Movie review and Bible study: Les Misérables

EDWARD MCNULTY’S books on faith and film are used in congregations nationwide. Earlier, he reviewed Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. In 2013, ReadTheSpirit will publish his new book, Blessed Are the Filmmakers. In the following review, McNulty shows how to spark discussion in your congregation.

Update for New Year’s: We are not alone in encouraging discussion of the religious themes in this new version of the classic. In reviewing Les Misérables for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis made the same point, writing: “Georges Sand apparently felt that there was too much Christianity in Hugo’s novel; Mr. Hooper seems to have felt that there wasn’t enough in the musical and, using his camera like a Magic Marker, repeatedly underlines the religious themes that are already narratively and lyrically manifest.”

Les Misérables


OUR WAIT IS OVER! The long-awaited Les Misérables musical is here.

In world literature, the original novel ranks with War and Peace. But Victor Hugo’s story has been produced for film and television in at least 80 different forms over the past century, compared with less than 10 of Tolstoy’s epic. That shows the enduring, worldwide affection for Les Misérables. I think that we really have two great stories of Law and Grace in Western culture: Saint Paul’s transformation in the New Testament and Hugo’s celebrated tale of Inspector Javert and Jean Valjean.

If you’re like me and can’t get enough of Les Misérables, I recommend that you also enjoy other film versions, especially if you would like to lead a small-group discussion with this review and guide. Each of the filmed versions has some details that are omitted in other versions. Among earlier versions I can recommend are: the 1935 version with Frederick March and Charles Laughton, the 1958 version with veteran French actors Jean Gabin and Bernard Blier in the two central roles as Valjean and Javert, and then I also like the 1998 version co-starring Liam Neeson and Geoffrey Rush as fugitive and policeman. Like millions of moviegoers, you may have your own favorite version.

In Tom Hooper’s newest release, opening nationwide on Christmas Day, music moves from a supporting role into the heart of the story, thus adding an emotional intensity not possible in the straight dramas. The spiritual agony and questioning of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is beautifully expressed in the song “What Have I Done?” As fans of the story know, the repentant thief’s life is transformed by a graceous bishop—and, in a chapel, Valjean addresses his prayer to “Sweet Jesus.” He reflects upon the past injustice committed against him and the remarkable man who shows him such inspiring kindness. Valjean vows to live up to the bishop’s love and trust in him as he sets forth to build a new life, devoted to serving humanity and thus serving God.

Valjean succeeds and eventually becomes the mayor of the town where he settles. Unfortunately, the town’s new police chief turns out to be his nemesis from years ago, Javert (Russell Crowe). Close at hand and increasingly suspicious of Valjean’s real identity is the very man who can destroy him.

Inspector Javert is an uncompromising enforcer of the law with the zeal of a man who was born in prison but rose above his past. He clings to the law as his own form of faith. At one point, Javert sings: “Mine is the way of the Lord/And those who follow the path of the righteous/Shall have their reward.” But what of those who stray from “the path of the righteous”? “And if they fall/As Lucifer fell/The flame/The sword!”

There is more—much more—that could be said about the spirituality of this version, including other prayers and invocations of God in various scenes. If you are familiar with the Bible, you will see other stories and passages resonate throughout the film that you may want to raise in a discussion with friends. Clearly, though, the most striking is the parallel with the New Testament life of Paul.

And, what if you are not interested in these biblical connections? Well, you’re sure to enjoy the terrific storytelling and stirring music. Toward the end, the rousing repetition of the chorus “Do You Hear the People Sing” even puts a positive spin on the tragedy of the freedom fighters at the barricade, suggesting that eventually the struggle of people for justice and freedom will triumph. There is no doubt that this belongs at or near the top of this year’s best films!

Want more from Edward McNulty? See the links, after the Brief Study Guide. Through his own website, Visual Parables, Ed produces much more detailed versions of his film reviews and study guides for group leaders who like to regularly feature film-and-faith discussions.

Les Misérables Brief Study Guide

DISCUSS LAW and GRACE / SAUL and PAUL: An easy way to spark lively discussion is to revisit the life of Saul, who becomes known as Paul in the New Testament accounts. You can read about Paul’s transformation in the book of Acts. In addition, there are many passages in Paul’s writings that you can share with your group to get a Bible-related discussion going. Talk about Javert and Valjean in the film as embodiments of Law and Grace—the dual spiritual poles in the life of Saul/Paul. Here are a few passages from Paul’s writings that could be useful in discussion …

In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
Saint Paul in Philippians 4:12-13

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.
Saint Paul in Ephesians 2:8

The Lord said to me, ‘My Grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.
Saint Paul in 2 Corinthians 2:9

DISCUSS RELIGIOUS LEADERSHIP: You also could start the discussion by focusing on the role of Victor Hugo’s fictional bishop as a religious leader who has a great impact on the world. If you care to get DVDs of earlier film versions, I suggest looking for the three productions I mentioned above. Find scenes involving the bishop and show them to your group. How does the bishop embody the best in faith and leadership? What do you think of his actions? Are there parallels with choices we face today?

