John Ramsey on surviving JonBenet tragedy & finding faith

Family photo of JonBenet Ramsey and her father, courtesy of John Ramsey.In Part 1 of our coverage of John Ramsey’s new memoir, The Other Side of Suffering, we explain why this book is valuable for individuals, small groups and congregations. TODAY, in Part 2, we welcome John Ramsey for an interview with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm.


DAVID: You survived a tidal wave of media that tried to convict you and your wife Patsy. Now, years later, there is no question: The suspicions of you were tragically misguided. But does everyone know this news? Do you still feel you’re living under a cloud?

JOHN: There’s still a bit of a cloud that I don’t think will ever go away—even if the killer is caught and convicted and imprisoned. There always will be an element of people who believe we’re guilty. The Bible talks about dealing with people like that who are fools and says we should just steer clear of them. That’s what I try to do. But it’s there sometimes. Just the other day, I remember looking into the face of a stranger I encountered and thinking: What does this person think of me? Are they coming with suspicion? I remember from marketing, years ago, that companies can do product surveys even on great products and they will get down to where maybe 3 percent of respondents still say that product is junk. The truth is: That’s as good as it gets. The haters are always out there.

DAVID: In your book, you say that you discovered your faith was “immature.” From all the external evidence, you looked like a guy who was active in the church. But you discovered, in the crisis, that your faith was inadequate. Tell us about that realization.

Beth, John and Patsy Ramsey at a Kappa Alpha Theta Parents Weekend for Beth in 1988, courtesy John Ramsey.JOHN: I was a Christian like I was a Nebraskan, just because I was born in Nebraska. I was born in a Christian family and I assumed that’s what I was. I never really challenged it or gave it much thought. I went to church on Sundays just like you’re supposed to mow your yard once a week. I was a cultural Christian.

I would meet people who had a different kind of Christian experience. They might say: “On July 3, 1998, a bolt of lightning hit and I was a Christian at that moment.” But, that had never happened to me.

The first major crisis in my faith was the death of Beth in that car accident and I found myself saying: This isn’t supposed to happen! There is no God! Beth was a beautiful child! But, over time, this challenged me to ask: So, who is God? As a result of that and our other experiences, I eventually spent years really studying the Bible. A good friend taught me how to study the Bible and I study it to this day.

I still have never had a lightning bolt moment. I do know that I have challenged the potential of my faith and my faith has held up. My faith grew. Patsy helped me. Friends helped me. I read tons of books and all of this went from my head to my heart. I reached a point where I didn’t feel I had to prove or disprove anything, anymore. No lightning bolt, but I do find myself appreciating C.S. Lewis’s experience. He kept growing and, at some point, realized that he had crossed the line into a genuine faith. That’s how it happened to me.


CLICK the book cover to jump to the Amazon page.DAVID: One reason I urge people to read your book is the process you just summarized. You found yourself caught in the hellish experience of losing a child, when Beth died in that crash. You railed against God. You raged against the injustice of the tragedy. In fact, lots of people pass through those experiences every year, sad to say. I know this because we publish the Rev. Rodger Murchison’s Guide for Grief. Rodger is a top scholar in this field and it’s very helpful to read his wise advice about such cases. But, it’s also helpful to read your first-person memoir. So, please, tell us a little more about this journey. You write about the importance of C.S. Lewis in your book. How did you start with Lewis?

JOHN: One of the first books I read was Mere Christianity, because it appealed to my logical mind. Lewis went through his explanation of why he believes that God is real and Jesus is who he said he was. That had a big impact on me. I realized that Lewis obviously is a very smart guy, and he helped me to deal with the logical side of my brain in understanding the complexity of these questions.

DAVID: You share a number of experiences with Lewis. Perhaps the most haunting is that your wife and Lewis’s wife Joy both had life-threatening cancer, followed by some years of remission, then eventually a terminal resurgence of the cancer. You’ve found help in Lewis’s A Grief Observed, his reflections on losing Joy. In a way, your book is your own Grief Observed, a wonderful tribute to Beth, to JonBenet, to Patsy—and a way to help other suffering people.

