The Ram Dass interview: Smiling as he teaches about ‘Polishing the Mirror’

Baby Boomers know Ram Dass as an American celebrity from the 1960s who came back from India in 1971 to publish a strange square-shaped book: Be Here Now. Some call that book “the Baby Boomers’ Bible”—and there is a good argument behind such a claim. We recently reported on pulp magazine pioneer Ray Palmer, who began bringing Americans popularized stories about Asian religion even before World War II. But it wasn’t until the era of Be Here Now that millions of Americans could immerse themselves in full-scale Asian spirituality.

Since its debut, Be Here Now has racked up a stunning total of 2 million copies sold—and counting. Ram Dass has built on his original message in 11 additional books, a series of audio recordings, documentary films and short videos. Ram Dass also is famous for his 1978 establishment of the Seva Foundation, a highly respected charity that primarily focuses on curing illnesses of the eye in Asia, Africa and Native American communities.

Then, in 1997, Ram Dass made headlines once again for suffering a devastating stroke. As Baby Boomers, we were confronting our own looming mortality as we watched this perennially smiling genie of the ‘60s utterly humbled by his own body. As Ram Dass puts it himself: “I went from driving my sports car wherever I wanted to go—to being a passenger.”

Now, flash forward 16 years to 2013 and here is a personal note from me, David Crumm, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit: Over the decades, I have interviewed Ram Dass a half dozen times. This summer, I read his new book, Polishing the Mirror: How to Live From Your Spiritual Heart, with great interest.

In the opening pages, Ram Dass briefly retells the dramatic story that many Baby Boomers know so well: As a rising star in the Harvard faculty, 30-something psychologist Dr. Richard Alpert teamed up with psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary. In the new book, Ram Dass understates their titanic collision: “Meeting Tim was a major turning point in my life.” No kidding! The two Harvard scholars experimented with psychedelics, beginning with the mushrooms common in ancient Native American cultures. Leary and Alpert, later to become Ram Dass, were twin lightning rods, interacting with a Who’s Who of leading spiritual lights—from Aldous Huxley to Alan Watts and far beyond. They grabbed hold of the forces they were discovering—Ram Dass soon studying in India with his Hindu guru. Collectively, they pumped high-octane spiritual fuel into Baby Boomer culture.

When I learned that, these days, Ram Dass prefers to do interviews via video Skype, I was even more curious. Most Read The Spirit author interviews are conducted via telephone. On Skype, how would he look at age 82?

The answer: He’s old. Ram Dass says it that way in his book—he’s old. He’s noticeably slower and more deliberate in his expressive hand gestures. But, those who recall Ram Dass in his prime will be pleased to know that his sparkling eyes are undimmed and, when he gets going, he still likes to throw his head back and smile with that big, toothy grin we know so well. Post-stroke, aphasia continues to slow his speech. He must consciously think through his responses, so the words in this hour-long interview came slowly and often with pauses between phrases. Sometimes, we would stop so that I could read the words he had just spoken back to him, letting him gather his thoughts so he could choose his next words. (I haven’t included those repetitions in the following highlights of the interview.)

There is great inspiration in the 2013 life and work of Ram Dass, whether you are drawn toward Eastern religious traditions or not. As Baby Boomers, we take heart in seeing one of our most colorful mentors take old age and disability in stride. Sure, he’s a passenger these days—but, whatever seat he’s occupying in that sports car, he’s still speeding ahead of us toward our collective horizon line.


DAVID: The last time we talked, it was 2000 and you were just finishing Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying. I was a newspaper correspondent, specializing in reporting on religion. Now, more than a decade has passed—feels like far more than a decade! We’re professional colleagues, you and I, but more than that—a lot of Baby Boomers think of you as a character in our own life stories. You’re our “friend,” in that sense. You’ve been an influential teacher and writer and, like a genie, you keep popping up in our lives. So, as an old friend to many, tell us a bit about what life’s like there at your Maui home.

RAM DASS: I came to Maui some years ago and vowed that I wouldn’t fly anymore. After a life of traveling city after city—moving all the time—I got here and decided to explore contentment. And, I am content. It’s just wonderful here. As we’re talking, I’m looking out and can see the ocean. The rains come very often here and I’m surrounded by such beautiful flowers.

DAVID: I’m also a longtime friend and colleague of Don Lattin. Several years ago, we featured an in-depth interview with Don and recommended his book The Harvard Psychedelic Club. I know Don talked to you while reporting that book about you and your old friends, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil and Timothy Leary. So, tell us what you think. Thumbs up? Thumbs down? Do you recommend Don’s book?

RAM DASS: I’ve known Don since he was religion editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, but I am not completely comfortable with that book. There were many other people active in that whole era and the story was more complex than what he writes. So, no, I wouldn’t recommend that book.

DAVID: But you certainly haven’t repudiated that wild era. In fact, you write about it honestly in the opening pages of your new book. This new book is mainly focused on spiritual teaching, which we’ll talk about in a moment. But, in the first few pages, you write about your early career. I’m fascinated especially by the way you still emphasize the importance of your three most famous words: “Be Here Now.” After more than 40 years, you’re still saying: There’s great wisdom in that phrase. Is that a fair thing to say?

RAM DASS: Yes. Yes, that is fair to say. When you delve into the moment, the moment right now—and you’re right now in the moment, the moment, the moment—then you are going into the spiritual life. The moment doesn’t include time and space. It’s just here. (And Ram Dass gently taps his heart.) In here. In here. Is there wisdom in those words? Yeah, I think: Very much so.


