Welcoming churches: Greeting Nones and Jedi knights

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1217_Star_Wars_fans_in_costume_in_Italy.jpgCostumed Star Wars fans in a public park. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.AMERICANS HAVE ALWAYS LOOKED TO GREAT BRITAIN for religious inspiration. Sure, millions of us also look to Rome, Jerusalem, Mecca and regions of Asia. But Britain shaped American culture from early pilgrims through the era of John Wesley, whose Methodist forces built the nation’s largest religious group prior to the Civil War. Later, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and the Inklings took America by storm. In fact, Tolkien’s The Hobbit is predicted, now, to set a new world’s record for opening-weekend boxoffice receipts. Even “our” American Shakers, beloved for their furniture and music, were founded by Manchester-native Ann Lee. And that’s not even mentioning the huge influence of Anglicans like N.T. Wright and Desmond Tutu.

There’s so much to this British spiritual invasion! New Year’s Day marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—which Steven Spielberg’s new movie rests proudly on the 16th president’s shoulders. But it was Bitish abolitionists in the 1700s, such as the visionary political activist Thomas Clarkson, who pioneered the course for eliminating slavery. (For more, read our story on the Lincoln-150 milestones about to sweep across the country in 2013.)

NEXT, from the sublime to the ridiculous … here is fresh news from Britain …

BRITISH SPIRITUAL INVASION:
JEDI KNIGHTS ARE COMING! (OR ARE THEY?)

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1217_fan_as_Obi_Wan_Kenobi.jpgA Star Wars fan in Brazil appears as Obi-Wan Kenobi.As silly as this next news item may sound, there is vital news here for anyone who cares about a congregation. In Part 1 of our coverage of Henry Brinton’s new book, The Welcoming Congregation, we reported on the need for congregations to seriously embrace biblical mandates for welcoming strangers. Henry talked more about this in Part 2 of our series. Still, most readers leap to the conclusion that welcoming strangers is a matter of good manners, handshakes and big smiles.

But there’s more: The “strangers” who walk into houses of worship these days may be stranger than ever: like the Jedi knights, inspired by the Star Wars saga. News this week out of Great Britain is that—in a newly released census of religious affiliations—Jedi once again rank as one of the UK’s largest minority religions. Ten years ago, the Jedi shocked British Christians—who still make up two thirds of the island nation’s population—by suddenly appearing in the census totals with 400,000 Jedi adherents. The knights claimed a higher ranking on the list of UK religions than Jewish, Sikh or Buddhist Brits.

Ten years have passed. Now, eager to see how the Jedi would fare in the latest report on religious affiliation, British newspapers were poised to file stories about this Star Wars-inspired spiritual movement. This time, far fewer Brits entered “Jedi” as their faith. The new census of Jedi adherents is down to just under 180,000. That still ranks Jedis among the largest religious minorities in the UK, but safely moves Jews, Sikhs and Buddhists higher on the list.

Are the Jedi seriously a religious group? If you Google British newspaper reports, some of the leading papers on Fleet Street are reporting typically dead-pan stories on the current state of the Jedi faith—but clearly a good number of these reporters are writing with tongues in their cheeks. To American eyes, a few of these stories might suggest there actually are Jedi congregations holding services. In fact, the whole Jedi campaign was started by British humanist groups a decade ago to protest the fact that an official government census question was continuing to ask about citizens’ religious preferences. A nationwide campaign was launched to take an amusing swipe at the census by entering “Jedi.” British census-takers say the trend caught on especially among young adults.

Is there actually a Jedi faith? Like almost everything in the religious realm—yes, inded, there are people around the world who claim to follow a Jedi creed. One group uses this prayer-like affirmation: “Emotion, yet peace. Ignorance, yet knowledge. Passion, yet serenity. Chaos, yet harmony. Death, yet the Force.” Other Jedi adherents use other creeds. Mostly, however, occasional news stories about people who claim to follow the Jedi faith involve brushes with civil authorities. Every couple of years, a fully costumed Jedi gets into a scuffle in some UK business when the Jedi refuses to remove a hood or mask. A search of several journalism databases, this week, shows no recent coverage of actual Jedi ceremonies in any actual Jedi temples around the world.

If it’s so silly, then why does it matter? It matters because the Jedi protest—and the ongoing debate surrounding it in the UK—is a sign of just how outspoken religious skeptics have become in defending their right to be skeptics. Now across the UK, humanist, agnostic and atheist organizations are arguing that it was a mistake to encourage the Jedi protest ten years ago. These days, the consensus of UK skeptics seems to be: Instead of poking fun, they should urge people to freely stand up and identify themselves with whatever response to organized religion they may have.

On this side of the Atlantic, we may not have Jedi … but we have the rise of the Nones …

AMERICAN RELIGIOUS TRENDS:
RISE OF THE NONES AND THE QUEST FOR SPIRITUAL FREEDOM

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1217_PEW_data_on_Nones.jpgCLICK this Pew chart to visit Pew’s website and find our more about this report.ReadTheSpirit has published interviews with dozens of leading experts on American religious life, including Harvey Cox and Kenda Creasy Dean and Diana Butler Bass, all arguing that religious leaders need to adapt to dramatic changes in the American mindset about religion. Since the beginning of human history, religion always has involved both a call to accept revealed traditions—and a desire to to engage in spiritual quests. These two strands (revelation and quest) form the DNA of what we call “religion.” In the current era of American culture, however, that passion for individual spiritual quests is dominant. Americans have strong opinions and questions. Religious leaders no longer have the authority to teach without interruption. Certainly, millions of us still accept revealed religious traditions—but the excitement of the individual spiritual quest is rising nationwide. From the realm of pop culture, many observers point out that the huge popularity of super-hero movies and even the new Hobbit holiday debut are signs of the ascendancy of the spiritual quest in American culture.

Want to be a welcoming congregation in America? Brace yourself. No, you won’t have to fend off costumed Jedi. But you will have to contend with opinionated “Nones” who may walk through your doors. “None” is the term widely used to identify the millions of Americans who answer polling questions about religious affiliation with the word: None. The Pew Forum’s latest tracking research on this phenomenon concludes, in part:

The number of Americans who do not identify with any religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One-fifth of the U.S. public—and a third of adults under 30—are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever in Pew Research Center polling. In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. public), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

A new website to watch for insights into Nones: Journalists watching this historic transformation of the American religious landscape conclude that—like Britain and Europe before us—America is becoming more secular. However, even with that trend, American culture remains distinctively religious. We continue to rank with countries like Iran, Mexico and Pakistan in our religious intensity, compared with other nations surveyed around the world. New American spiritual trends are arising especially among the Nones. This month, longtime religion expert Martin Davis has opened a new website just to explore None phenomena. He calls his site NEW NONES: Tracking the Birth of New Faith in America.

Consider what the Pew data, Martin Davis and writers like Cox, Dean and Bass are arguing: This is not a time for people of faith to hang their heads and assume that the tide is shifting away from us. On the contrary! This is a time of vigorous spiritual seeking coast to coast. No, the strangers walking through our doorways are not arriving to humbly bend their knees and automatically accept whatever we are preaching. These new strangers may not come with light sabers flashing—but their questions and opinions and criticisms will, indeed, flash brightly in our congregations.

And that leads us back to Henry Brinton …

BECOMING A WELCOMING CONGREGATION:
FINAL ADVICE FROM HENRY BRINTON

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1217_Henry_G_Brinton_The_Welcoming_Congregation_cover.jpgClick the book cover to visit its Amazon page.In closing his book—and in closing our three-part series with Henry Brinton (see Part 1 and Part 2)—we are reminded of the ancient patriarch and matriarch Abraham and Sarah. Brinton writes: We should always begin by looking for the presence of the holy in the guests who come to our door, much as Abraham and Sarah welcomed three strangers and discovered that they were the Lord, in Genesis 18. These guests “can be both gift and challenge,” says Ana Maria Pineda, “human and divine.”

