Bullying Is No Laughing Matter: Creating a ‘Fence of Friends’

Dennis the Menace in Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

CLICK THIS IMAGE to visit our free ‘Dennis the Menace’ activity guide.

WHAT are you doing for Bullying Prevention Month?

We are providing parents and teachers creative ideas for interacting with children about this problem plaguing many kids nationwide.

IS THIS A REAL PROBLEM? Yes. These days, it’s tough for adults to help kids get a handle on bullying because the attacks seem to surround children 24/7 through social media they can’t escape. This isn’t the same problem adults remember as uncomfortable playground encounters years ago. In our book by Michigan State University journalism students, The New Bullying, research shows that bullying is indeed a more persistent and dangerous problem than even a decade ago.

What are these “creative ideas” we’re providing? Teachers at Miller Elementary School in Michigan are asking their hundreds of students to take a page from our Bullying Is No Laughing Matter book—and draw pictures to discuss and display all around the school. Specifically, they’re using the free Dennis the Menace activity guide in our new section with the same name as our book: www.BullyingIsNoLaughingMatter.com


As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I met with some of the staff at Miller Elementary School recently to discuss how this particular activity guide could be used school-wide. They already had printed out our Dennis the Menace activity page. On that page, a large comic shows Dennis and a friend standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a way that causes a would-be bully to walk away in a frustrated huff. The activity page then prompts readers with a thought: “The best defense is a Fence of Friends.”

Then an invitation: What does your Fence of Friends look like? Try drawing a picture of you with your Fence of Friends. Try not to forget anyone!

Then a reminder: “While Dennis the Menace is known to be a troublemaker, he’s never crossed the line into bullying.”

One of the teachers said: “We could have our children each draw their own ‘Fence of Friends’.”

We all agreed: Good idea! But, what about the more isolated children in the classroom who can’t think of friends to sketch to fill the “fence row” on their 8-by-11 piece of paper?

The answer … “The adults helping with this activity can watch for this happening in the group,” I said. “Some kids will whip off a sketch with many friends. Others will sit staring at their own figure on the paper. Here’s the best part: You can ask the speedy-sketching, outgoing children to consider walking around the room to look for children who have space on their paper for a friend. The kids themselves can demonstrate this concept of forming a ‘Fence of Friends’ by drawing themselves into another child’s ‘fence.’ “

“I like that!” another teacher said. “Drawing yourself into someone else’s Fence of Friends to show that you’re going to be an ‘up-stander,’ someone who stands up as a friend for others. That’s a good idea.”

This week, Miller school kids are working on this idea. Teachers are having children make their drawings, which may wind up forming a school-wide Fence of Friends. And they are planning two assemblies this week to talk with younger and then older kids about the problem of bullying. They plan to show off their ever-growing fence as a school-wide commitment made by the children themselves.


And, that’s just one study guide in our growing website. The book contains three dozen different comics, each one useful as a “discussion starter” for teachers and parents who want to interact with kids about this tough problem of bullying. While looking at a cartoon in the book, it’s easy to ask questions like: “Have you seen that happen?” “What should happen next in this comic?” “Want to draw your own?”

Bookmark www.BullyingIsNoLaughingMatter.com and come back every week for another new activity guide.

In addition to Dennis the Menace, we’ve also published guides to these comics: Blondie, Broom Hilda, Pickles, For Better or For Worse, Rip Haywire, Luann, Jump Start, Stone Soup and It’s Magick.

A new guide appears each Monday, so stay tuned! And tell friends! Use the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped email icons with this column to spread the news.

Immersed in the spirit of tashlikh as a family

As part of our coverage of the Jewish High Holidays, ReadTheSpirit magazine welcomes author Lynne Meredith Golodner, writing about her own contemporary experience with tashlikh.

Throwing Away Mistakes:
It’s that time of year


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWe will walk through the cascading hills of Cranbrook’s grounds, between and among the tree-shaded trails. The kids will climb into the arms of a steady old tree, balance in the fork of branches, jump down without fear. We will debate whether to take the path that leads to a carefully scripted line of boulders, where they can dance and skip from rock to rock, or take the other path, the back way, and end up at a grand finale of stones.