DAVID: Because you’ve been such an influence on a whole generation, I asked other writers what questions I should ask you in this interview. The one I’ve chosen is from Tom Stella, who was a Catholic priest for many years and now is an author and teacher of spirituality from his base in Colorado. Tom said, “Ask him about the line that I’ve repeated—and I’m sure lots of others have as well. Ram Dass says, ‘We’re all just walking each other home.’ Ask him to talk about that line.’”

When reading your new book, Tom’s question jumped out at me because one of the first sub-chapters is called “The Road Home.” So, please, talk about what you mean in this metaphor.

RAM DASS: Well, “home” is the one. It’s God. When I went into psychedelics, I had an experience where I felt everything being stripped away from my self. I was in my heart, my spiritual heart. All I could say was: “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home inside.”

Then, when I went to India, my guru looked at me with unconditional love. And I remember that as: “I’m home. I’m home. I’m home.”

We all spend so much time living in this outer world, then we encounter things that force us into our inner world. The inner world is what I consider to be home.

In “walking each other home,” I’m talking about how we as individuals—individual persons or individual countries with all of the separation that we experience—through moving toward inner consciousness, can become one. That’s a shift in consciousness. If we can find a way to walk each other home, we could reach a point where there is no more conflict between egos and nations.


DAVID: This is a good place to ask you about the hard and rewarding work of “spirituality.” It’s a term you proudly use—and so do millions of American men and women, many of whom prefer that term to “religion.” This spring, the famous Rabbi David Wolpe issued a challenge in TIME magazine to anyone who claims to be “spiritual but not religious.” Wolpe pretty much described spirituality as easy and selfish. He wrote, “It’s important to remember that it is institutions and not abstract feelings that tie a community together and lead to meaningful change.”

RAM DASS: Institutions don’t change the world in fundamental ways. The way the world changes is heart to heart to heart by individuals, not by institutions.

DAVID: We are speaking, today, on the same day that the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai is addressing the United Nations. TIME magazine now calls her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. In her address to the UN, she said, “On the 9th of October 2012, the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead. They shot my friends too. They thought that the bullet would silence us. But they failed. And out of that silence came thousands of voices. The terrorists thought they would change my aims and stop my ambitions. But nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, courage and power was born.”

RAM DASS: (smiling, then laughing out loud) That’s just what I’m talking about! I’m sure that is affecting many hearts in the august gathering of the United Nations—and I’m sure it will affect the hearts of all the people who hear her story.

You know, this was true when we began the Seva Foundation. This is what happened to the ophthalmologist Dr. Govindappa Venkataswamy. He began working in a very poor village in India with just a small eye hospital that he and his family supported. But it was the heart-to-heart spiritual connection that changed everything. He was working with patients, but he really saw them as souls. He saw his hospital and all that he was doing as a way to come to God. The repercussions of that model expanded his hospital and now this work is being done all over India. It began with his spirit and it spread heart to heart.


DAVID: Then, let’s talk about the title of your new book, Polishing the Mirror, which comes out August 1 and already is on sale at Amazon. At first glance, the title could sound like the very complaint that Rabbi Wolpe raised in TIME magazine—spirituality as narcissism. But you’re not talking about polishing mirrors so we look better to ourselves, are you?

RAM DASS: We polish the mirror of our spiritual hearts, so the beauty of our soul becomes visible. That means, we polish the spiritual heart so that, from our heart, we can radiate love and compassion and consciousness and other people can get in touch with their spiritual heart, too.

These days, when I roll down the street in my wheelchair, (tapping his fingers on his chest, over his heart) I love all the people I encounter. This is really true. I really do. And when I look into their eyes, I feel that I am mirroring their spiritual heart.

I am sorry that I am not more eloquent in speaking with you, (moving his fingers to point toward his mouth) but you understand that since my stroke my words come with difficulty.

DAVID: Your words are very engaging, today. And this is a good transition to talk about what I find to be the most fresh and hopeful part of your new book: the final section on the process of aging. Some of the insights in these pages are well known to us. But, I really was struck by your teaching that describes the central question in aging as: “Can you find a place to stand in relation to change where you are not frightened by it?”

RAM DASS: When you get old, everything changes—your body changes, your family changes. You can’t do what you’ve always done, anymore. And, either you can complain about things changing—or you can be content. Instead of complaining, you can say: “Oh, yesss! Look at all this change!” You can welcome it.

When I stroked in 1997 and then was lying in the hospital, all the people around me were saying: This poor guy! He’s had a stroke! I started to think that I must be a poor guy. Somebody put up a picture of my guru on the wall of my hospital room. I looked up at that picture and I said: Where were you!?! You know: Where were you in this stroke?! You’ve been raising up my life—all the way up to this stroke.

DAVID: You describe yourself in the book as depressed and angry, your faith deeply shaken.

RAM DASS: I thought I knew about aging and changing. (He smiles broadly.) As it turned out, this stroke has been an incredible grace for me. It is true that, in the past, I played golf and drove around in my sports car and I liked to play my cello. Now, I can’t do any of those things.

Instead, I’ve turned further inward—and that has been wonderful. That was grace.

In 1985, I wrote a book with Paul Gorman called How Can I Help? After the stroke, I found myself asking: How Can You Help Me? Instead of being this big, strong, powerful helper who could go anywhere and do anything—I find myself now dependent on so many people around me.

Now, as I say these things, you have to admit: It sounds bad doesn’t it? (He smiles knowingly.) Our culture says it’s bad to be dependent on others, right? Not a good thing! But, you know, we are all souls. That’s what Dr. Venkataswamy discovered in his clinic.

