remote part of the C.S. Lewis landscape. Then, in the Narnia novel called The Silver Chair, they wind up trapped in a deadly underworld kingdom where they are completely locked away from real life up on the surface of the world. The deadly temptation is to forget about Narnia, to doubt that Narnia even exists and to turn away from Aslan’s vision for Narnia. But, in the midst of this terrible darkness and temptation, Puddleglum does something absolutely heroic, right?

JIM: I quote Puddleglum on the first page of that chapter and then again in the heart of the chapter. My question is: How do we keep believing in things, even on days when we don’t feel like it? Or on days when our belief may be fading? Well, Puddlegum is a great model for us. He courageously declares: “I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it. I’m going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn’t any Narnia.”

I have to say: Thank you for asking me about this portion of the book. In all the interviews I’ve done so far about the new book, the interviewers just ask about politics, Washington, Barack Obama and the common good. Reporters seem to have a very narrow political focus on this book. But the truth is that writing the chapter on Lewis, the Lion and Puddleglum was the one I enjoyed the most. You know, the only real piece of art in my house is of a South African lion. It’s a beautiful piece of art I got years ago and this big lion has eyes that seem to be watching you wherever you stand—much as I imagine Aslan looking into our souls.

DAVID: As a reader, I found this book inspiring and full of fresh perspectives. Did you intend this book to be hopeful? Do you feel hopeful?

JIM: One of my mentors, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, helped me to see the difference between optimism and hope. Optimism is about how you look at things today, your mood at the moment and your assessment of the latest news. Optimism is about your immediate response to how things are going and your personality plays a big part in that. But, hope is not a feeling or a mood. Hope is a decision that you make because of a thing called faith, whatever faith may mean to you. Hope is really a decision that people like Arcbhishop Tutu make that shaped his whole life and the world, as well. Many years ago, he decided that there was going to be a free South Africa—long before anyone could imagine how that could happen. He made his decision to hope for a free South Africa—and he bet his life on it. Am I hopeful about our future? Yes, I am, and I’m betting my life on that hope, too.

Care to read more about Jim Wallis,
‘On God’s Side’ and the Common Good?

VISIT OUR VALUES FOR MORE: This interview focuses mainly on Part 1 of Jim Wallis’s new On God’s Side, called Inspiring the Common Good. In this week’s OurValues series, sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker looks at the book’s Part 2, Practices for the Common Good.

OTHER LINCOLN LINKS: 2013 is packed with 150th-anniversary milestones from Lincoln’s life. Here is a convenient Index to many of our most popular Lincoln-themed stories this year.

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

The Debra Darvick Interview: Why the stories in ‘This Jewish Life’ make it a part of your life, too

TODAY, ReadTheSpirit is proud to welcome author and columnist Debra Darvick into our online magazine and our bookstore. You may have enjoyed her columns in national magazines, including Good Housekeeping.  Now, you can enjoy her wide-ranging stories every week. Plus, starting today, you can order her signature collection of real-life Jewish stories: This Jewish Life.

VISIT DEBRA’S NEW ONLINE HOME: Debra brings hundreds of stories with her in the relaunch of her Debra Darvick online home today. Please, get to know Debra and, when you  have time, explore her rich array of online stories.

READ DEBRA’S BOOK: As you will discover right here—in our author interview with Debra today—This Jewish Life is for everyone. But, let’s invite Debra to speak for herself. This is our weekly author interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.


DAVID: Jewish families are a tiny minority in the world. Why are millions of people still so fascinated with Jewish faith and culture?

DEBRA: But let me answer your question in another way. The Jewish people have something to say that is valuable in our world today. Judaism’s ancient wisdom survives because it speaks to every generation of people, not just to Jews.

DAVID: Let me underline that point you’re making. The Gallup Poll occasionally asks Americans to name their favorite books of the Bible. Far and away, the Bible’s most popular book is always Psalms, followed by Genesis. Gallup finds that the majority of Americans say they read the Bible at least occasionally and their first choices after Psalms and Genesis are Matthew, John, Revelation, Proverbs, Job and Luke. That means 4 of the 8 most popular books of the Bible are from the original Jewish collection of scriptures. You do, indeed, have something to say.

