Journalist Richard Ostling talks about Mormon America

In Part 1 of our coverage of journalist Richard Ostling’s Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, we raised the question that millions of Americans are asking this year: Does Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith matter? In their deep and compelling look at Mormon history and contemporary life, Ostling and his late wife, co-author Joan Ostling, answer that question: Yes, indeed. In fact, they added a section on Romney when they last updated their book. (See Part 1 to read excerpts of their book.)

Today, Richard Ostling talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in …


DAVID: In Part 1 of our coverage of your book, we quote from your introduction: “In that quest for respectability, two momentous dates stand above all others,” then you point to the end of polygamy in the main Latter-day Saints church more than 100 years ago—and the end of official racial bars in the 1970s. Why are those such crucial milestones?

RICHARD: Polygamy and race are the two most remarkable things about the LDS church when compared with the general run of American religion. The idea of polygamy still rankles some people, but it was more or less taken care of back in 1890. However, the church’s revision of its racial teachings dates to 1978. So, it’s interesting to speculate what would have happened if George Romney (Mitt’s father) had been a more major player in the 1968 presidential sweepstakes. I wonder how the racial policies of the LDS church would have played into that political process. I think that alone would have eliminated Romney at some point in the 1968 campaign.

The racial question lingers, because of how long the church held this policy of barring people of African blood from almost any church position of significance. It was a remarkable policy and it was held tenaciously by the church for such a long period of time—even through the 1960s and most of the 1970s. It’s a major historical puzzle about the church and I think it will remain so for some time.

DAVID: Mormons would counter that all American denominations had racial divisions through most of our history.

RICHARD: Yes, religion is so intimate and close to our hearts that affinity is a part of all religious bodies. Most African Americans are more comfortable in black churches than in white churches. Greek Christians tend to be comfortable in Greek Orthodox churches. We could go on and on. What stands out as distinctive with the Latter-day Saints is that their system of racial discrimination was elevated to a really astonishing level of church policy. It was at the very core of church teaching. Even in the bad old days of racial segregation there was nothing quite comparable that took place in mainline Protestant or Catholic denominations. It raises a question about the church’s nature over the last 150 years and the ways that revelation works in the church’s highest leadership.

DAVID: Since we’re talking about historic bigotry by some Mormons—let’s also talk about bigotry against Mormons. In November, we’ll see the first-ever Mormon candidate for president from one of America’s top political parties. The church’s founder, Joseph Smith Jr., was killed by a mob as he was contemplating a run for the presidency. Where do we stand on the eve of our 2012 election? Does bigotry against Mormons run deeper than we are seeing in polls?

RICHARD: The general poll data indicate wariness toward Mormons and the idea of a Mormon in the White House. Some polls indicate it’s similar in intensity to the feelings of wariness toward a devout evangelical. It will be a factor in the election, but, in the end, it may not count for much. The reason is: The people who are most concerned about the LDS church as a religious rival to their own denominations or as a questionable faith are evangelical Protestants—and these are the folks most likely to be active in political campaigns, to turn out at the polls and to vote for a Republican. The heart of the Republican coalition is going to help Romney a lot regardless of any religious questions. Opposition to Romney being Mormon played a bigger role in the primaries, helping Rick Santorum and hurting Romney in some states. But when we get to November, I think Republicans can count on evangelical voters to turn out and support the candidate.


Click the book cover to visit its Amazon page.DAVID: How do you see the church’s progress toward acceptance by non-Mormon religious leaders? I know this is a complex question and varies widely across the U.S. But, generally speaking, where do we stand with ecumenical relations nationwide?

RICHARD: In general, you have to remember that the average American is only vaguely aware of the LDS church. The awareness is greater than it was a generation ago, mainly because the church continues to expand. But I think the general impression among other Christian groups is: “They’re a little different than we are, but we’re not clear on the details.” Or, “They seem to be nice folks.” Or, “We don’t know much about them.” Those are vague responses so there is no way to clearly answer your question. But, I think it’s also true to say: A sizeable portion of the population realizes that there are serious issues distinguishing the LDS church from other Christian denominations.

We should say that, from the LDS church’s perspective, they would agree with some of the critique from other groups. Non-Mormons will say: As we understand our historical branches of Christianity, Mormons do not agree with us and therefore the LDS church is not a part of the great ecumenical tradition as we understand it. OK, if someone describes the situation that way, then Latter-day Saints would agree with them. This goes back to the revelation of Joseph Smith. God appeared directly to Joseph Smith and told Smith that all the existing church bodies at the time had incorrect creeds.

