Worried about your body? A spiritual makeover actually works.


Media Messages and Headlines on body imageDo you dread walking down the checkout aisle at the supermarket? Do the magazine covers make you angry or anxious? Young women trapped in a downward spiral of low self-esteem trying to measure up to unrealistic images of thinness and beauty may want to try something more effective than perpetual dieting:

A spiritual makeover.

Worship, prayer and a strong sense of the importance of religion can help teens and 20-somethings with eating disorders overcome feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness, new research indicates.

A study of nearly 2,500 young women published online in the Journal of Religion and Health adds weight to other U.S. and international research suggesting religion can be a countercultural force in promoting healthy body images.

Being part of a community that lifts up the message “God made me, and he doesn’t make anything bad” appears to help moderate the impact of the “body loathing” promoted by popular culture, said sociologist Andrea Henderson of the University of South Carolina, lead researcher in the study.

“Intuitively, it makes sense,” she said.

Several studies have found growing rates of eating disorders from excessive dieting to bulimia and anexoria nervosa among young women. The focus that females — as early as age 6 — place on body image can lead to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and low self-esteem as well as taking a physical toll.

Henderson and sociologist Christopher Ellison of the University of Texas San Antonio analyzed data from nearly 2,437 women ages 18 to 26 participating in the 2001-2002 National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health.

Women with eating disorders had lower self-esteem and higher levels of symptoms of depression. But for all women, more frequent religious attendance and a strong prayer life were significant predictors of lower rates of depression. Those who considered religion important in their lives and prayed regularly also had higher levels of self-esteem.

Young women with eating disorders, such as binge eating and extreme weight-loss efforts, were more likely to have poorer mental health the lower their levels of religious involvement, the study found.

Religion appeared to have a particularly strong effect on self-worth, researchers found. Attendance, prayer, a sense that religion is important and spiritual guidance all were associated with women who have eating disorders feeling better about themselves.

Research on religion and body image is still developing, but other studies also have indicated that faith may provide a safe haven from a secular culture that encourages women to fit into a body type that comes naturally to only about one in 20 females.

In one study, some college women were exposed to positive scriptural images such as the body being a temple of the Holy Spirit, then shown pictures of thin fashion models. Those women were far more likely to feel good about their appearance than college women in a control group who read neutral texts before being asked to look at the pictures of models.

“It seems plausible that women’s beliefs and feelings about their looks could become more positive from reading a set of affirmations … that espouse a vision of one’s body as divinely loved and accepted,” Bucknell University researchers reported in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

A separate study of 111 college women conducted by researchers at Hope College found students who were highly committed to their faith were more likely to report higher body esteem and body satisfaction.

In a University of Hong Kong study of 124 Asian college women, 23 percent of participants with no religion reported being extremely dissatisfied with their weight; just 6 percent of religious women expressed the same dissatisfaction.

In one sense, the research takeaway for congregations is to “continue what you’re doing” in terms of providing an environment where young women are valued for who they are, not what they look like, Henderson said.

In addition, women’s groups may find it of value to offer special ministries to young women. Clergy also may want to consider emphasizing theological images of the “beauty” of individuals transcending appearance in their sermons, Henderson said.

Beyond Appearance: A New Look at Adolescent Girls, a book published by the American Psychological Association, notes that “environments that enhance girls’ self-esteem in general and body esteem specifically … appear to increase resiliency against unhealthy eating patterns.”

Churches, synagogues and mosques can provide some of those places, the research suggests.

As one participant in the University of Hong Kong study put it:

“My identity is in Christ and that is what matters most. I am happy with myself and what I look like, mainly because of my faith.”

DAVID BRIGGS is one of America’s most respected journalists covering religion. In addition to his many awards and honors, David writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA)—and this column was published with permission from his ARDA series. David also is executive director of the International Association of Religion Journalists.

The Saloma Furlong interview on ‘Bonnet Strings’

CLICK on the book cover to visit its Amazon page.

CLICK on the book cover to visit its Amazon page.

