Our Holiday Grab Bag of 12 Guilt-Free Gifts

shopping for a little something? Perhaps a last-minute gift for a friend—or, maybe someone gave you a little cash in a holiday card, and you’re going to choose something for yourself? The staff and friends of ReadTheSpirit suggest these 12 Guilt-Free Gifts.


For more than 30 years, the Rev. Edward McNulty has been a national treasure. Since the 1970s, Ed has used his skills as both a Presbyterian clergyman and a professional Film Critic to write movie reviews, study guides and books that show readers how to explore films from a faith perspective. Each week, to this day, Ed “gives away” new film reviews in his department within Read The Spirit, called Visual Parables. But, today, we’re encouraging you to dig deeper into Ed’s wealth of resources: The way to receive Ed’s small-group study guides, each month, is to purchase a fully paid subscription to the one thing he sells: Visual Parables Journal. Please, support the work of this faithful film critic—and enjoy lots of uplifting fun with movies in 2014. How to get this: CLICK on the Visual Parables graphic at right; then, at Ed’s website, choose “Subscribe to the Full Journal.”


If you’re shopping for a gift that you can share with family, friends or a small group in your community—then, please, buy a copy of Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith.  Lynne’s book tells the true story of how different kinds of bread are connected with the spiritual traditions of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Native Americans. She not only tells the sacred stories of these “Holy Breads”—she also provides delicious recipes for each bread. This will give you and your family months of inspiring eating—and it’s a great idea to use in either a New Year’s class or a Lenten-season small group at your church. How to get this: CLICK on this link, or CLICK on the Flavors of Faith book cover shown in the left margin of this webpage.


Faith-and-pop-culture expert Jane Wells is just releasing her newest inspirational book. As we discussed with Jane in a recent author interview, her new book, called Bird on Fire, taps into the phenomenal interest among teens and 20-somethings in science fiction and fantasy tales like The Hunger Games. This is an age range largely missing from most churches. However, as Jane says in our interview, the themes that are so compelling in these novels and movies are connected with major charitable campaigns in churches nationwide: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and freeing contemporary slaves. These themes also connect with inspiring Bible stories, which Jane explains in her book. Energize and welcome this missing age group in your congregation by starting a local group to discuss Bird on Fire. How to get this: CLICK on the Bird on Fire graphic to jump directly to our Bookstore; or click on this Interview link to read more about Jane and her book.  


Longtime readers are familiar with columnist Rodney Curtis, known by the title of his first memoir, The Spiritual Wanderer. Since we started ReadTheSpirit online magazine, Rodney’s quirky columns have launched 1,000 laughs. What’s amazing is that his good humor continued—even as Rodney hit the direst challenges of our era: losing his job in a downsizing industry—and—discovering that he had life-threatening cancer. He has survived both with his attitude undimmed. In our recent interview with Rodney, he talks about how he manages to keep “laughing in the face of fear”—and to encourage his readers to do the same. There’s not a better, more-hopeful gift for someone who needs a shot of humor than buying one—or all three—of Rodney’s books. How to get this: CLICK on the Rodney Curtis book covers, above, to jump to our Bookstore. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Rodney and his remarkable work.


There’s no storyteller like Rabbi Bob Alper, the world’s only full-time stand-up comic and practicing rabbi, whose hilarious routines are heard daily on the Sirius/XM clean comedy channel. His new book features 32 true stories from settings as far flung as The Tonight Show studio, the hills of Vermont, and a tiny Polish village. Readers meet a stained-glass artist whose granddaughter is Drew Barrymore, a woman who attends services with her dog, a 5-year-old grief counselor and an elderly Holocaust survivor who discovers that he can speak about his lost sisters for the first time. Warm, touching stories that evoke laughter and tears—this is a perfect gift for you or a loved one in the depths of Winter. How to get this: CLICK on the image of the smiling boy from Bob’s book cover, above, to jump to our Bookstore.


If you happen to read this column before December 27, 2013, then author, journalist and religious historian Don Lattin is giving all of us a gift. He temporarily set the Kindle price at $1.99 for his fascinating book, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. In April, we interviewed Don Lattin about this new book, which is an in-depth look at influences behind the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous and the spiritual connections between Bill Wilson, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley. The 12-Step movement now is regarded as a historic breakthrough in the history of world religions—and Don’s book is a terrific read. We guarantee: You’ve never heard the true story he unfolds in this book. How to get this: CLICK on the Distilled Spirits book image to jump to Amazon. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Don and his remarkable work. Or, you can visit Don’s own website. (And if you’re reading this column after December 27—hey, the book is still a terrific read!)