Then, a page later, Brinton writes: We have learned that practicing God’s welcome includes ongoing efforts to make worship accessible to guests. In the Iona Abbey, barriers to participation in services are broken down by the teaching of songs as the service begins; at Saddleback, guests are told that they can expect to enjoy the service and that no one will do anything to embarrass tehm. In all services, orders of worship should be projected clearly on screens or included in comprehensive printed bulletins that minimize the amount of juggling that a worshipper needs to do, especially in churches that use both hymnals and prayer books. The focus on the service should be on “creatiing comunity for that hour,” says Sam Lloyd, dean of the Washingotn National Catehdral.

That’s the kind of solid advice you can find throughout Brinton’s 133-page book. Right now, start talking about the ideas we have shared in this three-part series with Henry Brinton. Get a copy of his book and ask church leaders to discuss it over a series of weekends.

And: From all of of us at ReadTheSpirit—
have a Merry Christmas and a very Hopeful New Year!

NOTE: You are free to reproduce, repost or otherwise share this story. Just make sure to include this tagline in any sharing …

By ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and …
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

The 5 Best Christmas Movies (and all the rest)

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1210_Christmas_Carol_George_C_Scott.jpgA CHRISTMAS CAROL, co-starring Edward Woodward as the Ghost of Christmas Present and George C. Scott as Ebenezer Scrooge. Broadcast in 1984 and now available in DVD and Blu-ray.Truth about Christmas Movies:

100s of DVDs, but only 5 tales

By ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

Love Christmas movies? My wife Amy and I are such fans that we have a lifelong mission to watch every Christmas movie. We’ve also vowed to watch made-for-TV Christmas movies and notable Christmas “specials.” True fans of Christmas video, for example, share our hope that someday George Lucas will unlock the vaults and rebroadcast the rarely seen Star Wars Holiday Special. Similarly, we’re hoping the Muppets will release the equally rare John Denver and the Muppets: A Christmas Together.

BUT, THIS YEAR, WE HAVE A CHRISTMAS MOVIE CHALLENGE FOR YOU: At our house, we started in the late 1970s watching home-movie versions of holiday films on VHS tapes. After 35 years of home viewing—now mostly on DVD and occasionally on Blu-ray—we have come to this conclusion:
There really are only 5 movie plots among the 100s of Christmas films.
The challenge to you? Let me explain this theory, then please email us at [email protected] (or leave a Comment below) and tell us what you think. Add to our listings, suggest a movie we may have overlooked—and feel free to disagree! (Psst! This also is a great discussion-starter for a holiday-season gathering of friends. I’ve tried this myself—and the discussion gets quite … Spirited!)

THE FIRST ‘MODERN’ CHRISTMAS TALE: CHRISTMAS CAROL

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1210_Christmas_Carol_with_George_C_Scott.jpgClick the cover to visit its Amazon page.The very first Christmas story is found in the Gospels—as little Linus pointed out in the 1965 debut of A Charlie Brown Christmas on CBS (now on ABC). But the first modern Christmas tale that echoed through Hollywood is Charles Dickens’ 1843 A Christmas Carol. Since the first documented silent-film version in 1901, more than 50 movies have retold Dickens’ tale. Think that’s a lot? The number of remakes doubles if we add all the slight adaptations, such as the new Hallmark version: It’s Christmas, Carol, co-starring Carrie Fisher as a Marley-like ghost with a few magical powers that even Dickens couldn’t imagine.

Then, the list of remakes expands even further if we add in all of the free adaptations of the Christmas Carol theme. Here’s what we mean …

THE BASIC TALE OF A CHRISTMAS CAROL: There is hope at Christmas even for at-risk adults whose anger or selfishness has isolated them from the wonderful, compassionate life surrounding them. In a Christmas Carol remake, this hope miraculously appears through ghosts or angels or other magical beings. (Author Benjamin Pratt has written a new take on Christmas Carol for the 2012 holidays.)

THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: The biggest branch from the trunk of the Christmas Carol family tree came in 1946 with the release of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life. The movie was based on a short story by historian Philip Van Doren Stern, who was steeped in 19th-century literature and told friends that his idea for a new twist came to him in a dream. Simply connect the dots and you can see that Dickens’ ghosts eventually become a single angel helping Jimmy Stewart to glimpse his past, present and future. Just like Dickens’ version, Wonderful Life focuses on the plight of Bedford Falls’ poorest residents.

Another branch sprouted in The Bishop’s Wife in 1947—remade most recently with a black cast in the 1996 production, The Preacher’s Wife. In these versions of the tale, an angel plays an even bigger role in the drama with Cary Grant starring in 1947 and Denzel Washington appearing in 1996. Like the original, it’s a tale of a heavenly messenger at the holiday to remind an angry-selfish man of life’s larger possibilities. Once again, the story focuses on the plight of poor neighborhoods.

Where is the story branching now? Oddly enough, newer Christmas Carol remakes seem to be losing the Dickensian concern for the poor. The dramatic tension in the 2000 remake The Family Man, starring Nicholas Cage and Tea Leoni (with Don Cheadle as the angel), is between a life of fabulous wealth (pre-angel) and living happily on a middle-class budget (post-angel). No one worries about the poor. The same is true in the more recent Hallmark remake. Carrie Fisher comes back as a ghost simply to make her former business thrive again and the up-scale employees even more successful. The poor? They’re nowhere to be seen.

OK, you get the idea. Here are the other 4 archtypical Christmas movies …

SECOND TALE: Santa Is Real

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1210_Miracle_on_24th_Street_original.jpgClick the cover to visit Amazon.THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: Santa movies date back more than 100 years, debuting in the silent era. But the nostalgic yearning to restore a lost faith in Santa dates to the post-World War II era and the unforgettable performance of Edmund Gwenn as Santa in the 1947 Miracle on 34th Street (not to mention the precocious acting of little Natalie Wood). The movie has been remade a number of times (and the 1994 Dylan McDermott version of 34th Street is pretty entertaining). The Scrooges among us may argue that there is more than nostalgia at work in “Santa is real” movies—considering that the love of Santa is closely entwined with the need for Christmas shopping. Tune in network TV this month and you’ll see a clip from the original 34th Street in a Hollywood-themed advertisement for Macy’s.

Where is the story branching now? Big revivals of the “Santa is real” theme include the runaway 1985 bestseller, The Polar Express, a gorgeous children’s book that became a 2004 movie. After all, this yearning for the jolly red gift bringer is a potent tale! Tim Allen turned out an instant Christmas classic in 1994 with The Santa Clause, followed by two sequels. For younger children, the “Santa is real” story now has morphed into a very popular branch of movies about dogs and the holidays. Not only is Santa real—but Christmas-loving dogs can talk and bring even more holiday gifts!

THIRD TALE: Home for Christmas

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1210_dvd_White_Christmas.jpgClick the cover to visit Amazon.THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: Dramatic stories of making it home for Christmas stretch all the way back to the American pioneer era. Laura Ingalls Wilder tells one such tale of a life-and-death sleigh ride that managed to get her home for the holidays as a young adult. But the boom in such movies came with the vast displacement of World War II—coupled with Hollywood’s full-tilt support of the war effort. Today, few of us can sit through the nearly three hours of the Oscar-nominated Since You Went Away from 1944, co-starring a teen-aged Shirley Temple. Today, it’s rarely seen—but, if you are steely enough for that mid-WWII melodrama, you’re in for the mother lode of “home for Christmas” movies!

The enduring milestone in “home for Christmas” movies came a decade after WWII in 1954’s White Christmas. irving Berlin batted out the title song at a sunny, southern California hotel in 1940, not expecting the tune to become a hit. Then, by 1942, with American service personnel scattered around the world, the song’s haunting plea swept around the planet. It was chosen to close out the black-and-white musical Holiday Inn. The scenes of European battlefields and WWII veterans didn’t arrive until the 1954 Tecnicolor extravaganza, named for the song.

Where is the story branching now? For a while, “home for Christmas” was one of the most popular Christmas stories in Hollywood. In 1963, The Homecoming: A Christmas Story, was the pilot that kicked off The Waltons TV series. But, today? Although widely available on DVD, The Waltons series seems a bit too sweet. Director John Huges began playing with this tale, looking for a way to freshen it, switching the holiday to Thanksgiving in the 1987 Planes, Trains and Automobiles—still a favorite of Steve Martin and John Candy fans. Then, in 1990, Hughes finally struck gold by flipping the tale inside out in Home Alone. This time, it wasn’t one individual trying to reach home—the entire family would struggle to return home. Americans just can’t get enough of that version! Last month, ABC debuted: Home Alone 5.