Millions of Americans, once again, are thinking of driving through “Amish country” this year. We’re smiling at the nostalgic sights we’ll see, already tasting the traditional foods—and many are reading Amish novels (romances and mysteries, too) or tuning in made-for-TV Amish movies.

This is a perfect time to get a copy of Bonnet Strings: An Amish Woman’s Ties to Two Worlds, the latest memoir by Saloma Furlong who was featured on two very popular documentaries about the Amish on PBS: American Experience: The Amish and American Experience: Amish—Shunned.

As Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, in preparing for this week’s Cover Story with Saloma Furlong—I had to wait in line to read Bonnet Strings. The book vanished the moment it arrived at my home office. My wife had grabbed it! She had enjoyed seeing Saloma on PBS, had read Saloma’s first book Why I Left the Amish: A Memoir, and was eager to read this more romantic second volume about the twists and turns as Saloma fell in love with a young toymaker.

Want further confirmation that you’ll enjoy this book? Mennonite author Shirley Showalter (who we featured in an earlier author interview) writes about Bonnet Strings: “This story includes all the elements of a good romance—attraction, danger, secrets, beautiful scenery, obstacles, culture clashes and old-fashioned chivalry. You will cheer for Saloma and the sense of self God placed in her heart.”

Also: Don’t miss the moving dedication page at the front of this book. This time, both David and Saloma wrote chapters (Saloma wrote most of them, but David contributed a handful of key chapters from his perspective). So, the book opens with two real-life love letters—a single sentence from Saloma to David: “It is because of your understanding and quiet perseverance that our love not only survived but also thrived.” And from David to Saloma: “Your truth shines a light on the path to eternal love.” Now, come on: Who can resist a real-life story like this?

Saloma Furlong recipe for Mems white bread and for Sticky BunsAND, THE BEST PART!

If you have seen Saloma in the PBS films, then you know that she’s a marvelous baker. You’ve seen her preparing those delicious “Sticky Buns” that look so good—you’re hungry when the film ends. Well, Saloma closes her new book with some classic family recipes: Today, she has given us permission to republish her Sticky Buns recipe (which includes her recipe for Mem‘s White Bread). In her book, the full recipe section includes her Pie Crust Made Simple, Olin Clara’s Peach Pie, My Favorite Apple Pie—and a link to find even more recipes. You’ll also be passing around her favorite foods for years to come!


DAVID: Amish or not, many people will be drawn into your story by the first paragraph of your new memoir. You write:

It was a mismatch from the start—being born with a nature that just did not fit into my Amish culture. For as long as I can remember, questions had bubbled up from within. I tried to emulate other girls who were quiet and submissive. I’d practice folding my arms in the demure way of Amish girls, looking down in front of me instead of looking directly at others and not talking. That never lasted more than five minutes before I’d forget and become myself again.”

A lot of people today feel they don’t fit in. They want to “become themselves,” to borrow your phrase. As millions of Americans know from seeing your story in two different, feature-length PBS documentaries: You finally left the Amish community. But, I’m wondering: Today, do you consider yourself Amish? Or “formerly Amish”?

Photo of Saloma Furlong by Kerstin Martin. Used with the author's permission.

Photo of Saloma Furlong by Kerstin Martin. Used with the author’s permission.

SALOMA: I’m not sure I can be definitive in answering that. I am more of “a formerly Amish writer.” I don’t think of myself as “an Amish writer” because I’m not a practicing Amish. But, I’m still very Amish in my being.

I find myself serving as an accidental interpreter of the culture from which I emerged. There are so many misunderstandings about the Amish! I constantly find myself trying to clear those up. I get so many questions from my readers and from audiences when I go out and speak about this. I feel like I am constantly trying to right misrepresentations.

Often, I’ve felt like a lone voice in the wilderness until these two films came out. Callie Wiser was the producer of the first film that was shown on PBS and the director-producer-writer of the second film. She’s an amazing filmmaker because she’s such a careful observer and she understands things that many others miss. Thanks to Callie, those two films clear up a lot of misunderstandings, I think.