DISCUSS THE MUSIC: Congregations struggle all the time with choices of music for worship and other settings. Is music relevant today? What kinds of music express faith today? Discuss the powerful message of the music in this version.

DISCUSS THE STATUS OF THE IMPRISONED TODAY: Many congregations have connections with prison ministries. America’s prison population has grown dramatically over the years and many religious leaders are raising questions about our current legal policies on crime and punishment.

Where to find more from Edward McNulty …

13 True American Stars We All Should Know

PHOTOS FROM TOP: Kent Nerburn and his wife, the writer Louise Mengelkoch, on the porch of their Minnesota home; socks on a clothesline; Robin Roberts and Missy Buchanan in New York on the GMA show discussing their book about Robin’s mother; documentary filmmaker Ian Cheney; the cover of Joe Sacco’s Journalism; musician Carrie Newcomer; comedian-pastor-author Susan Sparks; theologian James Cone; the Goodwin family; travel writer Judith Fein has fun on one of her many global journeys; former-Amish writer Saloma Furlong; musician Fran McKendree; and bread related to Benjamin Pratt’s meditation. For July 4, we celebrate Americans
who are devoting their lives to strengthening our communities in creative ways. CLICK THE LINKS in each of these 13 mini-profiles to read a wide range of creative, inspiring stories. Enjoy!

(For fun facts and debunked myths about the actual holiday, read our Independence Day story.)


We love the first of our July 4 stars!
Kent Nerburn began his career as a sculptor, then morphed into one of America’s most beloved authors writing about Indian culture. Now, later in his life, Kent suddenly is having a ball going viral with a story from early in his career that often is headlined “The Cab Driver” or “The Taxi Driver” as it bounces around the Internet. We included a visit with Kent and his wife in our American Journey series in 2010. But, for the 2012 Fourth of July week, we’ve decided to join the viral publishing of Kent’s stirring “Cab Driver.


Speaking of “going viral,” inernational peacemaker Daniel Buttry is on his way toward a viral spread of an inspiring true story that involves prayer, international hot spots and—socks. Yes, socks, like the ones you may be wearing right now. Today, we also are joining in the viral republishing of Dan’s “We Are the Socks.” (Warning: Reading this story may be dangerous to overly comfortable readers.)


Here’s another star you may not immediatley recognize. We’re publishing a new story by author Missy Buchanan about Robin Roberts’ family.
Years before other authors turned to writing about the spiritual challenges of aging, Missy was inspiring people to reach out toward older men and women in their communities. Recently, Missy helped Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts produce a book about Robin’s mother, Lucimarian Roberts. Now, the world knows that Robin Roberts is facing a life-and-death challenge this year. What you probably don’t know is the story of the spiritual matriarch at the helm of Roberts’ big family. That’s Missy’s story, today.


Back in 2007, Ian Cheney brought us King Corn, a film that fans praise as a wake up call to the overwhelming dominance of corn in American culture. (Farmers and ranchers were not so happy.) But, on July 5, 2012, PBS’s award-winning POV series will premiere Ian’s latest film, “The City Dark.” In one hour of remarkable filmmaking, Cheney not only raises some urgent ecological questions—but he also touches on deep spiritual questions. ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm reviews Ian’s new film The City Dark and explains how you can see it on TV—or online.


Famous comics journalist Joe Sacco is the first Maltese-American writer we have featured in our pages. We mention that because Sacco’s life was shaped by his birth on Malta and his childhood in Australia. By the time he became an American, he already was well aware of the world’s breadth. Joe Sacco also is the most controversial “star” in today’s list of 13. There are nearly as many foes as fans of his provocative reporting in comic form. In reviewing his new hardback collection, Journalism, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm argues that we should set aside our political arguments with Sacco. Instead, we should recognize that he is helping to create a new global language in news media.


Quaker folk musician Carrie Newcomer is as middle American as a Norman Rockwell painting. She even helps to fix hot dishes if a family in her congregation needs a hand. She once wrote a song celebrating the quirky names of Indiana’s county fairs. But she also is a restless creative spirit who is carving out new blends of traditional American and Indian music. Read our story about her album, Everything Is Everywhere, and learn how she collaborated with a famous musical ensemble from India.