DAVID: That’s a good way to explain the distinction. I know that, on a basic level, Latter-day Saints would say: “We’re Christian—period.” But it’s also true that their church originated as a breakaway reformation of traditional Christianity. I’m sure readers are wondering, though: How Mormon is Mitt? We’re all familiar with Richard Nixon’s claim that he was Quaker, which certainly didn’t square with Nixon’s public behavior. Other presidents and candidates have claimed a religious affiliation, but have rarely darkened a church door.


RICHARD: At one point, he was a bishop. Compared with other Christian denominations, that term is used a little differently in the LDS church. “Bishop” means that he was a part-time, pastor-leader of a congregation. He also was the head of his stake, which is a term for a regional body that’s roughly similar to a diocese or a district in a Protestant group. So, he was an important leader in the church and his appointments to these positions were made from the very top of the church. His devotion to the faith was regarded as without exception from the Latter-day Saint perspective. If he is elected, it would be like electing a clergyman to the presidency. Now, the moment I say that, I have to quickly add that Mormons would object to my saying it quite like that. They insist that their church is led by lay people. But, Romney was the pastoral head of a local congregation and a regional body. Beyond that, the Romney clan goes way back in Mormon history. His father was very well known as a devout Mormon. And, of course, Marion Romney was George Romney’s cousin and Marion eventually was part of the church’s First Presidency, the term for the three men who preside over the entire LDS church.

DAVID:  Yes, Marion Romney was part of the top trio in the church from 1972 through 1985, so through that same era we just discussed when the historic racial teachings finally were changed.

RICHARD: It’s fair to say that the Romney family, including Mitt, is seen as an exemplar of Mormonism—not just in devotion to the church and in financial contributions. More than that, their lives represent what Mormonism holds dear: closeness and loyalty within a family, a faithful husband and faithful wife and, of course, success in one’s chosen career. All of those things make Romney quite a contrast, let’s say, to a religious pioneer like John F. Kennedy. Those who knew the intimate history of John F. Kennedy realized that his religious and moral views would not have pleased most Catholics.


DAVID: People may know a bit about the big-business relationships within the Latter-day Saints. But, you include quite a lot of new research into this aspect of the church in your book, making your book probably the best source I know for a good overview of how these factors shape Mormon life to this day.

RICHARD: Putting it simply—Mormon leaders tend to be very successful businessmen. Mitt Romney may be more successful than average, but there are also ways we can fairly describe him as typical of aspiring and successful young Mormons. The church is unusual, because it is not run by formally trained theologians, but by businessmen. None of the presidents and apostles who have run the church over the years was theologically trained in the kind of scholarly preparation that members would expect in a Presbyterian or Episcopal or even a Southern Baptist congregation. Generally, Mormons have tended to elevate successful businessmen to top positions in the church.

This has the effect of enshrining secular vocations as part of what church leaders do. In addition, Mormons represent all kinds of virtues that help you in business: thrift and good organization, as examples. The church’s interest in evangelism and missions might be called its promotion and marketing. In fact, because of the numbers of Mormon young people who serve missions in other countries, Mormons as a group are less parochial than a lot of other American groups. As a result, they fit very snugly into the kind of globalized economy we know today.


DAVID: I’ve been a religion newswriter nearly as long as you have, Richard. I have reported from Salt Lake City. And, I think we both can say: These are very difficult issues to report in an accurate and balanced way.

RICHARD: That’s true, but my wife and I really worked to make this a nonpartisan book. Most books about the church come from a viewpoint: pro-Mormon or anti-Mormon. We reported on the church as journalists. We wanted to understand it with some intelligence and also to be candid about the church’s past and present. This book is a one-volume run-down on everything Mormon. There isn’t another book on the market like that, as strange as that may seem. There were a couple of attempts at it a generation or so ago but there is really nothing else of this type available on the market.

DAVID: I’ve read your book more than once—when it first came out and then I have re-read portions of it after your expansion of the book. It seems balanced to me. Now, I’m sure Mormons would rather not answer more questions about the long-standing racial bias of the church. On the other hand, you point out strengths of the church, as well.

RICHARD: Right. This book is not a Mormon defense and it’s not a Mormon expose. We do report some uncomfortable things from the church’s perspective, but we are not trying to attack the church. If anything, our point is to say to non-Mormons: Hey, you smug Protestants and Catholics, there’s a lot that you could learn from these folks. It’s a very successful subculture in America.

DAVID: And the future?