At some point in the middle of this autumn hike, my four children, husband and I will pause beside the water. Most years, it’s the drumming river next to the Japanese gardens, but last year we sat on a platform beside the still and silent pond. Either way, we’ll open the bag of old bread and crumble pieces into crumbs to disseminate over the water’s surface, letting the current take last year’s choices and regrets away forever, making room for this year’s clean slate.

This is the tradition I’ve built with my family in the spirit of tashlikh, the Jewish practice on Rosh Hashanah, or sometime between the Jewish New Year and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later. Tashlikh is the ritual of throwing away our sins so that we may start anew, start fresh, in the dawning of a new year.

It’s a cleansing, so to speak, of the soul.

When I became a single mother of three young children in 2008, I began my journey toward personalizing my spiritual pursuits. I grew up as a secular Reform Jew, doing my duty–services twice a year, where my sister and I camped out in the synagogue bathroom and commented on other people’s outfits. Bored by the observances, we muscled through until the time when we were set free into the parking lot and onward to home, to imbibe chicken soup and matzoh balls and revel in the day off from school.

In young adulthood, I chose Orthodoxy, my form of rebellion. I spent a decade in the ritualistic rigidity of very traditional Judaism, learning the roots of my heritage, observing as much as I could stomach. I sat in long services on two days of Rosh Hashanah, trying not to fidget from the not-knowing, the lack-of-understanding. My rabbi had compassion; he encouraged me to attend a learner’s service, admitting that the high holy day observances are heavy, too much for someone not raised in the culture of immersion.

I dreaded the 25-hour fast day of Yom Kippur, though I did it, muscling through in the way that I did as a child in my liberal synagogue. Either way, I didn’t find my place in my religion until I set myself free from an unhappy marriage at the age of 37. It was then that I felt brave enough, confident enough, strong enough, to create my own rituals, and involve my children in tangible observance of our long tradition.

The first time I took the kids to Cranbrook for tashlikh, I made a conscious choice not to use the word “sin,” which is the common construction for this practice. The bread crumbs symbolize our sins, which we cast off for the moving waters to carry away from us. And then we are free, free from sin, a clean canvas with which to start a new year, in hopefully better spirits and character than the one just ended.

I didn’t want to teach my children that our religion is a punishing one. I wanted them to embrace themselves in success and in failure, and the word sin has such a harsh connotation. So I used the word “choice,” asking the then 2-, 4- and 6-year-old sweet ones what choices they would like to make in the coming year.

“I will be nicer to my brother,” said one of my children.

“I will listen to Mommy more,” said another.

“I will read more books,” said the third one.

And I joined them, admitting my own human-ness in front of these precious souls.

“I will try not to yell,” I said. It was hard being a single mother; I was easily excitable in those early years trying to figure it out for myself. I threw that regret into the waters and watched the bread crumb dissolve into nothingness.

After the bread supply was depleted and I had just a plastic bag left to carry home, we continued on our journey. The Pewabic tiled fountain under leafy pine and maple. The cairn beside the swampy pond. Overgrown shrubbery nearly obscuring the narrow path toward the majestic old house with its fountains and gardens.

We dipped into the Greek amphitheater and the children ran up and down the rows of seats, called with echoing voices from the open stage. We were free in the forest, reveling in our connection and in the freedom to be reborn after making mistakes, grateful for second chances.

My children are older now and I am thankfully calmer. We still do our tashlikh routine, a favorite of mine at least, with each passing year. We go to synagogue to mark the significance of the holiday season with community, but it isn’t until we get out in the open air and sunshine that we feel energized to start anew.

I have two middle-schoolers who roll their eyes at me even as they snuggle in close. I have a third-grader and a fifth-grader, too. All are wrapped in their version of good and bad, their understanding of the way our world rejuvenates itself.

I still use the word “choice,” preferring its participatory connotation over the finger-wagging “sin.” As we stroll along the pine-scented trails, I listen more than I talk, letting them take the stage, letting them share their revelations of what it is to live a good life, what it is to release regret into the warm hug of the generous world.