DAVID: Your first book’s title makes it clear that you left the Amish and, when people read that book, they realize that you grew up in a household with some tragically unresolved issues involving two men in your family. Eventually, we learn, some outside assistance helped with that situation—but you already had decided to leave. You left partly because of those men and primarily because your personality was in conflict with Amish ways.

Now, in the latest PBS film, viewers nationwide saw you helping another young woman struggle with her decision on whether to finally leave the Amish—or return to her traditional family. I suspect a lot of our readers are wondering: So, do you like and admire the Amish? Or, are you more of a critic of the Amish?

SALOMA: I am both. I like a lot of things about the Amish and I often find myself defending them, if I hear people wanting to demonize them. However, when people are trying to romanticize them, I point out some of the reality that doesn’t fit with the stereotypes. You could say: I complicate people’s idea of the Amish.

The Amish are people—they are human and they have their faults—but they also have some very important things to offer to the world, things like being more mindful about the technology we so easily adopt. They place a very high value on community.

DAVID: But you would change a few things about Amish culture if you could, right?

SALOMA: If I could change one thing about the Amish, it would be to allow the education of children beyond the 8th grade. When Amish young people graduate at 13 or 14 years old, they’re just too young to make it on their own in today’s world. Even if they got just a couple more years of schooling, then they’d have a prayer to make it on their own. But the Amish don’t want to talk about it. They say: God will take care of us.


DAVID: Well, let’s turn to the strong appeal of this second memoir: It’s got good food and real romance. At this point, publishers understand that those millions of American tourists who love to drive through “Amish country” every summer also are grabbing Amish romances and mysteries to read, when they get back home. In book publishing, it’s often said: “Put a bonnet on it, and it’ll sell.”

While a lot of books have bonnets on the cover, these days—most are fiction. Your book? It’s the real deal. It all happened.

SALOMA: We hear a lot of feedback from readers of this new memoir that they would like to see this made into a movie. David and I would love to see that, although we haven’t heard from any filmmakers, yet.

DAVID: As Shirley Showalter says in recommending your book, this is a compelling love story because it involves dramatic clashes and obstacles along the way. In real life, love isn’t easy—and your love story certainly was a roller coaster.

First, you left the Amish and fell in love with this toymaker—the young man who is now your husband David. But that love took a painful turn! You wound up almost breaking David’s heart by going back to the Amish and leaving him behind. He was so loyal that he kept pursuing you, despite some huge barriers you threw in front of him.

There’s a scene in this new book, on a day when David actually showed up and tried to reconnect with you. You had decided to go out in a canoe for the day with a sister and some friends. As you’re going out onto this reservoir in the canoe, he shows up and hands you a piece of paper that he thinks will be very meaningful to you. I won’t reveal to our readers what was on the paper. But, instead, you drop the paper into the water. Now, that’s a scene from a movie. I can see that fragile white paper sinking into the dark waters of the reservoir.

SALOMA: When we started talking about movie scenes, I knew you were going to bring up that moment in the book! And, of course, I can still see that in my memory. Memories, like that day when I dropped David’s paper into the water and tried to reject him again—those memories become so vivid because they’re the experiences that shape who we are as people.

DAVID: I hope that many readers buy your book, enjoy your story, make some wonderful baked goods from the recipes in the back of your book—and we wind up seeing your story on the big screen. Do you have a third book in this series of memoirs in the works?

SALOMA: Well, it all depends on how successful these first two books are. Right now, my husband is bringing in the bread and butter to keep our household going. In this book, the publisher has included a few chapters written by David, but I’d like to write more with him. The problem is that his work is so time consuming that, right now, he doesn’t have time to write.

DAVID: Meanwhile, keep baking! We’re going to share your recipe for bread and sticky buns. They’re so good!

Care to read more?

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

‘United America’ & ‘A Letter’ Spreading the good news …

United America and A Letter to My Congregation Wayne Baker Ken WilsonWE THANK our readers who are spreading the good news about these books that help to build healthier communities. Bookmark this page and check back for the latest news—by looking for items marked NEW:


NEARLY EVERY WEEK, ReadTheSpirit receives more good the good news about the ways these books are helping communities to come together and learn about our common ground. If you are planning an event involving these books, email us at [email protected] and we may add your news item to our growing lists.