She calls New York City her home. Her church shares a building with a hotel. That’s why, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11/2001, we invited Susan Sparks to write for ReadTheSpirit. We are recommending, today, that readers go back and take in Susan’s column, The Lifeboat of Laughter. In that piece she writes: Humor highlights our commonalties. When we laugh with someone … our worlds overlap for a tiny, but significant moment. … As W.H. Auden wrote, “Love your crooked neighbor with your own crooked heart.” Yes, insipring and wonderfully quotable!


Born in 1938 in Arkansas, the great theologian James Cone has taught students at New York’s Union Seminary since the 1960s. Watching the resurgence of bigotry in 2012, Cone’s effort to keep Americans from forgetting our history of racism certainly is timely.
In our most recent profile of Cone’s work, we wrote about him: He is eager to link together the many hard-won conclusions that he has drawn in his long career and, as a modern-day prophet, to sum up his central message for this new century. His newest book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, is an important testament in that effort—if you care about bridging America’s racial divide.

9 The Goodwin Family:
More than a ‘Year of Plenty’

From the East Coast to the West Coast: The Goodwin family sprang onto the national scene with, “Year of Plenty,” a book about radically reorganizing their family’s patterns of gardening, eating, shopping and overall consumption. In summer 2012, you may enjoy revisting our 2011 interview with the Goodwins. At that time, we called their book brilliant and innovative. We wrote: This Norman Rockwell family sewed together a patchwork quilt of principles that real people can duplicate—and that takes the century-old adage “Think Globally, Act Locally” one step further. The Goodwins managed to “Think Locally, Act Globally”!
Take a moment with the Goodwins. They may change your family’s life.


It’s summer. Millions are on the move. But, as you hit the road, are you thinking about the spiritual possibilities in your journey? Learn about The Transformative Magic of Travel with veteran travel writer Judith Fein, author of Life Is a Trip.

11 Saloma Furlong:
A Pilgrimage from the Amish

Millions of Americans saw a short version of Saloma Furlong’s story in the landmark broadcast of the two-hour PBS documentary, The Amish. Saloma is a rare and important new author, because she isn’t an outsider looking into Amish life. She comes from generations of Amish and tells her story in a memoir, Why I Left the Amish. This summer, millions of Americans will cruise through Amish communities nationwide, regarding these families with a nostalgia for our collective past. Meet Saloma Furlong and read about the real depth of Amish culture.

12 Fran McKendree:

Musician Fran McKendree barnstorms the country week after week, leading retreats, performing at conferences and using music to stir men and women to wake up the sacred vocation that often is stifled within them. Fran regularly keeps in touch with ReadTheSpirit and we know that, above and beyond his work with church groups across the U.S., Fran is using his studio to send even more moving music out into the world. Want a vivid example of this? Read our story about Fran McKendree and his song, Times Like These.

13: Benjamin Pratt:
‘Bread & Hunger Games’

Finally, here’s a special gift to readers from the author Benjamin Pratt. Over many years, Ben has been both an expert on pastoral care—and a liteary scholar specializing in the works of various authors. Today, Ben Pratt closes our circle of 13 stars by offering us a meditation that you are free to share, connecting three elements: our daily bread, The Hunger Games novels, and a courageous story of a musical peacemaker in Eastern Europe. Please, make time for ‘Bread & Hunger Games’ by Benjamin Pratt.

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

Guide for Caregivers: Music guaranteed to lift your spirits

Watch the two videos below and we defy you to keep from smiling!
Music holds that power.
And we want to hear from you:
When has music lifted your spirits?
Or, to pose the question another way: What music reliably lifts your spirits?
Dr. Benjamin Pratt, author of our popular new Guide for Caregivers, has been asking this question everywhere he travels. In fact, the question is the focus of one chapter in his new book.

To prove this point, Dr. Pratt found two short music videos that will lift your spirits, no matter what tough stuff you are grappling with today. In fact, the first video—shot on the fly by a young woman passing through a lobby at the Mayo Clinic—became a defining moment in the life of that young woman and her mother. The daughter, Jodi Hume, and the mother, Sharon Turner, were passing through Mayo as part of an absolutely agonizing years-long process to surgically rebuild Sharon’s jaw after cancer. Horrifying, right? That’s certainly how Jodi described the whole medical-and-caregiving process later.

One day Jodi and Sharon were leaving Mayo after the latest surgery, when she heard the piano and caught Fran and Marlo Cowan spontaneously entertaining anyone within earshot. She asked if she could capture a video clip of their next number. The Cowans agreed. The result is this YouTube video.