DAVID: And now we’ve come full circle to our previous interview, haven’t we? I remember interacting with you, at that time, just a few years after your stroke when Still Here was coming out—and that book supposedly held your teachings on Aging, Changing and Dying.

RAM DASS: (Still smiling broadly.) When we talked, I had written that book about what I thought aging and dying was all about. But I was in my 60s. Now, I’m in my 80s and this new book talks about what it’s really like. Now, I am aging. I am approaching death. I’m getting closer to the end. (He pauses, tilts his head back and looks out at the Pacific.) I was so naive when I wrote that earlier book. Now, I really am ready to face the music all around me. (And he laughs.)

Care to read more on similar themes?

Read The Spirit publishes a series of books on caregiving, from end-of-life decisions to everyday coping with chronic illness—even a humor book by cancer survivor Rodney Curtis, called A (Cute) Leukemia. Check it out in the We Are Caregivers department of Read The Spirit.

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

‘Distilled Spirits’: The untold story of how Alcoholics Anonymous became an all-American spiritual movement

Don Lattin is one of America’s most important chroniclers of untold stories that are shaping our religious culture. A veteran journalist based in San Francisco, his previous books have thrown open windows into one mysterious spiritual movement after another. Earlier, we highly recommended his book, The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America. That book told the strange story of how four of the most important spiritual voices of the late 20th century passed through a powerful and painful convergence at Harvard.

Don steps back a couple of decades in his new book: Distilled Spirits. In today’s wide-ranging interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, Don talks about how this new book finally reveals the connections between three major figures: Bill Wilson, Aldous Huxley and Gerald Heard. The result of their creative collision, among other things, shaped one of the most important grassroots spiritual movements in American history: Alcoholics Anonymous.


DAVID: Let’s begin by explaining why your book is a “must read.” When I first saw your new book, I wondered: Why would general readers want to learn about these three fairly obscure guys? Now, having thoroughly enjoyed your book, the answer is obvious to me: You’re telling an untold story about Alcoholics Anonymous and the subsequent host of 12-step groups that touch millions of men and women every day. From its founding in the 1930s, AA really represents a huge change in American religious life, right?

DON: It’s one of the most important spiritual movements of the 20th century and I’m not alone in that assessment. Aldous Huxley called Alcoholics Anonymous founder Bill Wilson the greatest social architect of the 20th century. That’s high praise, indeed, coming from someone like Huxley! Wilson is important not just because he founded AA and helped millions of people that way. His work also is important because his ideas inspired what sociologists of religion call the small-group movement.

DAVID: A huge number of our ReadTheSpirit readers are involved in small groups. From 12-step groups to Sunday school circles to library book clubs, from men’s breakfasts to women’s groups there are millions of these circles.

DON: That’s right and scholars who study these movements tell us that what came out of the 1930s shaped today’s widespread interest in small groups—some of which meet in people’s homes, some of which meet in churches or synagogues, meditation groups, some affiliated with religion and some not. After all of the research for this new book, I have to agree: Bill Wilson was a genius.

DAVID: There is a long-running debate about whether AA and 12-step programs are “religious” or “spiritual” or “secular.” Your book is fascinating because you look at the interconnections between a huge host of people in the first third of the 20th century. We encounter World War I, Charlie Chaplin, Virginia Woolf, the strange histories of a number of famous drugs, Hindu immigrants and the Vedanta Society. This true story is one strange ride. I’ve been writing in this field for decades—and I discovered lots of things in this book that I never knew! For example, I’ve written about Bill Wilson over the years, but I never new that he read William James. In other words, he was studying one of the founding figures in trying to understand spiritual movements.

DON: Bill Wilson wasn’t just reading William James. He was reading William James the day after he had an important revelation at an asylum for alcoholics in New York. That’s where he had these visions and formative ideas about starting Alcoholics Anonymous. So, Bill Wilson was reading William James, we know, at the exact moment when he was more open to new ideas that at any other time in his life. A friend had given him a copy of James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience and Bill Wilson read it cover to cover. James is a very important influence on the development of Alcoholics Anonymous.

DAVID: The famous phrase—“Higher Power,” the god of your own understanding—is popularized through AA. It sounds so simple, yet it was a revolutionary idea. For two millennia, Christians liked to beat themselves bloody over fine distinctions about the nature of God. Here was permission to envision your own version of God.

DON: Yes, that’s one reason Wilson and Huxley and Heard are so important. They influenced each other and laid the foundation for this revolutionary idea of what today people like to describe as the spiritual-but-not-religious movement. Today in AA, the Higher Power is defined in many, many different ways. There are even people who take a secular view of this. GOD could be defined as Group Of Drunks, the community itself. But these early thinkers who influenced each other—Huxley, Heard and Wilson—they definitely had a serious interest in studying the mystical and divine.


DAVID: So let’s turn to Huxley for a moment. If our readers know anything about him, they probably recall the guy who wrote Brave New World, which they were forced to read in high school. But Huxley was so much more! He came from a very famous family. He was a journalist, a poet, a screenwriter, a broadcaster. He was a pacifist and an early proponent of using drugs to alter consciousness. He was British but also lived in the U.S. and helped to bring Asian religious traditions, specifically Hinduism, to America.

So, my question to you is: What conclusion did you reach after all your research into Huxley’s life? Was he a serious scholar—or a restless amateur? Did he know what he was talking about?

DON: Really, we should think of Huxley as one of the last great polymaths. This was a long line of brilliant thinkers who were interested in everything. They studied science. They studied religion. They studied other disciplines. In the modern age of increasing specialization, it’s hard to appreciate that they were interested in studying everything. They were finding connections between different disciplines that, today, people aren’t as well equipped to find.