Many authors are urging Americans to find a common ground for civil dialogue—including Brian D. McLaren, who wrote the preface to Dr. Baker’s book. This spring, Dr. Baker is crisscrossing the country speaking at various events. Please, email us at [email protected] (Or, you can visit the United America Press Materials page in our website.)



Ken Wilson is the pastor of a large evangelical church in Michigan, so he is not traveling as much as Dr. Baker. However, he already has spoken at a Los Angeles-area film festival and is eager to make a difference with his book—helping other congregations to make the kind of transformation that his congregation has made. Interested in scheduling an interview or an appearance? Please, email us at [email protected] (Or, you can visit the A Letter to My Congregation Press Materials page in our website.)



YOU CAN HELP SPREAD THE GOOD NEWS, right now, by using the blue-“f” Facebook or envelope-shaped Email icons.

Interview with Ken Wilson on ‘Letter to My Congregation’

Cover of Ken Wilson A Letter to My Congregation by ReadTheSpirit BooksAMERICAN attitudes toward our gay and lesbian relatives, friends and co-workers are changing so dramatically that the Pew Research Center ranked this shift as the first historic milestone among 13 changes that researchers identified over the past year.

TODAY, two major evangelical voices—and two highly respected observers of American religious life—are joining in the launch of a new book: A Letter to My Congregation. The four are …

  • KEN WILSON, author of this book-length letter, which he wrote to his large congregation in the Midwest to explain why even devoutly evangelical Christians should welcome gay, lesbian and transgendered men and women.
  • DAVID P. GUSHEE, based at Mercer University, where he is a theologian and author widely read in evangelical congregations. Most significantly, Gushee decided to publicly change his stance on this issue in the opening pages of Ken Wilson’s new book. (His Wikipedia entry.)
  • PHYLLIS TICKLE, a scholar and journalist who is highly respected for her books, magazine articles and lectures about trends in American religious life. (Her Wikipedia entry.)
  • And, TANYA LUHRMANN, based at Stanford University, where she is a leading anthropologist studying religious movements—including the Vineyard denomination in which Ken Wilson is a pastor. (Her Wikipedia entry.)

Tickle, Gushee and Luhrmann explain why they are supporting Ken’s efforts in a series of introductions to his new book—and you can read all three introductions on our new resource page for A Letter to My Congregation.

In this daring and compassionate journey of faith, the Rev. Ken Wilson apparently becomes the first pastor of a large evangelical congregation in America to so publicly reverse centuries of condemnation of gays and lesbians—and bring his congregation with him in welcoming gay and lesbian members at all levels of the church.

With the launch of this book, many people nationwide are asking: How did Ken Wilson do this?

In today’s interview you will learn: He did it by slowly and carefully studying the Bible, praying about these matters and talking with families in his congregation. The result, according to early online reviews of his book, “adds incredible freshness and insight” to a debate that threatens to tear churches and families apart. Reviewer David C. Sinclair writes that Ken “shows us a way forward that embraces our differences. … And, most importantly, he cogently argues for unconditional inclusion as we seek God together.”

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with Ken Wilson in …


Photo of the Rev. Ken Wilson by Julia Huttar Bailey. Used with permission.

Photo of the Rev. Ken Wilson by Julia Huttar Bailey. Used with permission.

DAVID: The Pew Research Center reports that we’re at a historic turning point on this issue, based on their tracking of data nationwide. But, beyond all that data, what have you seen from a pastor’s point of view? Can you see and feel the change among the people you encounter everyday?

KEN: Yes, 10 years ago, as an evangelical pastor I didn’t know gay people and a lot of the people in my congregation would have said they didn’t know gay people—but that has shifted dramatically. Now, most people say they have at least one gay friend. And, even more importantly, for young people this is a non-issue. Of Millennials who leave the church, a large number leave over the church’s exclusionary stance on LGBT people. Young people just can’t understand that exclusion. They know plenty of LGBT people personally and they don’t want to be part of a church that excludes their friends.