And, the most important result of that music? Sharon laughed. Jodi laughed and, for the first time in many years, Sharon dared to order a regular sandwich for lunch—and took a big bite, confident that her newly restored jaw would work. And it did.

Get the point? Now, watch the video! (NOTE: If your version of this story does not include a video screen, click here to reload the story in your browser.)

The second video was produced with a bit more pre-planning by members of an orchestra in Copenhagen, but it proves the same point.

Dr. Benjamin Pratt and all of us at ReadTheSpirit are asking, everywhere we go:
When has music lifted your spirits?
Or, What music reliably lifts your spirits?

Add a comment below or email us with your thoughts at [email protected]

Want to read more about lifting the spirits of Caregivers?

Get Help: We publish an ongoing series of Recommended Resources for Caregivers.

Get the Book: Appreciating the power of music is just one of the chapters in Dr. Pratt’s book.

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


Review: Haiti’s spirit rises in When the Drum is Beating

Because PBS chose to air the documentary, When the Drum Is Beating, in the same week as the Titanic Centennial, it’s tempting to compare this tenacious Haitian grand orchestra (as they describe themselves) to the now legendary Titanic band leader Wallace Hartley. Historians have documented that Hartley and a number of his musicians gave their lives to lift spirits as the huge ship sank into the Atlantic. His body later was recovered from the icy sea, still clad in his band uniform. Later accounts have embellished this heart-breaking musical scene, just a bit, but Hartley clearly understood the power of music even in the midst of great tragedy. It’s not an exaggeration to say: He played so that others might live.

In a nutshell, that’s the spirit driving the orchestra known as Septentrional—a term that means “northern,” because the ensemble has been associated with the northern city of Cap-Haitien for more than 60 years. These days, there are many films coming out of Haiti, but When the Drum Is Beating soars above others for the unique perspective this documentary provides.

HOW TO SEE THE FILM: Check local airtimes by visiting the PBS Independent Lens website and then clicking on the TV Schedule link. The national broadcast is Thursday, April 12, 2012, but local schedules may vary. Or, you may want to order a DVD of When the Drum is Beating directly from Amazon. Many congregations and nonprofit groups are planning volunteer trips to Haiti in 2012. This film is an excellent orientation to the nation, its history and culture.


PHOTOS TODAY: TOP PHOTO shows the crowd dancing in Haiti at a Septentrional concert in Cap-Haitien. Photo by Daniel Morel for use in media about the film. HERE, we see the Septen ensemble in its big-band prime in the 1950s. Photo courtesy of Septentrional.Rather than evoking the band on the deck of the Titanic, I prefer to think of Septen (the musicians also use this shortened form of their name) as similar to the musical testimony of Vedran Smailović—the famous cellist of Sarajevo. The cellist’s story forms one of the chapters in the new Blessed Are the Peacemakers by Daniel Buttry. A classical musician, Smailović decided to risk his life during the worst of the violence in Sarajevo by conducting his own nonviolent, musical campaign of compassion. Even as his neighbors were brutally gunned down in his hometown, and buildings fell apart from the shelling, Smailović showed up day after day to unpack his cello and play from his classical repertoire.

That’s one way to understand the message of Septen. This is not an ensemble with a literal political message in its lyrics. There are other inspiring documentaries about the power of revolutionary music. For example, we highly recommend Amandla! A Revolution in Four-Part Harmony, a DVD that also is available via Amazon. Amandla! tells the story of the prophetic musicians who put their lives on the line by writing and publicly performing songs of black South African liberation. In contrast to that political movement in a huge country, Haiti is a tiny, lethal hot house of revolution, death squads, corruption, crime and natural disasters. As a result, Septen’s lyrics have never voiced political messages. Despite the ensemble’s sanitized soundtrack, you will consider it a miracle that these musicians survived for nearly two thirds of a century.

Born in the heyday of Caribbean big bands, the Septen orchestra played in venues like The Rumba ballroom. In recent years, especially since the 2010 Haitian earthquake, it is obvious that there are some tensions between the older members of the ensemble and the hot-fingered younger musicians who now are in the front lines on stage. The classic lyrics echo tales that might have come from the lips of Rosemary Clooney or Frank Sinatra in their big-band prime: a guy chiding a girl over the way she fixes her hair, women who are tricksters, men who are hot heads, all unfolding on the level of personal relationships.

Now, the older members of Septen clearly are proud of their sheer survival. At one point, a white-haired musician takes us to the ruins of The Rumba to vividly tell about a Papa Doc-era incident in which one of the regime’s lethal thugs decided to pull out his machine gun and rake the club. Two men fell, including one of the band’s beloved members.

