The Carrie Newcomer interview on ‘A Permeable Life’

Restless this summer? Eager to roam? Hoping to discover something that will energize and motivate you all year long? Then, don’t wait: Get Carrie Newcomer’s latest collection, A Permeable Life, and start singing along.

You can enjoy her first song, today, in our Interfaith Peacemakers department. It’s called Every Little Bit of It, a perfect song for a summer adventure. Here are a few of the lyrics:

Just beyond my sight,
Something that I cannot see,
I’ve been circling around a thought,
That’s been circling round me. …
There it is just below the surface of things,

In a flash of blue, and the turning of wings,
Drain the glass, drink it down, every moment of this,
Every little bit of it, every little bit.

Around our offices, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine, I’ve been humming that song for weeks—alternating with Carrie’s triumphant hymn of praise for America’s all-but-forgotten workers. In this season of political struggle to raise the nation’s minimum wage and help working families have at least a shot of climbing out of poverty, I can’t get Carrie’s The Work of Our Hands out of my head. Her song’s title and refrain echo my favorite Psalm 90:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
Through all generations. …
May the favor of the Lord rest upon us;
Bless the work of our hands.
Yes, bless the work of our hands.

Carrie’s version of The Work of Our Hands could become an anthem for the movement to recognize, honor and improve the lives of millions of marginalized laborers who shore up the foundations of our nation:

They lay hands on boards and bricks,
And loud machines,

With shovels and rakes,
And buckets of soap they clean.
And I believe that we should bless,
Every shirt ironed and pressed,
Salute the crews out on the road,
Those who stock shelves and carry loads,
Whisper thanks to brooms and saws,
Dirty boots and coveralls,
Bow my head to the waitress and nurse,
Tip my hat to farmer and clerk,
All those saints with skillets and pans,
And the work of their hands.

Ready to meet Carrie? As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I interviewed her about this new album. Here are …


DAVID: Our regular readers know you already—either as longtime fans of your music—or from reading our earlier interviews on your album Before and After and on your East-West collaboration with Indian musicians in Everything Is EverywhereBeyond the music you write and perform, the one other identification people make with your work is: You’re a Quaker. But, what does that mean?

CARRIE: That’s an interesting question because usually, when I tell people I’m a Quaker, that’s it. It’s wonderfully vague. People kind of know that Quakers are people who have a long history of peace-and-justice work. People think we’re kind of a religious group but they’re not too sure about that. Generally, I say I’m a Quaker and they don’t ask any more questions.

And, I do shy away from hard-and-fast categories—I do that in my art, as well. I feel very much akin to Parker Palmer. Often we’re put into categories of “progressive Christianity” or “progressive spirituality” because of the Quaker affiliation. I can say: Quakers are spiritually grounded and a great deal of attention is paid to living out the ideals of justice and peace and love in the world in a particular kind of way.

DAVID: Quaker communities vary widely in style and worship. What kind of a Quaker meeting do you attend?

CARRIE: I go to an unprogrammed Quaker meeting, which means the meetings are for worship but they also are meetings for discernment and contemplative mediation and prayer. You’re right: There are a lot of flavors of Quakers and there are some Quaker communities that do have programs like some of the mainline Protestant churches. Then there are Quaker communities where people don’t even refer to God as God. They prefer to speak to whatever connecting unity there is as The Light. There are some Quakers who don’t call themselves Christian, and there are others who call themselves absolutely Christian. I like the unprogrammed meetings, because I think they are more open to all of the above. It is more about individual revelation and journey—experienced in a community context. Each person’s journey is their own; and the community is there as well.

DAVID: Describe one of your unprogrammed meetings. Readers, I think, may be surprised that a woman known around the world for writing and performing music attends worship that is mainly an experience of silence.

CARRIE: In an unprogrammed meeting, people enter at a certain time. Our meeting starts at 10:00 and it’s in a circle. There’s no pastor. People sit in the silence and they listen. In our lives, we tend to do a lot of talking at God or at the universe and, in a silent Quaker meeting, part of the idea is that you’re not praising or asking or confessing. What you’re doing is listening—you’re spending time with what’s sacred in our lives in that space. Sometimes people will stand and speak out of the silence but there’s a lot of respect for the silence in our group. This isn’t group therapy. Unless you really feel pressed upon your heart to say something, then you probably shouldn’t say it.

This usually takes place in about an hour. Sometimes, people will speak. And, sometimes it’s an hour of being in community together in silence. Generally, there is someone in the meeting who sits on a facing bench. That person finally will turn to the person next to them and shake hands. And that mean’s its over. Sometimes, once a month generally, we have a query where there’s an hour afterwards and there’s a question we talk about. We might ask about the testimony of simplicity: How is that working in your life?


DAVID: I started with those questions, this time, because this is the first project you’ve published that also comes in book form. In A Permeable Life: Poems & Essays, you invite people to go beyond the music and actually explore some of the experimental poems and essays that you write before finally creating your songs. The collection in this book is fully formed—really thought-provoking poems and essays to read on their own. But, as you explain in the book, these pieces are experiments with ideas that may evolve, over time, into new songs. Tell us about your process, because it’s different than the creative process followed by many songwriters.

CARRIE: You’re right—we’ve all got our processes. If you ask 11 different songwriters what their process is all about, they will come up with 15 different ways they do this! My personal approach usually starts with a poem or an essay or a story. I’ll do a lot of writing that isn’t songwriting—I’ll write in these other forms and I’ll explore the topic for a while. That lets me play with the idea, write about the idea and hone the way I talk about the idea. From this process, I may come up with the one line that starts the song. Then, by the time I am writing, the words and music usually happen at the same time for me.

In this book, I’ve put together a collection of my essays and poems and stories—and most of them in this book represent the writing that started a song. That may be overt or it may be subtle in the way these pieces started songs. Then, for this book, I also added a few other pieces that weren’t the beginnings of specific songs, but were related to the themes that show up in these songs.

DAVID: I love the richness of your language in the songs you create. Compared with other songwriters, these are beautifully written songs. And, the interplay of language in nearly all of your songs makes you want to hear the song again—often right away. You want to catch all the twists and turns. Talk a little more about the way you use language.

CARRIE: I am a songwriter. I use these other forms of writing as a place where I can develop food for my work as a songwriter. One challenge is the condensed format of songs. You only have a few verses, a chorus and maybe a bridge—so every word has to count. And, the words that you choose to include should reach further than the actual, individual words. Then, you have the element of music. Lyrics share a lot with poetry but lyrics are not strictly poetry on the page. Lyrics are written to entwine with music so, if you read lyrics out loud, they don’t come off with the full effect that the words are meant to have. The words on a page aren’t the same as the final music.

DAVID: You’re right! And I did struggle with this in planning this interview. We are going to quote a few passages from your lyrics, but we’re also going to link to your website, where our readers can find samples, and we are going to include one of your videos in the Interfaith Peacemakers department within our website today: Every Little Bit of It.


DAVID: My favorite song in the new collection is The Work of Our Hands. I hope this song travels far and wide. I hope we all hear it being sung at events celebrating America’s millions of workers—especially those who are underpaid and under appreciated. In that song, you’ve got a memorable melody, a rhythm that builds as you lay out the litany of workers—and a wonderful interplay of words.

CARRIE: Something really good happened in my songwriting when I gave myself permission to do a couple of things. One thing is: I allow myself to write the song I write today. When songwriters are starting out, they want to put the whole sum of their worldly knowledge into every song. It’s like pastors trying to write their first sermon.

But the best songs usually are about one thing. Just one thing. So, I write the song I write today and, another day, I write another song. I give myself permission to write today and that day’s masterpiece (she laughs) will likely be about one thing.

Here’s another thing: I have given myself permission to be a Hoosier.