Lynne Meredith Golodner is author of eight books including The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads. She owns a public relations company called Your People LLC, guiding spiritually-focused businesses and nonprofits in storytelling and relationships to build their reach, and blogs daily at www.lynnegolodner.com. She lives with her husband and four children in Huntington Woods, Michigan.

What do strong, balanced relationships look like?

North American Plate in Iceland photo by Benjamin PrattBy BENJAMIN PRATT

Got Religion? by journalist Naomi Schaefer Riley looks at the mass exodus of young adults from congregations nationwide and finds hope in something those of us who’ve given our lives to faith communities should have known all along: It’s all about building relationships. (You can read an in-depth interview with her right now.) Riley saw these truths through the lens of Templeton-funded research and her reporting from communities coast to coast. I’ve seen this in the lives of countless men and women I’ve counseled over the decades.

These days, I like to send people personal notes with photographs I’ve taken around the world. I want to leave them with vivid images—and a handful of words—that they may ponder over time.

Immediately after snapping this photo along the North American Plate in Iceland, I knew that I had captured a geologic symbol of human relationships. In nature, in construction and in relationships, a keystone holds two dynamic forces together in a delicate, precarious balance. Through the years, I have mailed this photo to newly engaged couples, along with an inscription, formatted as a simple poem, to remind them of the dynamic tension and balance necessary to sustain a thriving relationship.

Recently, I visited one of those couples—and I was delighted to see my photo and my words framed and displayed in their home.

Here are the words I send along with the photograph …

strong, courageous trust
delicate, interdependent,

imagination, empathy, sympathy,
understanding, honesty, and clear communication.
The bond is sustained by a
a capacity to change both mind and behavior
to create a safety net
where acts of
love and laughter
will be fostered.

PLEASE NOTE: If you care to pass this along to friends, I am giving you permission to reproduce the photograph and the words (please credit me and mention that I’m a writer for readthespirit.com). You’ll find that, if you have a common card-making program available on your computer, the image and words fit together nicely to form a greeting card. If you do follow this suggestion, please email us at [email protected] and tell us how you’ve passed it along. I’d love to hear from you.

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

Now it’s your turn to show ‘Bullying Is No Laughing Matter’

Family Patterns Matter group in Newman Georgia

NEWNAN, GA. The Family Patterns Matter group is enthusiastic about the “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” campaign. This south-Atlanta group welcomes teens and young adult alumni with the mission: “Youth Empowering Youth.” This year, the members’ special focus is bullying issues in schools, churches and throughout the community. They are creating a public service announcement that will be shown on local TV. They are especially interested in the definition of bullying that is presented in our new book. The goal of this diverse group echoes the advice in the new comic book: Young people have power that can help put an end to bullying.

THE BUZZ is spreading as millions of American kids head back to school. This year, friends and family concerned about bullying have a colorful new resource: The historic “team up” of 36 American comics in Bullying Is No Laughing Matter, available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Cover of the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter comic bookWe all want to thank the teens and adults in the Georgia group who posed with the book and with a no-bullying sign, then snapped a photo—and emailed it to us. They are showing the world what young people can do. Want to follow their example? Scroll down …


VISIT OUR FREE COMICS SECTION—Each week in our new comics section, we’re giving you a free discussion guide to one of the 36 comics in our new book. Small groups nationwide want to talk about responses to bullying. Share these creative resources. This week’s free guide features Blondie.

SEND US YOUR PHOTO AND STORY—Anti-bullying groups range from small circles of friends in schools and churches to big non-profits. We all share one goal: Spreading awareness of this message. One way you can do that is snap a photo of your group—just as the Georgia group did this week—and email it to [email protected] That’s a powerful way to show the world that you’re part of this nationwide effort.

GET THE BOOK—The book is packed with resources to help your group. The 36 comics are eye-catching discussion starters and there’s real substance here for group organizers, including the new national definition of bullying. That section was of particular interest to the Georgia group. Bullying Is No Laughing Matter is available at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.


CLICK ON THIS IMAGE to enlarge it. Right click on the large image and you can save it to your computer for easy printing.