The full title of Margaret Passenger’s new book is, She and You and Me: Finding Ourselves in the BibleMargaret’s long career spans three professions as: a high-school English teacher, a newspaper copy editor and a United Methodist minister. She and her husband, editor Henry Passenger, are longtime friends of ReadTheSpirit magazine and Books. Also, here in Michigan where our Home Office is based, the Passengers are very active in the interfaith network known as Michigan Communicators. Margaret agrees with us here at ReadTheSpirit in one pointed critique of inspirational publishing nationwide: Most readers of these books are women; yet more men than women are given opportunities to publish such books. Margaret spent many years working with small groups in parishes to perfect this book-length study of women in the Bible. We recommend it and encourage you to support Margaret’s work by ordering a copy. It’s a great choice for a New Year’s or Lenten small group discussion, because one of the central themes is: encouraging women today to take courage from the examples of biblical women. How to get this: CLICK on Maragaret’s book cover, at right, to jump to Amazon.

8. A Rare Story of Jesus as a Boy

Speaking of interfaith connections in publishing, we are impressed with the work of Chris Stepien, an independent author whose story appeared in ReadTheSpirit in June. His new book is called Three Days: The Search for the Boy Messiah. Like the Passengers (mentioned above), Chris is a long-time media professional who now is active in interfaith work. A devout Catholic and a father, Chris felt moved to explore the brief biblical account of Jesus as a boy getting “lost” in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though Chris admits that he isn’t a formally trained Bible scholar—he set out to research and write a novelized account of those experiences. We are impressed with Chris’s approach to this work. Using his professional talents as a writer and researcher, Chris sincerely is trying to build cross-cultural connections through his storytelling. We say: He’s setting a great example. Get the book! Read it! How to get this: CLICK on the “Three Days” image from Chris’s book cover to jump to Amazon.

9. Fran McKendree helps out with a song

Singer/songwriter Fran McKendree is a good friend to our readers, through his regular sharing of stories and songs. Among his past columns in our online magazine: You can see and hear him in this story, which includes a video of Fran performing Times Like These. Then, in his column Let’s Go Fly a Kite, Fran described a retreat he designed involving kites. This autumn, he wrote about his involvement in the Awakening Soul project. Then, one more link: Many readers enjoyed this meditative chant in video form. Our message to all of our readers is: Get to know this talented and faithful musician! He travels the country working with church groups and peacemaking events. And, right now, he’s selling a Christmas carol (for a dollar) to help raise funds for a good cause. How to get this: CLICK on the image of Fran to jump to his website. (And if you’re reading this column after Fran is finished with the Christmas carol effort—hey, get to know him through his website! He’s always starting something new and inspiring.)

10. Learn about Native Americans in ‘Our Fires Still Burn’

Filmmaker Audrey Geyer devoted years to producing the documentary, Our Fires Still Burn, about the contemporary lives of Great Lakes Indians. What inspires us about this film is that Audrey balances the stories she includes in her film so that she is honest about some deep wounds, including the campaign to force Indian children into boarding schools, but she also highlights bright sparks of renewed life, as well. Her film has been featured in public showings—as well as regional broadcasts on PBS stations. You may see Our Fires Still Burn showing up on a PBS affiliate near you in 2014. Right now, though, we are encouraging our readers to visit Audrey’s website, learn about her documentary, make people aware of the film—and, please, consider ordering a DVD. How to get this: CLICK on the image from Audrey’s film to jump to her website.

11. Don’t Forget the Caregivers!

Helping the nation’s millions of caregivers is a major goal at ReadTheSpirit, spearheaded by WeAreCaregivers.com columnist Heather Jose. In fact, Heather recently wrote a column, called What do we give? If you’re reading this item and you’ve forgotten to think of a caregiver in your life at this time of year—go read Heather’s column and make a plan. We are urging readers, as 2013 moves into 2014, to bookmark http://www.WeAreCaregivers.com so you won’t miss the many inspiring and helpful columns Heather brings us, each week. She welcomes guest writers, as well, including Benjamin Pratt, Rodney Curtis and Paul Hile. Of course, we would love to have you look at our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore and support these writers by buying any of our half-dozen caregiving-themed books. And, if you’re thinking of organizing a caregiving ministry in 2014, we would love to hear from you! Heather occasionally makes appearances at events nationwide and she’s always looking for ideas to highlight in her columns. How to do this: CLICK on the blue Caregivers logo to visit Heather’s department. Or, email us at [email protected]

