The Geri Larkin Interview: Cooking up enlightenment in 7 steps

Cover Buddhist author Geri Larkin Close to the Ground

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

Many people only follow their thinking, their desire, anger and ignorance. So they get suffering in situation after situation.
But if you wake up—right now—you get happiness.

Which one do you like?
Zen Master Seung Sahn

Geri Larkin is one of America’s most popular Buddhist writers, releasing her 11th book and ranking now with such prolific American Buddhist authors as Jack Kornfield and Robert Thurman. Are you questioning this claim? Consider: The best-selling Dalai Lama, of course, has written much more, but he is Tibetan, and Thich Nhat Hanh is Vietnamese. There are only a few American-born-and-grown Buddhist writers of this stature. And, as you may already have noted: Geri is the only female in this list. She is distinctive in other ways, as well.

The real-life stories in her books sometimes are heart-breaking, but more often than not, they’re full of inspiring twists and sometimes downright funny. On that scale, only the quirky American Buddhist writer Brad Warner is more likely to amuse readers with the surprising turns in his true tales. However, for most of us, Geri is the perfectly brewed and carefully steeped cup of tea. While Brad Warner tends to surprise with chapters such as his interview with a porn star in one of his memoirs—Geri makes us smile unexpectedly in her new book with stories like the day her young grandson encountered a ladybug that landed on his hand in a park. That’s a pretty stark contrast: Discovering enlightenment with a porn star vs. a ladybug. As Seung Sahn asks: Which one do you like?

Plus, to our knowledge, Geri is unique among these writers in sprinkling recipes into her books. To be fair, there are many Buddhist-themed cookbooks on the market, and Geri has published only a precious few of her recipes over the years. Still, Geri’s notion that cooking can be a gateway to mindfulness is a lesson we don’t hear so much from the Buddhist guys.

WANT TO TRY ONE OF GERI’S RECIPES? That’s the subject of this week’s Feed the Spirit column by Bobbie Lewis.

WANT HER BOOK? Geri’s newest book is called Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment. Click on this link or the book cover, above.

This week, Read The Spirit Editor David Crumm talked with Geri via telephone from her modest home in Oregon.

HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH BUDDHIST WRITER
GERI LARKIN ON ‘CLOSE TO THE GROUND’

Buddhist author Geri Larkin

Author photo by Jeffrey Ericson Allen, used courtesy of Geri Larkin, Rodmell Press.

DAVID CRUMM: Let’s start with food. Among the many Buddhist books I’ve got in my home library, I don’t see other leading Buddhist writers paying this much attention to recipes. You clearly enjoy food! Your one children’s book—Drink Juice, Stay Loose—is all about the place of food and meal times in the course of a happy day for children and their parents. Then, in this new book, Close to the Ground, you share a couple of wonderful recipes.

Why do you write about food?

GERI LARKIN: Yes, I have put in one or two recipes per book. In The Chocolate Cake Sutra: Ingredients for a Sweet Life, of course, I give my chocolate cake recipe. And in Plant Seed, Pull Weed: Nurturing the Garden of Your Life, I give a recipe for stir-fried dandelions, which I like to serve over buckwheat noodles. So, yes, I’ve given out a number of my recipes over the years.

In this new book, I write about the mindfulness in cooking a meal. If you give yourself permission to really focus on the process of cooking a meal for others, as I describe it in the book, then cooking can become a great introduction to mindfulness. Cooking for others also is related to generosity. Really, cooking a meal for guests can wind up touching on all the seven factors I describe in the book: Mindfulness, Investigation of Phenomena, Energetic Effort, Ease, Joy, Concentration and Equanimity.

DAVID: In a moment, we’ll talk about that list of seven factors, which come from early Buddhist writings, but first: Explain more about why you chose to write about something as apparently simple as making a home-cooked meal in a book about these ancient principles.

GERI: In this book, I was determined not to get too Buddhist-y. Many Buddhist teachings and practices take years to appreciate and develop. It takes a long time in life to approach what might be called mature spirituality, but we have to start somewhere. And we all can start, every day, with small things we experience and choose to do. One way to begin to come close to mindfulness is through really focusing on the preparation of a meal. Mindfulness often involves a focused activity and cooking is a great activity to choose.

You know, over the years, I’ve eaten food at so many retreats and I’ve been served so many meals as a guest. And I can always tell when things were prepared mindfully, when the cooking itself was a spiritual practice.

DAVID: So, how is a recipe like a ladybug? Readers of this interview are probably wondering about the substance of this book, since they’ll first see the ladybug and now we’re talking about food.

GERI: These seven factors can be difficult to understand and to practice. I’m trying to give readers a lot of different triggers that can help us to begin feeling what I’m writing about. So, in the first part of the book, I write about my grandson discovering that ladybug in the park.