FOURTH TALE: Misfits become a family.

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1210_Rudolph_the_Red_Nosed_Reindeer.jpgClick on the cover to visit its Amazon page.THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: This Christmas movie plot also sprouted from the huge global mix of cultures in World War II—and Montgomery Ward’s creation in 1939 of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Suddenly, Americans were thinking about how “misfits” could peacefully mingle—and even dare to become a loving family. The children’s book was a big hit for Montgomery Ward, but it didn’t fully connect with the culture until after WWII. Gene Autry took America by storm with his famous version of the Rudolph song in the final days of 1949. Rudolph became a made-for-TV classic thanks to Burl Ives, Rankin-Bass and General Electric in 1964. Sure, Rudolph is popular partly because of great music and animation. But—there is something far deeper in this story’s appeal.

Everywhere Americans turned there were misfits—even within their own families. Soon there were a host of “misfits become a family” Christmas remakes. At our house, we never tire of watching Bob Hope in the 1951 Lemon Drop Kid, based on a story by Damon Runyon and proving that even crooks can form a loveable clan at Christmas. Of course, Hope played that movie version for laughs. Decades later, Ed Asner and Maureen Stapleton ushered in a long list of Kleenex-required dramas about “misfits becoming a family” with their 1977 ABC debut of The Gathering. Asner still is well worth watching, although The Gathering is a bit dated with its heated argument over the Vietnam War. Among our favorite “misfits” remakes is the 1995 Home for the Holidays with Holly Hunter, Robert Downey Jr., Dylan McDermott and the twist of focusing the story on Thanksgiving.

The key distinction between “misfits become a family” movies and “home for Christmas”—in classical terms—is the difference between the Illiad and the Odyssey. The Illiad is the tale of the Trojan War and how conflicting friends and families battle through their differences. The Odyssey is about a hero’s journey to his beloved home. Odysseus does have to clean house before the saga ends—but there is no question of his longing for home. Unlike “misfits” movies, “home” movies are about that deep yearning and the heroic journey to reach the home fires once again.

Where is the story branching now? By 2012, “misfits” are freshly scrambled—and lovingly united—in new Hollywood releases for every holiday season. There are even “misfits” movies for New Year’s Eve, Valentine’s Day—with more holiday remakes in the pipeline. If you discuss this story with your small group, challenge them to think about movies that cross over between these categories. “Home for Christmas” is a well that seems to be running dry. So, cross-over movies try to blend that story with “misfits.” Ask your friends to talk about the 2004 Christmas with the Kranks, in which a sudden “home for Christmas” announcement prompts a whole neighborhood of “misfits” to form a loving family. Or, ask about 2008’s Four Christmases, in which Vince Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon have to visit four homes—chock full of misfits. Ask your small group: Which is more important these days? Finding home. Or, uniting misfits.

FIFTH TALE: Christ Is Real

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1210_The_Nativity_Story_bluray.jpgClick the cover to visit its Amazon page.THE MOVIE FAMILY TREE: The first Christ-in-Christmas movies date back to the late 1800s, when short silent reels featured robed actors marching through Nativity scenes set against cheap theatrical backdrops. One early silent film even showed Mary and Joseph fleeing to Egypt past a painted wooden pyramid and sphinx that looked like they might fall over on the cast.

The “Christ is real” storyline was so common through most of the 20th century that it was unremarkable. NBC and Hallmark Cards simply assumed all TV viewers would accept the Gospel story when they commissioned Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1951 Amahl and the Night Visitors as the first Hallmark Hall of Fame production. Linus was free to proclaim the Gospel in A Charlie Brown Christmas a decade later. Johnny Cash welcomed Billy Graham onto his Christmas specials to tell the story of Jesus. Perry Como, a singer who was notable for his deep Christian faith, was winning praise for Christmas specials well into the 1980s.

Where is the story branching now? In recent decades, the “Christ is real” theme has faded at Hollywood studios. The biggest pointedly Christian production at Christmas came in 2006 with The Nativity Story, which Pope Benedict XVI agreed to personally promote via a world premiere at the Vatican. Unfortunately, the production all but tanked. It finally earned a profit, but drew lukewarm-to-thumbs-down reviews. Even though 9 out of 10 Americans tell Gallup that they plan to celebrate Christmas in 2012—and 6 in 10 say they plan to go to Christmas services—this final branch of the Christmas movie tree seems to be withering.

So, What Do You Think?

Add a Comment below or email us at [email protected] and, please, share this story with friends. You’re free to reproduce this post to spark discussion. Just add our credit line …

By ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm and …
Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.

Welcoming and hospitality are more than shaking hands

The nation’s biggest religious celebration of the year is coming soon: Are you ready? More importantly for millions of American Christians: Is your chuch ready?

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1210_Henry_G_Brinton_The_Welcoming_Congregation_cover.jpgClick the book cover to visit its Amazon page.CHRISTMAS: THE NATION’S ‘BIGGEST RELIGIOUS CELEBRATION’

IS IT TRULY AMERICA’S BIGGEST RELIGIOUS CELEBRATION? This claim could be debated. Is going to church at Christmas truly “religious” for everyone? And, if we expand the meaning of “religious,” one could argue that July 4 is a celebration of civil religion—or that New Year’s Eve is a return to pagan spiritual roots. But let’s turn to the Gallup Poll: The most recent Gallup study of this question reports: Ninety-five percent of Americans celebrate Christmas and—of those who do—51% describe the holiday as “strongly religious” for them, continuing an upward trend seen since 1989.

CHURCH ATTENDANCE BOOMING: Over many years, Gallup has reported that 4 in 10 Americans describe themselves as weekly churchgoers, even though actual head counts in houses of worship haven proven that’s an optimistic claim. However, at Christmas, the percentage of Americans who say they plan to attend Christmas services leaps to more than 6 in 10. In short, Christmas is the year’s biggest occasion for visitors in churches. (Yes, Easter boasts high attendance, as well, but come back as Lent begins in February for more on that season.)

WHAT YOUR CHURCH SHOULD BE DOING TO BECOME WELCOMING

OUR AUTHOR INTERVIEW LATER THIS WEEK FEATURES HENRY G. BRINTON: He’s a popular columnist on faith, congregatinal life and American culture—posting occasional columns for the Washington Post and USA Today. His new book is The Welcoming Congregation: Roots and Fruits of Christian Hospitality. In our interview, we will talk more about Brinton’s very valuable insights.

WHAT YOUR CHURCH SHOULD BE DOING NOW TO PREPARE FOR CHRISTMAS: Start by updating your website! Hundreds of thousands of congregations coast to coast now have websites and a huge number of those sites actually push away potential visitors. Right now, your church’s front webpage should list all holiday-related programs and services. At this time of year, families are scrambling to plan December activities with family and friends.

IN HIS BOOK, HENRY BRINTON ADVISES:Web sites are often the first threshold space that a visitor encounters, and they can make a positive first impression and deliver a powerful message of welcome.” Then, Henry cites examples. He urges churches to design their websites so that—right on the front page—there is clear information about “what happens during a Sunday morning worship serivce, where to go when you arrive, and what to do if you have questions about the church.”

THIS WEEK, check out your congregation’s website. Look for:

SCHEDULE: Is the upcoming schedule of events obvious on the front page? Is it so big and bold that no one can miss it? Post your whole balance-of-December schedule right there on the home page.

ADDRESS: Visitors use map apps or GPS devices, so your street address should be front and center—not in the fine print at the bottom of the home page or on some secondary page. Are there special parking problems—or helpful options like Visitor Parking spaces? Put that information on your front page with your address. Those visitors who use your webpage to reach you will really appreciate those tips!

WHERE TO GO ONCE YOU ARRIVE: If you’re reading this far, you’re probably active in a congregation and you would be shocked to learn how difficult it is for visitors to find the doorway that your members know is the “front door.” You would be floored to learn how many visitors don’t have a clue where they should go inside your building.