12. Join MSU in Celebrating American Diversity

Finally, one of our proudest accomplishments is enabling the Michigan State University School of Journalism to launch a whole series of books helping in nationwide efforts to encourage “cultural competency”—the phrase commonly used today to describe educational efforts to break down cross-cultural bias. With coordination from MSU’s Joe Grimm, a veteran journalist and educator, MSU students first produced The New Bullying and quickly discovered that the book made a real impact in awakening adults to emerging forms of bullying among teens. Since then, Joe and his MSU teams of students have produced the first two volumes of what will be an extensive series of books on gaining “cultural competency.” Please, do your part to build healthier, more peaceful communities in 2014 by learning about the MSU project and buying these guides to use in your region. How to do this: CLICK on the image of MSU students to visit our most recent story about this pioneering project. You’ll find links there to purchase their guides.

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

Dare to Downsize Christmas: Recovering its tenderness and hope

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

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

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

Downsizing Christmas


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

As Advent begins, borrow a football strategy: We>Me

By congregational consultant Martin Davis

(Read more about Martin Davis’s work at the end of this column.)

On Thanksgiving, after the last touchdown is tallied and the leftover turkey is tucked into the refrigerator, you’re going to head to church on Sunday to celebrate the first Sunday of Advent. Christmas is upon us! And that means every church in America is thinking about how to turn once-a-year visitors who attend on Christmas Eve—the biggest church-sampling opportunity each year—into more-regular attendees.

How do you plan to reach people this Advent? The strategy I’m going to share with you today springs from a slogan used by my son’s undefeated, championship-winning middle school football team. Let me tell you about “We > Me.”

Before this championship season started, my son’s coach developed a rallying cry, as most coaches do each year. We’ve seen a lot over the years, but I particularly liked this one: We > Me. The resonance with football is obvious. It’s a team game—no one player can be responsible for winning and losing. Everyone must pull in the same direction. Win or lose, you’re in it together.

The same is true when converting occasional attendees into regular members of your community. Winning these people over requires your church pulling together in the same direction. Both in terms of message, and in terms of the tools you use to communicate it. In short, you have to ask: How do “We” communicate to those who come to us?


Welcoming and connecting with visitors begins with examining your current communications and what they say about who you are and how you talk together. As Advent is this coming Sunday, let’s leave the bigger questions for January and instead examine three simple things you can do to find out if you’re communicating to your visitors as “We” instead of “Me.”

COLLECTING VISITOR INFORMATION: Whatever you use to collect information about visitors, are you asking about them and their needs—or pushing your agenda? Compare a “We” visitor’s card versus a “Me” visitor’s card:

  • ME: Your card or welcoming volunteer asks visitors if they want a call or email or pastoral visit; if they have a church home; if they have a prayer request. For visitors, the first two sound like what they are—member solicitation; can we recruit you? The third is asking for very personal information before they even know you.
  • WE: Your card or welcoming volunteer points them to ways to help others during the holiday season—food delivery, wrapping presents, singing in a special choral event, etc. The message? We are a place that serves, and we need and value your special gifts.

SUFFER THE LITTLE CHILDREN: Newcomers frequently bring children. Are you prepared?

  • ME: Shuttling the kids from their parents as quickly as possible for the sake of worship decorum. Or shuttling them out the door after the first 15 minutes of worship.
  • WE: Let the families decide. If they wish to stay together, be prepared from them in worship, in Sunday School, and in-between. If they wish to move their separate ways, make sure you walk them to where they need to go—don’t expect signs to do all the work. The message? We take care of one another.

PREACH IT (EFFECTIVELY)! Don’t be afraid to say who you are, and who you are about, from the pulpit.

ME: Sermons as usual. The message? If you aren’t from here, figure it out.

WE: As actors exaggerate their movements and volume on stage, so should ministers exaggerate who the church is. The message? We care enough not to assume you will figure it out. Take extra time to explain the worship service as it unfolds, point out how to follow the music and readings, talk about what the church is doing in the community. Loop back to what I mentioned above—that “We” message you’re delivering as you welcome visitors.

All for One

These three simple steps will allow you to speak and greet as “We.” Is it more effective? Do some simple math and find out. Did a greater percentage of new guests return in three months than they did last Advent season? If they did, you have a lot to build on. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? Did the message match your members’ actions? If you don’t know, keep better data so you can compare next Advent’s results.