GERI LARKIN:
MINDFULNESS & ‘FIRE OF ATTENTION’

DAVID: That’s the first of the seven sections in this book: Mindfulness. And, I suspect, that’s such a well-known part of Buddhism that a lot of readers will be tempted to skip over the first chapter. What do we “all know” about Buddhism? Mindfulness. You write, “every dharma teacher I have ever known has emphasized mindfulness over just about anything else.”

GERI: You’re right. The problem is that people don’t really understand what we’re saying, at first. I think most people when they think about mindfulness, they hear us saying: Pay attention. And that’s not a bad first cut at the meaning—but it’s only the first cut. What most people miss is the “fire of attention.” There’s a huge difference between just paying attention and being truly mindful. So, in the story of my grandson finding the ladybug on his hand—we both became completely involved with that ladybug. An asteroid could have struck behind us and we wouldn’t have noticed! Mindfulness is the portal into all the rest of these seven factors.

DAVID: You just mentioned a phrase I was going to ask about—”fire of attention.” Partway through the chapter on mindfulness, you describe the achievement of deeper mindfulness with that phrase.

GERI: The Buddha used that: “fire of attention.” When you do your meditation and you sit, you should be putting so much energy into your mindfulness that it’s like your head is on fire. Think about how different that idea is than just trying to pay attention. But you can’t get to the fire of attention without starting at paying attention. The next step up from that is: What’s your body feeling like? What’s your mind feeling like? So many things go into this practice. You move along this whole process until you can reach a point where there is nothing else left out of your attention. When you get there, so much else drops away. You don’t have energy left for anxiety. You don’t have energy left for all this other stuff that keeps us from truly living our lives.

And, this fire of attention is available to everybody. Oh my God, I can’t give you enough fabulous words to describe this! But, you really don’t have to believe anything to do this. You don’t have to trust Buddha or anything—you can just practice putting this kind of energy into what you’re doing. You start to feel how this stuff really works. For me, it’s almost like—well, it’s almost like burning up all the negative gunk that accumulates in your heart and mind. There’s a cleansing that happens. I’ve heard Catholic monks who go deep into contemplative prayer describe this. When I talk to them about these experiences, it sounds very much like we are talking about the same kind of energy.

DAVID: A lot of our readers know something about monastic practices of prayer. Most people recall the name Thomas Merton, who was making connections between contemplative prayer and Buddhist practice toward the end of his life. ReadTheSpirit has featured an interview with Father Thomas Keating and, last year, we published an interview with Keating’s friend and disciple David Frenette.

In writing this book, you didn’t simply draw on interfaith insights, or your walks with your grandson, or your recipe box. You’re reaching way, way back to the Pali Canon. So, explain that context.

GERI: Right. The Buddha lived more than 2,000 years ago, and the Pali Canon surfaced some hundreds of years of years after he lived.

DAVID: For Christian readers, we can say: These teachings were handed down through an oral tradition in Buddhism that eventually was written down before the time of Jesus. It’s ancient and it’s considered authentic, right?

GERI: Yes, you’ve got it. Another way to say it—this is from the horse’s mouth. This is real teaching—fundamental Buddhist teaching—that many people have no idea exists. Specifically, this comes out of the Digha Nikaya within the Pali Canon. Most Americans probably have never hard of it, but it’s a portion of the Buddha’s teachings that are really practical advice. It doesn’t occur to many people to think of Buddha as giving out practical advice. But he did! All kinds of people came to him with questions about how to be good people and he gave them advice. I wish people knew more about this.

DAVID: Well, in this book, they’ll learn a lot about these seven factors from that body of teaching.

GERI LARKIN:
POVERTY, JOY AND EASE

DAVID: We’ve talked about mindfulness. I want to conclude this interview by asking you to try to summarize—in just a few words—a couple of the other sections in your book. But first, let me ask a practical question. It’s possible that readers will misunderstand your list of seven factors: Mindfulness, Investigation of Phenomena, Energetic Effort, Ease, Joy, Concentration and Equanimity. Readers might think this list sounds like “prosperity preaching.” But, I’ve known you for years, Geri, and I know how you live your life. You live on next to nothing, right?

GERI: Well, you know, David, that most authors can’t support themselves by writing books. Most authors don’t make much at all. I decided to write this new book, first, to help support Rodmell Press and, second, if I ever see any royalties from book sales, I plan to give the money away. You know how we describe some people as having eyes too big for their stomachs? You know what my problem is? I keep thinking I can give away more than I can! (she laughs) Seriously, I’m always giving away as much as I can. I am living, right now, at what we call the poverty level. I call it living truly close to the ground.