DAVID: Anyone who has listened to much of your music knows that you’re from Indiana. Among my favorites from your earlier albums is the song that lists a lot of the county fairs and local festivals in Indiana. In this new song, The Work of Our Hands, you start with a description of how you prepare spiced peach jam and how you can dill beans “from an old recipe that my mother gave to me.” That’s a vivid, flavorful picture.

CARRIE: My potent voice is my most authentic voice. I’m never going to sound like someone who grew up in Manhattan. And I don’t have to cover that voice in my music. That’s for someone who actually grew up in Manhattan. My most potent voice comes when I give myself permission to be a Quaker from the middle of the Midwest.

I love how we’re different, as people. In our whole country there’s no place like Ann Arbor, Michigan, there’s no place like Minneapolis, no place like Asheville, North Carolina—and there’s no place just like Bloomington, Indiana. Places are so rich and diverse.

Yet, at the same time, everywhere I go—every single place I go—if I sing a song about love, about family, about kindness—simple human kindness—or if I sing a song about hope—and not Hallmark card hope but the kind of hope where you wake up in the morning and you get up and really do try to make the world a better place—then my song is immediately recognizable in any community where I’m singing all around this world.

DAVID: As I listened to The Work of Our Hands, all sorts of associations were firing in my mind. I heard the song as an echo of my own favorite Psalm 90. And, I also thought of an interview I did with Barbara Brown Taylor a few weeks ago. In her new book, Learning to Walk in the Dark, she describes a back-country graveyard for poor sharecroppers in the Great Depression. The graves were hand dug; the soil was mounded on top; and the families lovingly placed on those dirt mounds objects from everyday life: a nice dinner plate, a tea cup or even, in some cases, lightbulbs in that era when electricity hadn’t reached every home. Why? These objects represented vocation and aspiration: In other words, they represent hope in “the work of our hands.”

‘Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks.’

DAVID: Tell us more about the origins of your song.

CARRIE: The genesis of that song began with a friend of mine who is a wonderful organic farmer in the Bloomington area. She invited me to do some canning in her back yard one August afternoon. At the end of the afternoon, there were about 20 sweaty women and a million jars of salsa. And as we were getting ready to leave, I just listened to what people were saying about the day’s work. These women weren’t talking about where they were going to store or keep the jars; they all were talking about the people to whom they were going to give these jars.

One would say, “I’ll give this to my sister.”

Another would say, “I’ll give some to my neighbor. She’ll love this.”

This work had turned into an expression of love. We all were thinking about the people we love. I went home and wrote a bit about this and then I started the song.

In spiritual community, we talk about “love,” but that idea of “love” can get really big and unwieldy and unfocused. I’m much more interested in the small kindnesses we do for one another every day. Kindness is the country cousin of love. Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks. Kindness irons the shirts without even mentioning it.

DAVID: I think you’ve just given us a very quotable portion of this interview. I love that: Kindness washes the dishes when nobody asks.

‘A movement of air from the singer to a listener’s heart’

CARRIE: These are ephemeral things, really, and I hope that people will see and appreciate these things. After all, my art is ephemeral. I make air. It is relatively recent in human history that technology has existed to carry a song beyond the one time and place in which it is sung. The artform is ephemeral—a movement of air carried from the singer to the heart of the listener.

As I wrote The Work of Our Hands, I was playing with this whole idea. We need to see and appreciate these lovely, humble, daily things that we can do for one another that we so often miss and that are gone as soon as we do them.

DAVID: It’s crucial that we develop this vision in our lives—this constant awareness of things happening on the periphery of the circle. Or, as you put it in Every Little Bit of It: “Just beyond my sight, Something that I cannot see …”

I’ve been talking about these transformative challenges with other authors this spring—with Brian McLaren in an interview we’ll publish soon about his new book We Make the Path by Walking and with Barbara Brown Taylor about her book Learning to Walk in the Dark and Marcus Borg about his new book Convictions, which really is a book about change and growth in a rich life.

CARRIE: I think that this is so important, as an artist but also as a person. You have to be able to give up what you already think you know. You have to grow. And that’s not always an easy thing. We are comfortable with what we think we know

Maybe that’s part of getting older, too. You know, if I stop and look back, I sometimes think: Once, I really did think that was true! Parker Palmer calls it reaching the simplicity on the other side of complexity. Sometimes you do wind up returning to a simple truth—but now you know it with a much deeper complexity.

DAVID: I wish that you could somehow collaborate on a soundtrack to Barbara’s new book or Marcus’s new book. You’re singing about the same themes they’re exploring in prose. One of the first questions I asked Barbara Brown Taylor in this recent interview was: Why did it take so long for you to complete this new book? She answered: “Honestly, I think it’s worth taking time to actually live the kind of life that will produce something worth writing about.”

CARRIE: It’s a hard truth to appreciate.

I like thinking about the seeds that sit in the ground all winter. Then, in the spring, we’re surprised by all the green. All through the dark winter, those seeds were deep in the ground and something was happening there that we couldn’t even see.

And then the spring comes, the leaves come out—and there’s this riot of color. Life is both shadow and light. And I’m saying to the world: I want to embrace all of that—every little bit of it.

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

Our Holiday Grab Bag of 12 Guilt-Free Gifts

shopping for a little something? Perhaps a last-minute gift for a friend—or, maybe someone gave you a little cash in a holiday card, and you’re going to choose something for yourself? The staff and friends of ReadTheSpirit suggest these 12 Guilt-Free Gifts.


For more than 30 years, the Rev. Edward McNulty has been a national treasure. Since the 1970s, Ed has used his skills as both a Presbyterian clergyman and a professional Film Critic to write movie reviews, study guides and books that show readers how to explore films from a faith perspective. Each week, to this day, Ed “gives away” new film reviews in his department within Read The Spirit, called Visual Parables. But, today, we’re encouraging you to dig deeper into Ed’s wealth of resources: The way to receive Ed’s small-group study guides, each month, is to purchase a fully paid subscription to the one thing he sells: Visual Parables Journal. Please, support the work of this faithful film critic—and enjoy lots of uplifting fun with movies in 2014. How to get this: CLICK on the Visual Parables graphic at right; then, at Ed’s website, choose “Subscribe to the Full Journal.”


If you’re shopping for a gift that you can share with family, friends or a small group in your community—then, please, buy a copy of Lynne Meredith Golodner’s The Flavors of Faith.  Lynne’s book tells the true story of how different kinds of bread are connected with the spiritual traditions of Christians, Jews, Muslims and Native Americans. She not only tells the sacred stories of these “Holy Breads”—she also provides delicious recipes for each bread. This will give you and your family months of inspiring eating—and it’s a great idea to use in either a New Year’s class or a Lenten-season small group at your church. How to get this: CLICK on this link, or CLICK on the Flavors of Faith book cover shown in the left margin of this webpage.


Faith-and-pop-culture expert Jane Wells is just releasing her newest inspirational book. As we discussed with Jane in a recent author interview, her new book, called Bird on Fire, taps into the phenomenal interest among teens and 20-somethings in science fiction and fantasy tales like The Hunger Games. This is an age range largely missing from most churches. However, as Jane says in our interview, the themes that are so compelling in these novels and movies are connected with major charitable campaigns in churches nationwide: feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and freeing contemporary slaves. These themes also connect with inspiring Bible stories, which Jane explains in her book. Energize and welcome this missing age group in your congregation by starting a local group to discuss Bird on Fire. How to get this: CLICK on the Bird on Fire graphic to jump directly to our Bookstore; or click on this Interview link to read more about Jane and her book.  


Longtime readers are familiar with columnist Rodney Curtis, known by the title of his first memoir, The Spiritual Wanderer. Since we started ReadTheSpirit online magazine, Rodney’s quirky columns have launched 1,000 laughs. What’s amazing is that his good humor continued—even as Rodney hit the direst challenges of our era: losing his job in a downsizing industry—and—discovering that he had life-threatening cancer. He has survived both with his attitude undimmed. In our recent interview with Rodney, he talks about how he manages to keep “laughing in the face of fear”—and to encourage his readers to do the same. There’s not a better, more-hopeful gift for someone who needs a shot of humor than buying one—or all three—of Rodney’s books. How to get this: CLICK on the Rodney Curtis book covers, above, to jump to our Bookstore. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Rodney and his remarkable work.