DEBRA: That Gallup Poll doesn’t surprise me at all. Genesis is the fist book in the Bible; it has the most lively, visual stories: the Garden of Eden, the snake, the flood, animals two by two. Millions of little children grow up on these stories. And Psalms? They are comforting. Throughout human history, people have wanted to know—needed to know—that there is a force bigger than we are as mere humans. Where do people turn when horrible things happen to find words calling out in faith and hope? They turn to Psalms.

DAVID: Of course, we’re also talking about something much deeper than a popularity poll. Scholars widely credit Judaism as a foundation of Western tradition. That may sound like a startling conclusion if our readers haven’t thought about that before. But I can tell you that you’ll find such conclusions in world histories—and it’s a point made by Pope John Paul II, as well, as he wrote about the origins of Western faith and culture.

DEBRA: The Jewish religion’s ethical and social principles are inseparable from the watershed concept of monotheism—one God—that Judaism gave to the Western world. Think about the power of these ideas: Billions of people now believe that there is one God who set the world in motion. For the Jewish people, this was a singular Divine Force who gave a people a set of laws—the 10 Commandments—to model in the world and to share with others. This was a historic break with the religious and cultural norms of the era in which the Jewish religion emerged.

DAVID: The influence is even larger than these associations, right? We see Judaism’s wisdom among great artists and writers—and even in our governance.

DEBRA: Yes, that’s right, there are people who like to say that America is a Christian nation. And we also can recognize Jewish wisdom in our tradition of law and deliberation. America is a nation of law. The writers of the Constitution were well grounded in the Hebrew Bible. Our Supreme Court’s process of deliberation and interpreting the Constitution echoes the rabbinic process of deliberating and interpreting what the laws in the Torah really meant.

‘This Jewish Life’: Marking Our Sacred Time

DAVID: We also have inherited the Jewish approach to marking our sacred time. Of course, since Jesus and all of his first followers were Jewish, it’s natural that the Christian calendar is associated with a number of Jewish milestones in the calendar. More importantly, I think, Jewish holidays and festivals highlight major themes that matter to millions of families around the world, whether they are Jewish or not.

I know that a festival like Hanukkah is actually a relatively minor observance in the Jewish calendar—but the Hanukkah theme of religious freedom is an issue shared by people all around the world.

DEBRA: That’s true with many of the seasons and holidays included in the book. On the Jewish calendar right now, we are in a period called the counting of the Omer. This is a seven-week period between Passover (and the Exodus from Egypt) and the holiday of Shavuot which celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. On the Christian calendar, Shavuot, which literally means weeks, is called Pentecost.

In the book, the Passover story is that of a Russian family who were immigrants to America. The theme of Passover is liberation—the Exodus story that is so important in African-American churches. You can imagine the painful situation of Russian Jews for so many decades under Communism. This family you will meet in the book could only walk past a locked synagogue on Jewish holidays. Passover is the story of liberation and here is a family who lived through one of the world’s most dramatic times of liberation. The foundational text reading for Shavuot is the Book of Ruth. In This Jewish Life, the Shavuot story is that of a convert to Judaism (like the Biblical Ruth).

DAVID: These are good examples about the way we mark sacred time and use those periods to remember our most important shared stories. Judaism also established even larger spiritual themes that have shaped world religion to this day—like monotheism, the faith in a single God as opposed to many gods. In your book, I think another big theme readers will discover is the universal yearning for home. A famous Christian writer, Frederick Buechner, says that all religious journeys really are about a yearning for home. That’s something we inherit from the Jewish people.

DEBRA: The Hanukkah story is a great example of that. It’s a soldier’s story that I’m sure any soldier or veteran who reads this book will understand.

DAVID: I love that story, too. It’s set in the First Gulf War, more than 20 years ago, and is told by a young American Jewish soldier who finds himself stationed in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, awaiting battle. Then, it’s Hanukkah, and he finds his way to a small gathering of U.S. soldiers about to mark the holiday.