DAVID: And we’re back to the title of the book.

GERI: What I’m trying to tell people is: If we follow these practices, it’s about letting things go in our lives. In the end, how happy we are doesn’t have anything to do with how much stuff we have or how much money we’re earning—period. You might think of this book as lots of baby steps we can take to help us let go of things that are gunking up our lives.

DAVID: And, that’s a great set up to let me ask about a couple of your individual sections in the book. Let’s start with: Joy. Christian readers hear a lot about joy as a spiritual virtue. I recommend that our readers buy your book and read the whole thing to understand your message on joy. But, give us a few words, here, about joy.

GERI: Oh, what can I say in a few words? First, the word joy is so overused that it almost loses its meaning. I’m talking about the kind of joy that we can discover in the great wonderfulness of simple daily life. I’m talking about the joy you can discover in picking your own vegetables from your own little garden. You know, just the other day, I got home and I found these two little neighbor kids standing in the driveway. One of them had pulled a carrot. Another one had an onion from the garden. And they were just standing there, so pleased with these vegetables they had pulled! I had time—so I talked to them. I said, “Well, you’re all ready for supper tonight!” The kids and their wonderment at the vegetables—it was a beautiful little moment so full of joy! It’s the kind of thing you’d miss entirely if you were rushing around all day trying to make a lot of money and didn’t have the time to enjoy such tings right there in your neighborhood.

DAVID: Those are a few words about joy. Then, please, talk about another section in your book: Ease.

GERI: The bottom line in Buddhist teaching on ease is that it’s about being OK with what is. Now, “what is” includes the fact that we’re all going to die. And learning how to have ease in our lives includes being OK with whatever is. This can be a difficult teaching, but if we begin to experience the kind of ease I’m describing in the book, then something happens.  Some readers may describe that “something” as realizing God—or, in my world, we would say that we are realizing Buddha nature. We realize we’re held up by this great loving energy that is generous and joyful and always there, no matter what. But we must have the courage to fall into that pillow.

DAVID: And, there’s much more in the book! Before we end, though, I want to share the book’s final line: “Take good care of yourself.” If you’ve read the whole thing, those words really resonate. That’s what you hope people will do as they close your back cover, right?

GERI: I hope that people will close the cover and walk away trusting themselves more as possibilities—trusting that they really deserve to live a life that’s full of joy and ease. That’s what I wish for. I really do wish that people would take good care of themselves.

If people only knew how precious they are!

TAKE THE NEXT STEP …

WANT GERI LARKIN’S NEW BOOK? You can order Close to the Ground: Reflections on the Seven Factors of Enlightenment by clicking here or on the book cover, at top.

WANT TO TRY ONE OF GERI’S RECIPES? That’s the subject of this week’s Feed the Spirit column by Bobbie Lewis.

BE KIND & GENEROUS—SHARE THIS WITH FRIENDS: Please, share this column with friends by clicking on the blue-”f” Facebook icon or the envelope-shaped email icon. You also can email us at [email protected] with questions.

News about authors Rabbi Robert Alper and Lynne Meredith Golodner

Cover of Thanks I Needed That Robert AlperAT READ THE SPIRIT, we appreciate hearing from journalists who are covering news related to our authors. We like to showcase your media coverage and provide links back to your original work. Here are several recent news items about authors published by Read the Spirit Books.

RABBI ROBERT ALPER:
‘A Potent Dose of Laughter’

Rabbi Alper is the author of Thanks. I Needed That—a book of real-life stories that readers nationwide will be hearing more about in September. Nicolette Milholin writes about Alper’s book in the Montgomery News, which is part of the Journal Register company of newspapers and websites. She writes, in part: “Author Robert Alper knows exactly how important a potent dose of laughter can be. In his new book—aptly titled Thanks. I Needed That.—Alper shares inspiring stories from his life as a rabbi and stand-up comic.” Please, read Nicolette’s entire column, which includes an interview with Alper.

Lynne Meredith Golodner:
‘Food and Faith Intersect’

Cover The Flavors of Faith Holy Breads by Lynne Meredith GolodnerLynne Meredith Golodner’s new The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads was just featured in The Detroit Free Press by Food Writer Susan Selasky. Susan used the occasion of Ramadan to connect with a chapter in Lynne’s book about Muslim bread baking. The book also has stories and recipes about breads from many religious groups, including Protestant, Catholic, Jewish and Native American traditions. In the Free Press, Susan made that very point, writing in part: “Ramadan isn’t the only time faith and food intersect. In her new book, The Flavors of Faith, Lynne Meredith Golodner explores the cultural and communal aspects of breads across many faiths.” Please, read Susan’s entire column, which also includes some wonderful photos of Muslim cooks and traditional recipes.