RICHARD: Journalists are wary of making predictions. But, I would say: In the United States, the LDS church will continue to expand. And in most years in the future, it will be among the fastest growing church bodies. The church now is the fourth largest denomination in the U.S. and it will be nipping at the heels of the third largest: the United Methodist Church. Then, it has to go quite a ways beyond that to become second largest, but eventually it may rival the Southern Baptist Convention. This really is an important nationwide faith that is only going to become more important as the years go by.

You can order Richard Ostling’s Mormon America: The Power and the Promise from Amazon. It’s a great book for small-group discussion in any congregation.

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Does Mitt’s Mormon faith matter? Here’s the book on it!

Does Mitt Romney’s Mormon faith matter? The question is buzzing coast to coast. The simple answer is: Yes.

Americans are asking because we’ve seen all manner of religious window dressing in the White House from choreographed visits by evangelists like Billy Graham to occasional “Photo Ops” as a president attends Sunday worship. The religion card probably grew thinnest when Richard Nixon claimed to be a Quaker, then showed no sign of it in his presidential policies.

In contrast, Romney’s religious roots are real and they go deep. The Latter-day Saints shaped his family through four generations before he was born; he has served as a Mormon bishop and the church forms his spiritual foundation to this day; and LDS teaching shapes the moral framework that will guide his future policies. That’s a conclusion that Romney himself likely would agree with, if he talked more about his faith on the campaign trail. It also is the conclusion of Richard Ostling, one of the nation’s most respected journalists, having served both as the religion writer for TIME magazine and the Associated Press. Ostling’s updated book, Mormon America: The Power and the Promise, has become the standard one-volume overview of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for non-Mormons.

“Most books on the Saints, as they call themselves, tend to be anti-Mormon screeds or soft-focus proselytizing. This book is eminently fair, well researched and exhaustive. … These authors are diligent referees of fights past and present.” That’s how the New York Times lavished praise on the Ostling book when it first appeared in 2000.

Richard Ostling and his wife Joan Ostling, also a veteran journalist, then extensively expanded the book in 2007 in light of the 2008 presidential campaign. Joan died of cancer in 2009. Their book stands, in 2012, as the best reading available for non-Mormons to grasp the breadth of the LDS church’s complex theology, structure and weekly customs. The updated edition includes a section on Mitt Romney.

In Part 2 of this series, we welcome Richard Ostling for our ReadTheSpirit author interview. Richard agreed to talk about the ways he sees Mormon faith and culture as relevant in the 2012 presidential campaign. ReadTheSpirit recommends that anyone interested in these issues order a copy of Mormon America via Amazon where you will find it available in paperback and in a Kindle edition. Beyond fascinating reading for any individual who wants to understand this rapidly growing church, the book also makes for terrific small-group discussion.

TODAY, we are sharing three short excerpts from Richard’s book to give readers a sampling of the writing style and breadth of coverage. Together, these three short clippings show how effectively this book becomes a kind of Mormon 101 crash course for non-Mormon readers. The entire book is nearly 500 pages, but here are three brief excerpts, taken from three different sections of the book’s introduction. …


The people known as Latter-day Saints have created a powerful, self-contained American subculture and yet simultaneously have long sought full acceptance in the nation where their creed was born and from which it has always been led. In that quest for respectability, two momentous dates stand above all others: 1890, when the founding Prophet Joseph Smith Jr.’s teaching of polygamy was cast aside, and 1978, when the church eliminated the invidious barrier that kept Saints of African blood from the full status and participation that was routinely bestowed upon other male members.

Though not dramatic in such theological terms, the year 2007 marked a different sort of exponential advance toward normalization. Nevada Democrat Harry Reid became majority leader of the United State Senate, the most influential Mormon officeholder in U.S. history and one of the most familiar faces on TV newscasts. Simultaneously, Massachusetts’ former Republican Governor Mitt Romney launched the most promising bid by a Mormon to win the U.S. presidency … Previous LDS aspirants were Senator Orin Hatch, Congressman Morris Udall, Mitt’s father Governor George Romney, and founder Smith, who was waging a quixotic White House run when he was assassinated in 1844.


Mystery surrounds the church that Smith built. Though it is hard to imagine when contemplating this placid (Salt Lake) valley with its prosperous metropolis, no religion in American history has aroused so much fear and hatred, nor been the object of so much persecution and so much misinformation.  Mormons are intensely patriotic Americans; they even believe the U.S. Constitution and the democracy it enshrines were divinely inspired. Yet their own church is rigidly hierarchical, centralized, authoritarian, and almost uniquely secretive. It is also, relative to size, America’s richest church, with an estimated $25 to $30 billion in assets and an estimated $5 to $6 billion in annual income, mostly from members’ tithes.