Now, this has become a big issue for parents who have children who are affected by this in various ways. They’re losing their kids over this question, whether those kids are LGBT themselves or they know and care about someone who is. The question for men and women in the church becomes: Do I care so much about the ideology of this issue that I’m willing to lose my children over this? This is an issue where parents and their children are absolutely affected everyday in local congregations.

I had a small group of people from our church who reviewed an early version of this letter with me. We went around the room and asked each person to tell us: What’s my personal stake in this conversation?

Every single person had a gay friend or loved one or family member and each one told the group—often with tears in their eyes—how much this mattered to them. This included people who accepted gay relationships and people who still had moral questions about gay relationships. We all were affected. This really is a historic change.

DAVID: I’ve been a journalist covering religion in American life for nearly three decades and I believe it’s accurate to say that you’re the first pastor of a large, evangelical church to go public about such a dramatic change on this issue with your congregation coming along on the journey. Millions of readers know that Rob Bell and Brian McLaren have changed in their public stance on this issue, but that was after they had left their congregations.

For readers wondering about this claim, I want to clarify: We’re talking about large, traditionally evangelical congregations and pastors who have gone so public in reversing their LGBT policies with their congregations. I’m not seeing them, at this point. If you’re out there reading this, please email us at [email protected]

But, having said all of that, let me ask: Are you aware of anyone else we should mention here?

KEN: I’ve been looking, too, and I am aware of some other evangelical congregations across the country that are moving in this direction. I don’t want to name them because they’re still on this journey and they’re not wanting to go public right now. And, just like you, David, I’d love to find and talk with others who are on this journey. I’d love to learn from them about how to do this—and how we can help others to do this.

‘The eyes of the world …?’

DAVID: Since David P. Gushee is also putting his name on the line with this book, the two of you were invited to speak at the California LGBT film festival, called Level Ground, last week. The festival was covered in the Los Angeles Times and other news media. Do you feel the eyes of the world are upon you?

KEN: No, I don’t feel that way and I don’t want to focus on the psychological pressure. My first responsibility is to lead my church through this transition successfully. Yes, I know there is a lot at stake here. There are many evangelical pastors out there whose hearts are inclined to go in this direction, but they can’t even begin to talk about this. I think once we can demonstrate that, yes, it can be done—then I think there are going to be many evangelical congregations that will follow. Before long, there is going to be a strong and growing expression of evangelicalism in America that is making space for gay people.

DAVID: How do they start? I can imagine a lot of readers of this interview—and readers of your book—wanting to know: How did Ken do it? How can I start this process?

KEN: The first thing is to convince pastors that they should give themselves permission to start asking the questions. There are so many pastors and other church leaders who want to do that, but they are inhibited from even starting the process. They see this as a “loser” issue for them. They don’t see any way to build a coalition around this—no way to build a consensus in their congregation. So, they don’t even start lifting up the questions that their hearts want to ask.

DAVID: You found the courage. Now, you have opened up the conversation in your church to a point at which you realize how deeply many families care about this issue. But we’re talking here about the very first, private steps—the first moral questioning. Give us a little sense of how that began for you.

KEN: Well, for me, I asked myself: Why am I willing to make so much space in the church for people who are remarried after divorce—despite the Bible’s very strict teaching against that—and I’m not willing to make space for gay and lesbian people? And I kept asking myself: Why does this particular moral stance of the church about LGBT people cause so much harm?

‘Is this really the teaching of Jesus …?’

DAVID: Let’s talk about the harm. In your book, you make an eloquent appeal: We can’t keep waiting on this issue. We can’t keep kicking these questions down the road. Every day, real people are being harmed by the church’s rigid condemnation.

KEN: When I started pondering these questions, I realized that this particular stance of the church really is harmful. When a married man in a congregation has an adulterous affair with another woman—and he’s confronted about it—we don’t have suicides as a result. But, we do have teenagers committing suicides at higher rates when they are part of congregations that have these exclusionary teachings about homosexuality. Is this really the teaching of Jesus when our exclusion of people is contributing to a rise in suicide?