DESCRIBE WHAT HAPPENS: Describe your worship and other customs. If your congregation has coffee before services or a social time after services, makes sure your website schedule explains that. Visitors won’t know in advance and won’t be able to plan for it. Post a photo of your church’s interior, so visitors know what to anticipate. Or, better yet, post a photo of people attending a typical worship service. Churches are mysterious, daunting places to most visitors.

IDENTIFY THE MAJOR PLAYERS: Many churches seem to hide their clergy deep inside their websites, perhaps out of modesty on the part of the clergy—or out of a theological push to make members feel that they are leading the congregation. But consider: Making it easy for visitors to visually identify key figures in your congregation is a friendly service.

SPECIAL COLLECTIONS: Most church leaders have heard that it’s a bad idea to mention collections. But, if you’re collecting special items during the holidays—like cans of food for the needy or special offerings for the local homeless shelter—tell people as part of your events schedule. If visitors feel moved to seek out a church for the holidays, they don’t want to arrive and feel that “everybody else” knew about a special community-wide effort.

SPECIAL LIGHTS: A big draw at year-end holidays are “lighting” services. Some churches use candles, distibuted for free at the doors. Some churches use flashlights or even lit-up mobile phone apps held in the darkness. If you’ve got a special lighting service—explain it to your visitors in advance. Don’t assume they know what the words “candle-lit” means in your congregation.

A FINAL WORD FROM HENRY BRINTON ON CHRISTIAN HOSPITALITY

Click on the cover of Henry’s book, above, to order a copy. Just to clarify: The book is not specifically oriented to Christmas. It’s a year-round exploration of Christian hospitality. The book is not specifically focused on Sunday morning worship, nor is it focused on websites. It’s a deep analysis of why Christians share a distinctively welcoming vocation in this world. In Henry Brinton’s words from the book:

Jesus plays a dual role in any experience of Christian hospitality—he is both our host and our potential guest. We gather to feed the hungry and welcome strangers because that is what Jesus did as a gracious and loving host during his earthly ministry and because that is what Jesus continues to do through the Christian community today. But we also practice hospitality because it gives us an opportunity to welcome Jesus in the form of people who are hungry, thirsty, naked, homeless, sick and in prison. The line from Matthew 25, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me,” echoes again and again throughout the ancient Christian texts … Over the centuries, the question of whether to offer assistance to a stranger has been intensified by the Christian understanding that it is Jesus himself who stands before us, in need of food and shelter.

One of the Greek words for hospitality, philoxenia, literally means “love of the stranger.” It combines the general word for love for people who are connected to us (phileo) with the word for stranger (xenos), reminding us that hospitality is always “closely connected to love.” But the word xenos has other meanings—in addition to “stranger,” it also means “guest” and “host.” So the word itself captures an essential mutuality that is at the heart of hospitality, uniting strangers, guests and hosts.

MORE WITH HENRY BRINTON

If you enjoyed this story, you will want to read:
Part 2: Interview with Henry G. Brinton about his book and tips for welcoming churches.
Part 3: When strangers who walk through our doors are truly “strange”—including Jedi knights.

Finding Grace with Ghosts of Dickens’ Christmas Carol

AS WITH ALL OF THE REV. DR. BENJAMIN PRATT’S COLUMNS, we welcome you to share this widely. Feel free to repost or reprint and discuss in your small group. Simply make sure to credit Ben as the author and readthespirit.com as the website. TODAY, Ben poses a fascinating challenge that is sure to spark discussion: What spirits can you summon from Past, Present and Future?

Welcoming Spirits of A Christmas Carol:

And the Grace that Flows around Them

By Benjamin Pratt

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1209_Ebenezer_Scrooge_in_John_Leech_1843_illustration.jpgEbenezer Scrooge in John Leech’s 1843 illustration of Christmas Carol.I have no memory of Christmas until I was in the 10th Grade. That’s not because my memory is failing me—but because I grew up with no celebration of the holiday. Perhaps that’s why I am a fan of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol and, in particular, why I watch the 1970 Albert Finney version, Scrooge, more than any other film. Millions know this story: As a little boy, Ebenezer Scrooge’s family was so tragically broken apart that he never experienced Christmas until he was a youth apprenticed at Mr. Fezziwig’s shop.

From this, I have learned that it is difficult to grieve what we do not remember. It is difficult to find Grace winding its way toward us, ready to burst into our lives, if we do not spend at least a few moments among the ghosts. Charles Dickens had a profound faith that God’s Providence wants to throw open even the most locked-away corners of our lives—and to transform even the most tragic corners of our world. Re-read his classic novella and you will discover Dickens’ theology of Grace. The keys are everywhere in his novella, even in his damning six-word description of Scrooge’s home: “Darkness is cheap, and Scrooge liked it.”

So, I invite you to try my little exercise. Join me as the ghost of Jacob Marley invites us all: Come and let our spirits “rove beyond the narrow limits.” This year, I’ve already taken my journey. Here it is and perhaps it will give you courage to take your own.

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

Scrooge asks if this is a journey into the world’s “Long past.”
“No,” says the ghost. “Your past.”

One of My First Memories: In what became the formative story of my life, as a very young child I heard that—because I was born—my mother became an invalid. I was reared with a coating of guilt that glazed my soul as I watched her continue to decline. This story was told in my family not in cruelty—just as a fact of life.

A Dark Secret: At age 11 another formative event. I had an inexpensive stamp collection, one that came in a plastic bag with a booklet for identifying stamps. In the back of a drawer I found an old stamp my grandmother had given me. This stamp with a standing bear was, to my surprise and delight, pictured in the small booklet. It was worth $10,000. My spirits soared! I could buy my parents a house! I carefully wrapped the stamp, included a note requesting the money, and sent it off with anticipation. Days passed along with my growing awareness that I had been a fool. Now, I was a doubly guilty fool. It took many years for me to transform that guilt into an admiration for that little boy who was such a trusting, innocent soul.

Dumb and Maybe Dumber: When I was a boy, schools administered IQ tests and I was haunted by a teacher who, one day, knelt near my desk to whisper: “We have a problem.” I had scored extremely low on my IQ test, she told me. I knew instantly what it meant: I was dumb! My mind already was buzzing even as she continued: “It is impossible for you to have scored as low as you did on the IQ test and do as well as you do in school. We need you to repeat the test.” I never heard most of it—only the news of the extremely low score. I was worse than a guilty little boy. I was a guilty, stupid fool.

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT

This time, Scrooge welcomes the Spirit and says, “Conduct me where you will. I went forth with the first Spirit on compulsion—and I learnt a lesson, which is working now. If you have aught to teach me, let me profit by it.” But Scrooge still has no idea what is looming. The patterns he has been sketching in the world remain unchanged.

In My Ministry, I Preach an Elusive Grace: My years of parish ministry opened up into endless hard work. That pattern became my way of life. Like so many other clergy persons, I preached about Grace but my life wrote a completely different theology. In my work, I showed how deeply I believed that only more and more good works could hope to justify my existence. The guilty, stupid little boy still was somewhere back there—watching me.

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMASES YET TO COME

Then, “the third Phantom slowly, gravely, silently approached … the very air through which this Spirit moved seemed to scatter gloom and mystery.” Can Grace be in such ghosts? But—this Spirit is the only one who completes the Gospel leap toward Grace for Scrooge. Of course we all know from the movies that this Spirit takes Scrooge to his gravestone. Actually, Dickens’ original story points us in a different direction: The key begins to unlock Grace during Scrooge’s final visit to the “future” of the poor Cratchit family. Standing in their tiny home, Scrooge is startled by hearing a line from the Gospels: “And He took a child, and set him in the midst of them.” As these words from Mark echo in Scrooge’s head, the Spirit is stirring. Dickens writes: “Where had Scrooge heard those words?”

What Happened in My Own Christmas Yet to Come: I could tell you time and place—but that is minor compared to the rush of Joy that filled my being when I finally surrendered my endless efforts of justifying work and heard the words in my soul that I am loved and accepted as I am. The Grace notes came from the outrageous love of the mysterious One who sent a child to be among us. It did not stop my hard work. But work came now from Grace, which leads to Gratitude, then to Compassion, and finally to Actions of Caring.

And so, as the turbulent 2012 draws to a close, this is my own Christmas Carol to our many readers who follow my columns, I believe, in search of light. Are we like Scrooge? Oh, yes, we are. But if you have read this far, then I suspect that you do not like the darkness too much. You are willing perhaps to say with me: “Conduct me where You will.”