Huxley was part of the Lost Generation that was so deeply influenced by World War I. In Huxley’s early writings as a young novelist, he focused on satire and had no interest in religion or spirituality or philosophy. It really wasn’t until Huxley met Gerald Heard in 1929 that he developed this interest in religion and spiritual disciplines that would consume him later in life. One reason that Heard is so important to this story is that he got Huxley interested in these realms. In 1945, Huxley published The Perennial Philosophy, a book that was so important in helping people to look for common spiritual truths. In my book about Huston Smith and the Harvard connections—we see that it was Heard’s influence on Huxley that led to Huxley’s strong influence on Smith and later generations.

DAVID: That influence continues to this day. We recently featured a new interview with the very popular Catholic author Richard Rohr, whose writings reach back to The Perennial Philosophy.


DAVID: Some religious people scoff at the idea of “spiritual but not religious”—and the notion that we can feel free to describe our own version of God, our own Higher Power. Yet, this idea is very serious stuff for millions of men and women, right?

DON: People who come into Alcoholics Anonymous don’t have a lot of time to worry about the fine points of theology. They don’t want doctrinal distinctions. These people are desperate to save their lives. They need something that works—and they need it now. Wilson called it “a faith that works.”

I called this book Distilled Spirits for a number of reasons—one is a reference to a letter from Carl Jung to Bill Wilson in which Jung pointed out that the Latin word for alcohol is spiritus. Jung wrote: “You use the same word for the highest religious experience as for the most depraving poison.”

DAVID: In your book, you call spirits “double-edged swords.”

DON: What’s so interesting to me is that a lot of people who hit bottom with addiction or alcoholism realize that this really is a spiritual thirst in their lives—trying to fill up an emptiness in themselves. Some people call it a “God-sized hole in the heart.” The spiritual aspect of this is very, very important, but you’re right—it’s not about doctrine or dogma. It’s really about your own powerful, personal spiritual experiences. And it doesn’t matter if you’re Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or part of no religious belief system at all.


DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, these days, we regularly review important television debuts—and we’re now the publishing house of faith-and-film writer Edward McNulty. Your book makes it clear that Hollywood has been a spiritual melting pot since its origins. Your book includes brief appearances by Charlie Chaplin, Greta Garbo and others. Heard and Huxley were part of that melting pot, right?

DON: Yes. And, actually, I’ve thought of doing a book called Holy Hollywood about the whole history of spirituality in Hollywood. Lawrence Wright’s new book is called Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief. He has a chapter in his book about this general theme of religious movements in the movie industry.

The main thing to realize is: These connections go back a very long way. From its earliest history, Hollywood attracted a lot of creative people with lots of money—people who were famous for challenging the prevailing notions of their day. A major Vedanta center was set up in Hollywood in the 1920s. We might think of this as a missionary movement within Hinduism and of course Huxley and Heard were very interested in exploring Vedanta. A lot of the spirituality we think of as “Sixties Spirituality” really dates back to the 1920s. Another way to say it is: The 1920s were a lot like the 1960s in many was.

DAVID: You’re mentioning the Asian connections that certainly were a big part of the inquiries Huxley and Heard were undertaking in California. But this movement also connects with America’s distinctive positive-thinking and self-help movements as well, right?

DON: Yes, there are a lot of similarities and cross overs. One place these lines all connect is William James. In a way, all of these movements we’re talking about are very American approaches to religion—very utilitarian. Give me a religion that works. That’s what I want as an American. Today, many people say: I want personal growth from my spirituality. It’s a very consumerist mentality and it connects with all the ways people market spirituality in America. In my earlier book, Following Our Bliss, I give a lot of examples of the ways that ‘60s notions of therapeutic, utilitarian and consumerist spirituality have come to define a lot of religion today. You see this influence in lots of churches today.


DAVID: Finally, we should explain to readers of this interview that Distilled Spirits also is a personal story. Perhaps readers may have sensed, already, from the tone of your comments that you understand all of this from a first-hand perspective. Woven into the fascinating historical stories you give us here, you reveal that you were addicted to drugs and alcohol for many years. This book also is about your own journey into 12-step culture.

So, let me ask: I’ve known you as a colleague in journalism for many years. How did you come to this difficult decision of including yourself in the book? Traditional journalism avoids the word: “I.”

DON: This book actually didn’t start with me in the pages. The idea was really to write a prequel to The Harvard Psychedelic Club. These three guys who readers will meet in the pages of Distilled Spirits are the ones who created a situation that allowed Huston Smith, Timothy Leary, Ram Das and Andrew Weil, much later, to collide in the way they did at Harvard.

Because this new book is published by the University of California Press, there were early readers who provided their reactions. One of the scholars who read my proposal said: “This is interesting but why is Don Lattin interested in these particular people? Why do they matter to this day?”

Well, the answer is: I understand their importance because I’m one of the people helped by what they started so long ago. Of course, I do make it clear to readers: I didn’t know these three guys: Huxley, Heard and Wilson. I didn’t meet these guys. They were really my grandfather’s generation.

But the decision to weave my story into the book really allows readers to see clearly why their lives and ideas are still so important today. Many people’s lives depend on what they started.


ReadTheSpirit recommends all of Don’s earlier books, which are both compelling to read—and reveal surprising corners of America’s spiritual heritage.