There’s no storyteller like Rabbi Bob Alper, the world’s only full-time stand-up comic and practicing rabbi, whose hilarious routines are heard daily on the Sirius/XM clean comedy channel. His new book features 32 true stories from settings as far flung as The Tonight Show studio, the hills of Vermont, and a tiny Polish village. Readers meet a stained-glass artist whose granddaughter is Drew Barrymore, a woman who attends services with her dog, a 5-year-old grief counselor and an elderly Holocaust survivor who discovers that he can speak about his lost sisters for the first time. Warm, touching stories that evoke laughter and tears—this is a perfect gift for you or a loved one in the depths of Winter. How to get this: CLICK on the image of the smiling boy from Bob’s book cover, above, to jump to our Bookstore.


If you happen to read this column before December 27, 2013, then author, journalist and religious historian Don Lattin is giving all of us a gift. He temporarily set the Kindle price at $1.99 for his fascinating book, Distilled Spirits: Getting High, Then Sober, With a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. In April, we interviewed Don Lattin about this new book, which is an in-depth look at influences behind the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous and the spiritual connections between Bill Wilson, Gerald Heard and Aldous Huxley. The 12-Step movement now is regarded as a historic breakthrough in the history of world religions—and Don’s book is a terrific read. We guarantee: You’ve never heard the true story he unfolds in this book. How to get this: CLICK on the Distilled Spirits book image to jump to Amazon. Or, click on this Interview link to read more about Don and his remarkable work. Or, you can visit Don’s own website. (And if you’re reading this column after December 27—hey, the book is still a terrific read!)


The full title of Margaret Passenger’s new book is, She and You and Me: Finding Ourselves in the BibleMargaret’s long career spans three professions as: a high-school English teacher, a newspaper copy editor and a United Methodist minister. She and her husband, editor Henry Passenger, are longtime friends of ReadTheSpirit magazine and Books. Also, here in Michigan where our Home Office is based, the Passengers are very active in the interfaith network known as Michigan Communicators. Margaret agrees with us here at ReadTheSpirit in one pointed critique of inspirational publishing nationwide: Most readers of these books are women; yet more men than women are given opportunities to publish such books. Margaret spent many years working with small groups in parishes to perfect this book-length study of women in the Bible. We recommend it and encourage you to support Margaret’s work by ordering a copy. It’s a great choice for a New Year’s or Lenten small group discussion, because one of the central themes is: encouraging women today to take courage from the examples of biblical women. How to get this: CLICK on Maragaret’s book cover, at right, to jump to Amazon.

8. A Rare Story of Jesus as a Boy

Speaking of interfaith connections in publishing, we are impressed with the work of Chris Stepien, an independent author whose story appeared in ReadTheSpirit in June. His new book is called Three Days: The Search for the Boy Messiah. Like the Passengers (mentioned above), Chris is a long-time media professional who now is active in interfaith work. A devout Catholic and a father, Chris felt moved to explore the brief biblical account of Jesus as a boy getting “lost” in the Temple in Jerusalem. Even though Chris admits that he isn’t a formally trained Bible scholar—he set out to research and write a novelized account of those experiences. We are impressed with Chris’s approach to this work. Using his professional talents as a writer and researcher, Chris sincerely is trying to build cross-cultural connections through his storytelling. We say: He’s setting a great example. Get the book! Read it! How to get this: CLICK on the “Three Days” image from Chris’s book cover to jump to Amazon.

9. Fran McKendree helps out with a song

Singer/songwriter Fran McKendree is a good friend to our readers, through his regular sharing of stories and songs. Among his past columns in our online magazine: You can see and hear him in this story, which includes a video of Fran performing Times Like These. Then, in his column Let’s Go Fly a Kite, Fran described a retreat he designed involving kites. This autumn, he wrote about his involvement in the Awakening Soul project. Then, one more link: Many readers enjoyed this meditative chant in video form. Our message to all of our readers is: Get to know this talented and faithful musician! He travels the country working with church groups and peacemaking events. And, right now, he’s selling a Christmas carol (for a dollar) to help raise funds for a good cause. How to get this: CLICK on the image of Fran to jump to his website. (And if you’re reading this column after Fran is finished with the Christmas carol effort—hey, get to know him through his website! He’s always starting something new and inspiring.)

10. Learn about Native Americans in ‘Our Fires Still Burn’

Filmmaker Audrey Geyer devoted years to producing the documentary, Our Fires Still Burn, about the contemporary lives of Great Lakes Indians. What inspires us about this film is that Audrey balances the stories she includes in her film so that she is honest about some deep wounds, including the campaign to force Indian children into boarding schools, but she also highlights bright sparks of renewed life, as well. Her film has been featured in public showings—as well as regional broadcasts on PBS stations. You may see Our Fires Still Burn showing up on a PBS affiliate near you in 2014. Right now, though, we are encouraging our readers to visit Audrey’s website, learn about her documentary, make people aware of the film—and, please, consider ordering a DVD. How to get this: CLICK on the image from Audrey’s film to jump to her website.

11. Don’t Forget the Caregivers!

Helping the nation’s millions of caregivers is a major goal at ReadTheSpirit, spearheaded by columnist Heather Jose. In fact, Heather recently wrote a column, called What do we give? If you’re reading this item and you’ve forgotten to think of a caregiver in your life at this time of year—go read Heather’s column and make a plan. We are urging readers, as 2013 moves into 2014, to bookmark so you won’t miss the many inspiring and helpful columns Heather brings us, each week. She welcomes guest writers, as well, including Benjamin Pratt, Rodney Curtis and Paul Hile. Of course, we would love to have you look at our ReadTheSpirit Bookstore and support these writers by buying any of our half-dozen caregiving-themed books. And, if you’re thinking of organizing a caregiving ministry in 2014, we would love to hear from you! Heather occasionally makes appearances at events nationwide and she’s always looking for ideas to highlight in her columns. How to do this: CLICK on the blue Caregivers logo to visit Heather’s department. Or, email us at [email protected]

12. Join MSU in Celebrating American Diversity

Finally, one of our proudest accomplishments is enabling the Michigan State University School of Journalism to launch a whole series of books helping in nationwide efforts to encourage “cultural competency”—the phrase commonly used today to describe educational efforts to break down cross-cultural bias. With coordination from MSU’s Joe Grimm, a veteran journalist and educator, MSU students first produced The New Bullying and quickly discovered that the book made a real impact in awakening adults to emerging forms of bullying among teens. Since then, Joe and his MSU teams of students have produced the first two volumes of what will be an extensive series of books on gaining “cultural competency.” Please, do your part to build healthier, more peaceful communities in 2014 by learning about the MSU project and buying these guides to use in your region. How to do this: CLICK on the image of MSU students to visit our most recent story about this pioneering project. You’ll find links there to purchase their guides.

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

The Debbie Blue interview on Consider the Birds

WHAT IF God is less like an eagle—and more like a … vulture?

What if the Spirit of God is less like a dove—and more like a … pigeon?

These are just a couple of the startling questions explored by the innovative Minnesota pastor Debbie Blue in her new book, Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible. You may have discovered Debbie Blue before today’s interview. You might have heard one of the popular podcasts she posts from her congregation: House of Mercy, in St. Paul, Minnesota. You may have heard this line that often is used to describe Debbie: “She approaches scripture like a farm wife handles a chicken, carefully but not delicately, thoroughly but not exactly cautiously.” House of Mercy often is called: “a pretty great church.” If this is sounding like a story by Garrison Kiellor, then you’re not far off the mark. Debbie and her congregation have been featured on Minnesota Public Radio.