Even though the documentary is less than an hour in length, we hear lots of music, see harrowing scenes of death and tragedy in the impoverished slums of Haiti and get a quickee tour of Haitian history. Independent Lens host Mary-Louise Parker does a helpful job of setting the stage: “To understand how Haiti survives and Haitains thrive you have to go beyond the news and the history books. The answer is in the music. The rhythm is punctuated by earthquakes. The baseline is born from the only successful slave result in history. The horns call out against years of corruption. And, the vocals are the people. Independent filmmaker Whitney Dow brings us the heart that lies beneath the surface of the once-richest, now-poorest, country in the West. it’s a place where great suffering and artistic brilliance live side by side.”

What will you remember after viewing When the Drum Is Beating? Perhaps it is a scene, late in the film, when the musicians have toggled together a practice session. That means, among other things, making sure that a row of grimy old car batteries are wired together to run their equipment—since there is no reliable electrical service where they are gathered. As they kick off their session, the open doorways attract a number of the young men who seem to permanently rove the narrow streets. They are transfixed. Watching these youths as they watch Septen perform, we wonder: What are those young men glimpsing? Are they discovering a world much larger than the poverty among these ruins?

REVIEW by ReadTheSpirit Editor DAVID CRUMM.

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

Ready for a change? Try the ancient Book of Changes.

LONGSHAN TEMPLE in Taipei City, Taiwan, a world-famous, centuries-old temple for Asian spiritual traditions.Ready for a change this spring? Take a look at the ancient Book of Changes, better known as the I Ching. Today, we are recommending an artful new edition, The Little Book of Changes: A Pocket I Ching, rendered for a general English-language readership by Peter Crisp for Mandala Publishing.

You certainly won’t be alone in reaching for this text. The I Ching is now so popular in the West that Amazon lists more than 2,000 books with “I Ching” in the title.
So, why pay attention to any particular edition of the 3,000-year-old classic? We are recommending Crisp’s edition, because it is a handy little introduction that tucks easily into a pocket and is fun to explore in idle moments in one’s otherwise busy day.

Just how popular is I Ching in the West?
Elements of the divination system are far more widely seen and heard than understood. Remember all of the weird-looking symbols for the Dharma Initiative on the hit TV show, LOST? They borrowed from the I Ching. Enjoy science-fiction writers like Philip K. Dick and Douglas Adams? Then you’ve run across some I Ching references. George Harrison toyed with it. Wonder Woman dabbled in it. Pink Floyd’s 1967 song, Chapter 24, is a free-form rendering of the 24th “chapter” or “reading” in the I Ching. Feeling ready for a change? Both Pink Floyd and the actual I Ching declare that change is good—and is absolutely inescapable in our cosmos—so we might as well get ready for more of it.

Dharma Initiative logos in ABC’s LOST drew on I Ching symbolism.Beyond pop culture, the I Ching’s influence in the West rests largely on the heavy-duty influence of psychologist Carl Jung. It’s hard to find a recent version of the classic texts without some reference to Jung, who discovered the I Ching himself in the 1920s and frequently used it as a teaching illustration of non-Western discernment.

In the 1940s, Jung wrote a famous introduction to an English rendering of the I Ching—an introduction now widely excerpted across the Internet and in Peter Crisp’s handy new paperback as well. If you track down a complete version of Jung’s lengthy introduction in a library or in an online database, you’ll likely be offended at some of Jung’s biased claims about Asian culture. Jung freely admits that he doesn’t know the Chinese language and has never traveled to China, so perhaps we can forgive his sweeping ignorance. (Want an example? In one passage, Jung claims that the Chinese have never understood science—buying into Western assumptions that Asians are mired in what Jung calls “primitive superstition.”)

What makes Jung’s explorations of the I Ching worth revisiting—at least the quotable portion of Jung’s text—is that he really did want Westerners to break free from their linear thinking. In the I Ching, Jung found a system that is packed with what amounts to time-tested, thought-provoking poetry. When he tried it himself, he found that the I Ching breaks through Western notions that wisdom depends on step-by-step logic. So, Jung occasionally demonstrated the system in public talks. He encouraged people to try reflections based on the I Ching’s cryptic signs and phrases that might open new spiritual connections.

Jung’s introduction to the I Ching—as judiciously quoted in Crisp’s paperback—is an argument that’s not easy to dismiss. To this day, millions of men and women across Asia use a complex array of divination techniques to reduce stress and sort out crucial decisions about their lives.