SPIRITUAL STATE OF THE MILLENNIUM: Don and co-author Richard Cimino look at emerging trends—from “mix-and-match” forms of religion to the rise of women’s voices in leadership in Shopping for Faith: American Religion in the New Millennium

THE DARK SIDE: American religious history is full of tragedies, as well as triumphs. Don tells the story of a tragic offshoot from mainline religion in Jesus Freaks: A True Story of Murder and Madness on the Evangelical Edge

PRODUCTIVE COLLISION OF FOUR LIVES: In today’s interview, above, we already have recommended The Harvard Psychedelic Club: How Timothy Leary, Ram Dass, Huston Smith, and Andrew Weil Killed the Fifties and Ushered in a New Age for America

THE POWER OF THAT ‘SIXTIES’ VIBE: From Esalen through New Age to Dharma Kids, Don traces the ties that still bind us in the quest we like to call Following Our Bliss: How the Spiritual Ideals of the Sixties Shape Our Lives Today


Don’s Internet hub is his professional website: But, you’ll mainly want to seek out his newest online project—a blog for Spirituality & Health that he simply calls Spiritual Search.

(This interview originally was published at, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural diversity.)

Rediscover John XXIII, a Pope who stunned the world!

CLICK THE BOOK COVER to visit its Amazon page.MORE THAN 1 BILLION CATHOLICS around the world are wondering: Can a new pope revive our deeply troubled Church? Millions of those Catholics also wonder: Is it possible that another pope could “throw open the windows of the Church”? That’s a reference to Pope John XXIII, the pope who stunned the world by opening the Second Vatican Council in 1962—the historic global gathering of Catholic leaders that finally set the Mass in common languages, moved altars forward to make parishioners feel that they were a part of the Mass, changed countless other church structures and, most importantly, ushered in the modern era of interfaith relations. John did not live to see the end of the three-year process he set in motion. Yet his legacy continued! In the Second Vatican Council’s final days (led then by Pope Paul VI), the Council overwhelmingly approved Nostra Aetate, the declaration ending two millennia of Catholic condemnation of Jews (and also opened the windows to new relations with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others). Peacemakers and interfaith volunteers around the world look to John XXIII as an unlikely hero who surprised Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Greg Tobin about his new book, The Good Pope; The Making of a Saint and the Remaking of the Church—The Story of John XXIII and Vatican II.

UPDATE IN FALL 2013: Tobin’s book now is also available in a less-expensive trade-paperback edition.


Greg Tobin. Photo courtesy of HarperOne.DAVID: I really enjoyed this book and I hope readers will buy it—because this is a very readable introduction to John XXIII and an era that changed the religious world. You tell the story well, both for people like me who remember the era—and for those who are discovering it for the first time. Why did you think it was important to write a new book about this pope, now?

GREG: I’m glad you had this reaction to my book. That is what I’m hoping readers will find. Why did I write it? The challenge is that—for most people alive today—John XXIII is a distant memory, if people are aware of him at all. Pope John Paul II eclipsed all the popes who preceded him for the vast majority of people around the world. This summer, it’ll be 50 years since John XXIII died. I think it’s important for the world to take a fresh look at this truly amazing figure.

He is responsible for the most significant religious event of the 20th century—the Second Vatican Council, or many people call it Vatican II. In the book, I also explore the remarkable man Angelo Roncalli who became John XXIII. He was a man of great holiness, a truly and genuinely humble spiritual person who suddenly was catapulted into this position of worldwide prominence.

The main thing readers will discover is: He surprised the world! His election was a surprise and it was a surprise that he convened the Council. This coincided with other revolutions in global culture at that time. I try to show readers that it also was a surprise how, through it all, he could remain this farm boy from northern Italy.

He had an enormous influence in his very short period of time on the world stage. His work influenced not only major religious issues, but also world peace and our understanding of mass communication in relation to faith. He became a unique celebrity—such a celebrity that people from John F. Kennedy to Charles de Gaulle wanted to have their photos taken with him.


DAVID: Your claim about the Second Vatican Council being the most significant religious event of the 20th century begs questions: What about the rise of Pentecostalism from the Azusa Street Revival in 1906? What about the Scopes Trial in 1925 and the unfolding battle between science and religion? And, many historians of religion now credit the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1935 as the birth of a new kind of lay-led, nondenominational religious movement. Many claim that the century’s major genocides—Armenians and then the Holocaust—were religious milestones. Or, what about the role of religion in the end of Communism? Or, the resurgence of Islam as a political force?

This was a tumultuous century in terms of religion. So, tell us more about your rather expansive claim about the Second Vatican Council?

GREG: First, you’ve set the context correctly in those questions. Here’s why I say that the Second Vatican Council ranks at the top of these historical milestones in terms of religion. At the time of John XXIII, the church was approaching the ripe old age of 2,000 years. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit works—and will continue to work—through human history and through the life of the Church. But the Church had not seen this kind of large-scale change before. The Council also matters because of the massive, global scale of this church—more than a billion people. It’s the largest organized religious body in the world.

When the Council wrought its changes, this had an impact on lives all around the planet, changing lives pretty much for all time to come. In the Mass, people started worshipping God in their own languages for the first time. Some of these changes the Council wrought were in response to horrors of the 20th Century like the Holocaust. The world’s biggest Church came out of that period of the Council with new teachings, a new way of expressing itself both around the world and in people’s daily lives at Mass, and new relationships with the world’s other major religious bodies, especially Jews but also other non-Christians as well.


DAVID: I’m sure a lot of people will continue to debate the claim of “most important” in ranking 20th century religious events. But I do understand your argument and I certainly would agree that Vatican II was one of the most important milestones in religious history. No question about that.

The relationship of Christianity toward non-Christians changed in the 1960s at the Council. Even though Pope John Paul II was accused of trying to roll back reforms of the Council, one thing John Paul continued to emphasize was this friendly  new attitude toward other world religions. Even nearing the end of his life, as he approached the year 2000, he wrote an impassioned letter to the world in which he encouraged Christian leaders to move even faster on improving relationships with non-Catholics.