JOHN: Yes, I read Lewis’ book on grief, because he asks the questions we all ask: Why? Why did this happen? There is no answer of course. Nobody has gotten a final answer on this, but there is a lot of wisdom in A Grief Observed about how to survive these experiences. One that I found to be true myself and that I mention in my book is: It’s important to have people around you in your grief, but we do wish that people wouldn’t talk so much. Lewis found that to be true. I did, too. If you are visiting or ministering to someone in grief, you should understand this. You don’t need to say wise and consoling things. You just need to be around the person.

DAVID: We published an interview with Ed Dobson, who is dying of ALS and using his final energies to counsel people about these issues. Ed has this terrific line about visiting people in times of crisis: “Show up—and shut up.” Ed says that, if you listen more than you talk, you’ll soon learn what you really can do to help the person. But, most of us walk through the door trying to spill out all the wisdom we can summon. It’s a natural instinct.

JOHN: That Ed Dobson line is good! I like that: Show up—and shut up. The other problem with feeling you have to say something wise is that most of us can’t think of anything good to say. Even before I was on the receiving end of people’s compassion, I remember hearing that friends were struggling or had experienced a death in the family. I felt that I should go and say something, but I didn’t know what to say so I would try to avoid it. What you can do is go and be with the person. You don’t have to say anything.


DAVID: I know from our readership that Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift of the Sea remains a popular classic for many people. She is quoted in your book as well. You must have thought about the Lindberghs a lot through the years.

JOHN: Yes, that’s true. The Lindberghs did find themselves under such an intense public eye! He tried to excuse himself from it and to stay away as best he could, but they couldn’t escape it. One difference in our experiences is that the investigators in the Lindbergh case took advantage of outside resources. That stood in stark contrast with what we experienced from the Boulder police. They refused help from outside and that became one of the problems in our case.

DAVID: I was also thinking about Anne Morrow Lindbergh because of her spiritual strength in their marriage. In your book, you describe Patsy as the initial source of the strongest faith in your household. In reading your book, I actually had an advantage, because I’m also serving as the overall editor working with Suzy Farbman on her new memoir. Suzy is a longtime journalist and Godsigns is her book about surviving cancer with faith and friends. One of the most compassionate friends in Suzy’s recovery was Patsy. So, when I opened your book, John, I already knew that Patsy was an amazing woman of faith. Am I describing Patsy accurately for readers?

JOHN: Yes, that is true. This wasn’t apparent to me when we first dated and got married, but she had been further along in her journey of faith than I was. I didn’t think much about these things until everything was derailed in our lives after Beth’s death. In my mind, I had always been a member of God’s club and that standing membership was supposed to cover me from difficulties like this. Then, suddenly, through our suffering, my eyes were opened to all the people who are suffering in this world. And, in searching for faith, yes, Patsy was a really compassionate person and was further along in her journey than I was. I didn’t have her compassion. That all changed partly through Patsy and partly through all of the people who came around us who showed us both such great compassion. I came a long way.

DAVID: One thing you write about in the new book is the importance of turning to Psalms. That’s the most popular Bible resource for millions of Americans every day.

JOHN: The Psalms are just amazing. They are usually the first place I go when I want to prepare for prayer. The Psalms meant a lot to Patsy during her cancer. She took a lot of comfort from them.


DAVID: Later in your book, you write about the Amish response after the Nickel Mines shootings. These were parents who lost their children to a deranged killer, yet they caught the world’s attention for the grace in their response. I think this is one of the most moving sections of your book—your journey with Patsy to the point, eventually, where you could call for what many would describe as forgiveness. You decided to forego a parent’s natural rage and desire for vengeance. Can you give us a brief summary of this?

JOHN: I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about forgiveness and trying to understand what that really means. I went through probably three steps of forgiveness and it took me years. When I heard that the Amish forgave within days, I thought: How can they do that? Are they just saying this because they have to? What do they feel in their hearts? Frankly, I went through a good period of time where, if you’d put the killer in the same room with me, I would have killed him with no remorse at all. I felt that kind of rage. So, I was skeptical of the Amish at first. Do they really forgive or is this just a rote response they must give in public?

DAVID: In the book, you describe the radio interview that surprised you when Patsy said she would not want the killer, if found and convicted, to be executed.