Think of me, slipping Albert Finney and Scrooge into my DVD player once again. I shall tell myself that—this year—I shall not cry. But, again, I know I shall. How can I help it, when I witness the Grace that abounds in Scrooge as he awakens on Christmas morn? Or as Dickens concludes his tale, he says of Scrooge “that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!”

PLEASE, FEEL FREE TO TAKE THIS JOURNEY YOURSELF … AND SHARE WITH FRIENDS.

This column also was posted as a Key Voice in the website for the Day1 radio network.

Want more from Benjamin Pratt? The best way to support Ben’s ongoing work—and to give yourself a terrific boost in the new year—is to get one of his two books. Take a look in our ReadTheSpirit bookstore.

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

Adam English digging back to the real St. Nicholas

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1203_Adam_English_and_Santa_Claus.jpgAdam English (left) and a good friend.Our annual Holiday Best Books list named Dr. Adam English’s The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus No. 2 out of the 12 books on the “best” list. We also featured research from his new book in our annual Feast of St. Nicholas Holiday column.
Now, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Adam English:

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR
INTERVIEW WITH
ADAM C. ENGLISH
ON ‘THE SAINT WHO
WOULD BE SANTA’

DAVID: We know very little about the original St. Nicholas. You describe him, at one point in your book, as “a vaguely historical personage.”

ADAM: Yes, the record on Nicholas is thin because he left no volumes of his own theology or poetry or sermons. We have nothing written in his own hand. We have nothing written by his immediate contemporaries, either. The earliest historical records that mention his name come from a couple of hundred years after his death. That’s always troubling to a historian who, of course, would rather have first-hand accounts.

DAVID: When I’ve heard people preach about St. Nicholas, they like to say he attended the famous Council of Nicaea that was convened by Constantine the Great and developed one of the earliest Christian creeds. But that’s a historical point open to some debate, right?

ADAM: The lists of those who attended Nicaea are not consistent. The questions historians face is: Why do these lists differ? Did some scribes later add people who they thought should have been at Nicaea? Lists range from 200 to more than 300 people in attendance, so that shows you the wide variety. The earliest lists name only about 200, but those could have been partial lists that were made to show some of the most prominent bishops in attendance. The consensus of scholars now is that there were closer to 300 bishops at Nicaea. In the larger lists, Nicholas’s name appears; he’s not in the shorter lists. That’s where the ambiguity lies. He is not named in all lists, so there is room for doubt.

DAVID: People are familiar, thanks to novelist Dan Brown and others, with the extensive Christian archives at the Vatican—and in other parts of the world, as well. But there is no such thing as an archive of documents from Bishop Nicholas’s reign.

ADAM: No. So far, historians have uncovered nothing from his lifetime. Then again, if you’re evaluating historical figures by the surviving works in their own hand—Jesus didn’t leave any written works, nor did Socrates.

DAVID: Excellent point. Still, I want readers to understand how painstaking you had to be in sifting various layers of the historical record to prepare this new biography. Among the claims you had to sift: Where is Nicholas buried today?

NICHOLAS’S BONES TRAVELED THE WORLD

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1203_St_Nicholas_statue_in_Bari_Italy.jpgStatue of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy. Photo courtesy of Adam C. English.ADAM: By and large, Nicholas is buried in Bari, Italy. There are fragments of his bones that have made it to Venice and other places. His bones were moved from Turkey to Italy in 1087 and, a few years later, some Venetian sailors came and took some fragments of the bones. There are finger bones and other relics that have made appearances in churches around the world, claiming to be authentic. But the bones in the tomb in Bari have been analyzed on multiple occasions. Today, he’s mostly in Bari, Italy.

DAVID: In my world travels, I’ve never made it to Bari—but I’m fascinated by the annual collection of liquid from Nicholas’s tomb. They call it myrrh, you point out in your book, even though real myrrh is something different—a resin from a thorny tree. So, what’s the deal with this seeping miracle?

ADAM: This is one of the more fascinating and curious parts of this story that is unknown to most Americans—even people who may know that there was a real historical person named Nicholas. From very early on in the history of Nicholas’s relics—and to this day—his tomb secretes this clear watery liquid. They call it myrrh or oil. If you visit Bari, you can purchase little vials of it. It’s collected once a year in a big celebration. One of the ministers goes in and collects a vial of it, then it’s diluted and mixed with water and oil and they prepare tiny samples of it for pilgrims. It may sound unique and it’s little known in this country, but Nicholas is not the only one from the Middle Ages whose tomb secretes liquid.

DAVID: Describe Bari, Italy, for our readers.

ADAM: Today, Bari is a large modern port city on the eastern side of Italy and cruise ships come in and out. But the old town of Bari where you’ll find the Basilica of St. Nicholas is an enclosed, medieval-style area. The streets are labyrinths. Houses are built on top of houses. The locals will say this was done on purpose so that if a raiding party descended on the town, they would get lost in the maze-like bowels of the city. But there is a plaza that opens up and the basilica is there. It’s an imposing, gray, blocky building and you can go inside. The basilica was built around the year 1100. Nicholas’s body is underneath the main altar in a crypt. You take the side stairs down into this darkly lit chamber. There’s a simple gray tomb. Most of the time, the people who are there are either tourists or Russian pilgrims. Nicholas is still very popular with the Russians. Nothing in the basilica would remind an American visitor of Santa Claus—no sleighs or reindeer or any of the images we associate with Santa Claus.

You can see the tomb through a grate, but you cannot see the bones inside it. One of the fascinating things to watch is that on certain days one of the Dominican fathers who maintains the basilica will go behind the grate and—especially for the Russian pilgrims who are there—they will pass their prayer cloths or Bibles through the grate to the Dominican who will lay it on the tomb for a blessing and then hand it back.

ST. NICHOLAS’S LIFE, DEATH AND LEGACY

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1203_Nicholas_Santa_Claus_book_cover_350.jpgCLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.DAVID: We’re not entirely sure about the dates of his birth and death, even though his feast day of December 6 is based on the officially regarded date of his death in the year 343. Wikipedia says he was born in 270 and died Dec. 6, 343, but your book says there may be some debate on that chronology among historians.

ADAM: The standardized dates are the ones given in Wikipedia. The death date is very specific in 343, and it now marks the feast—but even that date came from a historical source in the 12th century, hundreds of years after Nicholas lived and died. In terms of his birth date? There are many guesses and we don’t have any concrete historical record to settle the question.

DAVID: One of the historical details you describe in the book is the overall prevalence of the name “Nicholas” in the ancient world. Prior to the 4th century, the name was not well known. After the 4th century, the name was spreading around the world. That’s an indication that something famous happened with a man by that name in the 4th century.

ADAM: It’s a circumstantial piece of evidence. I can’t find records of people named Nicholas before the 4th century, but after that it’s a prevalent name throughout Asia Minor.

ST. NICHOLAS: SORTING TRUTH FROM MYTHS

DAVID: You tell readers that there are many legends that were associated with St. Nicholas in the centuries after he lived and died. But, the one heroic story that probably was based on historical fact was Nicholas helping three poor girls to avoid slavery, or worse. (For more on that story, see our Feast of St. Nicholas column.)

ADAM: This story of his anonymous gifts to the three maidens really stands out. There are also early references that attach Nicholas as a patron saint of sailors, but I think it’s this story of helping the three maidens that jumps off the page. He learns that these three girls are destitute and on the brink of being sold—then, one by one, he provides bags of gold that become dowries so they can marry, instead. There’s nothing exactly like that story from other saints in that era. At that time, the most popular saint stories involved martyrdom in which the saint would die in some gruesome way. Or, there were stories of rigorous monks who went out in the desert and denied themselves in heroic ways.

But here was a story about Nicholas anonymously giving something to these three poor girls—girls who no one else in that era would have cared about. He is truly taking the biblical command to look out for “the least among you” to heart in a serious way. He does something that is purely generous and purely good—for people who weren’t the concern of society in that era—and he does it without any hope of reward.