DAVID: These are tough questions for evangelical leaders to ask. There’s a lot of fear around even raising the questions, isn’t there?

KEN: The church is an anxious system. It’s organized around the most anxious members, including those who threaten to leave if exclusionary policies aren’t upheld. In fact, pastors become so anxious about these members that we tend to overestimate how many in the congregation share these views.

‘My worst fears …’

DAVID: You were afraid, right?

KEN: I had a lot of fear about this! I dreaded it! And, you know what? My worst fears have not been realized. Not even close to my worst fears. Yes, I have lost some key people and, yes, we have lost some income over this and it has affected attendance—but not nearly as badly as I had expected.

If you’re a pastor, it’s easy to exaggerate the fear. As pastors, we have to find ways to duck out from under this big cloud of fear that surrounds this issue.

‘A healer’s heart …’

DAVID: This took time. This book describes a journey with your congregation that began years ago. How long ago?

The Divine Hours by Phyllis TickleKEN: Phyllis Tickle is a big part of this story from the very beginning. Our Vineyard church in Ann Arbor began working with Phyllis Tickle on prayer about 10 years ago. Our church helped Phyllis to promote praying The Divine Hours and we became an online host for the Divine Hours. She visited our congregation in 2005 and, as I got to know her, she became a personal confidant. I would send her prayer updates as I began experiencing a significant shift in my own prayer life. Eventually, my wife Nancy and I were invited to their home outside Memphis. And that’s how I met Dr. Sam Tickle, Phyllis’ husband, a leading doctor in the Memphis area and, some years ago, one of the first to begin treating people in the AIDS crisis.

A a result of all this, Sam and Phyllis had a lot of gay and lesbian friends and they took us to a church that was filled with gay and lesbian and transgendered people. It was as if someone had gathered a congregation of sexually excluded Christians and I was just taken aback by the clear presence of Jesus in that assembly of people. The cognitive dissonance I was experiencing—as a traditional evangelical pastor—was just through the roof! I credit Dr. Sam Tickle with really helping me in this journey. He was so obviously a compassionate and caring physician and Christian and he related to people with a healer’s heart that was just infectious.

DAVID: Everyone on the cover of your book played a role in this journey, including Dr. Tanya Luhrmann, the famous scholar and researcher. Tell us how your paths crossed.

When God Talks Back T.M. LuhrmannKEN: Tanya is a world-class anthropologist who had done research on how evangelical spirituality mediates an experience of God. She studied this in Vineyard churches and I became aware of her work. I read her book When God Talks Back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God and I thought it was brilliant. Her book helped me to be a better pastor and I got to know Tanya herself through a gathering of Vineyard scholars, where we both talked about her book.

‘Describing a journey
and inviting others …’

DAVID: You found many of Tanya’s ideas to be very helpful, especially the questions she raises about how a person can communicate a personal spiritual journey to others. You also worked with a prayer exercise Tanya provided and, in the midst of that exercise you found your method: writing a letter.

KEN: How would I communicate all of this? I thought a lot about that. And, I decided to write out the whole process of what I was going through as a pastor struggling with these questions. Through this letter, my struggle could become a representative struggle for others. I wasn’t writing an argument. I was describing a journey and inviting others to accompany me.

DAVID: Then, I also want to ask you about David P. Gushee, who dramatically decided to go public with his own change on this issue in the opening pages of your book. How did that come about?

KEN: I met David Gushee in 2006 through another issue we were working on. We were in a gathering of evangelical leaders with top-level environmental scientists—people like E.O. Wilson—to talk about climate change and environmental concerns.

So, I had known David and I had worked with him on that environmental issue. He is the co-author of Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context, which is a top book in evangelical seminaries. I liked that book, too, but the one section I thought was weak in Kingdom Ethics was the section on homosexuality. I called David and I said, “I love your book, but I have questions about this one section. It feels to me like you’re just rehearsing the traditionalist views.” And I asked him, “Where are you on this—now?”