The church began in upstate New York in 1830 with six members. By 1844, when the 38-year-old Smith was assassinated, the flock had already grown to over 26,000. During the past quarter-century, it has moved up to fourth place in size among America’s church bodies, with worldwide membership nearing 13 million. More than half of those members now live outside the United States. Non-Mormon sociologist Rodney Stark has projected that if present trends continue there will be about 267 million members by 2080, making Mormonism the most important world religion to emerge since Islam arose nearly 14 centuries ago.

(Note on Numbers: Membership was “nearing 13 million” when the Ostlings’ latest edition was published. As of mid 2012, Church officials report membership at more than 14.4 million worldwide.)


Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City.(After Smith’s founding), Mormonism—as the movement was quickly nicknamed—provided nationalistic Americans with a very American gospel. Despite demanding claims on the lives of believers, it was from the beginning optimistic and upbeat, a reaction against the establishment New England Calvinism. It denied original sin and stressed individual moral choice, proclaiming that every human could progress toward godhood. It was a religious version of the American dream: Everyman presented with unlimited potential. Its theology provided a highly idiosyncratic emphasis on disciplined self-reliance, and post-Enlightenment liberalism on the nature of man and God.

A church without professional clergy, but with a highly centralized and authoritarian structure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is ruled top-down by a self-perpetuating hierarchy that is ritualistically “sustained” by unanimous vote at church conferences in Salt Lake City. Atop the pyramid is the current president, prophet, seer and revelator, who chooses a first counselor and second counselor and acts with them in a collective First Presidency. Next comes the Quorum of Twelve Apostles who hold lifetime positions and are always listed by seniority of attaining that rank, then echelons of lower authorities and officeholders. There is neither a forum for public debate nor a church legislature to set policy. Obedience to tenets and administrative minutiae as defined by the General Authorities at Temple Square is the only allowable response.

The church’s General Handbook of Instructions, which covers everything from church disciplines and governance to instructions on how to dispose of worn-out holy underwear, is a confidential document issued in numbered copies distributed to a specific list of officials. The annual church almanac is odd as denominational yearbooks go. It gives extensive statistics on members, baptisms, missionaries, wards (congregations), stakes (geographic subdivisions similar to other denominations’ dioceses or districts), and the like, but no financial statistics. It provides pictures and biographies of church authorities, but few clues as to their function. Unlike other such reference works, it contains no directory of the organization’s bureaucracy. It does, however, meticulously list every LDS believer who ever medaled in the Olympics.

(Note on Current Leadership: You can see the current Latter-day Saints leadership online at the LDS website, which is one of the most active religious websites in the world—even surpassing the Vatican’s website in daily usage. There also is a biography of the 16th President of the Church, Thomas Monson. He took office in 2008.)

(Note on the Underwear Reference: Special Mormon garments are mentioned occasionally in news reports about the Church nationwide. Sometimes these references poke fun at the church, a matter that Mormons find offensive. The LDS website has a special page briefly explaining such garments. Church leaders compare their practice to Jews preparing themselves for various rituals by wearing special garments. Other religious traditions also involve special clothing.)

(Note on How to Refer to Latter-day Saints: The church provides a detailed Style Guide, which explains that the full name of the Church is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with a small “d” on the word “day.” Church officials ask journalists to avoid calling their religious body “the Mormon Church.” They prefer that members be called “Latter-day Saints” but the term “Mormon” is acceptable, as well. The Style Guide also explains that the term “Mormonism” is acceptable in describing the combination of doctrine, culture and lifestyle unique to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Continue by reading our interview with Richard Ostling.

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

072: What are YOU reading? In 2008 …

(IF you’re looking for our “other” landing page this month, Interfaith Heroes, with the 31 daily stories through January — then Click Here and you’ll jump over now.)

hrough the holidays, we accumulated quite a backlog of reader recommendations and now that we’ve reached the new year — let’s share some of these suggestions while we’ve still got a few holiday dollars left in our pockets, shall we?
    You can purchase any of the following recommended titles by clicking on the covers to jump to our store. But, even if you’re not shopping today, you’ll enjoy hearing what other readers are thinking, reading and watching. So, here is our first “What are YOU reading?” of 2008:

Len W in Chicago emailed twice to ask when we were going to get around to highlighting Dr. Robert Millet’s new book with the Rev. Gregory Johnson, “Bridging The Divide: The Continuing Conversation Between a Mormon and an Evangelical.”
    “I just can’t believe a lot of things I’m hearing people say about Mitt Romney’s faith — both his supporters and his opponents … and, try flipping on the TV for help? I don’t think so. … I’m saying this, not even because I’m Mormon myself. I’m Anglo-Catholic, but I’m a purist, I guess, for trying to be truthful when it comes to explaining religion.”
    I agree completely with Len on this point. Popular media generally does a poor job in exploring the nuances of faith — and, when it comes to a subject as complex as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, well, there simply aren’t enough sound bytes on TV news shows to patch together an accurate portrait.
    Last year, I met Dr. Millet in Utah and spent an afternoon interviewing him about his scholarly work. ReadTheSpirit is not affiliated with any religious denomination — but I can affirm that Millet is a brilliant man of great integrity. This nearly 200-page book is wisely designed by Millet and his co-author so that, as readers, we can sit back over several evenings and immerse ourselves in the gaps and in the connections between Mormon and evangelical Protestant theology.
    What’s especially timely about this book in early 2008, in the midst of a national election year, is that it also serves as a revealing window into the complex efforts to try to find a common ground between these two movements that hold such influence over regional politics in the U.S. Take a look at some of the prominent evangelical names lined up in the opening pages of the book to endorse this effort. It’s a fascinating array of voices!
    This is a rare and important book — a “must read” for anyone who is closely watching American faith, culture and politics.

hen, to prove that we’re not anti-television here at ReadTheSpirit, several readers have urged us to put in a good word, in advance, for a major, three-part PBS-television series debuting on January 9, called, “The Jewish Americans.”
    “Teachers are going to want to record this one … I’ve got my machine all ready,” said Marilyn Holmes of Philadelphia. “This looks like it will be like so many of the other great PBS series.”
    Well, you could record it. Or, this time, PBS is wisely putting the entire series up for sale in a DVD set (for under $30), which will ship to customers as soon as the three-week, six-hour series ends late this month.
    “You ought to include just an item about this … People know so little about what’s really going on in people’s lives,” a grandmother who says she is proud of her “religiously blended family” near Seattle, wrote to us  just before Christmas. “When we watch ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Holiday Inn’ with the family, do most of us even know the story of the Jewish immigrant who wrote all that great American music?”
    Irving Berlin also wrote one of our nation’s signature songs, “God Bless America,” and his story is included with dozens of others in the series by David Grubin. Plan ahead now to watch it starting Wednesday night, and think about clicking on the title or the cover to check out the DVD set, as well.
    PLUS — stay tuned to ReadTheSpirit. We plan to feature an interview with Grubin before the series debuts next week.

inally, a reader who calls herself “Bixie” emailed to remind us that we promised to write more about comics and graphic novels — and Bixie, for one, felt we weren’t snappy enough about delivering.
    “You were right in what you wrote in your articles about graphic novels and comics — everybody’s saying it now,” Bixie wrote. “The New York Times has gotten on the bandwagon now. … They’re recommending graphic novels pretty regularly.”
    And, Bixie suggested a half dozen titles we should review, but especially one that also won the praise of the Times recently: Rutu Modan’s “Exit Wounds.”
    “It’s not religion. That’s not what Rutu draws and writes about. It’s hope, really, and the kind of faith in people that, even though they may break your heart sometimes — there’s always this underlying love,” Bixie wrote.
    Despite the praise by the Times, which also employs Modan occasionally, it took a while to get a copy of Modan’s graphic novel.
    Meanwhile, I discovered that Modan has a wonderful collection of very unusual comic strips posted online in a Times Blog — If you click on the link, you may need to fill out a free registration to the Times’ online site to view her blog. (My own personal favorites on her blog at the moment are: “How I Learned to Relax” and “The Queen of the Scottish Fairies.”)
    Now, if you like what you see on Modan’s blog, envision “Exit Wounds” as bigger, deeper and far more spiritually subversive than anything that appears on her blog. I won’t spoil the final chapter of “Exit Wounds,” which is subtitled “Resurrection,” by giving away the overall direction of the plot. But, the graphic novel is billed as the story of a cynical Israeli taxi driver who sets out to discover the truth about his wayward father — after he hears that his down-on-his-luck Dad was murdered in a terrorist attack.
    The graphic novel takes us into territory we never expect from the opening pages. And — word of warning — the book is not for young readers, even though it’s a graphic novel and Modan’s blog work looks quite heartwarming and family oriented.
    Nope. I won’t tell you any more about “Exit Wounds” except to say — Bixie’s right. Get a copy. You’ve never read anything like it in the spiritual realm.

PLEASE TELL US: “What are YOU reading?” Or, “What are you seeing that inspires you?” We always welcome your suggestions of books, films, even TV shows or other media that move you spiritually.