And, just like listening to Garrison Kiellor, you may not agree with every story Debbie tells. But, you will think about the world a little differently after the encounter. You’ll definitely think about the Bible in new ways.


DAVID: Your church is in St. Paul but you really are a farmer, right?

DEBBIE: My family and I live on about 80 acres with four other families. We share the land together and, yes, we do some farming—but mostly we have what you would call gardens. We’ve been doing the House of Mercy for 18 years, so we’ve been at this for a while. I have a son who just went off to college for the first time and a daughter who is 13.

DAVID: It’s not what we would call a “commune,” though. For example, you’re not like a Bruderhoff Community with a shared kitchen and evening meals together. Your living situation is looser than that.

DEBBIE: We all have our own dwellings here. Our community has been going on for 18 years and I think it works because we’re not that intense of a community. We’re good friends who share the land. We do have occasional meals together.

DAVID: And it’s relevant to this book that you know what you’re talking about on a very practical level when you write about the natural world and our relationship with animals and birds. Or, as readers think about that promotional line comparing your qualities to a “farm wife”—well, the truth is, you do know something about farming.

DEBBIE: Yes, but the way I got interested in writing this new book actually was through my interest in medieval bestiaries.

DAVID: These were a bit like centuries-old encyclopedias of life on earth without the science. These medieval versions were created to draw Christian lessons from the animals.

DEBBIE: There had been a Christian tradition of trying to divide “man” from “beast” and the natural world from supernatural truth. But the medieval bestiaries took a different tack. In Job, it says: “But ask the animals, and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you. Ask the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you.”

The creators of these bestiaries believed that every animal, every plant, every rock—every created thing—possessed a truth of God. Often, the bestiaries were illuminated prayer books or Psalters that included these images of wild creatures. The thought was that these images could teach us something about God.

Yes, these medieval versions were full of pre-scientific ideas and some of the morality in these books was quite different than what we would teach today. But I think of my book as a contemporary version of a bestiary—looking for truth in things that are not of human construction.

The creators of the bestiaries paid such careful attention to these creatures, assuming that they might unlock windows for us that we normally keep closed. So, I love being part of that tradition. This really goes back to Jesus himself, who said: “Consider the birds.”

DAVID: It’s in Matthew, although some of the newer translations now render it, “Look at the birds …” It’s part of Jesus’s “Do not worry” teaching—and there’s a version of it in Luke as well.

Then, I want to bring up another great selling point for your book: Millions of Americans love birds! The latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Survey says there are nearly 50 million American bird watchers—the most intense kind of bird lovers. If you add in all the people who have bird feeders, who love birds in comic strips and animated movies, who sing about birds in popular songs—well, this is a very crowd-pleasing idea! It’s great for individual reading, for small group discussion and imagine preaching a sermon series on Consider the Birds? People would flock to church.

Are you a birder with a Life List?


DEBBIE: I’m not as serious about birding as I once was—as I explain in the book. Back when I was courting my husband, I was pretty serious about birding and he taught me how to identify warblers. I was totally smitten with that idea. We paid a lot of attention to birds for a while, then we had kids and I started a church and it didn’t seem feasible to tromp through fields and woods with binoculars for hours, anymore.

Birding does give you this attentive space, though, that I wanted to experience again. One reason I wanted to write this book was that it required me to go outside again and spend time being attentive to birds. In the discipline of birding you come to appreciate waiting—using your body and mind as you pay careful attention. As in any devotional practice, birding creates a space in our lives that our culture desperately needs.

DAVID: Let me read a little passage from your book’s Introduction. You write: “Falling in love and identifying birds have similar effects. Normal life is altered; every experience heightened; what was mundane begins to explode with meaning. You think birds are just birds—undifferentiated fluttering, then you find one magnified in your lens. You recognize its unique markings, lines and color. Your heart pounds. It is a cerulean warbler. It is your new mate. I believe both things have equal power to change your life. I’m not kidding. Jim and I spent our courtship looking for birds. We drove to Nebraska to see the cranes do their mating dances.”

But I should quickly add that, while this book is about appreciating the birds in the Bible in surprisingly new ways—this isn’t a book about bird watching per se. Here are the 10 birds to which you’ve devoted 10 chapters: Pigeon, Pelican, Quail, Vulture, Eagle, Ostrich, Sparrow, Cock, Hen and Raven.


DAVID: Like your beloved bestiaries, you play with the bird images in this book. So, let’s talk about two specific sections that certainly caught my eye and are likely to prompt a whole wave of sermons and group discussions coast to coast. I can just see the sermon titles out on the roadside sign boards—and curious folks showing up to see whether their local pastor has gone a little nutty.

Let’s start with your chapters on the Vulture and the Eagle. There are so many thought-provoking ideas, so much historical information and so many spiritual insights in these 40 pages that my copy of your book now has the corners of many of these pages bent down—lots of notes in the margins, too. I won’t try to explain everything you cover in these two chapters, except this:

You open our eyes to a whole new interpretation of the Hebrew term “nesher.” You write, “The Hebrew word nesher is often translated in our English versions of the Bible as ‘eagle,’ but most scholars agree that ‘griffon vulture’ is at least an alternative …”

Now, I’ve checked with rabbis on this point, because it is such a striking idea: God may be like a vulture. And I would say the consensus I’ve heard—not being a Hebrew scholar myself—is that you’re onto something here. While most would agree with the usual “eagle” translation of this term, the fact is: “Nesher” means a bird that tears with its beak and references in ancient scriptures do claim that this bird was the highest-flying of all birds.

The griffon vulture was one of the ancient birds known to the Jewish people—and flies far higher than eagles. In fact, one type of griffon vulture is confirmed to have flown more than 36,000 feet. We know that because it was  ingested into the jet of an airliner over the Ivory Coast at that altitude. You’ve also got a pretty good ally in Rabbi Natan Slifkin, who writes for Zoo Torah.

DEBBIE: I like that you’re hearing this is a possible translation from the people you’ve consulted. At this point, though, I understand why Westerners can’t seem to bring themselves to more commonly translate nesher as vulture. Our culture regards vultures as horrific. We don’t like them. They eat dead bodies. I understand this. In Minnesota, we have mostly turkey vultures and it’s hard to appreciate them as physically beautiful. Their red faces look like they’ve had their skin pulled off.

So we may not be too eager, at first, to translate God telling Moses that God bore the Israelites on vulture’s wings or to translate Isaiah as saying we will rise up on vultures’ wings. Eagles are such powerful birds and we’ve come to respect them.

But think about this for a moment. Eagles are known for killing. Vultures hardly ever kill or hurt a living thing—they eat what’s already dead. Vultures are remarkable purifying machines. They take care of rotting remains that otherwise might spread disease. They have these crazy-strong digestive juices that kill bacteria. The Mayans refer to vultures as “death eaters.” That begins to make sense to me: We need something to rid death of its toxicity in our world. Vultures stare death in the face—and death passes right through their bodies, rendered harmless. I like this idea that God can take anything in and make it clean.

And vultures do fly higher than other birds—tens of thousands of feet in the air! I love the idea of a slowly waiting God who is soaring and ever-patient. Have you ever watched vultures soar? It makes me cry to see it. It’s really gorgeous.

And I also like the way that talking about this bird imagery in new ways questions some of the symbols we associate with nationalism and patriotism. The symbol of the eagle now is almost hopelessly laden with images of massive power, fierce patriotism, killer instinct. I think it’s time to rethink this.


DAVID: Well, compared with the Eagle-Vulture discussion, the Pigeon-Dove issue is crystal clear. They’re the same, really—all Columbidae. The point you raise in this part of the book is that the dove, as a symbol, has become boring from over-use. You write, “Maybe because it is such a familiar scene or because I’ve seen too many bad illustrations of it, or because the white dove has been overused as a symbol in commercial Christianity.” So, instead, you suggest that readers consider the possibility that dove references in Christianity might apply to pigeons in general.