He told me that someone close to him had come out as gay and his views were changing. I sent him the manuscript of my letter, then, hoping that he might say something like: Well, I don’t agree with Ken’s conclusion, but this is a legitimate part of the conversation. That was as much as I could hope.

DAVID: Instead, you got a shock.

KEN: It was a shock! His reply was: “What can I do to help you?” And, then, he wrote such a powerful Foreword to the book. I mean, I was feeling way out on a limb here and it was such a blessing that he came forward and was so supportive of this. I’m a pastor. I’m not the kind of scholar that Dr. David P. Gushee is. And yet he stepped forward and has been so supportive of the whole thing.

‘Who wants to go up against 2,000 years …?’

DAVID: The Pew Research Center captures the historic opportunity we all have, right now, to help people make a transition on this issue. In just 10 years, Pew reports, Americans have gone from less than half of us saying “homosexuality should be accepted by society” to 60 percent today! Then, there’s another dramatic jump when the question is asked another way: “Is same-sex marriage inevitable?” Then, more than 7 in 10 Americans say: Yes.

Those two answers show us millions of Americans who are in turmoil on this issue. Millions know this change is coming—but still can’t find a way to accept LGBT people as a part of society. One of the brilliant strategies in your book is to say: Church members don’t have to be united in our personal moral conclusions—but we must unite in welcoming people into the church. Am I saying that correctly? You’re not demanding that everyone immediately agree on moral acceptance, but you are saying that it’s time for the church to fully welcome LGBT people.

KEN: Right. The problem is that so many people in the evangelical community—and in the faith community in general—want to find a way to accept and include gay and lesbian people, but they have serious questions based on their faith tradition. Who wants to go up against 2,000 years of Christian consensus on an issue? But, already, many people do know that our hearts are telling us something else. People are realizing that, even if they don’t fully understand how to think through this issue, there’s a more serious question we’re facing: the do-no-harm test.

‘What is the Good News of Jesus?’

DAVID: Yes, Pew explains this shift in American experience. This has become personal for Americans nationwide. Pew reports that a huge number of people—7 in 10 Americans—say they know “some” or “a lot” of gay or lesbian people. In other words, we know who we’re hurting if we condemn gay and lesbian people. They’re our friends, our family.

KEN: Right, we’re talking about a lot of people! And, this issue is the tip of a much, much bigger iceberg, which is the branding of Christianity—ever since the rise of the Religious Right—as this movement of people who primarily are “against things” and, even worse, as a movement that is “against people.”

Christianity is losing followers in America because of this. What’s at stake is more than just individuals with gay friends. What’s at stake here is how Americans make friends with Jesus. The bigger question is: How can the church promote human flourishing? Have we reduced the message of Jesus to a rigid list of things that people are forbidden to do—or, worse yet, to a list of people we’re mad at? Are we just a movement that stigmatizes and excludes people?

We’re really asking is: What is the Good News of Jesus? What does Jesus stand for?

DAVID: These are the emotionally wrenching questions you’re hearing from families, as a pastor, right?

KEN: Exactly. I began to realize this when parents started coming to me privately as their pastor, telling me that a teenage son or daughter thought they were gay. I saw how much fear, how much distress—and how much harm—was happening in these families. I began to realize: Something is wrong with this picture.

Parents were having to choose between their faith and their own children. This was a profound problem! Of course, some parents tried to adopt the approach of “loving the person but hating the sin,” and that might sound like a nice bromide if you’re not actually living in these relationships. In real lives, in real human relationships, that is such an alienating thing to say.

The truth is: There are gay young people in all congregations, whatever the congregation teaches about homosexuality. So, we’ve got a dangerous situation here when we condemn and exclude people. Just look at the data on suicide rates. As a pastor, I began to realize: This can’t be the fruit of the Spirit. There’s something wrong here.

‘The Gospel is an invitation.’

DAVID: You’re sure to draw a lot of criticism, along with all the appreciation that’s sure to come your way, as well. What final thought do you want to leave with readers—critics and supporters of your work?