JOHN: We talked about that a lot. First of all, we had seen first hand how flawed our justice system can be. It has the capacity to make mistakes, as we knew so well. From a logical standpoint, we came to see the death penalty as unwise because our system is so flawed. As I’ve just said, I wasn’t against the idea of killing the real killer. For a while, I had so much anger inside me that I would have taken care of it myself.

Then, another step in my journey toward grace and forgiveness was a period of intense grief. I thought: God, just take me home. The daily pain for me was too much. So, there’s another aspect of the death penalty. Perhaps the ultimate penalty for such a killer is to have to look at himself in the mirror each day and know that he can’t just end it all.

Throughout the whole process, though, Patsy had such compassion for everyone. I cannot recall ever hearing Patsy say anything negative or disparaging about anyone else. That is so amazing.

Here’s a classic example: One day our kids were out riding their bikes and they were running across a neighbor’s yard. This older woman lived with a son who was in his 50s and he came out and yelled at the kids. They came running home. Now, my response would have been to go yell back at this guy. Patsy said: “Let’s make some signs that say ‘Keep Off the Grass’ and go put them along the curb to help remind people not to cross their lawn.” Then, along with the signs, they went over and apologized to this woman. As a result, this woman apologized for her son’s over-reaction. I thought: What a difference in how things turned out because of how Patsy handled that!

DAVID: You wrote one earlier book, still in the midst of the whole controversy, essentially laying out your side of the case. This new book feels like a capstone. Will there be another book by John Ramsey?

JOHN: No, you’re right. This is a capstone. The first book was to address all the distortions out there in the media. Then, this book is really more of our spiritual testimony. It took me a long time to write. I’d work on it, then put it away, then work on it some more. Finally, we got it finished. Beyond this, I don’t have anything else to say to the world. What I really hope, now, is that this book will be an encouragement to other people who are suffering. In the worst of it, I thought that God was gone. Then, I realized that God wasn’t gone. God was with us. We just couldn’t recognize God, at first. Now, looking back over everything in those years, I want other people who are suffering to know: Yes, God is with us, even when we may be hurting too much to recognize God beside us.

READ our review of John Ramsey’s The Other Side of Suffering in Part 1 of our coverage.

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

Spiritual truths behind the media’s JonBenet Ramsey tale

JonBenet Ramsey opening a present with her famly. Photo courtesy of John Ramsey and family.Here’s one more shocker about the Ramsey murder case: Just when John Ramsey thought he had suffered more tragedies than Job, his deepening Christian faith led him to spend several months serving the poor in India. That’s where he really saw the nature of suffering first hand. It’s all part of his powerful new book, The Other Side of Suffering: The Father of JonBenet Ramsey Tells the Story of His Journey from Grief to Grace.

The world knows a lot about the JonBenet Ramsey story. The 6-year-old child of John and Patsy was brutally murdered in the basement of the family’s Colorado home on Christmas in 1996. When her body was found the next day, the Ramseys themselves were accused of killing their daughter. What’s more, the media unleashed a ghoulish and often fictionalized account of JonBenet’s life and death, casting the little girl as forced by her parents into an unhealthy obsession with beauty pageants. The feeding frenzy rose until back-channel payments from global media were pulling out (and in some cases stealing) scraps of information from anyone who ever had contact with the family. The relentless spotlight left John and Patsy Ramsey trapped inside what amounted to a Hitchcock “Wrong Man” thriller—teetering between rage and despair so deep that John Ramsey contemplated suicide.

Yes, this story ranks with the trials of Job. But this new book, The Other Side of Suffering, is not a wallowing in self pity, as much as Ramsey would be justified in doing so. In fact, The Other Side of Suffering now stands as must-read testimony for anyone who is seriously interested in coping with grief and personal injustice, for anyone interested in spiritual formation and for anyone wanting to learn more about peacemaking.