Whether you “win a championship” and get lots of new members, or struggle through a tough season, you will do it together. And learn more about who you are as a community. Either way, We > Me will yield a much stronger team.


ReadTheSpirit works closely with nationally known church consultant and media expert Martin Davis. We publish occasional columns, sharing his wisdom with our readers—and we are working on a couple of 2014 book projects Martin is assembling, so stay tuned! Right now, you may find some of Martin’s past columns valuable …

Your Newsletter May Shock You—and These Possibilities Will Excite You: Martin writes about the transition to e-newsletters and lessons you’ll want to learn for making your e-newsletter more useful.

4 “Secrets” to a Successful Website for Your Congregation: As Martin lays out the issues, these “secrets” make a lot of sense!

Sorting Fact from Fiction in Church Growth & Social Media: Martin’s trademark style is to cut through the hype and quickly bring readers some common-sense steps toward successful communication.

Care to contact Martin Davis? Visit his Sacred Communication website to learn more.

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

C.S. Lewis interview with HarperOne Publisher Mark Tauber

C.S. Lewis.

The name stands alone.

Even half a century after his death, no other Christian author—except St. Paul himself—has sold more books, decade after decade.

No one expected this in 1963. At that point, Lewis was a global figure with a huge output of inspirational books as well as works of serious literary scholarship, speculative science fiction, fanciful children’s novels—and countless radio broadcasts, as well.

But his death went almost unnoticed because he passed on November 22, 1963, the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the world-renowned author Aldous Huxley died. As you will read in our interview with HarperOne’s Mark Tauber, publishers never imagined that Lewis’s body of work would attract generation after generation of loyal fans.

Given his enormous audience—and unprecedented sales—Lewis’s many books remain tightly controlled by the Lewis estate. For a good many years after his death, the books fell into a tangle of publishing arrangements circling the globe. Slowly but surely, HarperOne has been consolidating that book list and, nearly every year, produces attractive new editions.

Just in time for Christmas 2013 …

and, for the 50th anniversary of Lewis’s passing …
and, as the UK honors Lewis with a special memorial at Westminster Abbey’s Poet’s Corner  …
and, as a new Lewis-Narnia movie based on The Silver Chair is freshly in the news …
for all of those reasons—HarperOne is excited about its array of C.S. Lewis editions.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Senior Vice President and Publisher of HarperOne Mark Tauber about all of this news—and C.S. Lewis’s enduring popularity.


DAVID CRUMM: It’s absolutely stunning—in a world where the biggest stars are sexy singers or Hollywood heroes—to find a bespectacled Oxford professor with such a vast worldwide audience. He’s been dead half a century. He never even heard of YouTube.

MARK TAUBER: Yes, it is amazing.

DAVID: And, Lewis still is making news! To demonstrate this for our readers, let me list just a few of the magazines and newspapers with fresh Lewis stories on the day we’re doing this interview. On just one random day—there are headlines in: BBC News, Investor’s Business Daily, Tulsa World, Augusta Chronicle, National Review, Central Kentucky News and I’ll stop there but I could go on and on. The one that sticks out for me is Investor’s Business Daily. They’ve got a fresh profile of Lewis as a figure business people should know about.

MARK: (laughing) I’m laughing because, for a while, I had “C.S. Lewis” set up as a daily Google News alert—and I had to disable it because I was getting way too much stuff every day. And let’s leave the issue of the new movie aside for a moment. Even without the movie news, Lewis just keeps generating headlines.


MARK: There are many reasons, but here’s a very important one: He was a guy who avoided what we think of today as tribalism. We publish these books and we watch closely who is buying and reading them. There is no one else I can think of who is so widely read in mainline Protestant churches, Catholic parishes, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and of course the evangelical community. He cuts across the entire Christian spectrum.

And that’s not all. There are all these other audiences he reaches: There’s the whole fantasy fan crowd for the Chronicles series. There are science fiction fans of his work in that genre. And, there still are scholars who seek out Lewis for his scholarly work. It’s not surprising that some of the best-known, most-followed Christian leaders today—people like Rick Warren and so many others—keep pointing to C.S. Lewis. Because of who he was and how he approached his work—Lewis cuts across all these lines. He didn’t dive into the the type of culture war that is so common today. He unites people.

DAVID: What would Lewis think of his ongoing success 50 years after he left the planet? Any guess?