THINK ABOUT FORMING a ReadTheSpirit discussion circle in the new year! Click Here to read our earlier “how-to-form-a-circle” story.

CLICK on the Comment link at the bottom of our online story to leave a Comment for all of our readers. Or, Click Here to email me, ReadTheSpirit Founding Editor David Crumm.

021: Spiritual Gifts of Women Around the World

eligious diversity is a fact of American life these days, even though pollsters continue to report that the vast majority of Americans identify their faith as “Christian.”
    In fact, as global connections expand, diversity is woven into the fabric of our lives in countless ways that we may not even discern, at first.

    For instance, this fall, we’re talking more about the place that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints holds within our religious community. Mitt Romney is running for president and there are regular news stories exploring his faith. Marie Osmond, part of one of America’s most famous Mormon families, is back on network television competing in “Dancing with the Stars.”
    Not all of the media attention on the LDS church is welcomed by Mormon families. From the HBO series “Big Love” to news reports about legal action against tiny sects of polygamists — there are as many negative as positive images of the church at the moment.
    Or, consider this issue of religious diversity from an entirely different vantage point. Think about all of the families who adopt children from other countries. The 2000 Census reported that 2.1 million American children were adopted by their current parents. That number is expected to rise in the next Census. Many of those children came from religious cultures different from their adoptive families’ faiths.
    Or, consider this: We’re seeing more Hollywood movies and documentary films that explore diverse spiritual pathways through life.

    Susan TeBos and Carissa Woodwyk, authors who share extensive experience with adoption and family counseling, have created a workbook for adoptive parents who want to help their children come to terms with their origins, “Before You Were Mine: Discovering Your Adopted Child’s Lifestory.” (That’s TeBos at left in the photo above; Woodwyk is at right.)
    They wisely warn overly enthusiastic adoptive parents that most adopted children are not especially eager to go through a detailed examination of their birth families right away. But, eventually they will want to seek out and understand this important formative part of their lives.
    What TeBos and Woodwyk suggest is that adoptive parents help their children get this whole process started by creating a Lifebook — which they describe as quite different from a baby’s scrapbook. Creating a Lifebook involves far more than saving adoption announcements, infant snapshots and cards from baby showers. In fact, those cherished mementos may not even wind up in a Lifebook. This format, which they describe in great detail, involves digging back into a child’s origins enough to honestly document the first chapters of the child’s life.
    This may sound difficult or even grim in many cases, but it’s actually a way that the adoptive family can help a child begin to “think through” these important issues. Because TeBos and Woodwyk both are evangelical Christians, they also weave scriptural encouragement into the process. But, whatever your own faith, this is sound advice from compassionate professionals and experienced Moms.

   This week as we have thought about our religious diversity, we’ve placed a special emphasis on the stories of women. As I was writing these stories, I kept thinking about lines in Sallie Tisdale’s fascinating book, “Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom.”
    Tisdale is a nationally respected writer whose byline has appeared in a lot of prestigious places, including the New Yorker and Harper’s, but her most enduring work is likely to be this history of Buddhist women, recovering some amazing stories from the shadows of obscure library shelves.
    In the opening of her book, she writes about how she came to Buddhist practice in an American community that welcomed the talents and leadership of both men and women. She was aware that sexism was a perennial problem, of course, but she didn’t realize the depth of the void of women’s experience in most literature about Buddhism.
    She writes, “Many commentaries and histories of Buddhism do not discuss the experience of women at all — literally, not at all. It is as though being a man is what being a Buddhist means.”
    Wow. That’s a powerfully true indictment of so many of our religious communities, isn’t it?
    Thank goodness for Tisdale’s calling to the writer’s craft and to this book she has produced. Click on the cover or the title — just as you can do with all of the books in ReadTheSpirit — to read more about her book and even buy a copy, if you’d like.

    The problem of clearing our vision to even see the presence of women in our traditions is illustrated perfectly in Janice Gates’ wise and gorgeously designed book, “Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga.”
    She describes a nearly 5,000-year-old soapstone seal from the Indus Valley that historians claim is one of the oldest visual images of Yoga. Since most historians are men, they traditionally described this image as a bejeweled man, probably royalty, sitting on a throne deep in meditation.
    But, women looking at the image saw something quite different. This may have been an ancient pregnant woman with bracelets on her arms poised for childbirth. In fact, reading her alternative women’s interpretation of the stone, our vision shifts and it makes perfect sense.
    She concludes by sharing different interpretations of yet another work of art, a mural showing women poised in space: “Interpretation is always limited by perception, as described by this graffiti, found on the wall below a mural of paintings of women in Sri Lanka, fourth century CE:
    “Don’t we all see things our way?
    “For me, these women fly upward.
    ‘For you, they plunge from the sky.”