CLICK THE COVER to see the book’s Amazon page.First, let’s be clear about the facts: The question of the Ramseys’ innocence now is carved in granite. New DNA science has ruled them out. Police have publicly apologized to them. Oprah has hosted an exonerating special broadcast. There is no question: Rather than horrific parents who killed their own child, the Ramseys truly were innocents trapped in a tale like Hitchcock’s “Wrong Man.” What’s more, JonBenet did participate in beauty pageants that John Ramsey today says he would not recommend to parents. However, the book makes clear that she was pretty much a typical girl, often a tomboy, and loved all sorts of ordinary family fun. She was an extroverted kid who enjoyed performing—but she was not that much different than countless other little girls in America who dress up and perform in dance recitals and other shows for kids. Yes, Ramsey says these days that childhood beauty pageants may not be a great idea, but JonBenet comes across in this book as a kid like countless others. Now, in light of all the facts, this ghoulish tale spun by the media is revealed as one of many tragic child murders in America where the grieving parents wind up suffering the tortures of the damned.

And there’s so much more to this story: Like the sufferings of Job, the murder of JonBenet and the witch hunt that followed were two in a longer series of crippling tragedies. Earlier, in 1992, the older daughter Beth was killed in an auto accident at age 22. We know from books like Guide for Grief by Rodger Murchison that the untimely death of a child, like Beth’s death, is enough to tear apart a healthy family. The Ramseys were barely coping with Beth’s death when JonBenet was murdered.

Then, Patsy—the spiritual core of the family, this new book explains—faced a second battle with ovarian cancer. Patsy was a remarkable woman and a person of deep faith. Since her mother was a former beauty-pageant competitor herself, it was natural for JonBenet to want to follow in Mom’s footsteps. Looking more deeply into Patsy’s life and faith, we see much more sympathetic family relationships than what the tabloids portrayed for years. In fact, Patsy’s reliance on the Bible and prayer and especially readings from the Psalms is moving for anyone coping with cancer or with grief. She finally died of her cancer in 2006 at age 49, about two years before all of the final full-scale exoneration of the Ramseys splashed across the news media.

Think you’re dealing with the loss, the rage, the hopelessness of grief? Read John Ramsey’s new book and you’ll find a wise, battle-scarred companion who has been there before you—and survived.


Ramsey is clear throughout the book—and in our author interview to be published later this week—that he is neither a theologian nor a pastor. He’s a business executive, a father, a husband, a man trapped in a tragedy—and he admits that he discovered in the depths of this experience that his Christian faith was “immature,” to use his term. By every other civic measure of religious commitment, John Ramsey looked like a pillar of the Presbyterian church. In fact, his faith was far too shallow to sustain him. Throughout this new book, we glean spiritual insights along with Ramsey from writers as divergent as C.S. Lewis and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Ramsey never boasts. He’s not a born-again zealot. He firmly declares—and you’ll find it in our author interview—that he never had a lightning bolt conversion experience. Like C.S. Lewis he simply stepped ever more deeply into his Christian faith. For years to come, people will read The Other Side of Suffering as an inspiring case study of a man and his wife who took the tough, step-by-step journey to deepen their faith and finally to lay a new and solid spiritual foundation.


This is probably the most surprising revelation in the new book and has largely been ignored by other news media covering The Other Side of Suffering. But, at one point in this unfolding drama, Patsy Ramsey was doing a live radio interview and was asked if she wanted to see JonBenet’s murderer sentenced to death. Immediately and honestly, Patsy replied: No. She had seen enough death. This turning point in the drama also involves John Ramsey, who began to wonder what yet another death would mean, even if JonBenet’s murderer finally is captured. At this point in the book, Ramsey writes about what he learned from the Amish after the Nickel Mines tragedy, for example. This is the kind of dramatic, real-life story of a change in heart that Daniel Buttry profiles in a book like Blessed Are the Peacemakers. The new memoir by John Ramsey is neither a manifesto on pacifism nor a political argument about capital punishment, but it does stand as a testimony to a family radically transformed by grace into seeing the nature of punishment and violence in new terms. Peacemakers will be reading this book for many years.

Finally, you may not immediately think of this book for small-group discussion in your congregation but I highly recommend it for that purpose. The topic is sure to draw a curious crowd and John Ramsey’s story honestly and compellingly moves us toward faith and hope.

CONTINUE TO … Our author interview with John Ramsey.

Get the Book: The Other Side of Suffering by John Ramsey is available now from Amazon.

Learn more about related books: Read about Guide for Grief by Rodger Murchison and abour real-life peacemakers in Daniel Buttry’s collection of inspiring profiles, Blessed Are the Peacemakers.