That story lit up people’s imagination. He becomes a gift giver, a patron saint of young maidens, newlyweds and anyone in dire distress. You’re down to your very last crust of bread, but watch the window: Nicholas may yet appear to save you. That story of the three maidens was his ticket to fame.

DAVID: There are other legends I keep encountering each year around St. Nicholas Day. One of them involves three boys who were chopped up by a criminal—and St. Nicholas restores them to life. You say: Probably didn’t happen during the real Nicholas’s life.

ADAM: That story of the boys being chopped up comes from deep in the Middle Ages many hundreds of years after his life. His first biographers knew nothing of this story.

DAVID: But the story about Nicholas and sailors? That goes way back, right?

ADAM: It goes back to the earliest versions of his life we can find. There were numerous stories of Nicholas rescuing sailors or helping out on the high seas. The references come from the 500s, when he already was connected with sailors, especially when they were crying out for help. It’s also why his fame spread through trade routes around the world. In Greece, they sometimes picture Nicholas’s clothes soaked in brine, his beard dripping sea water, and his face covered in sweat precisely because of this association.

ST. NICHOLAS: AN EARTHY SAINT WHO STILL DRAWS THOUSANDS

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1203_Velikoretsky_Icon_of_Nikolai.jpgVelikoretsky Icon of NikolaiDAVID: Beyond our Western Santa Claus, the real St. Nicholas remains hugely popular to this day, as you point out in your book.

ADAM: You only have to look at the tradition involving the Icon of St. Nikolai at Velikoretsky, Russia. The tradition of Nicholas’s pilgrims forming a procession to Velikoretsky goes back a long, long time. It became quiet and fell off in numbers during the Communist era—then, afterward, it was publicly reinstated and gets bigger and bigger each year. The procession in June drew 35,000 pilgrims, but there was nothing I saw in the American media.

DAVID: You’re right. It’s virtually unknown over here. There is information on this pilgrimage of the icon on websites in Russian and other Eastern European languages, but nothing I can find in English on the processions. (Here is a Romanian-Orthodox website with photos of a procession.)

ADAM: Nicholas is popular all across Europe. In the United Kingdom alone, there are more than 500 churches that bear the name Nicholas. He’s venerated in Netherlands, Germany, Austria—a very European saint.

His continuing popularity lies in the stories that are told and retold. One of the stories I tell in the book is about Nicholas having drinks with other saints up in heaven. He keeps nodding off. Someone nudges him and says he’s missing out on the party. And he says: I’m sorry but I’m just back from helping more sailors in trouble get back to their port. That’s the kind of story that still is passed around. He’s a saint who is earthy. He’s a laborer. He’s not afraid to get messy to help people.

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

12 Best Books for the Holidays of 2012

REVIEWED BY ReadTheSpiriT Editor David Crumm—For the Delight of Young and Old …

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, NO. 1: The Smoke-Free Santa Claus

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Smokeless_Twas_the_Night_Before_Christmas.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.We laughed when we saw this—in spite of ourselves! A wink of the eye and a twist of the head soon gave us to know we had nothing to dread. That’s a fitting review of this year’s most controversial Christmas book. ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile and I got to know Pamela McColl recently during a retreat for new-media developers in New York City. She told us her story of creating a version of Clement Moore’s classic ‘Twas the Night before Christmas without the detail of Santa smoking. Pamela is a Canadian writer who cares passionately about reducing smoking among girls and boys who could grow up to be addicted adults. So, she assembled the creative team behind a colorfully illustrated version of the poem minus the words: “The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke, it encircled his head like a wreath.”

Sounds so simple, right? Yet one would think she had published a Bible with only 9 Commandments! If you jump to Amazon to order a copy of her book (just click the book covers today), you will find 165 enthusiastic 5-star reviews—and 50 furious 1-star reviews from customers who collectively regard her as a dangerous heretic. That anger seems out of place. In fact, millions of children, teens and young adults envision Santa Claus from TV specials and movies—including such perennial hits as Tim Allen in The Santa Clause. Most of these recent versions of Santa are missing the clouds of tobacco smoke. While ReadTheSpirit promotes great children’s literature, we can’t imagine kids objecting to this slight revision.

Now, is this edited version of Clement Moore’s poem going to keep anyone from smoking? That claim is a stretch, but McColl makes a different kind of argument. Millions of American families include a relative who has died with complications of tobacco addiction and, especially in those homes, the association of one of the world’s most beloved figures with a cloud of smoke can be painful. To that argument, we exclaim as we continue our tips: ‘Happy Christmas, Pam McColl!’ Smoke won’t pass our lips.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 2: SAINT WHO WOULD BE SANTA CLAUS

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1126_smaller_St_Nicholas_Santa_Claus_book_cover.jpgClick the cover to visit the Amazon page.Anyone who cares about the Christian roots of Christmas will enjoy this new biography of the original St. Nicholas. The author is Dr. Adam English, a scholar who specializes in the early Christian church. For several years, English immersed himself in all of the latest research on the ancient fellow who would transform into our modern Santa Claus. For those serious readers wanting to dig much deeper into the history of St. Nicholas of Myra, English provides his own roadmap for further reading in more than 30 pages of notes at the end of his book. But most of us simply will enjoy English’s delightfully written 200-page story of this saint who moved the whole world to greater compassion toward the poor. As remarkable as this may seem to modern Christians, Nicholas took the world by storm because his heart was focused on helping the most needy and vulnerable in his day. Back in that era, civic and religious leaders did not assume that was their role in the world. Poor people had to survive or perish on their own, or so the conventional thinking ran until Nicholas began his campaign to change hearts and minds. If you care about Christmas traditions, and especially if you care about the Christian roots of compassion, we highly recommend this book. Want more? Read our Holiday story about the December 6 Feast of St. Nicholas. And: Come back next week to meet Adam English in our author interview.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 3: EL ILUMINADO

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-El_Iluminado_graphic_novel_Steve_Sheinkin_et_al.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.We can’t imagine a better Hanukkah present than this! For five years, we have recommended the graphic novels of historian, artist, storyteller and educator Steve Sheinkin. Here is one of our earlier interviews with Steve about his most famous creation, to date: Rabbi Harvey of the Wild West. Sheinkin divides his professional efforts between graphic novels and serious history books for kids. His lifelong passion lies in bringing history to life—to encourage a new generation to become fascinated with the heroes, villains, dramas and weird quirks of history. After all, that’s what hooked Steve on history when he was a kid. His history books—such as The Notorious Benedict Arnold: A True Story of Adventure, Heroism & Treachery and King George: What Was His Problem?—explore corners of American history that more stodgy text books ignore. Leaping into graphic novels, his Rabbi Harvey was a brilliant collage of centuries-old rabbinic tales coupled with a sort of Clint Eastwood vision of the Wild West. However, unlike Eastwood, the courageous black-garbed Harvey favored spiritual wisdom over firearms. Now, in El Iluminado, Sheinkin takes his graphic novels a step closer to the historical record. This is an entirely new, non-Harvey adventure based on the discovery of Crypto-Judaism taking root centuries ago during ruthless persecution against religious minorities in the American Southwest. Right there, anyone familiar with the ancient story of Hanukkah sees the holiday connection.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 4: REVELATION

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Book_of_Revelation_Chris_Koelle.JPG.jpgClick the book cover to visit its Amazon page.Fans of comics and graphic novels will love this gift! Zondervan has been producing bibilical graphic novels for years, but never in this lavish, full-color format. Got a comic fan on your shopping list? Trust us: The new Book of Revelation will immediately become a collectors item. Beyond comic fans? If you’ve got someone who loves Bible study and is especially drawn to the mysteries of Revelation, this graphic novel is based on a new translation of the ancient text, coupled with gorgeous, dramatic, full-color scenes on every page. The translation was perpared by Greek Orthodox Bible scholar Mark Arey, so the language has a fresh feel for most American readers. The scenes were designed by filmmaker Matt Dorff and graphic artist Chris Koelle. This landmark production began with Avery’s text of Revelation. Then, Matt used his screenwriting talents to divide the story into comic panels, showing us this timeless epic from the point of view of the startled narrator envisioning these divine revelations. Finally, Chris Koelle had the huge challenge of turning what amounted to Matt’s “screenplay” into cartoon panels. Chris prepared an elaborate series of reference photographs, then spent nearly two years drawing and coloring this book. Want to know more? Come back in December to meet Matt and Chris in ReadTheSpirit interviews about their collaboration. This book wil be popular long after Christmas and is great for individual enjoyment and small-group discussion.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 5: THE SHEMA IN THE MEZUZAH