Lynne Meredith Golodner:
‘Soulful Recipes and Food Stories’

Thanks, also, to Motown Savvy columnist Carla Schwartz for a hearty endorsement of Lynne’s book to her online audience. Under a headline, Spiritual Musings, Carla recommended a whole array of Read The Spirit features including our new Feed The Spirit department, written by food writer Bobbie Lewis. Carla calls our overall online magazine: “innovative, fresh and cross-cultural.” Of Lynne’s work, Carla writes: “I look forward to more soulful recipes and food stories.” Please, read Carla’s entire column.

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

A Baker’s Dozen: 13 Best Films on Food and Faith

By  EDWARD McNULTY

As the Bible says, we do “not live by bread alone”—but food is vital in our lives and in the movies. Without food our bodies wither away and die—a challenge in the 1993 film Alive, a true story about members of a Uruguayan rugby team whose plane crashes high up in the Andes. Food also is a source of great pleasure, as we see in such films as Julie & Julia or Eat, Pray, Love—a film that emphasizes our spiritual relationship with food. As a film critic for many decades, I am confident that you’ll love many of these movies, which you can find on DVD or, in many cases, live streaming.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 1: Babette’s Feast

CLICK THE IMAGES WITH THIS COLUMN TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE FILMS.

CLICK IMAGES WITH THIS COLUMN FOR MORE ON THE FILMS

Directed by Gabriel Axel. 1987. Rated G. 102 min.

Viewers step back into 19th-century Denmark, where we meet two elderly sisters and their fellow ascetic church members—stern and elderly, all of them. Into their lives comes Babette, a once famous female chef who has fled the French civil wars to become a lowly housekeeper and cook in Jutland. To mark this strict little congregation’s centennial, she prepares a meal so elegant and tasty that it overcomes the members’ vow not to enjoy it. Babette’s grand meal even becomes sacramental by reconciling various members who had been harboring grudges against each other. Only one of the guests, the erudite General who once sought to marry one of the sisters, recognizes the truth behind Babette’s main course. In his speech, he recognizes the grace that has enveloped them all. As viewers, we realize what a Christ figure the now humble cook and house servant is. The film won an Oscar for Best Foreign Film. And, more importantly for this list, it won “Best On-Screen Recipe” at the 1997 Cinema and Food Retrospective Festival in Italy.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 2: Places in the Heart

Places in the Heart 1984Directed by Robert Benton. 1984. Rated PG. 111 min.

I know, food is not as central in the plot as in the first selection, and yet this film is book-ended by scenes of eating, the opening sequence showing people at breakfast around the village—some alone (one is homeless), others, black and white, gathered as families in homes and the local cafe. During the hard struggle by widow and mother Edna Spalding to harvest the cotton crop early and thus win the purse of money that will save the farm, she, her children, their blind boarder, her sister and husband, and the black itinerant worker Moze become like a family, which the closing sequence affirms. This is set at a Communion celebration in their church. As the trays are passed through the pews, we are surprised to see that even the black man forced by the Klan to leave town and Edna’s husband and a boy, both of whom have died violently, are in the pews partaking, the director/writer surrealistically affirming the reality of the Communion of Saints. The theme of forgiveness/reconciliation is also emphasized when the sister wordlessly forgives her husband as the pastor reads from 1 Corinthians 13.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 3: Fried Green Tomatoes

Fried Green TomatoesDirector by Jon Avnet. 1991. Rated PG-13. 137 min.

In a small Southern town two women run the Whistle Stop Café where food becomes a symbol of hospitality and counter-cultural racial tolerance. It is during the Depression, and none are turned away, be they hobo or “Negro.” The local sheriff warns the women that the Klan does not appreciate their serving “coloreds” (though the women do bow to custom by serving African Americans outside), but the women refuse to stop. There is a macabre touch later when the sheriff, looking into the disappearance of the abusive husband of one of the women, appreciates the meat sauce. Their story, told by a nursing home resident to a browbeaten wife, empowers her to rise up and assert herself against her domineering husband.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 4: Spitfire Grill

The Spitfire GrillDirected by Lee David Zlotoff. 1994. PG-13. 117 min.

The film’s title comes from the name of the grill in Maine where Percy, a young woman newly released from prison, hires on as a waitress. Of course, she does not immediately reveal her past to this town full of quirky folks. Despite the curiosity that rises around her, Percy manages to bring a large measure of grace to the grill’s elderly owner, to a verbally abused wife, and eventually to the whole town—even though she herself proves to be a terrible cook. There are many subplots in this film, including one about the plight of Vietnam veterans, but Percy clearly is the central character and redemptive force in the story. Although she turns out to be a Christ figure (though very different from Babette), she is, in Henry Nouwen’s phrase, “a wounded healer,” better at helping others than herself.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 5: Antwone Fisher

Antwone Fisher film posterDirected by Denzel Washington. 2002. PG-13. 120 min.