MARK: Well, I’m not sure what he would make of it. I’m not sure how he would feel about people from very different perspectives using his stuff and claiming him as theirs. But he still is probably the most influential Christian voice of the day, certainly one of the most influential. I don’t think anyone would debate that.

DAVID: He lived in an era of “big tent” Christianity, we might say. Today we’ve got all these civil-war-style trenches dug between various Christian groups. In Lewis’s heyday—in the heyday of all the Inklings we can say, I think—Christianity was more of a single voice against secularism and various dark forces. Both Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were deeply affected by World War I and World War II. Their voices were raised, not in political partisan causes within Christianity, but on behalf of what they saw as a planet-wide wrestling between faith and forces that would destroy faith.

MARK: Here’s a good example. Mere Christianity began as a series of BBC talks between 1942 and 1944. The question everyone was asking, then, was: How do we sort out this big mess we’re in—in the middle of World War II—so his series of talks fit right into mainstream news. He was on the cover of TIME Magazine right after the war. Yes, he was speaking and writing for a big tent.

DAVID: We could keep listing examples of this. Here’s another one: In 2008, the prestigious UK newspaper, The Times, ranked all of the greatest British writers since the end of WWII and Lewis—among all writers in all genres—ranked 11th. The special honors he will receive at Westminster aren’t given lightly. Many people to this day credit Lewis as a key figure in their conversion stories.

MARK: My own story begins with growing up as an evangelical. I went to a big southern California megachurch. Now, I see a lot of the old dividing lines falling away. But I can say that Lewis was—and is—a huge source for my faith.

Now, as a publisher, I find it just crazy that Lewis’s sales have not dropped after so many years. Of course, I know that his sales always rise in a movie year. And, there’s news of a movie that’s coming—The Silver Chair—but Lewis’s sales do well with or without a movie.

Here’s a smaller example—a new one. Bible Gateway has millions of unique visitors each month and they do a series of free newsletters people can sign up to receive. We proposed a C.S. Lewis quote of the day—and they announced it in August in a blog post. In two weeks, they got 26,000 people to sign up for a daily quote from Lewis.

DAVID: Yeah. That doesn’t surprise me at all. The Twitter feed of C.S. Lewis Daily is heading toward 1 million followers.

MARK: It shows the hunger out there for Lewis. Look at the Facebook pages on Lewis. We’re seeing a big number of Likes—and the actual sharing in Facebook is in the thousands every day.


DAVID: Let’s talk about some of the individual books. And let’s start with one of my all-time favorites: The Great Divorce. And I’m not alone. We keep seeing news items pop up about people trying to produce stage or film productions.

The book is short. There are a number of editions floating around, these days, including a nice-looking paperback edition in that big boxed set (see top image today). But I prefer the lovely hardback edition you’re selling. I like the soft feel of the dust cover and the little bus that’s just creeping onto the front cover—understated, I would call it.

Of course, fans of this book know that’s the bus to heaven on the cover. The question in the book is: Do we even want to get on that bus? It’s a dark, fictional-fanciful book in which a lot of people who are living in this very gray world simply aren’t interested in getting on that bus. The bus is right there, available to them, but they have all these excuses for remaining in their dreary homes.

This is another end-of-WWII book for Lewis. He published it first as a series in The Guardian starting in 1944. Then, it became this book.

MARK: I think of The Great Divorce as the quintessential post-war Lewis book. The world is so dark and gray, still half in rubble, still rationing in Europe.

This may surprise you, but The Great Divorce is the third-best-selling book of all the Lewis books. The first is Mere Christianity and that is closely following by Screwtape and, then, a little further away—but better than The Four Loves and often better than The Lion, the Witch in some years—is The Great Divorce.


DAVID: Let’s talk about Aslan and The Chronicles of Narnia. I want to point out a book that I’ve enjoyed myself: A Year with Aslan, which is 365 short daily readings from The Chronicles.

I’m guessing that 2014 will be a very good year for you with Narnia books—now that a new Silver Chair movie is in the news. On the day we’re talking, I checked Google News and there are 73 current news stories about that film production getting underway.

Here’s a bit of what the LA Times said about the film news: The beloved Chronicles of Narnia series by C.S. Lewis sat on bookshelves for more than half a century before it found a home on the big screen. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, its famous first installment, came out in 2005, followed in 2008 by Prince Caspian and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in 2010. And then—nothing. Now, it has been announced that a fourth Narnia film is on the way. The deal between C.S. Lewis Co. and Mark Gordon Co. will make the next film in the series, The Silver Chair.