DEBBIE: The dove is probably the most familiar bird in Christian symbolism. In each of the four gospels the Spirit appears at Jesus’s baptism as a dove. In the popular imagination, this has always been a snow white dove. But this story changes a lot when you realize that the bird at the baptism was probably more like a rock dove, which we might more commonly call a pigeon.The dove now is totally bland, but what happens when we think of the Holy Spirit as a pigeon? We tend to think of pigeons as dirty; we call them “rats with wings.” I love it that the symbol of the Holy Spirit might be a hair’s breadth away from human trashiness.

Yet, think of pigeons for a moment. They are everywhere! They leave droppings on our sidewalks and our window sills. What if the Holy Spirit is like the pigeon? What if the Spirit is always underfoot to the point that we almost hate the constant presence—always leaving signs of the Spirit’s presence—everywhere!

When we think of the Spirit as something rare and pure as driven snow, then we forget that the Spirit of God is far more complex than that—fuller, messier, everywhere in life. We can get hung up on purity. But, remember, when we say God created all life, everything was teeming and multiplying and swarming. Maybe the Spirit is more creative than pure. Maybe we need to rethink what holy truly is.

DAVID: What I like about this section of your book is the realization that you don’t have to travel all the way to St. Peter’s at the Vatican and pray in front of the snow-white-dove stained glass window there. You might have just as full of an experience of God’s presence on a park bench in New York City, feeding the pigeons.

DEBBIE: That’s my hope. I hope we can experience God everywhere and find that grace everywhere, not just in rarefied settings.

DAVID: If you could talk to readers finishing your book, what would you tell them to do next? How do you hope your book will affect people?

DEBBIE: I hope people will start paying attention to what’s around them everyday—the birds and the bushes and the grace of God around us all the time. Emily Dickinson wrote: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers …” and, if that is true, I hope we can increase people’s passion for keeping the world as beautiful as it is, now. I hope we’ll see more people working against climate change.

I hope people think about this: Hell would be a place without birds.

And I hope that I can help people to read the Bible in new ways—especially those who just can’t engage with the Bible now. I’m saying: There are layers and layers of meaning you can discover in the Bible. You can turn it—and turn it again—and look at it in new ways. There’s so much here, if we just look!


GET THE MUSIC! Debbie Blue’s House of Mercy also is a haven for musicians. Here is the overall House of Mercy music site. For the release of her new book, Debbie and her friends compiled a musical companion for readers who may be immersing themselves in the creative possibilities of birds for the first time. Visit this CD webpage for Bird Music, which describes the 15 tracks this way: The collection ranges from the old-time country sound of “The Great Speckled Bird” to the folk-pop of “Awake” to the jazzy cover of “Early Bird.” Tucked in-between these diverse styles is the gorgeous a cappella version of “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” that slows down and draws the listener in.

GET THE BOOK! Amazon offers Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible in paperback and Kindle editions.

ENJOY MORE ON READ THE SPIRIT: One of our own popular books is Conversations with My Old Dog, by Rob Pasick. You’ll also enjoy our interview with Marc Bekoff on The Animal Manifesto and Dr. Laura Hobgood-Oster on The Friends We Keep. We also highly recommend the Faith Outreach department of the U.S. Humane Society. If you are interested in the spiritual values of farm life, you’ll enjoy our recent interview with Mennonite author Shirley Showalter. And—new this weekFaithGoesPop writer Jane Wells tells us about a record-setting discovery about one amazing kind of bird.

Fran McKendree: How we are called to Awakening Soul


“God, put me in the midst of what you are doing, run me over with your presence, and allow me to bless what you are doing.”

This prayer is one of the touchstones of my morning meditation, as I begin my waking time each day. Humbling, grounding and enlightening, a reminder that I have work to do, that I do not do this alone, that this work, when I get my “small self” out of the way and stay true, can lead to what Michael Meade calls “threads of meaning—hints of purpose.”

Each morning this is a threshold crossing—moving out into the world, carrying in my heart the desire to live into the fulfillment of my calling. Over time, I have come to learn that deep in my heart is a yearning to create space where, with others, we might be fully present to the wonder, mystery and unfolding of our journeys.

Music—singing, making music or connecting with the music that’s already there, as Victor Wooten would say—is one of the shorelines where my yearning finds a home. So, I am continually searching the horizon for opportunities to connect through soulful music. In 2011, with the wise counsel and support of my wife, Diana, and other trusted friends, I formed with my colleague Ann Holtz the partnership we’ve call “AwakeningSoul.”

Our hope and underlying purpose in this endeavor is to create and host gatherings that offer:

  • Sanctuary—respite, a safe harbor where we know our anchor will hold fast in the rising, ebbing tides;
  • Sustenance—a banquet of wisdom, truth-telling, mindfulness and new awareness;
  • Inspiration—knowing we are not alone on our journeys, emboldened, invigorated, grateful and encouraged as we head back into our worlds.

For our first gathering, “A New, Ancient Harmony,” in December of 2011, we invited as presenters my dear friend John Philip Newell and poet Judy Brown, someone new to my circle but whose work I greatly admired. I wanted very much to have an intergenerational music ensemble and was thrilled to include Lindsey Blount, Charles Milling and Duncan Wickel. Rounding out our group, in between these young adults and me came River Guerguerian, a world renowned percussionist and beautifully creative spirit.

Our “weaver”—skillfully and artistically shuttling the waft and warp of the community we were forming was my fellow sojourner Brian Prior, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota. Certified Spiritual Director Diana McKendree and Brian led workshops for us as well; Diana offering an exploration of dream work, Brian focusing on living into our gifts. Ann handled with deft skill all the details, “nuts and bolts,” and design challenges that came our way.

John Philip led us each morning in his gentle, soul-searching way toward a lasting connection with all that we hold deepest within our hearts. Judy brought her gift of word-shaping to help us all remember to hold space in the kindled fires of our lives where “the spirit, knowing just how it wants to burn, can find its way.”

Our participants gave us in return the raising of their beautiful voices in song, the gift of their lively, spirited and profound conversation, full of hope and excitement, and most graciously, their trust and gratitude. Our musical ensemble brought to life all that was dancing around in our hearts and guided us at other times on the pathway toward that rare and mysterious glade we call stillness.


This November we’ll host our second event, “Modern Mind—Ancient Soul.” We have invited Lauren Winner and Jerry Wright to be our presenters. Lauren is an author (Girl Meets God and Still), a professor at Duke School of Divinity and an Episcopal priest. Jerry is a Jungian analyst, pilgrimage leader and Presbyterian minister. We’ve asked them to join us, not because they have “the answers,” but because they speak with integrity, courage, wisdom, humor and vulnerability;

“The things you thought you knew about the spiritual life turn out not to suffice for the life you are actually living. Something has shifted; something has moved; you are looking for God and you are looking in ways that you hadn’t known to look before.”
Lauren Winner

“Each generation must embrace the image of the Divine which best expresses the experience of the Divine. A god image which is not continually dying [transforming] is not worthy of our worship, since god images which do not change become idols.”
Jerry Wright

Our music ensemble will return to lift us once again, and Brian, Diana, and our other gifted, tireless support team will be bringing all their energy. Our evenings this year will be devoted to exercises that will lead us into deep, meaningful conversation. Our intention is that we are preparing the shape—we know that this gathering will only emerge fully with the energy, creativity, soulfulness and generous spirit of those who join us…. a community of seekers.

Read the Spirit has been for me a wonderful café—bustling with incredibly passionate and articulate seekers, yet offering a quiet corner for savoring the moments of “ah ha-ness” that sparkle each day, like light dancing off a prism in a kitchen window on a sunny morning. The folks I have met through this online magazine, regulars and drop ins, have been inspirational. I hope and pray that our Awakening Soul gatherings shine from that same prism, and that our time together and the paths we travel will be enlivened and enriched by our shared love and desire to continue to seek those “threads of meaning and hints of purpose.”