The last time I visited Asia, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I filmed a short video clip at the centuries-old Longshan Temple in Taipei. This world-famous house of worship contains shrines and small centers for spiritual practices from several different Asian traditions. The video clip, below, shows a woman casting curved pieces of wood called Jiaobei on the temple floor as part of a divination system called Kau Cim. The wooden pieces have a flat side and a curved side. Watching how they land in several throws either confirms or calls into question the messages the woman randomly draws from a sheaf of tall, slender sticks held in a large metal vase.

In Peter Crisp’s version of the I Ching, he recommends that readers start by casting a handful of coins, then make notes on the patterns as they land to help choose the appropriate page of the I Ching. Of course, these specifics are different than the Longshan casting of Jiaobei, but the principles are similar. Carl Jung himself chose the coin-casting method that Crisp explains to readers.

Does it seem odd to recommend such a book to an American audience that is, by definition, overwhelmingly Christian? As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I think it’s an inexpensive and insightful snapshot into Asian spiritual culture—essentially the same argument that Jung made. After all, the influence of Asian culture is rising all around us. In these turbulent times, we might as well toss a few coins, flip a few pages—and see if these 3,000-year-old lines might spark a fresh appreciation of change.

No video screen in your version of this story? You can jump to YouTube to watch it there. .


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

Celebrating Alan Lomax on the eve of his Global Jukebox

A young Alan Lomax performing at a traditional music festival in the South. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Suddenly, American media is rising to celebrate Alan Lomax! We say: Hooray! He’s one of the great but largely unsung heroes of global culture—a true world-class Peacemaker. On Sunday, as editor of ReadTheSpirit, I was teaching a class in Ann Arbor near the University of Michigan in our new Blessed Are the Peacemakers project. I introduced a short documentary film about Alan Lomax’s work by asking for a show of hands:
“Who has heard of Alan Lomax before today?”

Only one hand went up—a recently graduated university student who had studied American history. No one else recognized the name.

That’s all about to change. From the New York Times to the Atlantic Magazine to the pages of ReadTheSpirit today, we all are cheering the realization of Alan Lomax’s once-far-fetched dream of creating “A Global Jukebox.” No, this isn’t a news story about iTunes expanding. No, not YouTube, either—although we will share two YouTube videos (below) to illustrate Lomax’s legacy.

Alan Lomax (who died in 2002 at the age of 87) is a legend among journalists, musicians and historians for devoting nearly his entire life to collecting the world’s traditional music. He packed loads of recording equipment into a van and journeyed to remote mountain cabins, Southern chain gangs, wee islands off the coast of Scotland—anywhere people would sing or play a song that represented their community.

Without Alan Lomax, it’s safe to say we’d never have a contemporary movie like “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” or a “Down from the Mountain” revival in old-time Southern music. Without Alan Lomax, work songs from places like stone quarries and Scottish fishing villages—now a rich legacy in our diverse global culture—would have all but disappeared. The Coen brothers found actors to dress up and sing prison songs. Lomax recorded the actual prisoners. Artists like Bruce Springsteen still perform Woody Guthrie songs. Lomax recorded Woody himself.

Woody Guthrie in his prime. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Still doubt those claims about Lomax’s impact? Here’s how the New York Times summed up Lomax’s importance: “Starting in the mid-1930s, when he made his first field recordings in the South,  Lomax was the foremost music folklorist in the United States. He was the first to record Muddy Waters and Woody Guthrie, and much of what Americans have learned about folk and traditional music stems from his efforts, which were also directly responsible for the folk music and skiffle booms in the United States and Britain that shaped the pop-music revolution of the 1960s and beyond.”

In a new story on Sunday, the Atlantic wrote, in part: “No one was more aware of this fragility (of traditional music), and more determined to preserve what was so easily lost, than Alan Lomax. … Even as old and beautiful folk musical traditions persisted in America, Lomax knew that they wouldn’t persist forever, and for years and years traveled tirelessly, especially throughout the South, lugging every technology of preservation he could think of: tape recorders, cameras, video cameras, notebooks. … He wanted to record everything, to make what he called a Global Jukebox that anyone and everyone could use. And now Alan Lomax’s dream is coming true.

Here’s the big news making headlines this week: Lomax’s vast archive of 5,000 hours of sound recordings, 400,000 feet of film, 3,000 videotapes, 5,000 photographs and a huge array of related manuscripts is being digitized. By the end of this month, February 2012, the first portions of his giant Global Jukebox will begin streaming for free online.