MARK: They’ve been working on The Silver Chair project for a long time and they’ve finally landed that. The one that I keep hearing about is a Screwtape film. Three times over the last 10 years, we thought we were going to have a Screwtape movie—then, we keep hearing that it’s all about the scripts. I’ve heard that they just can’t settle on the right script.

DAVID: I imagine there will be some new Narnia editions coming in 2014—or whenever the movie is finished, right?

MARK: I’m sure our children’s group will be extremely involved when the film does open. Every time a new movie comes out, they do a new wave. The movies do lift all boats.

DAVID: We’ll stay tuned in 2014. For now, we’ll be recommending A Year with Aslan to readers for this holiday-shopping season.


DAVID: OK, finally, let’s talk about The Screwtape Letters and this annotated edition that you released about a year ago. I think it’s a terrific holiday gift for that Lewis fan on readers’ lists. We’ve already discussed the popularity of the basic Screwtape book, year after year. I’ve still got my own father’s well-worn copy from the late 1950s, when the added section, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, was first bound into a single volume with the original text. I treasure that little book with Dad’s name jotted in the front and 1959, the year he bought it, in ball-point pen.

Since then, I can’t imagine how many copies I’ve bought, owned, given away—must be a couple dozen overall. So, why get a new Screwtape Letters? My argument is this: I love the feel and look of this annotated edition. Yes, I’ve got every kind of e-reader you can imagine and I read books, all the time, on everything from Kindle and iPad to my iPhone. But, there’s something about a well-made book.

I love the addition of red ink inside this book for the notes. There are a couple of hundred helpful annotations that first-time and veteran readers will find intriguing. I just think it would be a great gift to open on Christmas morning.

MARK: I agree with you that this book looks good and feels good. We chose special paper for this; and we carefully chose the red ink for the annotations in the margins. We’re also discussing an annotated Mere Christianity, so that may come down the pike later. But I am nervous about this edition. Some years ago, we published a classic-art edition of Narnia and it just didn’t work well. It sold fine, but our other editions way outsold it. I’m hoping that this annotated book does catch on.

DAVID: Well, we’re pushing it today and I agree with you: I hope it does catch some holiday-shopping buzz. I know people who already own the book and, still, I’d put this on a holiday shopping list for them.

So, before we close, what else should we say about Lewis?

MARK: I would add that we just don’t have very many public intellectuals like Lewis, anymore, and certainly not many Christian public intellectuals.

DAVID: To put that conclusion into someone else’s mouth, there’s evangelical scholar Mark Noll’s line: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there’s not much of an evangelical mind.” For years now, Noll and others have been campaigning to change that.

MARK: There are some authors out there today who claim to be public intellectuals, but Lewis filled that role in a way we just don’t see today. He was able to speak in public ways—and in public places—in clear and thought-through ways. And, he found large audiences willing to listen and to buy his books. One of the projects we’ve just approved—and it’ll come out in the next couple of years—is a book that we’ll call How to Read by C.S. Lewis. This book will pull material from the whole corpus of his work, including his letters. He was a giant, not just as a  Christian writer, but as a teacher. He had a lot to say that helps people read and write English. We see this upcoming book as a bold move to emphasize Lewis’s ongoing place in the shaping of modern media.

DAVID: Well, we wish you well with all of that. And—to our readers—stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit for more on Lewis in 2014.


Buy the books! Click on any of the covers with today’s column to jump to the Amazon pages for those books. They include:

C. S. Lewis Signature Classics: Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, A Grief Observed, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, and The Great Divorce (Boxed Set)

The Great Divorce (Hardback Edition)

A Year with Aslan: Daily Reflections from The Chronicles of Narnia

Screwtape Letters: The Annotated Edition


If you’re holiday shopping: Please, be sure to check out our ReadTheSpirit bookstore as well!

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

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.

Outside the Christmas circle, looking in …

Christmas decorations photographed by Nevit Dilmen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.AT CHRISTMAS, we remember that millions of Americans follow faiths other than Christianity. Plus, in a new study, 1 in 5 Americans say they have no particular faith. So, what does this overwhelmingly Christian celebration look like from outside the immediate circle of Christianity? Earlier, we published Rabbi Bob Alper’s delightful Mrs. Steinberg’s Christmas Tree. Our new movie review and small-group discussion story about Les Misérables has both Christian and non-Christian ideas for discussing the movie. TODAY, we welcome writer Bobbie Lewis reflecting on her own Jewish journey through a lifetime of American Christmas culture …

Or, Bah, humbug?