        The mark of really good writing about religion is that we’re not quite sure where the story will take us — and we’re often surprised by the twists in the tale — but we feel comfortable in the presence of the storyteller’s honesty and compassion.
    That pretty much describes all of these books I have highlighted today. In particular, it describes Dorothy Allred Solomon’s new book, “The Sisterhood: Inside the Lives of Mormon Women.”
    As a non-Mormon, I couldn’t stop turning the pages as she describes women’s experiences of Mormon customs — most of them quite positive experiences — but also tells us about women who sometimes feel overwhelmed by the church’s burden of responsibility or who find real-life dilemmas that we all face becoming doubly difficult to resolve within the confines of Mormon life.
    Overall, this is a very positive look at the church, but there’s an honesty in the way she reports the women’s stories — including stories about the enduring legacy of polygamy — that give those of us whose lives are far removed from their experiences a feeling of real compassion and respect for these women.
    There’s really no way to build strong, enduring community among us, as Americans, without understanding the diversity of our experiences.
    Bravo to these authors who have helped us take a big step in that direction!

    Speaking of Twists and Turns of the spiritual tale — NEXT WEEK — on Monday — tell friends and show up here at ReadTheSpirit bright and early Monday to start a five-day pilgrimage with us to the fabled shores of rocky Iona, an island poised between Scotland and the vast Atlantic. It’s been the destination of thousands of pilgrims over many centuries and we’re going to take you there next week!

    Please tell us what you think. Share any ideas or suggestions! Click Here to email me, David Crumm, or leave a Comment for other readers on our site. 

Our 1st column: We Haven’t Seen Times Like These …

e haven’t seen times like these in 500 years.

Oh, we’ve lived through wars and rumors of wars for centuries, but the only era in Western history that approaches the tossing and turning of our current cultural revolution happened half a millennium ago in the heart of Europe. The spark was an innovation by an otherwise obscure craftsman who figured out how to form durable chunks of moveable metal type.
Today, we casually recall that history as if Johannes Gutenberg immediately used that metal type to roll out a few Bibles and, the next day, the light of new media dawned over a disgruntled monk named Martin Luther, prompting him to nail his world-changing 95 Theses onto a local church door.
No, that’s not how it happened. Not by a longshot!

It’s easy to compress what happened and miss the powerful truth. Read Alister Mcgrath’s delightfully provocative new book, “Christianity’s Dangerous Idea”. Mcgrath makes this point in broad-brush fashion: “Without the advent of printing, there would have been no Reformation.” And, by extension, no splintering of Western spirituality, no American separation of church and state, no Billy Graham or Martin Luther King Jr. or Desmond Tutu, no Alcoholics Anonymous or celebrations of religious diversity. If you really want to do your homework on this era, dig into Diarmaid MacCulloch’s more substantial history, “The Reformation”—and as a bonus, you’ll find yourself charmed by MacCulloch’s dry British wit throughout the book.

But, here’s the News we need to know today: Nearly a century passed—about 77 years—between the year that Gutenberg proudly rolled the first sharp-edged bits of metal type in the palm of his hand and the year, 1517, when Luther touched off the global spiritual revolution that we’ve inherited in 2007.
Here’s what’s so critical about that tiny historical detail: Scholars still debate whether Luther ever actually nailed his theses to a door. What they agree upon is that the Reformation was spread by pamphleteering, a powerful cultural strategy repeated by countless reformers and revolutionaries to this day. Half a millennium ago, it took most of a century for Gutenberg’s little metal seeds to blossom into the Renaissance equivalent of Kinko’s—small shops that could produce pamphlets.

Right now, we’re living in the dawn of an entirely new age of media:
the digital age. For most people across the U.S., the Web is only a child a little over a decade old. But already it’s obvious that these virtual children are revolutionaries.

Let’s face it: Newspapers are imploding. That’s why I’ve taken a leave from newspapers after more than 30 years in this proud profession. Sure, newspapers still own big buildings and printing presses, but they’re no longer titans of media. The titans are YouTube, web aggregators like Google-News—and all the other virtual children of this new age.

This fall, evidence is becoming as obvious as the top of
this morning’s New York Times front page: “NBC to Offer Downloads of
Its Shows.” Times writer Bill Carter says exactly what we’re saying
here: “NBC’s move comes as companies throughout the television business
search for new economic models in the face of enormous changes in the
business. Networks continue to lose audience share — and viewers …
are increasingly demanding control of their program choices, insisting
on being able to watch shows when, where and how they want.”