KEN: I hope that people who care about the church will ask themselves: Don’t we care about the harm being done to vulnerable people? Do we really want to sacrifice our children? Is that the message of Jesus? Or, is the Gospel an acceptance of us that is so powerful that it is life changing? And, as a result, we want to invite others into the company of Jesus. I think the Gospel is an invitation.


CLICK THIS COVER to learn more about the book and order a copy in print or digital formats.

CLICK THIS COVER to learn more about the book and order a copy in print or digital formats.

VISIT our resource page for the new book, which includes all three introductions by Gushee, Tickle and Luhrmann … plus much more! Order a copy of the book, right now, from Amazon (via links with this interview)—or use the links in the resource page to order from Amazon, Barnes & Noble or other online retailers. Bookmark our resource page for the book, because—in coming weeks—we will be adding free Discussion Guides.

PLEASE share this interview with friends. You are free to republish this interview as long as you include the credit line (see the italic line at the end of this post). Or, you can share this by using the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the tiny envelope-shaped email icons.

ALL THIS WEEK, read more about the latest research into changing American attitudes on these issues in the OurValues.org project, hosted by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker.

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

United America: Rediscovering Our Common Ground

United America by Dr Wayne Baker 10 Core Values form American Common Ground

CLICK on this graphic to visit the United America resource page, which includes free downloadable charts of the 10 values, plus a new Bible Study Discussion Guide for small groups.

We are excited!

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

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

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

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


Click on these photos from Live Civilly to visit the group's website, which uses graphics drawn by children to inspire others to join in many kinds of community-based programs focused on children.

Click on these photos from Live Civilly to visit the group’s website, which uses graphics drawn by children to inspire others to join in many kinds of community-based programs focused on children.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click the cover to visit its Bookstore page, where you can learn more about Jane Wells' new book and can order copies.

Click the cover to visit our Bookstore page, where you can learn more about Jane Wells’ new book—and order copies.

Where are The Hunger Games taking Americans?

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

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

WHERE else can The Hunger Games take Americans?

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


JOHN WESLEY carefully chose the limited number of symbols that would appear in his 1778 chapel. His Protestant sensibility disdained rich ornamentation. He called his new London base of operations “perfectly neat but not fine.” So, the choice of the dove-and-snake relief, which was repeated all around the balcony of the chapel, was quite intentional. This building, now known simply as Wesley’s Chapel, replaced his other famous house of worship, The Foundery, which stood about 200 yards away. Today, this chapel is regarded as one of the most important architectural gems in London. This was the first Methodist Church built specifically for both communion and for preaching services. (THESE PHOTOS show an overview, then two details from the façade that runs all around the U-shaped balcony.)

JOHN WESLEY carefully chose the limited number of symbols that would appear in his 1778 chapel. His Protestant sensibility disdained rich ornamentation. He called his new London base of operations “perfectly neat but not fine.” So, the choice of the dove-and-snake relief, which was repeated all around the balcony of the chapel, was quite intentional. This building, now known simply as Wesley’s Chapel, replaced his other famous house of worship, The Foundery, which stood about 200 yards away. Today, this chapel is regarded as one of the most important architectural gems in London. This was the first Methodist Church built specifically for both communion and for preaching services. (THESE PHOTOS show an overview, then two details from the façade that runs all around the U-shaped balcony.)

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunger isn’t science fiction.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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




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

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

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

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

C.S. Lewis interview with HarperOne Publisher Mark Tauber

Click the cover of this boxed set to jump to the Amazon page for this new, and very reasonably priced, set of Lewis classics.

Click the cover of this boxed set to jump to the Amazon page for this very reasonably priced set of Lewis classics.

C.S. Lewis.

The name stands alone.

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

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

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

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

Just in time for Christmas 2013 …

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

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


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

MARK TAUBER: Yes, it is amazing.

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

Mark Tauber of HarperOne. (Photo courtesy of HarperOne.)

Mark Tauber of HarperOne. (Photo courtesy of HarperOne.)

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Great Divorce (Hardback Edition)

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

Screwtape Letters: The Annotated Edition


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

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