The movie begins with a dream in which a little boy walks into a barn. A huge table is loaded with sumptuous-looking food, and around it stands a large number of men, women, and children, all smiling their welcome to the boy. The boy dreamer, now a grown US sailor in trouble for his constant fighting, tells his therapist that he was given up by his mother and abused by his foster mother and sister. Advised to return to his hometown so that he can get to the source of his problems, Antwone with the help of his girl friend flies back to his Midwestern hometown and manages to find an aunt and uncle. The film ends after a heart-rending disappointment, the pain of which is swallowed up by the lavish dinner his newly discovered relatives have quickly brought together to welcome him into the family, a beautiful foretaste of a Messianic banquet.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 6: What’s Cooking?

Whats Cooking filmDirected by Gurinder Chadha. 2000. Rated PG-13. 109 min.

The film opens with Norman Rockwell’s iconic Thanksgiving painting—and the rest of the movie shows us how diverse American families have become. It’s Thanksgiving and we meet four American families—African American, Jewish, Hispanic and Vietnamese—all preparing for the holiday. They live in the same Los Angeles neighborhood, but their variations make their dinners a far cry from that Norman Rockwell image. A good deal of the film focuses on the preparations for these meals. What unites these families are all of the surprises and challenges they face as generational expectations collide. While apparently separate through much of the movie, their stories are skillfully brought together at the very end by a surprising event. The great female cast includes Mercedes Ruehl, Alfre Woodard, Joan Chen, Julianna Margulies, and Kyra Sedgewick.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 7: Pieces of April

Pieces of April movieDirected by Peter Hedges. 2003. Rated PG-13. 81 min.

Pieces of April is one of Katie Holmes’s most memorable performances as April, the Goth-garbed black sheep of an upstate New York family. The rest of her family regards her as an utter failure—and, at first glance, her humble New York apartment suggests that she and her boyfriend are struggling to survive. Nevertheless, she invites her parents and siblings to her flat for a Thanksgiving dinner, partly to mend fences and also to meet her boyfriend. Her family holds such a dim view of April that they almost do not come. Two plots unfold throughout the film: April desperately tries to prepare a proper dinner, even after her oven quits and other disasters befall her; meanwhile, her parents and siblings fight among themselves as they make their way toward her apartment. Soon, most of April’s neighbors are involved in this event. The delightful climax again suggests a Messianic banquet.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 8: Eat, Drink, Man, Woman

Eat Drink Man Woman sceneDirected by Ang Lee. 1994. Not Rated. 124 min.

Chu, a widower and one of Taipei’s pre-eminent chefs, is the strict father of three unmarried daughters who still live in the large family house, but have distanced themselves from him. He insists that they dine with him every Sunday, but they eat dispiritedly—and one even works at a fast food restaurant. He has lost his sense of taste, a good metaphor for what has happened to them all. Beautiful shots of food preparation and consumption, as well as a new appreciation of each other!

There is an Americanized version of the film entitled Tortilla Soup about a widower Mexican-American chef worrying about the future of his three unmarried daughters. Despite his losing his sense of taste, he continues to cook sumptuous meals once a week for the family.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 9: Alive

Alive movie sceneDirected by Frank Marshall. Rated R. 120 min.

I will admit that the most bizarre choices for this list is Alive, about Uruguayan rugby players, stranded high in the snowy Andes, who find themselves driven to eat the body of a teammate. The survivors have run out of food and see no prospect of being rescued soon, so the dying player seeks to give the only thing he has to help his teammates survive, his body—and by his encouraging words to remove their sense of guilt. What a take on John 15:13! The film is especially moving, because it is based on British writer Piers Paul Read’s 1974 nonfiction book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors. That critically praised book was based on the real-life tragedy of a Uruguayan charter flight that went down in 1972. That factual basis gives the emotionally gripping screenplay a real and haunting power.

Best Films on Food and Faith, 10: Julie and Julia

Julie and Julia movie sceneDirected by Nora Ephron. 2009. Rated. 123 min.

This list would not be complete without including the Queen of the Kitchen and television’s first world-famous celebrity chef: Julia Child. The great Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay, but like the previous film on this list, Ephron’s screenplay is based on historical fact. Blogger Julie Powell, the author of Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, attained celebrity status with her online columns about cooking her way through Child’s famous cookbook. The Ephron movie intertwines the blogger’s life with the life of the famous chef and her devoted husband Paul. Although I enjoyed Julie’s portion of the film, I wanted less of Julie and more of Julia’s and Paul’s largely unknown story. Wow, they both worked for a US spy agency and got caught up in the McCarthy era anti-Communist frenzy! Tell us more! (Wonder about the specific connection between Julia Child and spiritual themes? Consider reading David Crumm’s Our Lent: Things We Carry, which includes a chapter on this connection.)