CLICK ON THIS IMAGE to enlarge it. Right click on the large image and you can save it to your computer for easy printing.

PRINT THE SIGN—With this column, we are posting a sample No-Bullies sign that you can print and hold in your photo. Want to see many more examples of this campaign? The book’s creator, Kurt Kolka, produced a video of men and women in lots of locations, including Comic Cons, showing their support through photos.

SHARE THE BADGE—Another easy way to show the world that you’re part of this nationwide campaign is to download our free, colorful Web badge and place it on your Facebook page, in your newsletter or on your website. If you do that, please email us and let us know. We want to help you spread the word about your efforts in  your part of the country.

USE THE HASHTAG—Our friends are using #notfunny to find each other in social media.

VISIT US ON FACEBOOK—Hundreds of friends already have checked in at our Facebook page for the Bullying Is No Laughing Matter campaign. Please, stop by and show your support. Through that page, we’re happy to share support for your group, as well. Let us know what you’re doing. PLUS, there’s a really cool graphic on our Facebook page showing all the comics in the book at a glance. Seriously—check it out!


th Bullying Is No Laughing Matter and Kurt KolkaWherever we travel with copies of this book, people stop us and ask to flip through these colorful pages. Americans love their comics! Read our interview with Kurt Kolka to learn more about that century-long love affair with cartoon characters.

Kurt Kolka asked the book’s contributors to explain this deep relationship. One of the best answers came from Neal Rubin at The Detroit News, the writer for the popular Gil Thorp comic strip. Neal said …

For a lot of people, the comics page was the entryway to reading newspapers. For me, in first grade, it was the sports section, but I absolutely read the comics as well. I’ve always had a soft spot for what I think of as starter comics—the ones that might seem silly to adults, but serve as the bait to help hook kids on reading. In my youth, that meant “Nancy.” Today, it might be “Overboard.” Aside from “Nancy,” the strips I recall reading back then were “B.C.,” which was in its heyday, “Brenda Starr” and “Rick O’Shay” about a sheriff in the Old West.

Kids still love comics—adults, too! Join us in this exciting nationwide movement. We hope to hear from you!

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


Kurt Kolka’s ‘Bullying Is No Laughing Matter’ videos

This entry is part 2 of 2 in the series Bullying Is No Laughing Matter

Comic artist Kurt Kolka—the organizer of a historic “team up” of 36 American comics to help kids overcome bullying—also has produced these two short videos you can share with friends. You can bookmark this page and show friends that way. Or, please, use the convenient blue-“f” Facebook icons or the envelope-shaped email icons to share these videos.


Kurt convinced some of his movie-making friends to present the official definition of “Bullying” (based on federal guidelines widely used in schools and other institutions nationwide) in a creative way. Enjoy! This short video is … well, SUPER!


The message behind “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” is spreading nationwide. To end bullying, we need to rely on friends who will support each other and create healthier and happier communities. Kurt and his friends produced this video showing enthusiastic support from dozens of ordinary people (and you’ll also spot some TV and movie stars in this video). Many of the supportive images you’ll see in this video come from Comic Cons as well as everyday locations around typical American towns. You can be part of this by snapping a selfie of yourself with a No-Bullying sign. Please, visit our “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” Facebook page and share your support. Or, go get a copy of our free “Bullying Is No Laughing Matter” web badge. That “badge” is a colorful, free icon for this movement that is easy to share and post.

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


The Marcus Borg inteview on ‘Convictions’

Cover Marcus Borg Convictions

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

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

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

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

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

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

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

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Marcus Borg. Here are …


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAVID: Well, until then … keep writing.


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

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

Interview with Barbara Brown Taylor on ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark’

COVER Barbara Brown Taylor Learning To Walk In The Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.

Got a love-hate relationship with organized religion? Finding more fear than faith in your daily life? Let Barbara Brown Taylor, one of America’s most popular inspirational writers, be your guide in Learning to Walk in the Dark.

A new book from Barbara is big news—an occasion for a cover story in the April 28 issue of TIME magazine! Readers nationwide love and continue to read her earlier memoirs about rediscovering faith in troubling times. But, many of her loyal readers were wondering if she had … well, vanished. Book buyers last spotted her Leaving Church (2007) and then building An Altar in the World (2009). Then, there were no more books for five years.