As a Jew, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with Christmas my entire life.

I don’t think I was even aware of the holiday until I was in first grade. My family had just moved to a new neighborhood in northeast Philadelphia. It was a very Jewish neighborhood, but our house was on the last street of the district for an elementary school in the older, heavily German-American neighborhood of Burholme.

During my seven years at that school I was the only Jewish girl in my class (there were also two Jewish boys). We started every day with a reading from the Bible, and on assembly days, with a hymn. I loved the imagery and cadences of the King James Bible, and am grateful that I had the chance, in the days before the Supreme Court said it was a no-no, to become familiar with important passages from the New Testament.

My class was preparing to present a Nativity pageant during assembly. I was to be one of Mary’s attendants, and I came home and told my mother I needed a costume to be a “birgin.” (She made something appropriate out of a white sheet.) During the pageant, we sang Silent Night, and Away in a Manger, the first Christmas carols I learned.

As I got older, I became unsure about what to do about Christmas carols. I loved the tunes but for many years I would silently mouth the words whenever the lyrics said anything about “Jesus,” or “Christ.” Still later, I decided that singing these beautiful songs was a testimony to the composer, not a statement of belief, and sang along enthusiastically.

My parents lit Hanukkah candles every year, but gifts were never an important part of the holiday for us. My father’s coworkers sent us Christmas cards, and my mother used to tack them onto Dad’s large wooden drawing board in the shape of a Christmas tree. For a few years, she let my brother, sister and me tack stockings next to the card-tree, and we’d receive little chatchkes in the stockings on Christmas Day. But I think we all knew it was a hollow gesture—they weren’t even real Christmas stockings, just old socks, and the gifts were unimpressive—so the custom quickly died.

I admit I envied my friends’ annual haul of Christmas gifts. But I developed my own tradition of going to visit my best friend, Carol, on the day after Christmas to look at her tree and her gifts and to eat her mother’s Christmas cookies—the best I’ve ever enjoyed!

My ambivalent relationship with Christmas continued into adulthood. My first post-college job was with the Jewish Federation of Metro Detroit, where non-Jewish holidays were ignored, so Christmas wasn’t an issue. Then I went to Sinai Hospital of Detroit. Although it was a Jewish-sponsored institution, most of the staff were not Jewish, and many wanted to decorate their work areas for Christmas. It became a huge controversy in the early 1980s. The administration finally decreed that Christmas trees and any religious-inspired decorations were out—evergreens and snowflakes were fine.

In subsequent jobs, I joined in the holiday festivities but I always felt niggling resentment that these supposedly secular organizations were giving so much attention to a Christian religious celebration; calling it a “holiday” dinner didn’t camouflage the real reason for the hoopla.

That changed 11 years ago when I went to work at Lutheran Social Services of Michigan. Because it was a Christian organization, I felt comfortable with the Christmas decorations, the Christmas parties, the “Secret Santa” gifts and enjoyed the holiday very much..

Now that I’m retired, I don’t have staff or colleagues for whom I need to buy Christmas gifts. Almost all of our friends are Jewish, so there’s no one to invite us a Christmas party. I don’t do a lot of shopping or watch a lot of TV, so I’m barely aware of Christmas in the malls or on the airwaves. For the first time in many years, I am doing nothing at all for Christmas.

And I admit, I sort of miss it.

For those of you who celebrate, I wish you the merriest of Christmases.


Barbara (Bobbie) Lewis is the founder and creative talent behind Write4Results, a consultancy offering writing, editing, public relations and communications counsel.

Movie review and Bible study: Les Misérables

EDWARD MCNULTY’S books on faith and film are used in congregations nationwide. Earlier, he reviewed Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. In 2013, ReadTheSpirit will publish his new book, Blessed Are the Filmmakers. In the following review, McNulty shows how to spark discussion in your congregation.

Update for New Year’s: We are not alone in encouraging discussion of the religious themes in this new version of the classic. In reviewing Les Misérables for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis made the same point, writing: “Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Mr. Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest.”

Les Misérables


OUR WAIT IS OVER! The long-awaited Les Misérables musical is here.

