By READ THE SPIRIT EDITOR
Americans are soaked in religion, compared with the rest of the world’s peoples. Based on the World Values Survey, we rank with Pakistan and Iran in the intensity of faith. Yet, in sharp contrast with other religiously saturated cultures, Americans also feel an overwhelming desire to express ourselves. On that scale, we rank with those outspoken Scandinavians!
We demand faith on our own terms. That’s true whether you choose to be a lock-step fundamentalist or a free spirit.
We’re unique in the world for our intense mix of desires. New religious movements rank among America’s most valuable exports. A century ago, a shockingly mixed bag of men and women met in what the Los Angels Times called a “tumble down shack” on Azusa Street. Their Pentecostal celebration eventually blew the top off traditional worship around the world.
In the 1930s, Bill W and Dr. Bob were religious innovators in launching the world’s first lay-led spiritual movement with an interfaith definition of God as a “higher power.” The list could run on and on—from Shakers in the 1700s to Joseph Smith in the 1800s. After World War II, the spiritual floodgates broke wide open. Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and his Guideposts took the world by storm, Bishop Fulton Sheen became a 1950s TV star with Life Is Worth Living and, by 1965, millions of Americans heard The Gospel According to Peanuts.
In the new millennium, the matriarch of serious American religion writing, Phyllis Tickle, launched a mighty effort to tug wayward Americans back to ancient spiritual disciplines—such as praying at the Christian Divine Hours with a series of weighty new books. Eventually, Phyllis convinced the evangelical publishing house Thomas Nelson to produce eight volumes on Christian disciplines. She assembled a Who’s Who of authors to tackle topics including prayer, sabbath, tithing and fasting. All of Phyllis’s books are terrific. All are substantial offerings for Christians who are ready to dive deep. In other words, she and her co-authors left lots of room in the spiritual marketplace.
We restless Americans always are itching to discover the next spiritual shore. This has fueled a host of religious fads—and it’s not worth dragging those out of blessed obscurity by naming them. Suffice it to say that the late George Gallup Jr. surely is nodding his head somewhere, repeating his motto: “Faith in America is miles wide—and a quarter inch deep.”
That’s why the ambitious project undertaken by Stuart Matlins and his talented crew at SkyLight Paths Publishing is such a milestone. These books are authoritative—and wildly compelling. Yes, they take us deep, but each one is an exciting invitation to dip one’s toe into these waters for the first time. Christians are welcome, but so is anyone of any faith.
Over the past seven years, SkyLight has sent into the world a small library, each volume following SkyLight’s core principle:
“Through spirituality, our religious beliefs are increasingly becoming a part of our lives—rather than apart from our lives. While many of us may be more interested than ever in spiritual growth, we may be less firmly planted in traditional religion. Yet, we do want to deepen our relationship to the sacred, to learn from our own as well as from other faith traditions, and to practice in new ways.”
STARTING WITH A CHARACTER OF KINDNESS
Click on any of the book covers shown with this column today to visit the SkyLight Paths overview page for the series. From that online gateway, you can explore the full range. In 2006, this series debuted with an especially keen choice: Rami Shapiro’s The Sacred Art of Lovingkindness. One team of sociologists poring over the World Values Survey crunched the global numbers to identify the core character strength of each nation. The scholars found that America is unique in the world with a core character strength of “kindness.” So, the SkyLight series began with a perfect topic. As a nation, we see ourselves as kind; the anxiety we feel is largely due to our current lack of kindness. You may want to start your pilgrimage through this series with Shapiro’s book, which strikes at the heart of our spiritual quest as a people.
You will find many disciplines that cut across the major world religions:
- Pilgrimage—The Sacred Art: Journey to the Center of the Heart;
- The Sacred Art of Chant: Preparing to Practice;
- Giving—The Sacred Art: Creating a Lifestyle of Generosity;
- The Sacred Art of Forgiveness: Forgiving Ourselves and Others through God’s Grace;
- Thanking & Blessing—The Sacred Art: Spiritual Vitality through Gratefulness;
- Decision Making & Spiritual Discernment: The Sacred Art of Finding Your Way;
- Hospitality—The Sacred Art: Discovering the Hidden Spiritual Power of Invitation and Welcome
- The Sacred Art of Fasting: Preparing to Practice
- Lectio Divina—The Sacred Art: Transforming Words & Images into Heart-Centered Prayer
In choosing from that list for your first small-group discussion in your congregation, you’re likely to pass muster with pastors and lay leaders who serve as gatekeepers in almost any mainline denomination—Protestant or Catholic. Start with those and you’ll be well on your way toward a couple of years of lively small-group experiences. Some communities may want to challenge themselves to organize a congregation-wide “read” of a book.
And a special note for clergy who are reading this column: You’ll be marking pages, mumbling, “Yeah, that’ll preach!”