Can’t wait for the free streaming? To tease the audience and spread greater awareness of Lomax’s huge range, a sampler of 16 pieces from 1947-1982 was just released for sale on January 31, called The Alan Lomax Collection From The American Folklife Center. Those 16 pieces are drawn from Lomax’s thousands of recordings housed at the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center. The collection starts with America’s great folk hero, John Henry, and includes ballads, blues, dance tunes and sacred songs from around the U.S. with a Gaelic ode, Galician alborada (dawn song), Genoan chorale, Grenadan shango ritual, Trinidadian calypso, and the ashug bardic music of Azerbaijan.

Want to discover more about Alan Lomax? In 1983, he co-founded the Association for Cultural Equity, the central website online for news about Lomax’s archives and legacy. Of course, Wikipedia also has a pretty extensive Alan Lomax page.

Much ado about nothing? Well, let’s turn to the Atlantic’s conclusion: “This is an astonishing haul. People have known for decades that Lomax was maniacal, obsessive, and relentless, but it’s only now that everyone can discover the real scope, and real import, of his achievement.”

Sample of Alan Lomax’s work in Audio/Video

ONE SONG in the latest collection is called Joe Turner. The exact origin of this legendary figure—and associated songs about Joe Turner—apparently was never nailed down by Lomax. But, the tale of Joe Turner extends deep into the 1800s among black communities in the South. Joe Turner was a kind of supernatural figure who could emerge—and disappear—without warning and set things right for oppressed people. Below you should see two video screens. Click to watch these two versions of Joe Turner from Lomax’s work. If no video screen is visible in your version of this story, here’s a direct link to the first one on YouTube. Then, here’s a link to the second one on YouTube.



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Iona hymn writer John L. Bell talks about touring the U.S.

Iona Abbey, heart of the worldwide Iona Community on the isle of Iona off Scotland’s western coast. Photograph by John Hile.John Bell is a hot ticket for congregations, clergy conferences and Christian communities around the world, but the truth is:
He’s a tough guy to track down!
On Sunday, Bell talked with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm about the start of his current U.S. (and Latin American) tour. He is sought after by Protestant, Catholic and non-denominational churches around the world. But, Bell started our interview by quickly dismissing interest in the online realm.

“I am happy to talk to you,” Bell told Crumm on Sunday, “because you know the Iona Community and the work that I am doing—but I don’t have much use for online media. The things written online aren’t all that accurate. Sometimes I am sitting at a conference, waiting to be introduced, and I realize that the person who is introducing me must have gone to Wikipedia for the details. I don’t ever to go Wikipedia or anywhere else online to read about myself. But I can tell you: There must be things online that aren’t very accurate about my life and work, because they do keep popping up as I travel.”

One problem is that Bell shares a name with nearly 50 other John Bells listed in Wikipedia, including athletes, artists, politicians, scientists—and other musicians. It takes some savvy online searching even to locate John Bell’s current American schedule. He doesn’t have his own website or blog.
So, to help John Bell accurately kick off his 2012 American tour …


John Bell in one of the few online photographs available for republication.John Bell draws a crowd! Not only is he personally responsible for a long list of hymns and anthems sung in churches around the world, but he also is a popular teacher on Iona-Celtic-Christian approaches to prayer, worship and work with the world’s most needy communities. (ReadTheSpirit has published many stories about Iona’s important Christian influences. Here’s a 2011 interview with John Philip Newell, another influential Iona writer. And, from 2009, here’s an earlier interview with John Bell about his book on reviving Christianity. NOTE: All ReadTheSpirit stories can be republished, as long as you link back to our website. See our Creative Commons sharing license below.)

Coming soon: February 1-4, Bell is in Grand Rapids, Michigan, at a Presbyterian educational conference. Then, February 3-5, he is in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at First United Methodist Church for a global music weekend. From February 13-15, he is in Phoenix, Arizona, for a clergy conference. And, February 23-25, he is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for a clergy conference. In March, Bell is in Atlanta. He also is visiting two countries in South America. In May, he is in Atlanta, Tulsa and Bangor, Pennsylvania. By June, he is in North Carolina.

Best place to find details about his U.S. tours? Iona Community New World Foundation keeps track of his plans and posts updated event information—and some links for further information. The Foundation also posts a helpful index to a wide range of Iona-related links, including the Wild Goose organizaton that is John Bell’s professional home base in Scotland. Want to go right to the source in the UK realm of the Internet? The Wild Goose Resource Group also maintains a short profile of John Bell.

Interview: Iona hymn writer John Bell

Iona Abbey and cross. Photograph by John Hile.DAVID: Let’s start with biographical details. You’re John L. Bell—to distinguish you from the other famous John Bells out there. And, I believe you’re 62 right now.

JOHN: Yes, that’s right.

DAVID: Where do you live these days? That’s not clear to me from some of your online biographies.