GREG: Yes, I agree, and it excites me to see that you are emphasizing this point in relation to the Council and my book. Something happened from the heart of the Second Vatican Council that was radical. It was truly revolutionary. It was a very positive change in the world—the beginning of a brand new era of teachings and interfaith work that we had never seen before in Christianity.

Another way to look at this is to remember that, for centuries, the Catholic Church had been in defense mode. Few people even remember that there was a Vatican I, a First Vatican Council, in 1869-70 that was convened to talk about the church and the world. That Council also looked at the internal structures of the church, but the only thing of significance that came out of Vatican I was this controversial new definition of “papal infallibility.” So, the church remained in an even stronger defense mode.

At Vatican II, we saw no condemnations of heresy. Instead, there was a positive, forward-looking, outward-looking, unified voice that runs through all the documents that were issued. The actual reforms reflected this new spirit. What’s interesting is that, as the Second Vatican Council opened, the early ideas for declarations on working with other religious bodies got stalled along the way. But those ideas were resurrected before the Council ended and Pope Paul VI himself supported these ideas. He encouraged the Council not to give up on them, including the declarations on opening new relationships with non-Christian religions. Nostra Aetate came at the very end, in 1965, as the last major act of the Council.


DAVID: The obvious question is—Will the spirit of John XXIII resurface? Could it resurface, given the kind of traditionalist bishops that John Paul and Benedict spent decades placing in high positions? One possibility is a revival of his memory around canonization. He was beatified by John Paul II in 2000, so he’s on his way toward official sainthood.

GREG: It’s impossible to predict when his canonization might occur, but I do think it will come. I would not say it is inevitable, but I do think it’s likely. John XXIII inspires many people around the world to this day. He embodied holiness in a humble, human, accessible way that I can’t recall seeing in anyone else at that level of church leadership. That is something that continues to intrigue and attract so many—leading people to learn more about this remarkable man.

DAVID: Thank you for talking with us!


Catherine Wolff has pulled together an inspiring collection of stories about real-life Catholic heroes who threw themselves completely into a life of faith—despite tragedy and sometimes in the face of great danger. Called Not Less than Everything, ReadTheSpirit also is reviewing and recommending that book today. In her Introduction, Wolff credits John XXIII as one of her own inspirations. She writes about growing up in “the time of Vatican II, the great council called by Pope John XXIII to throw open the windows of the Church, to read the signs of the times, in effect to come to terms with modernity. There was a tangible sense of hope that things were changing—the Church that seemed increasingly rigid and authoritarian even to faithful Catholics was reaching out to us and to the wider world. That optimism sustained us through many changes both in the Church and in society.”


FATHER THOMAS REESE on the Next Pope: Who will elect the next pope? Europeans form the majority of the voting cardinals.

DAVID BRIGGS on Catholic Growth: Is the Catholic Church fading in America? No! It’s booming and church leaders need to plan for that growth.

CATHERINE WOLFF on Catholic Heroes: Her new book is Not Less Than Everything, gathering two dozen talented writers to explore two dozen amazing Catholic lives.

TERRY GALAGHER on Catholic Critics: American Catholics wonder: Should we stay? A week-long series of OurValues columns exploring the push-and-pull felt by millions of American Catholics.

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

12 Best Books for the Holidays of 2012

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

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

Click 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.


Click 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.


Click 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.


Click 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.


Click 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.


Click 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!


Click 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.


Click 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.


Click 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.


Cick 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!


Click 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.


Click 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!


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


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, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.


Brian McLaren: Why did Jesus, Moses, Mohammed …

Click the cover to visit the book’s Amazon page.Brian McLaren
marks 9/11
with a plea
for a new

In his 19th book, the prophetic evangelical author Brian McLaren is publishing his first interfaith book. It’s timed to appear on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that opened and still define this turbulent new century.

As you will read in our interview with McLaren later this week, the best-selling writer argues that this new book is far from the typical appeal for interfaith understanding that other writers are producing these days. While many of those books are noble, he has a different purpose in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? Christian Identity in a Multi-Faith World. While smiling over the old joke in the main title—don’t miss that the book’s real focus lies in the sub-title about “Christian Identity.” This book is a passionate appeal to enrich Christian appreciation of cross-cultural relationships by doing some thorough house cleaning within Christianity itself. In this book, Brian is primarily writing to the Christians who comprise a majority of the American population.

FROM OUR INTERVIEW WITH BRIAN (coming later this week in ReadTheSpirit): Brian says, in answer to a question in the interview …
One of the biggest insights that came to me, as I was researching this book, is the realization that it’s not our differences that are keeping us apart. What’s keeping us apart is something we actually have in common: The way we often try to build our own identity through hostility. Leaders build loyalty among “us” by building hostility toward “them.” It won’t work to simply rush off into interfaith dialogue until we deal with some of the deep work within our own identity. We won’t get far in our relationships with others until we deal with some of the often hidden ways we have defined ourselves through our hostility.

Perhaps we can see this problem more easily in the political campaign going on right now. If you took away hostility toward Democrats, I’m not sure how much substance is left in the Republican Party. And, if you took away hostility toward Republicans, I don’t know how much substance there is in the Democratic Party. The same problem exists in our religious communities.

Read the entire interview with Brian McLaren, later this week.

A Return to Brian McLaren’s ‘Generous Orthodoxy’

Reviewing Brian McLaren’s new book as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I was struck immediately by the return this book represents to themes that he raised in his 2004 cross-over book: A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional, evangelical, post-Protestant, liberal/conservative, mystical/poetic, biblical, charismatic/contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, Anabaptist/Anglican, Methodist, Catholic, Green, incarnational, depressed-yet-hopeful, emergent, unfinished Christian.