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Shema_in_the_Mezuzah_by_Jewish_Lights.jpgClick the book cover to visit its Amazon page.Don’t limit yourself to the publisher’s recommendation that The Shema in the Mezuzah is for children ages 3 to 6. We believe that well-designed children’s picture books can be enjoyed by all ages. Remember that most Americans’ knowledge of religion is minimal at best. The majority of American Christians can’t name the 4 Gospels in the New Testament in annual surveys. Jewish kids do better at picking up their own religious traditions, because their minority faith tends to make parents more active in explaining customs. Nevertheless, its safe to say that the vast majority of Americans don’t know much about the curious little fixtures on Jewish doorframes—let alone that there is something inside these traditional cases. Even for those steeped in religious diversity, the lesson of the mezuzah’s placement on the doorframe will come as a refreshing tale. Rabbi Sandy Eisenberg Sasso is a longtime teacher and writer—and veterans of interfaith programs nationwide may recognize her name. She is the second woman ordained a rabbi (1974); and she is the first rabbi to become a mother. She holds a doctorate in ministry and still is active in interfaith efforts. We won’t spoil the book’s plot—but we can assure you that it is wise, funny and very welcome. It’s a perfect gift for families of any faith.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 6: THE ELEPHANT’S FRIEND

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Elephants_Friend_and_other_tales_from_India_Marcia_Williams.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.For our regular readers, all we need to say to recommend The Elephant’s Friend is this: Our friends at the multi-award-winning Candlewick Press published this picture book for children and the adults who love them. We think it’s a great idea for families to help our next generation understand the culture of the world’s largest democracy: India. Call it interfaith relations, cultural competency or appreciation of diversity—or simply call it a wondrous opportunity o enjoy some engaging folklore. But, order a copy of this vividly colored picture book as a gift. The book includes a series of stories, designed halfway between traditional picture-book formats and graphic novel panels. The title story involves a royal elephant befriending a most unlikely creature—and turns on what happens with this odd friend suddenly is taken far away.  Other tales are called The Scrawny Old Tiger, The Talkative Tortoise, The Wise Little Pebet (a mythic bird from Eastern folklore), The Golden Swan, The Monkey and the Crocodile, The Tale of the Three Large Fish and finally The Foolish Lion.  We love the pitch-perfect voice of these ancient yarns, retold in modern Indian-English. At one point, when a villain is finally unmasked, we hear his captor declare: “You heartless rascal!” Parents will have great fun reading this book!

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 7: THE MESSAGE AND THE BOOK

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Message_and_the_Book_John_Bowker.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.Looking for more adult choices to promote awareness of the world’s great religious traditions? Yale University Press brings us a substantial volume by John Bowker, a professor of religious studies who has taught at several universities, including Cambridge. He is an honorary canon of Canterbury Cathedral, a consultant for UNESCO, as well as a BBC broadcaster and author and editor of many books. Using his half century of immersion in the world’s religions, Bowker now gives us this hefty, illustrated book to help people interested in faith find appropriate pathways into the sacred works of: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism—and more! You will find helpful references to 400 sacred works. Bowker’s book will be helpful to students studying world culture, community leaders hoping to understand diverse populations—even business leaders and medical practitioners trying to navigate cross-cultural challenges. But don’t mistake this for a dry encyclopedia. Bowker’s many years of broadcasting and writing for general readers ensure that his first mission is engaging his audience. In this case, he hooks us by connecting dots across our world’s seemingly vast mosaic of spiritual ideas. I especially enjoyed his section on Japan, where Bowker’s takes huge leaps. While discussing cherry blossoms and the Samurai code, he leaps back a millennium to the world’s first novel (The Tale of Genji) and then rockets to 19th-century Europe to Vincent Van Gogh! We recommend: Enjoy touring the sacred world with Bowker’s book and you will come back far wiser for the journey.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 8: ON THE CHOCOLATE TRAIL

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-On_the_Chocolate_Trail_by_Rabbi_Deborah_Prinz.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.Now, here’s a tour of cultural treasures you can taste! The best way to recommend On the Chocolate Trail is to list some of the recipes you will find in these pages: Chocolate Matzah Brickle, Red Chile Bizcochitos (Little Cookies), Cayenne Chocolate Kicks and Cocoa Nibs Citrus Salad. Hooked already? But wait—this is far more than just another chocolate cookbook. It’s not even an entirely Jewish exploration of chocolate. Rabbi Deborah Prinz is a noted expert on chocolate, related Jewish food customs—and the world history of chocolate. This review may not yet be summoning your social conscience—but consider that the collision of Old and New Worlds 500 years ago set off centuries of yearning for sugar, chocolate and the ruthless repression of entire populations in pursuit of those addictive treats. Rabbi Prinz takes us through some of that history as well as contemporary tips about shopping for the very best chocolates—as well as “green” chocolate that is ethically produced and marketed. At the end of her book, she has a mouth-watering 20-page guide to chocolate producers, landmarks and even chocolate museums worldwide. Even if you’re not likely to board a plane and try chocolate tourism yourself, many of these listings include websites so a virtual tour of chocolate gems may be in your future.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 9: THE VOICE BIBLE

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Voice_Bible_Step_into_the_Story_of_Scripture.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.You also may enjoy reading our ReadTheSpirit interview with Thomas Nelson Bible-research professor David Capes, one of the key figures behind the complete Voice Bible—an ideal gift for any Bible-lover on your holiday list. Our conversation with Capes about the massive effort behind The Voice is our featured author interview this week. Given the tidal waves of Bible translations in recent decades, many Christians may have overlooked the individual sections of the Voice that have been published by Thomas Nelson over the past half dozen years. Now, the entire Protestant Bible is finished, including Old and New Testaments. This particular project has strong evangelical roots, as would be expected with a Thomas Nelson imprint on the cover—but a number of prominent mainline figures also were involved in The Voice. The most important thing to understand about The Voice is its origins among pastors, preachers and teachers who wanted a rendition of the ancient text that was accurate yet also was presented in a format that made reading the Bible easier in congregations. For example, some sections of the text that are essentially dialogue between various men and women are presented in screenplay format. That makes it easy to organize a group reading. At this point, Nelson has announced no plans to produce a Catholic or Orthodox version of The Voice with the additional books of the Bible used in those Christian denominations. Nevertheless, whatever your Christian background—The Voice is well worth exploring for eye-opening insights into Scripture.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 10: THE ART OF FAITH

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-The_Art_of_Faith_by_Judith_Couchman.jpgCick the cover to visit this book’s Amazon page.We had to struggle to keep our review copy of The Art of Faith from scooting out of our offices in the hands of curious churchgoers—once readers actually cracked the front cover and discovered what was inside. The book’s title may sound tiresome—like an art-appreciation lecture you were supposed to appreciate as an undergraduate yet had trouble following without a few yawns. But wait! Think about this book, instead, as a very cleverly designed toolbox for suddenly expanding your appreciation of churches around the world! This book is a Swiss Army Knife for unlocking all kinds of wonders embodied in confusing—even if colorful—details in the windows, woodwork, stone carvings, vestments and fabric arts of churches both new and ancient. At ReadTheSpirit, we are longtime promoters of visiting houses of worship. However, even for Christians, walking into a new church is like trying to read hieroglyphics in an Egyptian museum exhibit. The symbols are exotic and mysteriously appealing, but most of us don’t have a clue what they mean. Truth be told, most of us can’t understand the symbols in our own churches! Now, before you get defensive about this review—Judith Couchman, the art historian who created this must-own reference book, admits that even she was unable to find a proper Christian Symbols 101 guidebook to tuck into her own shoulder bag while touring churches. That’s why she wrote this one. We say: Thank you, Judith!