Taylor chuckles at the suggestion she has fallen silent. “I envy the writers who can turn out a book every year, but I teach full time, my husband and I live on a working farm, I travel a lot to speak. And, honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

Undergraduates at Piedmont College have no trouble finding her. She paused for the following interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in the midst of grading student papers and a busy schedule of end-of-term events. In her endowed chair as Butman Professor of Religion she teaches a wide range of classes on the Bible, creative writing and world religions.

Attendees at many conferences and special occasions, coast to coast, hear her preaching and talking and reading from her books. She maintains a robust schedule of public events.

But when a new book arrives, this is an occasion for individual reading, small group discussion, quoting from Barbara in Sunday sermons and homilies. And for the editors at TIME: It’s a national news event. ReadTheSpirit magazine agrees and we present our own …


DAVID: The first thing we should tell readers: This really is a book about walking in the dark. You tell vivid stories about your experiences in dark caves, walking along dark shorelines, looking at stars. You open the book by describing to readers how you hauled an air mattress out into the back yard, flopped down on your back—and watched the whole symphony of day turning to night. This isn’t just a theological metaphor. This is an invitation to look at the night sky.

Barbara Brown Taylor author of Learning to Walk in the DarkBARBARA: Yes, I did go out and actually experience the darkness. I felt I had to do some of that to rescue this book from abstraction. Talking about darkness is like opening up a Rorschach inkblot and inviting all kinds of associations to unfold. I felt that I had to put some bodily heft into this exploration. I did start with a lot of reading. I read every book that came my way with darkness or night in the title. My reading carried me from visits to observatories to concerns about light pollution to lots of stories about dark emotions—and, then of course, to the “dark night of the soul” and into theology—plus books by people like Karen Armstrong, Phyllis Tickle and Harvey Cox looking at the future of faith in dark times. I read a lot and thought about all of these perspectives—so it seemed very important to engage the concept of darkness in as many physical ways as I could. And, yes, I walked out into the dark myself.

DAVID: There’s a family story in the book that I’m sure will touch everyone who cares about children. You and your husband Ed live on a working farm in northern Georgia. You raise chickens and, one day, a young relative was visiting with you—and you thought you would teach her something delightful about the night. But—it didn’t unfold as you had hoped.

BARBARA: She was about 7 years old when she came to visit. She had been born and raised in the city and had been given all of the good safe guidelines parents give children about the dark. She also had suffered from a sleep disruption, night terrors, so she had some scary experiences of darkness.

When she came to visit, I thought a good thing to do was to invite her to walk with me out to the chicken house at night.

DAVID: You write in the book that the chickens are more docile at night and they sound like they are “chuckling” to one another when you go into the chicken house. The idea sounds delightful.

BARBARA: It wasn’t far from the house, about 50 yards down the hill from our garage across the grass. The moon was bright that night so we really didn’t need a flashlight, but I took one anyway to be sure we could see where we were going. I was walking along, figuring she was behind me, talking to her as I went.

Then, I realized she wasn’t answering any more. I realized she had stopped somewhere behind me. I could hear her crying. I realized that my definition of safety didn’t have anything to do with her definition of safety. I tell that story in the book to show that not everyone has the same experience of darkness and the night. I’m not telling readers that everyone should go out, charge into the shadows and explore everything in the night. But I am encouraging readers to explore the things we’ve been taught about the dark and see for ourselves if they’re really true. If we try this, we will be surprised.

DAVID: I don’t think it’s a “spoiler” to tell readers: By the end of this book, you’ve touched on a lot of our fears and anxieties—and our deep desires as well—as we live through these turbulent times. The book closes with a very strong message of reassurance. You’re telling us, to borrow a line we read so many times in the Bible: Do not be afraid. It’s in Genesis, repeatedly in fact, and Moses repeats it in Exodus, Deuteronomy and Numbers. It’s in the era of the kings, the prophets and the Psalms; Isaiah repeats it. Then, in the New Testament, angels repeat, “Do not be afraid!” Of course, Jesus says the same thing.