Best Films on Food and Faith, 11: Big Night

Big Night movie sceneDirected by Stanley Tucci and Campbell Scott. 1978. Rated R. 107 min.

Two brothers have come from Italy to New York to open their dream restaurant, which they call Paradise. Primo (Tony Shalhoub) is the genius in the kitchen and Secundo (Tucci) manages the books and the customers. Primo refuses to cater to his customers’ wishes, and so the restaurant is failing for lack of business, whereas the one across the street serving mediocre food is a big success. That owner offers to ask the famous singer Louis Prima and his band to play at Paradise, which will attract a crowd and also the press. Most of the film is the preparation of the gourmet dishes and then, with a restaurant full of customers, waiting for the singer to show up. Where are the religious themes in this film? In short: Everywhere. To this day, college courses discuss the transcendent symbolism in the film. Or, as Roger Ebert put it more simply: The film “is about food not as a subject but as a language—the language by which one can speak to gods, can create, can seduce, can aspire to perfection.”

Best Films on Food and Faith, 12: Mostly Martha

Mostly Martha movie sceneDirected by Sandra Nettelbeck. 2001. Rated PG. 107 min.

This German film is about the transformation of a domineering chef forced to take custody of her eight year-old suddenly orphaned niece Lina. Chef Martha Klein is as abrasive with her staff and critical customers as is Chef Primo in The Big Night. The romance, and conflict arises when Italian sous-chef Mario arrives, his sunny, playful disposition changing the frigid atmosphere of the kitchen. Whereas the obsessive Martha had failed to bring Lina out of her depression, Mario quickly rekindles the girl’s interest in life—and food. Martha soon sees Mario as a threat, and Lina causes no end of crises for all three of them. As in The Big Night, there are many levels of spiritual reflection in Mostly Martha. At one point, for example, Martha is so exasperated in her attempts to make Lina behave that she tells her: “I wish I had a recipe for you, that I could follow.” The 2007 American remake is worth seeing—after all, it stars Catherine-Zeta Jones—but you should first see the original!

And to make it a Baker’s Dozen: Fordson—Faith, Fasting, Football

Fordson Faith Fasting Football sceneDirected by Rashid Ghazi. 2011. 92 min.

Read the Spirit Editor David Crumm (who I mentioned above) recommended that we include this 13th film and I must explain that it is the one feature on this list that I have not seen myself. David recommends this documentary because it is a rare feature-length film exploring the Muslim experience in America with food—and the lack of food—during the annual fasting month of Ramadan, which begins this week as Stephanie Fenton’s story about Ramadan explains. You won’t find this movie on Netflix or on Amazon, at this point, but here is director Rashid Ghazi’s website for the movie. The documentary is remarkably moving as it follows a group of teen-aged football players, trying to observe Ramadan’s strict fast without food or water during daylight hours. This deep commitment to faith and family traditions runs up against equally deep pride in their community, school and football team. How can athletes hope to prepare for the big game when they are denied food and water, day after day? There is a lot to inspire us—and to discuss—in Fordson.

Care to read more about Faith and Food?

Every week, Bobbie Lewis’s Feed the Spirit column tells stories (with delicious recipes!). 

Care to read more from Edward McNulty?

Celebrate with our authors Debra Darvick and Joe Grimm!

AT READ THE SPIRIT, we celebrate great authors every week. From N.T. Wright and Barbara Brown Taylor to Jimmy Carter and Eileen Flanagan—we have published hundreds of book reviews and author interviews. Today, it’s time to celebrate with two of our own authors, published by Read the Spirit Books.

small This Jewish LifeDEBRA DARVICK:
Named among ‘Best Detroit Writers’

Thanks go to southeast Michigan CBS affiliate, Channel 62, and to regional arts writer Romero Anton Montalban-Anderssen for including Debra Darvick in the new “Best Local Authors in Detroit.” In this part of the U.S., news media use “Detroit” to describe the whole metro-Detroit region. Montalban-Anderssen chose a diverse short list, including the author of a children’s novelty book and the creator of a fictional veterinarian-detective. Read the Spirit Books publishes Debra Darvick’s highly praised This Jewish Life: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy. Each week, you also can enjoy Debra’s columns in her own section of our Read the Spirit magazine.