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 11: MERE CHRISTIANITY (GIFT EDITION)

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-Mere_Christianity_Gift_Edition.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.In 2006, Christianity Today ranked the 50 most influential Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals. Number 3 on the list, outranking a host of evangelical super-stars, was C.S. Lewis and his Mere Christianity. If you have a person on your Christmas list who actively talks about his or her Christian faith, they probably have read this classic and likely have a well-thumbed copy on their bookshelf. Mere Christianity is Lewis’ attempt at making a common-sense argument for the Christian faith—aimed at general readers whose lives have been fairly secular. The popular approach of these texts is no accident. Mere Christianity began as a series of BBC broadcasts by Lewis during World War II. Later, they were edited and collected into a series of three short books. Eventually, they became the one volume that has been a best seller for more than half a century. No, Mere Christianity’s sales do not rank in the Stratosphere with The Chronicles of Narnia, some volumes of which have sold well over 50 million copies. Nevertheless, it is a hugely influential book and a smart choice for someone on your holiday list. There are various editions available both new and gently used. But, this 2012 “Gift Edition” adds some unique and welcome features: The type is big and bold; illustrations are sprinkled through the text; and key points are highlighted in even bigger gold lift-out quotations. Stick a copy in someone’s stocking this year.

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 12: THE JAMES BOND OMNIBUS

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-James_Bond_Omnibus_001.jpgClick the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.James Bond is all the rage this winter. If you doubt that claim, read our earlier story on why Bond will remain at the crest of popular culture for months. Perhaps you’re contemplating giving a gift of the $100-plus boxed set of all the 007 movies to a Bond fan in December. More than likely, though, the price tag for those two dozen movie disks is simply too high. So, in our 12th Best Books selection for holiday gift giving, we are recommending a book that was released three years ago: The James Bond Omnibus 001. At just a little more than $10, this is a great stocking stuffer for the 007 on your list. And, if you love the idea of giving James Bond collectibles, that Amazon page for volume 001 also links to volumes 002 through 004. The final volume was just released in October 2012. Beyond the appeal of collecting an unusual piece of Bond memorabilia, why would readers care about these comic strips first published in the 1950s in British newspapers? One reason is that, although Ian Fleming originally opposed 007 comic strips—he later embraced the idea. The comic strips arguably depict Bond closer to Fleming’s own image of the spy. Some sources from the 1950s claim that is so. There’s no argument that these comic strips are closer to the original novels than the movies. So, as a quick refresher of the original books, these 300-plus-page collections are lots of fun. Volume 001 (the one shown above) contains Casino Royale, Goldfinger, Dr. No—and more—all in one thick paperback. And you can’t beat that for pure adventure this holiday season!

READY TO SHOP AMAZON?

YOU CAN CLICK ON ANY BOOK COVER (above) and jump to the Amazon page that way. Or, you can use these text links to find the books we recommend.

  1. Twas The Night Before Christmas: Edited by Santa Claus for the Benefit of Children of the 21st Century (Smoke Free)
  2. The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus: The True Life and Trials of Nicholas of Myra
  3. El Iluminado: A Graphic Novel by Steve Sheinkin and Ilan Stavans
  4. The Book of Revelation: A Graphic Novel by Matt Dorff, Chris Koelle and others
  5. The Shema in the Mezuzah: Listening to Each Other
  6. The Elephant’s Friend and Other Tales from Ancient India
  7. The Message and the Book: Sacred Texts of the World’s Religions
  8. On the Chocolate Trail: A Delicious Adventure Connecting Jews, Religions, History, Travel, Rituals and Recipes to the Magic of Cacao
  9. The Voice Bible: Step Into the Story of Scripture
  10. The Art of Faith: A Guide to Understanding Christian Images
  11. Mere Christianity: Gift Edition
  12. James Bond: Omnibus Volume 001, Comic strips based on the Ian Fleming novels that inspired the movies, bound as graphic novels

STILL SHOPPING?

PLEASE CONSIDER SHOPPING READTHESPIRIT BOOKS, TOO? Visiting our new ReadTheSpirit Bookstore to explore our great titles for individual reflection and group discussion.

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

 

Hallmark brings us Thanksgiving, Christmas every day

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1115_Its_Christmas_Carol_Carrie_Fisher.jpgSome of our readers can’t get enough of celebrating holiday cheer, but some of our readers … Well, if you’re already shuddering at the waves of sentimental holiday tales sweeping through our culture—then this story isn’t for you. NO, we’re not implying you’re an Ebenezer Scrooge. Millions of Americans follow other faiths. Perhaps Diwali is your holiday season. If this story isn’t your cup of egg nog, then enjoy the thousands of other stories at ReadTheSpirit.

But for the millions of us who enjoy the guilty pleasures of sentimental, romantic and dramatic holiday tales—then you definitely should check out the Hallmark Channel and the Hallmark Movie Channel each week through the end of the year. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, each November and December, I help readers discover the best in holiday gems. After Thanksgiving, for example, we will publish our annual holiday gift guide of great books to select for friends and loved ones.

This week, I’ve logged hours previewing Hallmark films debuting this month and in December. One nice feature of the two Hallmark channels: If you miss a particular movie debut, simply scroll forward in your TV schedule and you will find your favorite film rolling around again—and again. Here is the Hallmark Channel home page where you can check out all of that channel’s listings. And, here is the Hallmark Movie Channel home page, which has different offerings.

CARRIE FISHER DOES DICKENS:
‘IT’S CHRISTMAS, CAROL’ AIRS IN NOVEMBER & DECEMBER

Many of us have a soft spot for any media project involving Carrie Fisher, given her iconic roles in the Star Wars saga and—to be honest—sympathy over her relatively hard life. Beyond her shining moments in Star Wars and in personal relationships with Dan Akroyd and Paul Simon, Fisher also openly talks about her long periods of addiction and her struggles with bipolar disorder. Despite it all, Debbie Reynolds’ daughter is a survivor and it’s great to see her show up in Hallmark’s It’s Christmas, Carol—a Charles Dickens remake—as one of the well-meaning ghosts.

Of course, none of these made-for-TV movies have the heft of a Steven Spielberg production (we also recommend his new Lincoln)—but that’s hardly the point! These are fun tales to watch after a busy day, either on you own or with a loved one sharing the couch with you. A lot of the charm flows from nostalgia and the good humor of seeing actors and actresses we know and love playing other parts for a couple of hours. In addition to Carrie Fisher, fans of Carson Kressley (in the photo above and well-known most recently as an occasional guest on Dancing with the Stars) shows up costarring in this ensemble. You may even be a fan of Emmanuelle Vaugier (of CSI:New York a few years ago and Two and a Half Men more recently); in this case, she’s the Scrooge character.

WILLIAM SHATNER DOES DICKENS, TOO: ‘A CAROL CHRISTMAS’

As you are scanning through the Hallmark Channel schedule, don’t mix up your Dickens remakes! Over the next coupld of weeks, Hallmark also is showing the 2003 made-for-TV movie A Carol Christmas. In that production, Tori Spelling plays the Scrooge. Here’s the gem: William Shatner, who many of us miss after Boston Legal ended its quirky run on network TV, co-stars in a dual role. He is Spelling’s colleague in “real life,” and he shows up as the Ghost of Christmas Present, as well. If you’re watching—or recording for later viewing—mark both Dickens remakes to enjoy.

A THANKSGIVING GEM COMING SOON:
HALLMARK’S ‘LOVE AT THE THANKSGIVING DAY PARADE’

https://readthespirit.com/explore/wp-content/uploads/sites/16/2013/03/wpid-1116_Love_at_the_Thanksgiving_Day_Parade.jpgIf you’re a big TV fan, you will recognize Autumn Reeser from several series: She’s in the new apocalyptic thriller, The Last Resort; and she has appeared in Entourage, No Ordinary Family and the new Hawaii Five-O. If you’re not familiar with her work from those series, think of a brunette Reese Witherspoon. She co-stars with Italian-Canadian actor Antonio Cupo. Early in the romantic comedy, a young woman who nearly swoons over the handsome Cupo describes him as “George Clooney.” And, had George Clooney and Reese Witherspoon co-starred in Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade, we can only imagine the greater depth they would bring to this production. But, again, that’s not really the point! You’ll enjoy Reeser and Cupo scurrying around real-life Chicago, supposedly working on producing a holiday parade—but actually working on producing a romance. Come on, it’s all fun holiday viewing!

Review by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

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