Who’s trembling right behind newspaper and network executives?
Book publishers built on big-business models. They’re warily eying
these troubling waters and either they are aggregating into bigger
publishing firms to buy time and summon resources to face this new age
— or, if they remain independent, book publishers are waking up in the
middle of the night, worrying about their future.

    That’s a tragic situation, especially for religious media. Why? Because these are the times in which spiritual voices can thrive!

Any way you slice the sociological data, there’s an overwhelming
desire for spiritual solace around the world, especially in the U.S.
Before we launched this vast ReadTheSpirit project that will take us a
year to fully unfold, we spent the past year examining that data under
The enormous challenge facing all of us in media –
and in religious leadership – is discerning where this revolution is
taking us.

The children piloting our ship
these days are not experienced navigators, but they have boundless energy and creativity. They’re carrying us into new realms.

We have seen it with our own eyes. We’ve formed a community of
writers, editors, artists, filmmakers, digital professionals, scholars
and clergy around us – professionals from a broad array of backgrounds
– and we are determined at ReadTheSpirit to be pilots in this new

Take a good look at that exotic-looking temple you see
here (pictured above and at left) with its ornate wooden decorations
soaring 60 feet above the Black Rock Desert in Nevada at the Burning
Man festival earlier this month. We were there. These enormous, wooden
“temples of remembrance” at Burning Man, designed each year by artist
David Best, are among the crowning examples of this new age in
spiritual expression.

Hundreds of unpaid volunteers from across the U.S. spent weeks in
extreme heat and blowing desert dust to help Best build these temple
complexes. This year’s temple opened for the 50,000 temporary residents
of Burning Man for exactly one week – before the elaborate shrine was
burned and its ashes carefully removed, consuming like a Viking ship
all the memorial keepsakes that thousands of visitors had tucked inside
its walls.
If you care to read more about this cutting-edge cultural phenomenon, click on the title of “This Is Burning Man,” by
Brian Doherty, and buy a copy. Doherty’s book is the best available
overview of this creative force of nature that grew out of a small
circle of friends in California to embrace thousands from around the
world in the Nevada desert each year.

But we’re not limiting ourselves to the outer edges of spirituality
. There’s enormous, often untapped, energy in traditional denominations.

Our initial reporting trip took us to Salt Lake City, as well, where
I reported a story on the cultural influence of the Mormon Tabernacle
Choir, a story that drew reader praise from across the country when it
appeared earlier this month in the pages of the Detroit Free Press and
moved across the wires.
Most Americans know about this choir, of course.

What they’ve probably missed about the denomination that sponsors the
choir is that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is
shepherding one of the most ambitious urban-renewal projects ever
attempted outside of Rome. The Saints are rebuilding the equivalent of
18 city blocks of downtown Salt Lake City almost from scratch. Along
the way, they’re actually bringing a long-extinct river back to life
and reviving a major downtown hub for commerce and neighborhoods.
If you want to read more about the inner core of this religious movement, I strongly urge you to pick up Coke Newell’s “Latter Days” or the Ostlings’ “Mormon America,” again by clicking on the titles here.
There is great urgency in what we are doing here.

    Consider: This revolution is so new that the first-ever national conference on
this kind of digital publishing, hosted by the heavy-weights in this
emerging field, was held only three months ago in California. And we
were there. ReadTheSpirit co-founder, photographer and software guru
John Hile spent that week in June in California with a Who’s Who of top
minds in digital media.
What’s burning in our hearts and minds
this autumn? It’s this: There’s a sad irony in the implosion of
traditional news media in the U.S. As news and even TV news operations
shrink, they’re redefining themselves in hyper-local terms. The vast
majority of journalists now are unable to actually head out, crisscross
the U.S. and report on what’s unfolding. There’s a good chance that
most writers may miss what’s shaping up as the greatest news story of
this new century, perhaps this new millennium.

At ReadTheSpirit, we’ve vowed that we’re not going to let that happen.
So, Stay Tuned!

NEXT WEEK: Our Monday-through-Friday coverage begins!
MONDAY: “002: Media Is Sacred Space …”
TUESDAY: “003: Here Are 4 Great Holiday Gifts …”
WEDNESDAY: “004: A Conversation with Tony Campolo …”
THURSDAY: “005: The Spiritual Lives of Animals …”
FRIDAY: “006: A Major New Voice Is Rising in Islam …”

Late October:
We’ll unveil Top-10 awards in 6 categories of religious publishing.
AND: Watch for our other projects – all headquartered at ReadTheSpirit – as they unfold in coming months.

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— or post a Comment below.