Here’s part of what he says: “I had tucked a trio of letters addressed to ‘Any Jewish Soldier’ in my back pocket. There we were in the desert about to go to war, singing songs of praise to God who had saved my ancestors in battle. The feeling of unity was as pervasive as our apprehension, as real as the sand that found its way into everything from our socks to our toothbrushes. … That Hanukkah in the desert solidified for me the urge to reconnect with my Judaism.”

Now, Debra, I think so many readers who have family members connected with the military will read a chapter like that and feel a strong emotional connection to these men and women.

Debra Darvick: ‘We all long for home.’

DEBRA: I agree and I’ve been really pleased when non-Jews come up to me and tell me how much they have enjoyed this book. This book does serve to educate people about Jewish life, but these stories also inspire, soothe and make people rethink the really important values in their own lives.

That’s an important truth you’ll find in this book. We share so much. We all long for home. We all weep sometimes. We all have moments of great joy. We all know about kids who make decisions we’re not happy about. Families. Homes. Love. Tragedy. Forgiveness. If you’re not Jewish and you read this book, you will realize right away that these are universal experiences, universal truths.

I like to think of this book as similar to Abraham’s tent—open on all four sides. If you’re not familiar with some of the terms, there is an extensive glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words to help people quickly discover those words. There are short introductions to each section of the book to help people understand the major themes in these seasons.

DAVID: The stories are so well told! And, the pacing is perfect. Even busy readers can enjoy meeting these people in the pages of your book—a little bit each day.

DEBRA: The stories are short; most are about five pages long. You can read them out loud and even kids as young as 8 or 9 might enjoy sitting around and listening. There are stories about young people, too. The Rosh Hashanah story is about a college student who spends the new year’s holiday on a boat during a semester at sea.

DAVID: That’s another story about the yearning for home—combined with a story of dramatic self-discovery. This girl actually is suffering from a deep home sickness as the big holiday approaches, knowing how her family back home would be celebrating. She’s off the coast of Asia at that point. But, instead, she and some other students—Jewish and non-Jewish—wind up sharing the holiday. It becomes a new starting point in her life.

I could name a dozen stories that I would call my favorites in your book. How about you? Do you have a favorite story in the book?

DEBRA: That’s like asking which of your children is your favorite. But, yes, among these stories some do stand out. There is one story about a man who was in Paris at the liberation as World War II was ending. He describes what it was like to be part of the first Jewish service when the ark was opened again. I get shivers just retelling that story. He describes what it was like to bring out the Torah—so much outpouring of feeling that people ran up to kiss the Torah. They were so overjoyed. He recalls the moment when a young girl ran up to him, pulled the yellow star from her coat and placed it in his hands. So dramatic! But that’s just one story in the book. Many are appropriate to the seasons of the year; many are appropriate to different settings in which people may read the book.

‘This Jewish Life’: Experiencing gratitude

DAVID: What did you learn while writing This Jewish Life?

DEBRA: One of the most important things I learned is gratitude. This definitely was not a one-woman endeavor. As I spoke to all of the people who appear in the book, I had to think about my identity as a writer. Over time, I realized that this wasn’t about me seeing my name on the cover of a book but about the gift God gave me to listen and help people express their deepest selves.

As I worked on a person’s story, we would talk and I would write up a draft. Then, I would call each one on the telephone and read the story to see if I had told it right. Sometimes, I would get to the end and there would be silence on the phone. The first couple of times that happened, I would freak out, thinking that the silence meant I had blown it. But, no, they were silent because they were crying. They were feeling such emotion because their story finally was brought to light—their story was made cohesive so that others could now share in it. It was deeply moving to know I was helping people to make their inner-most experiences real in these stories.

Want to read some stories by Debra?

Check out Debra Darvick’s new online home at ReadTheSpirit. Or, visit the Bookstore page for This Jewish Life.

(This interview originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, values and cultural diversity.)

In ‘World Rat Day,’ poet J. Patrick Lewis invites youthful smiles—and flights of imagination

J. Patrick Lewis already is inside countless homes, coast to coast, inviting children and their parents to read aloud from books like last year’s wonderful National Geographic Book of Animal Poetry: 200 Poems with Photographs That Squeak, Soar, and Roar! That big, fun, colorful volume won all kinds of honors, including nearly unanimous 5-star praise on Amazon in reader reviews.