THEN, FIND FRIENDS … AND GO SKIING
Once you get this series in the door, the results will be obvious. If properly organized, your group will grow; people will talk about what they are exploring over coffee or an evening meal; you’ll want more and more.
The secret of growth in many big churches lies in unlocking parishioners’ affinities. One classic megachurch example is a group of guys (and often some gals) who love fixing cars—but nothing else motivates them to get off the couch. So, the church invites them to form a prayer-and-service group to spiritually support each other week by week. Then, in many big churches, these “car nuts” provide free service for older parishioners, single parents, poor families—and suddenly these folks who never set foot in a house of worship are highly engaged. No, Stuart and his SkyLight crew have not yet found an author to produce The Spiritual Art of Car Care. But, there certainly is room in the market for such a book, given that the classic in this tiny niche of motor-oil spirituality, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is approaching its 40th anniversary in 2014. The time is right.
SkyLight already is summoning many affinity groups. Among them:
Fly-Fishing—The Sacred Art: Casting a Fly as a Spiritual Practice; Running—The Sacred Art: Preparing to Practice; and Spiritual Adventures in the Snow: Skiing & Snowboarding as Renewal for Your Soul. These are terrific choices to grab and go with friends from your community. Among this trio, I highly recommend the winter-themed book right now. It’s packed with all kinds of engaging material: spiritual reflections, stories by “real people,” practical ideas. You’ll love the section in which “exuberant novice” Ann Lamott describes the spiritual high of skiing (and falling).
Writing—The Sacred Art: Beyond the Page to Spiritual Practice and Haiku—The Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines. Two volumes in the series are geared toward the writers in your community. I especially recommend the Haiku book. When I have been invited to teach journalism courses, over the years, I begin with a Haiku exercise. Journalists who feel overwhelmed with a major news event find that, first, turning a big story into a Haiku quickly clarifies the challenge.
Everyday Herbs in Spiritual Life: A Guide to Many Practices. This global exploration of herbal themes, projects and even a few recipes taps into the always strong pull of nature in our spiritual journeys—and the growing interest in rediscovering the food practices that connect with our spiritual and cultural traditions. The text is fascinating, but you’ll especially enjoy the dozens of detailed herbal projects.
Recovery—The Sacred Art: The Twelve Steps as Spiritual Practice. The SkyLight series wisely acknowledges the enormous debt we all share to the courageous circle of friends who, amid great personal anguish, hammered out the principles of 12-step programs. This is truly deep wisdom.
About an hour west of the SkyLight team’s headquarters in Woodstock, Vermont, is the hamlet of East Dorset where Bill Wilson was born in his family’s tavern and inn. Today, it is an international shrine and pilgrims’ sobriety tokens often are left on Bill W’s humble gravestone. Clearly, the SkyLight team has taken Bill W’s spiritual genius to heart. At the end of every book in this series, readers find this note:
SkyLight Paths sees both believers and seekers as a community that increasingly transcends traditional boundaries of religion and denomination—people wanting to learn more from each other, walking together, finding the way.
Go on. Buy a book. Jump in.
Wherever they are hovering with their higher power these days, George Gallup Jr. and Bill W will smile down upon you.
DAVID CRUMM is the Editor of readthespirit.com online magazine and publishing house. For 40 years as a journalist, David has covered the impact of religion and cross-cultural issues around the world.
MORE ABOUT THIS SPECIAL COVER STORY
ON ‘THE ART OF SPIRITUAL LIVING‘
This Cover Story is Special: Throughout 2013, dozens of leading authors and media producers who care about America’s religious diversity are jointly raising awareness of the best in current publishing. In this Cover Story, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I’m at the center of this coordinated national effort. Collectively, we’re shining our spotlight on this very important series of books that are coming from SkyLight Paths Publishing in Vermont.
I researched and wrote this cover story, “The Art of Spiritual Living never looked so inviting.” Then, this same cover story that I wrote also is being published by our California-based friends at The Interfaith Observer magazine. (You may want to check out their October issue, which includes a version of this same story.)
Why are we doing this? Those of us who devote our lives to the best in spiritual and cross-cultural writing—and that includes the folks who work at the Interfaith Observer and SkyLight Paths—realize that there is a real danger that important voices (authors, artists, publishers) could fall silent as traditional media networks crumble. We want to be part of the rebuilding of inspiring, authoritative networks promoting healthy approaches to faith and diversity. We are working hard, together, to keep these important voices raised.
What can you do? Read today’s cover story. Tell friends. Share the news on Facebook. Choose a new book that interests you—and buy it. (And, in addition to SkyLight Path’s webpage for the books, above, we also recommend that you check out our own ReadTheSpirit Bookstore.)
Together, we can make a huge difference.
(Published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)