JOE GRIMM:
Hot dog! Multi-talented author honored for covering Coneys

Joe Grimm Coney Detroit logo and bookConey Detroit by Katherine Yung and Read the Spirit author Joe Grimm, has won the bronze medal for regional adult non-fiction in ForeWord Reviews’ book-of-the-year competition. ForeWord was founded as a trade review journal to cover the independent, alternative, university and self-publishing industries. Coney Detroit covers the history, lore and people of Detroit’s signature food, the coney island hot dog. Coney islands are great equalizers where people from all walks of life can sit side by side and enjoy a steamed bun, a natural casing hot dog, beanless chili, diced onion and yellow mustard. The book features more than 120 color photographs by a dozen photographers and is based on interviews with many of the principal figures in the coney business. The book was published by Wayne State University Press. All author and photographer royalties are being donated to the Gleaners Food Bank of Southeast Michigan.

Joe Grimm also is nationally known as an educator, columnist and consultant in journalism. As a professor in the Michigan State University School of Journalism, Joe has developed innovative projects involving journalism students to produce books with Read the Spirit.

 

Season of Gratitude celebrates 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s Thanksgiving declaration: Please, come to this table with us!

Season of Gratitude IFLC logo

Click this logo for Season of Gratitude to visit the main IFLC resource page that explains how to organize a local event. (NOTE: That IFLC page opens with news of the IFLC’s signature Season of Gratitude event, a banquet. Then, scroll down to find additional small-group resources you are free to use wherever you call “home” across the U.S. or around the world.)

On this anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s enactment of what is now our annual Thanksgiving holiday, many of us feel it is time to redefine the holiday to ensure that all Americans can be thankful for the diversity of peoples who are now united on these shores. Under the phrase, Season of Gratitude, and the logo of a beautiful autumn tree, we are calling for Americans to talk about our gratitude for such a diverse nation.

Lincoln pointed us in this direction when he defined a new kind of American Thanksgiving “in the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity.” The idea of branding a national holiday was audacious for an embattled president presiding over just half of a war-torn nation. This was long before modern media would allow Norman Rockwell to redefine Thanksgiving in 1943. (That’s when his painting of a turkey dinner, Freedom from Want, was splashed across the Saturday Evening Post in the midst of another great war.)

Lincoln did a remarkable job 150 years ago! In his final years, Lincoln’s vision of America was prophetic—his words honed to a razor’s edge. By November 1863, Lincoln’s thinking about our nation was like a diamond, compressed into the 270 words of the Gettysburg Address. A month before that battlefield speech, in October 1863, we can see that he was reaching that point of clarity when he issued his landmark Thanksgiving proclamation. Lincoln and his Secretary of State Seward took almost 500 words to describe their unique calling to “the whole American People.” Thanksgiving could begin the reformation of a compassionate union with special care for the nation’s most vulnerable.

SEASON OF GRATITUDE is a pioneering invitation to grassroots communities everywhere—to congregations, book clubs, schools, libraries and civic organizations. While it’s true that Americans fondly remember the Pilgrims and Indians gathering around a table, the annual holiday we now celebrate only began in 1863. In November, Americans will hear a lot about the 150th anniversary of this beloved holiday. From network TV to local newspapers and websites, everybody is going to be buzzing about this sesquicentennial.

SEASON OF GRATITUDE:
YOU ARE WELCOME AT THE TABLE

This idea arose in a regional interfaith council that is rapidly becoming a leader in innovative programming to unite healthy, diverse communities. In the Alban Institute’s Congregations magazine, Martin Davis profiles the InterFaith Leadership Council of Metropolitan Detroit (IFLC) and concludes: “The IFLC blends and shapes the variety of religious life in ways that move everyone forward with integrity, and a commitment to respecting and listening to others. It’s what the beloved community is all about.”

CLICK ON THE TREE LOGO to visit the IFLC’s resource page for Season of Gratitude. When you visit that page, you will find the program described for the IFLC’s regional audience in southeast Michigan.

NOW, WE WELCOME YOU: In partnership with ReadTheSpirit online magazine, the IFLC is extending this idea to you—and to everyone nationwide. Please, go to the IFLC website and download the three Guides that outline events you are welcome to host. There are two basic approaches to organizing your local group: Host a Salon or discussion group; or host a community Meal or food-related event. The IFLC also provides a free, downloadable Discussion Guide to Lincoln’s inspiring Thanksgiving Declaration 150 years ago.

SEASON OF GRATITUDE:
WHY WELCOME GUESTS TO THIS TABLE?

FIRST, THIS GREAT IDEA IS—FREE: First and foremost, this is a wonderful resource provided free of charge. If you have been looking for a fresh idea to energize your community, here are resources already developed for you.