Walker Evans a grave in Hale County Alabama

JAMES AGEE described in detail the graveyard he explored with photographer WALKER EVANS. Graves were marked with hand-hewn wooden headboards and footboards and the red clay was mounded up down the center like “an inverted boat.” These were graves of “the poorest” men, women and children, Agee wrote, but the graves were “decorated” with objects the families loved: milk glass, china dinner plates and, on a number of graves, light bulbs were screwed into the raised red soil. Several of Evans’ haunting graveyard photographs are available from the Library of Congress, although none of the light bulb photos are in the Library’s online collection.

DAVID: By the end of this book, at least some of your readers may learn not to be so afraid of the dark. But you also point out that countless men and women around the world long for light to improve their impoverished lives.

In America, there was a major campaign for rural electrification and many parts of the world don’t have lighting at night, to this day. There’s a very poignant scene in your book in which you describe the writer James Agee and the photographer Walker Evans traveling through the rural South in the 1930s. They happened upon a graveyard used by the poorest of farming families in which loved ones placed symbols of great hopes on the graves.

BARBARA: Reading Agee and Evans, once again, reinvigorated my imagination of that era of rural electrification. I live in a part of the rural South where we now take artificial light for granted. But, not too many years ago, our farm would have been off the grid—not by choice but by economics. As I wrote this book, I kept in mind that—while I am writing about a longing for darkness—there are so many people who long for light.

In re-reading Agee and Evans, there is a passage where they describe this burial ground for poor tenant farmers in Alabama. On top of the graves, their families had placed things people treasured. On top of some graves were dinner plates and pieces of milk glass. They also found lightbulbs screwed into the red clay covering some graves and blue-green glass insulators, too. This reminds us of the economics of darkness, as well, and in many parts of the world, it’s only the relatively wealthy who have the privilege of longing for darkness—because most people are poor and they live in darkness every night.

There are so many ways to think about this. Here’s another: The darkest places in the world are the places where we can see the most stars.


DAVID: There are dangers in the dark, as well. I’m a life-long fan of Larry McMurtry and, in one of his Western novels, a cowboy is far out on the range when he wakes up one night and becomes convinced that he must ride off to someone’s aid. His companions beg him not to do so, because there’s no moon overhead. He does so anyway—and rides right off a cliff and dies.

You tell about hitting a drop off yourself! You walked, in the dark, along a wooden dock that you didn’t realize had been damaged by a hurricane. You didn’t know that part of the dock was missing and you fell about 13 feet, right?

BARBARA: I did! And it hurt! And when I managed to walk back there in daylight I realized that I had fallen very close to a board with nails sticking out. It could have been so much worse.

But I don’t want to dwell on the dangers in the dark. Sure, you can bump into things in the night. But I found so many positive stories that I didn’t expect of people’s experiences in the darkness. For example, most of us may think that it’s dangerous to go out in the dark in a big city. And, I was giving a talk about this book when a young woman stood up at a microphone and she said that she grew up in New York City. And I thought: “Oh, here it comes! Another story about dangers at night in a big city.” But, she surprised me. She said that she loves her memories of going out with her father to look at the night sky between the tall buildings. And she recalled how much she loved it when her father would take her to an observatory in the city.

And remember, there are so many people who have to be out at night. They work at night. I was fascinated by a book about midwives in England who, of course, often had to go out at night. I read about various methods people developed to keep track of where they were going even on the darkest nights.


DAVID: This is a book about faith as much as it is about the real world of sunlight and darkness. And, when you turned to the Bible, your first glance over the material was pretty bleak, right?

BARBARA: There are about 100 references to darkness in the Bible and if you focus just on the word searches, the verdict is unanimous: Darkness is bad news.

DAVID: But you went deeper into the text, of course.

BARBARA: Yes, I started with word searches because there are so many easy ways to do that now. At the linguistic level, darkness is almost uniformly negative from the beginning to the end of the Bible. But when I dug deeper and began to pay attention to narratives that took place at night or under cover of darkness, the whole focus changed from negative to positive. Think of God telling Abraham to look up at the stars in the night sky. Or think of what happened to Jacob at night: wrestling with an angel.