If you don’t have that particular book on your shelf, then perhaps you’ve got one of Lewis’s other 80-plus books! Lewis’s various titles have been released by more than a dozen major publishing houses. In 2011, the Poetry Foundation named Lewis its third U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate. In other words: You’re placing yourself in masterful hands when you buy, enjoy—or give away one of his books.

This year, Lewis is back with a fanciful volume that grabs hold of the calendar—specifically the holidays that chart our progress through the year—and encourages his readers to think fancifully about the way we mark time. He calls it: World Rat Day: Poems About Real Holidays You’ve Never Heard Of.

Given his career-long fascination with the natural world, most of the holidays he marks with playful poems—and colorful illustrations by Anna Raff—have to do with living creatures. His style of poetry toys with words, with the shape of his lines on the page—providing lots of fun for young readers and their parents. Envision a cross between Lewis Caroll, ee cummings and Ogden Nash.

Lewis claims that all of the holidays in his new book are real, although you’ll have to look far and wide to find the groups that “officially declared” some of these holidays. And, no, this book does not include a page of web links or other information about these festivals that he and Raff celebrate. But that’s hardly the point.

The real point is seeing our planet in a new way—and remembering the living creatures that make it such a marvelous place in which to live.

Lewis’s shortest poem is just six words in a single line for the mid-summer Ohio Sheep Day:

No one will ever forget Ewe.”

And, if you welcome this book into your home, your children will never forget your gift.

Review by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Peacemakers’ Prayer: Angel in the Dump

PROFILES OF PEACEMAKERS around the world are featured in one of our most popular ReadTheSpirit Books: Blessed Are the Peacemakers, by the Rev. Daniel Buttry. This theme is so important that it inspires all of our authors, including the Rev. Benjamin Pratt, the author of our Guide for Caregivers who right now is helping caregivers coast to coast in redrawing their stressed-out calendars. (Here is this week’s Part 2 in his Caregivers Calendar series.) Changing seasons—that may be why Benjamin sent us this additional prayerful meditation—sparked by a spiritual convergence of seasons in this recent warm snap.
If you’re moved by the following, you’re free to share it with others …

Angel in the Dump

By the Rev. Benjamin Pratt

Any home gardener knows that an unseasonable warm snap in January will wreak havoc on perennials and spring bulbs. So, I put “Mulch the Beds” on my To Do list and drove to the dump, the best source of fresh mulch in our area. It’s also, in mid January, a green-and-brown monument to the Christmas just past. I am not Catholic, nor was my grandmother, although she always insisted that she once saw the Virgin Mary appear at the foot of her bed. So, I must have a special spiritual eye for glimpses of …
Well, here is a poem I wrote when I returned home after a remarkable, grace-filled moment in that vast dump site.

Like children,
Snowdrops, daffodils and crocuses
Need protection from
January warmth that betrays
A bitter cold to come.
Day after warm day, the sun seduces their
Green tendrils to grow taller.

A trip to the dump for mulch to blanket
naïve thrivers reaps a surprise.
Christmas trees that recently displayed the
Joyous lights celebrating the Nativity
Now are piled like matchsticks awaiting the grinder.
They have no memory of the joy they pretended
Nor the innocence they invoked.

A bright color imbedded in crushed branches lured me to one tree.
Tucked amidst still-fragrant boughs—
Green paper cone scotch-taped for body,
Red rough-cut wings,
White circle for a face—
A handcrafted angel.

And deeper I peered, the crayon words:
Angle Mary protekt us from guns.

A child’s prayer discarded with this tree.
Maybe by mistake?
Snagged in the branches as they went.
Now, an Angel in the Dump,
A plea for all the innocents
Whom we discard from our memories,
From our prayers
So quickly.

I replaced the boughs around her.
Tucked her in.

Echoed the prayer:
Protekt us all from guns.


If these ideas resonate in your life, we invite you to share it with others. Simply credit:
By Dr. Benjamin Pratt and …

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

This article also has been posted into Dr. Pratt’s column at the website for the Day1 radio network.