READ MORE in our overview of the November 2013 Awakening Soul gathering, which includes links to learn about dates, location and registration.

Awakening Soul: A prayerful gathering amid music and nature

ARDEN, N.C.—Peacemaker and singer-songwriter Fran McKendree, Lauren Winner (author of the popular Girl Meets God) and Jerry Wright (Jungian analyst and Presbyterian minister) are the headline speakers at a national gathering in November called, Awakening Soul: Modern Mind—Ancient Soul.

In addition to his national touring and activism, Fran McKendree is an occasional contributing writer and musician to Read The Spirit. Among his past contributions: He shared a music video, Times Like  These; and he shared a terrific retreat project that challenges participants to paint on kites. Fran also participated in our Read The Spirit national gathering in Kentucky in April.

If you are interested in Awakening Soul—either to share the inspiration from wherever you are sitting today or to consider attending in November—here is the information you’ll need.


Visit the Event page for this year’s Awakening Soul: Modern Mind—Ancient Soul. Here are short bios of the speakers, musicians and artists leading the four-day gathering this year. Scroll down past the bios and you’ll find the location, schedule and prices. Also, take a look at the Awakening Soul Gallery, which houses lots of intriguing material from the group’s 2011 national gathering.


Beyond the event, there is the message.

The best introduction to the spirit that motivates Awakening Soul is by Fran McKendree himself in a new column he has written describing the original spark, the first national gathering and his hopes for the 2013 event.

Even if you are not likely to attend the gathering—you may want to follow Fran McKendree’s stories, photos and music as he crisscrosses America. This singer-songwriter regularly leads major events in various parts of the U.S. He’s a popular choice to lead youth retreats and events for clergy renewal. Fran McKendree has a personal website packed with inspiring material.

We also have posted a 7-minute musical prayer—a video sent to us by Fran from an earlier Awakening Soul gathering. We are featuring that video, in its entirety, in our new Faith Goes Pop department.

Want to hear more of the nuts-and-bolts reasons for considering this event? Here is a 3-minute video in which Lauren Winner and Jerry Wright talk about what moves them to participate in Awakening Soul.


Snatam Kaur: Chanting for peace from Oprah’s home—to a neighborhood near you

By Lynne Meredith Golodner

Snatam Kaur recently got a phone call, asking her to perform at Oprah Winfrey’s Hawaii abode. It just so happened that the sacred chantress from Santa Cruz, California, was around the corner from Oprah’s Hawaii retreat so it was an easy request to grant. She and her band went and hid upstairs in Oprah’s bedroom, then surprised Oprah by walking down the stairs, playing music.

Every night before she goes to sleep, Oprah plays Snatam Kaur’s sacred chants. It speaks to the power of Kaur’s distinctive music, which she is performing nationwide this spring. This week—April 11-14, 2013—she is performing at Joshua Tree, California. Later this month, she will be in Ashville, North Carolina, and Atlanta, Georgia. May 10-11, she will be in Chicago. On May 12 and also on May 13, she will be in Birmingham, Michigan. Then, it’s off to Oregon, Washington and California. Her travels continue into summer. You can see her entire schedule at her website by selecting her 2013 concert tour page.

“The world is becoming a much smaller place, especially with Oprah being familiar with all of our chants—that was really quite surreal,” said Snatam Kaur in a recent telephone interview. “It was a beautiful experience to connect with her and see the integrity she holds in her work and her own inner strength as a powerful woman. I walked away from the experience very inspired by being with her and also seeing just how these mantras can really serve a wider population.”

Kaur is a Sikh raised in the Kundalini Yoga tradition under the leadership of Yogi Bhajan. Her music sells widely—more than 70,000 albums a year. She tours the world, bringing her spiritual practice to audiences of people from all walks of life because her universal message praises God and honors the Divine in every being. The daughter of a Grateful Dead manager, Kaur dresses in Sikh attire, wrapping her head in a turban as a sign of modesty. She is married and a mother, and the Gurmukhi mantras she sings in concert are part of a daily practice she herself grew up with.

“I live with these mantras,” she says. “They are very much a part of my life and rhythm and way that I can access the divine every day.”

Children attend her concerts and often doze off in the middle from the soothing sounds of the music swirling around them. During her Michigan visit in early May, Kaur will perform a concert with her band one night and lead a Kundalini Yoga workshop the next night, with her bandmates playing living music alongside.

“Before I started touring, I was teaching,” she says. “It feels like it’s coming full-circle, coming back to the teaching. To empower people to really learn about the power of these chants—I’ve experienced in my own life very profound healing through the chants and so I try to give the concert an experience mode as opposed to a performance mode.”

Kaur is accompanied in concert by Todd Boston on guitar and flute and Ramesh Kannan on percussion.

Snatam Kaur: What Is Mantra?

A mantra is a sound, syllable, word or string of words that people recite in repetitive formation as a way of creating transformation. Mantras originated in the Vedic tradition of India, before the formation of what today is known as Hinduism. Mantra is also prevalent among Buddhists, Sikhs and Jains. However, Snatam Kaur’s concerts are not aimed at specific religious groups. Her goal in touring is peacemaking—performing this type of music to bring a simple, soothing and healing sound to everyone.

For the authors of the Hindu scriptures, the Upanishads, the syllable Om represented Brahman, or the godhead, as well as all of creation. It is a sound that is uttered in many yoga studios across North America today as a calming and unifying chant.

Many people, when first coming to yoga or mantra from a Judeo-Christian tradition, feel uncertain as to whether chanting will in some way praise a foreign deity. However, the practice of yoga and mantra in Western settings usually is a religiously neutral discipline, uniting people around the practice of physical posture and music in a way that accepts participants’ individual beliefs.

Snatam Kaur: ‘I Am a Sikh’ shows solidarity in tragedy

Sikhism began in India in the 15th century with the master Guru Nanak. Sikhs believe in living their lives according to the teaching of the Sikh gurus, devoting time to meditation on God and scripture, chanting and living a life that benefits others. Kaur chants in the sacred tradition of Shabad, a term that refers to the sacred energy in speech and sound—similar to some Western traditions of sacred, meditative hymns. Among world religions, Sikhs have a special reverence for the timeless power of words. The Sikh community around the world refers to a holy book of collected writings, the Guru Granth Sahib, as the final teacher in its long line of gurus.

Recently, Kaur recorded an 11-minute YouTube video called I Am a Sikh, after a shooting incident last summer at the Oak Creek, Wisconsin, Sikh community. (Wikipedia has an overview of the tragedy in which a white supremacist opened fire killing six and injuring four others, before taking his own life.) A petite, Caucasian woman, Kaur’s turbans and all-white clothing mark her as distinctively different as she moves around the country. She produced the video to explain what it means to be a Sikh and to express solidarity with that community in the wake of the shooting. Kaur will be performing a concert there on May 9 at 7 pm to honor the Sikhs in that community. It is open to the public.

The shooting “was just so devastating,” she said. “It felt like it happened right in my own home—that real and personal for me. I had heard about the Sikhs in Oak Creek and how incredible they were, and I was just inspired, and I wanted to do something in service to the Sikh community to get the word out about who the Sikhs are.”

“I see myself as a representative of the Sikh community and because it has such a strong root in healing through sound current and mantra, it’s accessible for people of all walks of life,” she says. “That’s essentially what I represent and share with people.”

“Everyone’s seeking happiness in some way and seeking a way to feel fulfilled. And if they feel just a little sense of healing or happiness, they’re incredibly grateful and don’t really care where it comes from,” she says. While people are often curious about her attire and her devotion, Kaur says she doesn’t run into much stereotyping or judgment. How she lives, what she performs and the message she brings are “gifts for everyone and every walk of life,” Kaur says.