DAVID: And the vision of the stairway to heaven, which came at night, produced the famous line: “Surely God was in this place—and I did not know it.”

BARBARA: These are moments of huge transformation at night. In the Nativity story, think of the shepherds looking up into a sky that is exploding with angels. Think of Magi following a star through the night. Now darkness becomes much more interesting!



JACQUES LUSSEYRAN. (As we publish this interview in spring 2014, the world just marked another Yom Hashoah, a solemn remembrance of the Holocaust. One of the many memorial websites online is Jamie Merriman-Cohen’s YomHashoah Picture Project. Click on this photo of Lusseyran to read Merriman-Cohen’s eloquent tribute to him.)

DAVID: Among the spiritual mysteries readers will discover in your book is Jacques Lusseyran, often called “the blind hero of the French Resistance.” He also was an amazing mystical writer. His most easily available book these days is And There Was Light: The Extraordinary Memoir of a Blind Hero of the French Resistance in World War II. But you actually quote from a specific portion of his writings: Against the Pollution of the I. Readers might be able to get that through their libraries, after meeting Lusseyran in your book.

BARBARA: He was compelling to me, first of all, because three different people recommended him to me. When I hear one or two people suggest something, I can ignore it, but not when three people recommend something. When I opened up his works, his language was so remarkable! From childhood, he was blind. He typed on a Braille typewriter, which was how he expressed himself in written word. And his language? He was able to capture mystical experiences because he wrote like an angel. He’s unparalleled in my reading—telling us unbelievable things and yet they become so believable in the way he tells them.

DAVID: He writes about how he experiences light and darkness and the mystical connection he makes is in his connection of love to inner light. Here’s one of his lines: “There was only one way to see the inner light, and that was to love.” Your readers meet Lusseyran in just a couple of pages of your book—but he’s a good example of the unusual people readers will discover here. Learning to Walk in the Dark will take you many places you never expected to go.

And, in the end, one of the places you’re taking us is back into “the church,” to organized religion. You’re an ordained Episcopal priest.

BARBARA: Yes, and I’m proud to be celebrating my 30th anniversary as a priest this year.


DAVID: Much of this book is about fearlessly exploring the world in new ways. But there’s a clear message here: You hope that all of those fearful men and women inside organized religion can find new hope. I was surprised on Easter Sunday, just a few weeks ago, to be attending the church where my daughter is the pastor. She got up and preached her sermon from the Gospel stories of resurrection—combined with illustrations from your new book. I was so pleased to hear that sermon!

BARBARA: And I love hearing you tell that story!

I get invited to a lot of churches and events with church leaders. When I walk into some churches, these days, it feels like a hospice. I can smell the anxious sweat in the air. The first questions people ask me are: What can we do to reverse the tide? What can we do about losing members? How can we—well—they’re really asking: How can we not die?

It seems to me that it’s time to stop all of that worrying. All that hand wringing is only convincing people that they don’t want to come inside here with you. It’s time to say: Let’s take inventory and see what is here and see what is life giving. It’s time to decide to be alive in a new way.

Now, I can’t say that without adding: I also visit lots of vibrant churches celebrating what is truly life giving. But, I think anyone who has ever loved a community of faith has—at some point or other—been disappointed by that community. In writing this book, I discovered a lot of new guides—men and women—who calmed me down, consoled me and got me ready for whatever is next.

DAVID: I’m going to jump way back to the beginning of your book and point to a line that I’ll bet is going to be quoted in countless church bulletins and sermons in coming months: “Step 1 of learning to walk in the dark is to give up running the show. Next you sign a waiver that allows you to bump into some things that may frighten you at first.”

BARBARA: That’s the story of this book. And that’s the living definition of what it means to have faith: I’m not assured that everything’s going to be safe and all right—but I am assured because of all the others who have walked this way before. Their walking before me—and around me—convinces me that this is the way of life.



Links to several of Barbara Brown Taylor’s earlier books are at the top of this story. You can order her book from Amazon by clicking on the book cover, at top.

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