JOHN: Glasgow, Scotland, is home, but I’m on the road between eight and nine months of most years. Right now, I’m over here in the U.S. for eight weeks doing different events. I’m also taking care of some business with my publishers and I plan to visit a small community in Paraguay. So, I’m doing some public events, some private events and some personal visiting.

DAVID: Why is Paraguay on this trip?

JOHN: We have a relationship with a small community there. Every year, volunteers come to us in Scotland from Paraguay. I want to visit their home, see where they come from, and experience some of their culture. This year, I’m also traveling in mainland Europe and in parts of England and Ireland.

DAVID: You’re an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland and you’re famous for composing music used in churches around the world. But, how do you prefer to introduce yourself before a group?

JOHN: I say that I’m a resource worker in areas of worship and spirituality. That’s really what I do. Sometimes, I work in universities and seminaries. Sometimes I work at conferences. Sometimes I work at local churches. I focus on different things in different places. I may work with congregational music and show ways that music can be improved; or I may talk about scripture and help people lose their fear of engaging with scripture; or I might help to prepare men and women getting ready for ministry in seminary; or I might work with people trying to deepen their individual spirituality.

DAVID: You have a unique perspective as an outsider, traveling widely across the  U.S. Can you tell us anything about trends you’re seeing in American Christianity?

JOHN: Oh, America is such a huge country that if I make any comments, I can immediately be contradicted by people with contrary examples. So, I would not want to make any specific comments. But, I can say this generally: I see a lot of what we might call non-liturgical churches that now are interested in styles of music and worship that have a much more ordered sequence. They are reaching out for more traditional forms. And, at the same time, I’m seeing some more liturgical churches that are trying to open up.  I see conferences organized by more traditional churches inviting people from nondenominational churches or megachurches to address them. And I’m seeing some nondenominational churches inviting people from more historical churches to speak at conferences.

DAVID: So, you’re seeing something of a crossover in Christian culture. Do you think American churches are looking for some kind of new middle ground?

JOHN: I don’t know if they’re trying to find a middle ground. But, I can say this: I would hate to see the church become so intermixed in traditions that we wind up with a sort of morass of grayness. For example, if your gift in the church is lively song and a strong emphasis on social justice like the Mennonites, then that’s an important and distinctive gift to share with others. Orthodox and Catholic churches have gifts for exploring the mystery of God and those are true gifts. Some traditions have gifts in their welcoming nature and in showing hospitality. I would say: Major in your gifts! A failure of ecumenism would be to merge everything into a sort of shapeless mass of sameness. God made us different to represent the full spectrum of all colors within Christianity.

DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we have covered some of these movements back and forth through Christian tradition. For example, Shane Claiborne—a very popular American speaker and author among innovative Christian leaders—now is heavily promoting Common Prayer. There’s a new edition coming out this week of his book called Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.

JOHN: Yes, I have friends in Britain who already are using his Common Prayer book and appreciate that, because it’s rooted both in traditional practices and in contemporary language. He draws on the spirit and wisdom of a whole lot of people in his Common Prayer book. I think that approach is much more attractive to people in this postmodern society—rather than telling people that they have to spend endless hours wrestling with tangles of archaic religious language in some prayer book from an earlier era.

DAVID: You and John Philip Newell and other Iona writers are now known around the world. Do you think of yourself as a global voice?

JOHN: No. I don’t think about it that way at all. I believe that for my work to have any authenticity, it has to be rooted in the place from which I come. All my own writing and composing is done in Scotland. I don’t write anything while I’m traveling—with one exception. I do believe that it’s important for me to engage with and learn form people in the developing world.

But, I never write something with the thought that I expect it to be translated into other languages. I never stop to think whether someone in a distant country—Finland or Argentina or some other country—will want me to come talk about what I’ve just written. If I thought like that, then I would have taken my eye off the ball. Spirituality must be localized and nurtured in the soil from which it has grown.

And I don’t think of what I write as coming directly from me to the world. That’s not how I work at all. I would never write a book where the material hadn’t gone through friends and colleagues and people I trust in our community. My work is developed in conversation with other people. I have a very strong feeling that God has blessed me and given me gifts that come out of a particular geographical and historical situation. As long as I’m true to that—then what I do may have value elsewhere. But if I were to think of myself as some kind of global writer, then I would lose the spiritual plot of my life. That may not be true for everyone, but it’s true for me. I live in Scotland; I’m a person who is Scottish; my heritage draws on the experience of the Celtic church; and our faith has been formed by living and working among impoverished communities. These are my spiritual roots. These are what give me energy.

Please help us to reach a wider audience

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