Snatam Kaur in southeast Michigan

Katherine Austin, owner of Karma Yoga in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and a fan of Snatam Kaur and of Kundalini Yoga, is producing the May 12-13 events in metro Detroit. Kaur’s concert and yoga workshop will take place at Seaholm High School in Birmingham.

“Over the years, I’ve had a few tracks of Snatam’s albums but it wasn’t until I was in Rishikesh, India, in 2011 that I fell head over heels in love with her singing through the practice of Kundalini yoga,” says Austin. “I was quickly transformed by the purity and power of the mantras and immediately brought them back to Karma for my classes—whether they were Kundalini or Hatha yoga. I felt the power and healing from these ancient mantras and knew they would instantly affect my students in a positive way.”

Austin plays Kaur’s music in class frequently. Many students in her studio, which attracts 3,500 people each month, say they are excited for the upcoming performances. Austin hopes to pack the 900-seat Seaholm auditorium and have hundreds attend the yoga workshop. The concert takes place on Mother’s Day evening, a perfect synergy for the message and the mantras, she says.

Kaur agrees that her concerts are perfect family events, as the soothing, uplifting music is accessible for all ages. At a recent Mexico City yoga workshop, Kaur says there were two 8-year-old girls in attendance who did every pose and posture with ease. At her concerts, children dance and sing and drift off into sleep when the music gets ultra-soothing.

“Mantras are high vibrational sounds that go beyond the thinking mind to clear, reorganize and create new higher thought patterns and emotions that help us make better choices,” says Austin. That they come in musical form means they are even more accessible. The yoga taught at Austin’s studio “has always included the spirituality of yoga,” she says. That said, students come from all walks of life and all faiths. In March of 2012, Austin attended a retreat with Kaur and her band. After that week of “bliss,” she decided she wanted to share Snatam Kaur’s inspirational performances with her students and community.

“I am beyond thrilled that Snatam is coming! Metro Detroit is in for such a gift,” says Austin. “Her unique delivery of the sacred sound current is profound. Everyone will come away with only love and bliss in their hearts after spending these two days with her.”

The concerts themselves become a sacred setting, Kaur says, as the audience grows toward chanting the words together. “It’s an opportunity for transformation for me and for people that come,” she says. “I feel it in every concert. A very deep personal transformation happens.”

SEE SNATAM KAUR’S ENTIRE SCHEDULE AT HER WEBSITE—by finding and clicking on her 2013 concert tour page.

Lynne Meredith Golodner is  an author with ReadTheSpirit Books. Visit her author page to learn more about her remarkable career and her newest book, The Flavors of Faith: Holy Breads.

(This profile and interview of Snatam Kaur, by Lynne Meredith Golodner, was originally published in, an online magazine covering religion, values and cross-cultural issues. You can feel free to reproduce this column if you include this credit line and link.)

Beyond Oscars: Top 10 Best Spiritual Movies of 2012

FILM FANS in 100 nations will tune in The 2013 Oscars on February 24. Movies are a global language that speaks to the head, the heart—and the spirit. TODAY, faith-and-film author Edward McNulty shares his own list of Best Pictures—focusing on films with spiritual themes. The official Oscar competition has only 9 Best Picture nominees from 2012: Armour, Argo, Beasts of the Southern Wild, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Life of Pi, Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, Zero Dark Thirty. McNulty picks only 5 of those for his list—then, he adds 5 more films for his Top 10 Best Spiritual Movies of 2012. You’ll enjoy the list—and these films also can spark spirited discussion in your small group.

And, “Best Spiritual Picture” goes to …
Top 10 Must-See 2012 Movies


As a columnist on faith and film, I reviewed more than 120 films in preparing this list of Best Spiritual Movies. By describing these 10 as “spiritual,” I don’t mean that they are “religious”—although several of them feature characters who believe in God and regularly worship. I mean “spiritual” in a broader sense—affirming that life is more than what we can see with our eyes, that life is often difficult and dark, but that it is possible to find the resources to overcome that darkness. Think about the Gospel song in the 2006 film The Pursuit of Happyness sung by the choir at Glide Memorial Church where a homeless father (played by Will Smith) and his son find food, shelter and spiritual strength.
Lord don’t move the mountain,
But give me strength to climb it!


DIRECTOR: Tom Hooper. RATING: PG-13.
Of the six versions of Victor Hugo’s masterpiece that I have seen, Tom Hooper’s film is now my favorite. I was disappointed that his film cut short the pivotal sequence in which the Bishop redeems the soul of the newly released convict Jean Valjean. But, overall, I was very impressed! What appeals most to me in this version is the way the music moves from the kind of auxiliary role that we expect from the soundtrack in typical dramas—to become a central vehicle for revealing the inner thoughts and feelings of the characters. This is the film counterpart to the interior monologue that novelists use so effectively, but that is difficult to transfer to the big screen. Now, in song, we can hear the turmoil in Jean Valjean’s mind and heart as he ponders the incredible grace bestowed upon him by the kindly Bishop. And in Javert we see the foundation of his whole life crumbling as he puzzles over Valjean’s very un-criminal act in sparing his life at the barricades. Finally, I love the inclusion of the novelist’s line at the end that gets to the heart of the Gospel: “To love another person is to see the face of God.” (Read my entire review of Les Misérables, which includes a free study guide for your small group.)


DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg. RATING: PG-13.
Steven Spielberg again delves into American history, this time two decades after the incidents he chronicled in Amistad, his film based on the trial of Africans who stage an uprising on a slave ship. The sheer artistry of Daniel Day-Lewis’s and Sally Field’s performances as the anguished Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln are enough to place this film high on my list. The film could serve as a midrash on Jesus’s admonition that his disciples be “as harmless as doves and wise as serpents.” In this film, Lincoln is taken down from his high pedestal and is immersed in the political muck of arm-twisting and deal-making required to get Congress to pass a bill as controversial as the amendment to free slaves. The film honestly shows us how Lincoln shared the prejudices of his era in spite of personally hating slavery. We see how he develops along a courageous moral pathway until he becomes committed to leaving a legacy of everlasting freedom for those in bondage. (Read my entire review of Lincoln. And, you will also enjoy my story about the religious life of our 16th President.)


A spiritual odyssey as well as a tale of survival at sea, The Life of Pi is one of the most religious films on this list. In fact, Jan Martel’s original best-selling novel has been a favorite selection of discussion groups—including religious discussion groups—since it first was published in 2001. President Obama made headlines in 2010 by sending a letter to Martel, praising his novel as: “an elegant proof of God, and the power of storytelling.” Ang Lee’s film is a triumph, considering that most fans of the novel declared that it never could be put on the big screen. At first, the story seems so simple. I still remember Walt Kelly’s famous statement by Pogo, “When you starve with a tiger, the tiger starves last.” In this case, the teen-ager Piscine Molitor “Pi” Patel tries to stay afloat and alive with a large Bengal tiger sharing his lifeboat. Pi is a devotee of three faiths—Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam—and he will need to draw on all of them to keep body and soul together during the 227 days afloat in the ocean. The spectacular beauty of the sea and sky make this a joy to watch, and the spiritual themes of God and hope make this a “must” for this list.

BEST SPIRITUAL MOVIES: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

Now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the film’s Amazon page.DIRECTOR: Stephen Chbosky. RATING: PG.
“The outsider” is a theme in many of the films on this list—a despised ex-convict in Les Misérables; a castaway trying to straddle three faiths in Life of Pi; a young boy and girl who “don’t fit” with peers in Moonrise Kingdom; a little girl and her dying father in Beasts of the Southern Wild; a boy unwanted by his own father in Kid With a Bike; and a college student alienated from his church and his father in Blue Like Jazz. Even Abraham Lincoln was an outsider. And so in Stephen Chbosky’s delightful film we meet Charlie, Patrick, and Sam, three young outsiders bonding and surviving—no, triumphing over the difficulties of their teen years. Unfortunately it was shut out of this year’s Academy Award nominations. I loved the film for its Zorba the Greek-like moments. In one scene, a character stands up in the bed of a pick-up truck and raises arms out as if flying because of the joy of the moment. The three friends are speeding through a tunnel at the end of which the skyline of Pittsburgh is revealed. The film shows in numerous scenes what the church, when it lives up to its calling, means by a life of grace.