In addition to setting a record for longest sub-title on the cover of a spiritual book, Brian staked out the term “Generous” for what he also has described since 2004 as “harmony,” “unity” and “civility.” McLaren urges people to sit down together across a table, to eat together and to begin forming a good-spirited community—rather than flashing doctrinal swords. Such words of wisdom echo what we are hearing from bright young Christian writers like Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, these days.

It was McLaren’s “Generous” book that turned heads nationally among non-evangelicals. As a religion newswriter, at that time based at the Detroit Free Press, “Generous” was the first Brian McLaren book that I actually read cover to cover. It was the first McLaren book that I found my newspaper readers asking me about and telling me that they were reading themselves. McLaren was deliberately making a provocative play on words in selecting “Generous” as his mantra. Evangelicals always have set the high mark among Christians for giving money and sweat equity to missions—they always excel (and even boast) about that kind of “generosity.” But, Brian was calling for us to focus on a distinctly different meaning of that word. He also was chiding his fellow evangelicals to become truly generous.

In continuing to use the term “generous,” McLaren is not talking about drumming up dollars for the collection plate. He’s talking about what other writers today are begining to call “kindness” and “hospitality.” In his new book, he passionately describes a great “Reformulation” he sees possibly unfolding within Christianity—neither a rejection of orthodoxy nor a rejection of the Protestant Reformation—but a rethinking and a renewed appreciation of what core Christian beliefs truly mean in light of God’s diverse world.

McLaren: ‘Could doctrines become healing teachings?’

McLaren writes in the new book: Could it be that our core doctrines are even more wonderful and challenging than we previously imagined, asking us not simply to assent to them in the presence of our fellow assenters, but to practice them in relationships with those who don’t hold them? Could our core doctrines in this way become “healing teachings” intended to diagnose and heal our distorted and hostile identities—restoring a strong and benevolent identity, and unleashing in us a joyful desire to converse and eat with the other? Could our core teachings be shared, not as ultimata (Believe or die!) but as gifts (Here’s how we see things, and here’s what that does for us— )?

McLaren: ‘We must provide lots of support’

This is not an easy task, McLaren argues in the new book. He writes that, if Christians take his challenge seriously, they must face up to problems in traditional forms of liturgy, preaching and missional outreach. Late in the book he writes: Because the cost of embracing a strong and benevolent Christian identity is so high, we must provide lots of support for those who respond—support through fellowship, support through teaching (knowledge) and training (know-how), support through ritual and symbol, support through guided practice and mentoring. But since we are still young and inexperienced in this new identity, we have a long way to go in learning how to provide this support, and each of us must take whatever little we have learned and pass it on to others, even as we look for others who can pass more on to us.

McLaren: ‘What will we discover in that crossing?’

In the final pages, McLaren writes: So, imagine then, Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed crossing the road to encounter one another. Imagine us following them. What will we discover together in that crossing? Surely, it will be holy and humbling in that sacred space. Surely there will be joy, grace, and peace. Surely justice, truth and love. We will find hospitality there, not hostility, and friendship, not fear, and it will be good—good for our own well-being, good for the poor and forgotten, good for our grandchildren’s grandchildren, and good even for the birds of the air and the flowers in the meadow and the fish out at sea. “This is very good,” God will say. And we will say, “Amen.”

Read the entire interview with Brian McLaren, later this week.

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

Explore Consciousness East to West … right here!

THIS WEEK, we’re showing you fresh approaches to religious life! We introduced Greg Garrett’s terrific “Other Jesus.” We also shared ideas for small groups like Flying a Kite—and Women and Water.

See ‘Exploring Consciousness East and West’ Right Here

TODAY, we’re reporting on a fascinating Sunday-evening TV show you can watch right here on the Global Spirit page within ReadTheSpirit. When you visit that page, you’ll see the video screen that will go “live” during the broadcast on Sunday evening. (Please, note broadcast times on that page, too.)
Over the past year, ReadTheSpirit has been a co-sponsoring website for the TV series, “Global Spirit,” carried via LinkTV. We’ve established this special Global Spirit webpage where you can simply “click in” to our website Sunday evening. On that webpage, you’ll enjoy this new video conversation between Global Spirit host Phil Cousineau and two long-time teachers from Eastern approaches to spirituality and consciousness: Peter Russell and Sraddhalu Ranade.

PETER RUSSELL: “From Science to God”

Peter Russell has been studying the intersection of consciousness and spirituality for more than 40 years. In the 1960s, he was studying math, physics and psychology at the college level, when he became fascinated with Transcendental Meditation. Like the Beatles in that era, Russell studied TM with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. This led to decades of research, teaching and writing by Russell that moved back and forth between science and spirituality, trying to weave together these two realms of experience.

Among Russell’s many books through the years, ReadTheSpirit recommends “From Science to God: A Physicist’s Journey into the Mystery of Consciousness,” published by our friends at New World Library. (Care to read more in that spiritual style? If you are drawn to this eclectic approach to spirituality, we’ve recommended other New World titles over the past couple of years. One example is Mala of the Heart,” which contains 108 prayer-poems—or perhaps we might call them “moments of meditation” penned by more than 30 poets. We also featured an interview with Robert Moss, author of “The Secret History of Dreaming,” an intriguing book that looks at various approaches to interpreting dreams in the world’s religious traditions.)