In world literature, the original novel ranks with War and Peace. But Victor Hugo’s story has been produced for film and television in at least 80 different forms over the past century, compared with less than 10 of Tolstoy’s epic. That shows the enduring, worldwide affection for Les Misérables. I think that we really have two great stories of Law and Grace in Western culture: Saint Paul’s transformation in the New Testament and Hugo’s celebrated tale of Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean.

If you’re like me and can’t get enough of Les Misérables, I recommend that you also enjoy other film versions, especially if you would like to lead a small-group discussion with this review and guide. Each of the filmed versions has some details that are omitted in other versions. Among earlier versions I can recommend are: the 1935 version with Frederick March and Charles Laughton, the 1958 version with veteran French actors Jean Gabin and Bernard Blier in the two central roles as Valjean and Javert, and then I also like the 1998 version co-starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as fugitive and policeman. Like millions of moviegoers, you may have your own favorite version.

In Tom Hooper’s newest release, opening nationwide on Christmas Day, music moves from a supporting role into the heart of the story, thus adding an emotional intensity not possible in the straight dramas. The spiritual agony and questioning of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is beautifully expressed in the song “What Have I Done?” As fans of the story know, the repentant thief’s life is transformed by a graceous bishop—and, in a chapel, Valjean addresses his prayer to “Sweet Jesus.” He reflects upon the past injustice committed against him and the remarkable man who shows him such inspiring kindness. Valjean vows to live up to the bishop’s love and trust in him as he sets forth to build a new life, devoted to serving humanity and thus serving God.

Valjean succeeds and eventually becomes the mayor of the town where he settles. Unfortunately, the town’s new police chief turns out to be his nemesis from years ago, Javert (Russell Crowe). Close at hand and increasingly suspicious of Valjean’s real identity is the very man who can destroy him.

Inspector Javert is an uncompromising enforcer of the law with the zeal of a man who was born in prison but rose above his past. He clings to the law as his own form of faith. At one point, Javert sings: “Mine is the way of the Lord/And those who follow the path of the righteous/Shall have their reward.” But what of those who stray from “the path of the righteous”? “And if they fall/As Lucifer fell/The flame/The sword!”

There is more—much more—that could be said about the spirituality of this version, including other prayers and invocations of God in various scenes. If you are familiar with the Bible, you will see other stories and passages resonate throughout the film that you may want to raise in a discussion with friends. Clearly, though, the most striking is the parallel with the New Testament life of Paul.

And, what if you are not interested in these biblical connections? Well, you’re sure to enjoy the terrific storytelling and stirring music. Toward the end, the rousing repetition of the chorus “Do You Hear the People Sing” even puts a positive spin on the tragedy of the freedom fighters at the barricade, suggesting that eventually the struggle of people for justice and freedom will triumph. There is no doubt that this belongs at or near the top of this year’s best films!

Want more from Edward McNulty? See the links, after the Brief Study Guide. Through his own website, Visual Parables, Ed produces much more detailed versions of his film reviews and study guides for group leaders who like to regularly feature film-and-faith discussions.

Les Misérables Brief Study Guide

DISCUSS LAW and GRACE / SAUL and PAUL: An easy way to spark lively discussion is to revisit the life of Saul, who becomes known as Paul in the New Testament accounts. You can read about Paul’s transformation in the book of Acts. In addition, there are many passages in Paul’s writings that you can share with your group to get a Bible-related discussion going. Talk about Javert and Valjean in the film as embodiments of Law and Grace—the dual spiritual poles in the life of Saul/Paul. Here are a few passages from Paul’s writings that could be useful in discussion …

In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
Saint Paul in Philippians 4:12-13

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Saint Paul in Ephesians 2:8

The Lord said to me, ‘My Grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
Saint Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:9

DISCUSS RELIGIOUS LEADERSHIP: You also could start the discussion by focusing on the role of Victor Hugo’s fictional bishop as a religious leader who has a great impact on the world. If you care to get DVDs of earlier film versions, I suggest looking for the three productions I mentioned above. Find scenes involving the bishop and show them to your group. How does the bishop embody the best in faith and leadership? What do you think of his actions? Are there parallels with choices we face today?

DISCUSS THE MUSIC: Congregations struggle all the time with choices of music for worship and other settings. Is music relevant today? What kinds of music express faith today? Discuss the powerful message of the music in this version.

DISCUSS THE STATUS OF THE IMPRISONED TODAY: Many congregations have connections with prison ministries. America’s prison population has grown dramatically over the years and many religious leaders are raising questions about our current legal policies on crime and punishment.

Where to find more from Edward McNulty …