Available in DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the film’s Amazon page.DIRECTOR: Wes Anderson. RATING: PG-13.
Director Wes Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola’s venture into magic realism is a delightful take on the outsider genre. This time, the outsiders are a quirky boy and girl, both bright and talented—and both awkwardly at odds with their peers. This story of their first love transpires on an island where young Sam is dumped into a scouting program and is smitten when he spots Suzy in a local church play. Without spoiling the film’s plot twists, it is safe to say: Suzy agrees to run away with Sam toward an Eden-like area of the island. Suspense builds as a hurricane looms and the young people wind up in the high tower of a church. But grace (or God) intervenes, and in the traditional comedic sense “all’s well that ends well.” We might see the writing team rise to the platform at the Oscars, since they were nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category. Anderson was nominated for two earlier Oscars, but has not won to date. As usual, Anderson has attracted a wonderful cast, including Bill Murray, Bruce Willis, Edward Norton, Francis McDormand and Tilda Swinton.

BEST SPIRITUAL MOVIES: Beasts of the Southern Wild

Now available in DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the film’s Amazon page.DIRECTOR: Harold “Benh” Zeitlin. RATING: PG-13.
I was at times puzzled by what was going on in this first-time director’s film—but I never once glanced at my watch. Another film in the magic realism genre, this combines concern for the environment with a study of folk in the bottom strata of society, a group of adults who live in a bayou they call “The Bathtub,” cut off from the rest of the world by a levee. The story is told by 6-year-old Hushpuppy and involves both the reality of a hurricane and the onslaught of mythical creatures called Aurochs, set free from their frozen bondage in the Arctic by the melting polar icecap. Her dying father Wink is trying to prepare her for his coming demise when she will be left a total orphan. The film celebrates the proud spirit of these two and their rag-tag neighbors, as well as the real love of the father for his daughter. The surrealistic ending when Hushpuppy confronts the stampeding beasts and shares a last supper with her father stirs something deep and primal within the viewer. Perhaps most fascinating about this production is young Benh Zeitlin’s background. This was his first feature film; he is the son of the co-founders of New York’s famous City Lore, a center devoted to documenting and preserving urban folk culture. The son has traveled far afield for this film, but his storytelling ability is remarkable.


Now available on DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.DIRECTORS: Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne. RATING: PG-13.
I’ll admit that I am reaching a bit to include Kid with a Bike, which was released in 2011. Unfortunately, this gem was virtually unknown in this country until the prestigious Criterion Collection decided to prepare one of its definitive DVD/Blu-ray sets. The Criterion version will be released this week. So, I’m splitting the 2012-2013 difference and declaring this an honoree in my list for 2012! (Click the cover, at right, for more from Amazon.) Seldom has a film dealt so well with a child determinedly striving for acceptance while feeling abandoned—and, as a result, rebelling against the people trying to help him. Little wonder that it was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes in 2011. As I watch this Belgian-French film, I envision it as a midrash on Jesus’s parable about the persistent woman who kept searching for her lost coin. Eleven year-old Cyril is dumped into a children’s home by his widower father, then he is invited into the home of Samantha. But, this angry boy is convinced that authorities are keeping him from his father, so he tests Samantha’s love and patience almost to the breaking point. The bicycle in the title becomes symbolic of the boy’s tenacious grasp on the illusion about his father. Told in minimalist style, the film depends upon its wonderful cast to open our hearts to their predicament with none of the sentimental props so common in Hollywood movies.


Available now in DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.DIRECTOR: Steve Taylor. RATING: PG-13.
This tale of the spiritual journey of a Southern Baptist student from Fundamentalism through agnosticism to an open-minded faith seems so far over the top at times that it would be unbelievable—were it not for the fact that it is based on Don Miller’s memoir of the same title. The book, published in 2003, was on the New York Times list of best sellers for 40 weeks! To this day, it is a popular choice for young adults and is promoted through the “emergent church” movement, sometimes compared to works by Anne Lamott. The director/script writers concentrate on the period when student Don Miller, disillusioned by his youth pastor, leaves Texas to enroll in his unbelieving father’s alma mater, the ultra-liberal Reed College in Portland Oregon. The ups and downs of his spiritual journey are told with a great deal of humor. Eventually, the influence of believers who are genuine in their obedience to a God of love and social involvement revives and transforms his faith. This is the only film on this list that is described as a “Christian movie” by the film’s fans, including many of the 60-plus reviewers on the movie’s Amazon page. Overall, that genre doesn’t measure up for a “best of the year” list like this, but—as one Amazon reviewer puts it—“This is not like typical Christian movies.” I agree.


Available in DVD and Blu-ray. Click the cover to visit the Amazon page.DIRECTORS: Chris Renaud & Kyle Balda. RATING: PG.
Since it was published 40 years ago, millions of parents and children have read Dr. Seuss’s cautionary fable about the environment. Like most Seuss books, the story proved to be as popular with adults as with kids. And that’s the best thing I can say about this animated feature film: Adults will enjoy the film as much as little ones. Danny DeVito voices the moustached Lorax, the Yoda-like creature who announces that he has come to speak on behalf of the trees that are vanishing in pursuit of corporate greed. The film becomes a call to act when the Lorax says to the little boy Ted: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better—it’s not.” Some critics did not like this film version of the book, partly I suspect because so many of us love the original Lorax story and have strong ideas about how it should be retold. But, I find the movie delightful and a great opportunity to talk further with children about the environment from a faith perspective. For example, parents might want to share the Genesis creation story with their children after watching the movie. Remind them of the passages in Genesis that require us to “be responsible for” and not to “dominate” the planet. Eugene Peterson’s Message translation of these passages is a great choice for reading aloud.


DIRECTOR: Kathryn Bigelow. RATING: R.
There has been—and rightly so—much controversy over director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal’s film chronicling the ten-year manhunt and the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011. There is no debating that the film is well made, with Jessica Chastain excellent as CIA agent Maya who will not give up the search despite the doubts of her colleagues and several setbacks that would have stopped a less determined agent. The current controversy focuses on the film’s depiction of torture, practiced by Americans and supposedly producing key information in the quest to find bin Laden. A long list of top journalists and also U.S. Senators opposed to the use of torture, including Senator John McCain, have accused Bigelow’s film of unfairly serving to justify the use of torture. On my first viewing of the film, I was among those questioning the film’s basic morality. Then, I read perceptive comments by filmmaker Michael Moore, who says he questioned people who watched the movie—and learned that their sympathies in every case were with the Muslim prisoner, not with his brutal American interrogator. Moore also argues that the film clearly shows President Obama’s election, his ban on such torture—and a turn in the investigation toward real detective work. I find the character of Maya quite compelling and positive as a tough woman refusing to be cowed by bigotted male co-workers. Maya persists and without further torture manages to track down bin Laden despite her critics. With this analysis in mind, I went back and saw the movie a second time. Now, I agree that the film has positive moral messages and deserves to close out my 2012 list of Best Spiritual Movies.


Here are the other worthy films considered for this list. Each one offers plenty of food for thought and discussion. I also was impressed in 2012 with The Avengers; Argo; The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Boy; Brave; Cloud Atlas; Django Unchained; Flight; The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey; Hope Springs; Hyde Park on the Hudson; Intouchables; The Master; The Odd Life of Timothy Green; Paranorman; Promised Land; Seeking a Friend for the End of the World; Salmon Fishing in the Yeman; Silver Lining Playbook.

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