YOU CAN SHINE A SPOTLIGHT ON YOUR COMMUNITY: If you organize an event along the guidelines provided by the IFLC, you will shine a spotlight on your community. In Michigan, where the IFLC is based, the IFLC will add your community’s event to a list of regional events the IFLC will be promoting throughout the autumn season. Elsewhere in the U.S., ReadTheSpirit magazine will include your event in our ongoing coverage. That’s a rare and valuable invitation! You’re performing a good deed in organizing a welcoming Season of Gratitude event in your community, plus you’re bringing attention to your group and—most importantly—your participation along with many others will be a sign of hope, hospitality and kindness in a time when diversity often is associated with conflict in news headlines.

Email us with news about your plans: [email protected]

SEASON OF GRATITUDE:
READ THE SPIRIT RESOURCES

Click on the cover to learn more about this book that combines inspiring stories with wonderful traditional recipes.

Click on the cover to learn more about this book that combines inspiring stories with wonderful traditional recipes.

LATEST NEWS AND RESOURCES
ON LINCOLN’S 150TH ANNIVERSARIES
:
Visit our easy-to-use Abraham Lincoln Resource Page to find dozens of online columns and resources. We will keep that Resource Page throughout the coming year as more Lincoln-anniversary events unfold.

THE FLAVORS OF FAITH:
This June 2013 book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads, has been identified by the Season of Gratitude organizing team as a recommended resource for communities who want to host food-related events this fall. The book shares inspiring stories about breads that define and unify many of the world’s religious cultures, including American Indians, Christians, Jews and Muslims. Each chapter includes authentic recipes you can bake yourself—or with friends. Your community could organize a weekly series, inviting participants to divide up baking these breads and leading the weekly discussion about the related stories.

BLESSED ARE THE PEACEMAKERS and FRIENDSHIP & FAITH: Visit our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore for many more resources your group may want to read, enjoy and discuss this fall. More new books will be added this summer and autumn. Right now, ideal choices for Season of Gratitude include Daniel Buttry’s Blessed Are the Peacemakers, and the WISDOM women’s guide to making new friends Friendship & Faith.

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

 

 

Shavuot: Festival connecting harvest with the giving of the Torah

PLEASE ENJOY this sample chapter from Debra Darvick’s This Jewish Life, which tells about the season of Shavuot. Click the book cover image to learn more about her complete collection of stories.

All souls stood at Sinai, each accepting its share in the Torah.
Alshek. q Ragoler, Maalot HaTorah

This Jewish Life cover in 3D

CLICK this cover to learn more about Debra Darvick’s popular collection of real-life stories, THIS JEWISH LIFE: Stories of Discovery, Connection and Joy.

While there is no Biblical link between the Shavuot holiday and the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the Talmud does draw a connection between the two. The rabbis calculated the dates of the agricultural festival of Shavuot and the time of the Revelation and deemed them to be one and the same. This link enabled the rabbis to bring new relevance to an agricultural holiday at a time when many Jews were living in urban areas.

Shavuot, literally “Festival of Weeks,” is so named because it occurs seven weeks and one day after the beginning of Passover. Shavout is also called Chag Habikurim, Festival of the First Fruits, and Chag HaKatzir, Harvest Festival. These names reflect the holiday’s origin as the time marking the end of the spring wheat harvest. The 50 days between the second day of Passover and Shavuot are called the counting of the omer, omer being a unit of measure. In Temple times, on the second day of Passover, the priests would offer up for sacrifice an omer of wheat, to mark the start of the seven-week wheat-growing season.

Tikkun Leil Shavuot

Many communities hold a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, an all-night study session that enables those present to prepare spiritually for the morning’s service, when the Ten Commandments are read. During the recitation of the Ten Commandments, the congregation stands, thus symbolically receiving them, as our ancestors did at Sinai.

Ruth’s Role

The Book of Ruth is included in the Shavuot morning service for several reasons. Ruth’s loyalty to her mother-in-law, Naomi, was such that she converted to Judaism. By consequence of that conversion and her subsequent marriage to Boaz (their court- ship is said to have taken place during Shavuot), Ruth became the ancestor of King David, who, according to the Talmud, was born and died on Shavuot.

12 Best Books for the Holidays of 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 3: EL ILUMINADO

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 4: REVELATION

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 5: THE SHEMA IN THE MEZUZAH

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 6: THE ELEPHANT’S FRIEND

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 7: THE MESSAGE AND THE BOOK

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 8: ON THE CHOCOLATE TRAIL

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 9: THE VOICE BIBLE

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 10: THE ART OF FAITH

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

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

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

BEST HOLIDAY BOOKS, 12: THE JAMES BOND OMNIBUS

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

READY TO SHOP AMAZON?

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

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

STILL SHOPPING?

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

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