Another connection between Russell’s teaching and ReadTheSpirit lies in a spider-web-like planning process called Mind Mapping. Russell didn’t invent that idea, but he’s well known for teaching Mind Map techniques to free up new ideas from our normal, all-too-linear thinking. Here’s an example of one Mind Map on Russell’s own website. ReadTheSpirit Publisher John Hile is a Mind Map advocate, as well, and we can attest: It’s a creative method for breaking through hide-bound patterns of thinking that can smother new ideas.

Oneness at the Core of the Cosmos

Sraddhalu Ranade represents a fascinating stream of Indian spiritual teaching that—rather than retreating from the world—has engaged on issues of peace and justice over the past century. In 2008, for example, Ranade was one of 150 religious leaders from around the world who gathered in Colorado and produced a series of recommendations and predictions concerning the United States. At that time, Ranade was quoted by Cathleen Falsani in the Chicago Sun-Times. (NOTE: Cathleen also is a very popular inspirational author who we’ve recommended a couple of times to our readers.) Unfortunately, what Ranade “saw” at that moment in Colorado was: “The national soul is now asserting and coming forward and choosing to serve humanity.” It wasn’t, perhaps, the most prescient prediction ever made about America’s future. Nevertheless, Ranade is sincere and works diligently in teaching peace. In 2010, for example, he traveled to Japan for an innovative global peace gathering that explored new ideas for healing the longstanding rift between India and Pakistan.

Ranade teaches from a branch of Hinduism and Yoga founded by Sri Aurobindo (1872-1950), who was an Indian nationalist involved in the early era of Indian struggles for freedom from British rule. Later, Aurobindo focused largely on his religious work, which included teaching about spiritual evolution that might lead the world toward peace. Both Aurobindo and now Ranade look to the provocative spiritual teacher Mirra Alfassa (1878-1983), often called simply “The Mother,” as a major influence on their lives. Probably the most famous American who was associated, at least for a while, with this school of teaching is musician Carlos Santana who found this practice helpful in attaining a balance in his own troubled life.

We’re not aware of any Sraddhalu Ranade books in English. He is best known for work in video, including full-scale documentaries about Indian spirituality and culture. However, there’s a great book on our Eastern bookshelf about his teacher and mentor: The Essential Aurobindo: Writings of Sri Aurobindo.

As with many emerging spiritual movements around the world, various controversies and legal actions have arisen over the past half century involving teachers from this school. Ranade himself has been part of controversies over the future of the movement and questions about who controls funding. In the 1990s, Carlos Santana’s former teacher, the late Sri Chinmoy who died in 2007, was involved in the most high-profile controversy, which included accusations of misconduct against devotees of Chimnoy’s U.S.-based community. As recently as 2009, a book by a former devotee, “Cartwheels in a Sari: A Memoir of Growing Up Cult,” further stirred those painful issues.

Ranade remains a popular and generally a well-respected teacher. He’s best known for talking about the connections between Yoga, Eastern spirituality and science. In keeping with his school’s teachings, he likes to talk about “oneness” and the possibility of upward evolution of our spiritual awareness. He teaches that this possibility is a key to world peace. His vieos are popular around the Internet, partly because of the clarity with which he teaches—and his Global Spirit appearance is no exception.

REMEMBER: Sunday evening, go to this special Global Spirit webpage within ReadTheSpirit.

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Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

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Welcoming your thoughts on yoga …

ReadTheSpirit covers religion, spirituality, values and popular culture—so, these days, we’re naturally publishing stories about the growing interest in yoga and Hinduism among millions of American families. If you’re unsure of what we mean by a “growing interest,” just walk into a Target store and look at the displays of yoga clothes and gear—or consider that Nintendo included yoga as a big part of the super-popular Wii fitness system.

In the main pages of ReadTheSpirit, we’re now publishing monthly stories on “Vedanta in America,” exploring the booming interest in Hindu wisdom. But, that growing awareness of India in the U.S. also has sparked a heated debate over whether yoga must be considered a part of Hindu spirituality. Large numbers of Christians enjoy toning mind and body via yoga. Meanwhile, large numbers of yoga promoters welcome that religious cross-over and are eager to disconnect yoga principles from Indian religious traditions for their non-Hindu customers.

Sunday, that yoga debate spilled onto the front page of the New York Times in a story headlined, “Hindu Group Stirs a Debate Over Yoga’s Soul.” (To read the Times via that link you may have to fill out a free registration on the Times site.) Want to watch this debate unfold online? One site worth bookmarking is the Hindu American Foundation, which has a special Take Back Yoga page.

Our coverage of Vedanta comes from correspondent Lynne Schreiber. Here are a couple of her recent stories: If you’re just watching the blockbuster film, “Avatar,” in its latest DVD release this week, Lynne explores the roots of “Avatar” themes in Vedanta. Preparing for the year-end holidays, Lynne writes about Vedanta’s attitudes toward food and giving thanks.

Spiritual Wanderer’s Take on Yoga, Wii, Controversy

The Spiritual Wanderer, a.k.a. photojournalist, educator and author Rodney Curtis, writes columns from a relentlessly personal point of view. This year, the Wanderer has been blogging his way through cancer. And, when he returned to a bit of yoga recently—he discovered the controversy, mentioned above, unfolding around him. He even found friends telling him … But, wait. Let Rodney, a.k.a. the Spiritual Wanderer, tell you himself.

We want our international conversation to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture recently. So, please, email us at [email protected] and tell us what you think of our stories—and, please tell a friend to start reading along with you!

We welcome your Emails! . We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, AmazonHuffington PostYouTube and other social-networking sites. You also can Subscribe to our articles via Email or RSS feed. Plus, there’s a free Monday-morning “Planner” newsletter you may enjoy.

(Originally published at