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

Gift ideas: Shooting Salvationist is a true-religion thriller

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Rev. J. Frank Norris was one of the most powerful Fundamentalist preachers in America. By the mid-1930s, he was running mega-churches in Fort Worth, Texas, and Detroit as well. He claimed more than 20,000 devout followers. But Norris was hardly a warmly inspirational figure like Billy Graham, who became a powerhouse preacher in the late 1940s. No, the Rev. J. Frank Norris embodied all the worst of ‘20s and ‘30s Southern Fundamentalism, including virulent racism, support for the Ku Klux Klan and anti-Catholicism. Plus, he was a ruthless killer.

On July 17, 1926, Norris was in the midst of a bare-knuckle, hate-filled political dispute in Fort Worth, Texas. The feud was so brutal that one angry local businessman, known as D.E. Chipps to neighbors, came to warn Norris away from unleashing any more political tirades from his pulpit. Chipps was not armed, and the argument seemed to be ending, when “at 4:40 p.m. on July 17, 1926, J. Frank Norris, the leading Fundamentalist in the nation, heir to William Jennings Bryan himself, and with his own portrait of Bryan looking on, fired three shots into the massive frame of Dexter Elliott Chipps. The wounded man staggered and fell to the floor in the rear corner opposite Norris’s desk, blood spilling from his body.” Neither Norris nor his staff approached the wounded man to aid or comfort him. In fact, Norris simply gave up the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson he had just fired and left his office to await the police.

Now, that could be the opening of a terrific episode of Law and Order or CSI, if either series looked back at historical killings. Over the next year, the entire nation followed this shocking case in which the preacher claimed that he was not guilty of murder. That’s why The Shooting Salvationist: J. Frank Norris and the Murder Trial that Captivated America is such a great choice as a gift for someone on your holiday shopping list who can’t seem to get enough of murder mysteries. And, as we pointed out on Monday, that number of Americans is in the millions.

Today, we welcome the author of this new book, David R. Stokes …


CRUMM: Readers may be surprised to learn that you are an evangelical pastor yourself with roots in the Fundamentalist movement. Now, you’ve moved more to the middle of the evangelical movement, and of course you’re not part of the hateful bigotry that Norris represented. So, as I understand it, this book is a way of transparently clearing the air about the bad old days.

STOKES: Yes, I am an evangelical pastor and a writer. I was born in Dearborn, Michigan, and my mother was a part of Norris’ church in Detroit. I grew up Baptist and Fundamentalist in my childhood. But my church now in Fairfax, Virginia, is a nondenominational church. I moved away from those ultra-Fundamenalist issues a long, long time ago. I spent years collecting the materials for this book and I also had to travel to archives and libraries to complete the research. Yes, Norris was a very severe, racist pastor with a close relationship to the Ku Klux Klan. I wrote this book because, even though Norris died in 1952, there are still some people out there who remember him and refuse to believe what really happened in 1926 and 1927. I think I owed it to the country to fully research and write this kind of complete book about the case.

CRUMM: We are going to compare this book, for our readers, to an episode of Law and Order. The bulk of your book is a detailed account of the trial. And, just like in some episodes of Law and Order, the killer is not convicted of murder in the end. That’s not a “spoiler,” because the suspense here involves all the twists and turns in this amazing case. It’s true that Norris was a popular preacher, but he gunned down an unarmed man, then left him to die. How could he beat this rap?

STOKES: That’s why this is such a great courtroom story. These were brilliant lawyers. Yes, Norris was popular with many people, but he also was detested by his many enemies who he had attacked around Fort Worth. The hatred of people involved in the prosecution ultimately prompted them to overreach in their strategy to convict Norris. It’s quite a story.

CRUMM: Americans were primed for this front-page story. In 1925, the nation had followed the Scopes evolution trial. Then, shortly after that trial in the summer of 1925, the great William Jennings Bryan died, another big story.  In 1926, a famous female evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, vanished in California. When she returned there was another front-page trial. Then, the Norris trial hit the front pages.

STOKES: That’s right. This was a very exciting era. Think about how—during wartime mobilization, new technologies are developed that wind up being used in peacetime. The same is true with this series of front-page news stories about religion, one after another. Each event perfected systems and developed the press corps that could jump on the next one for readers across the U.S. By the 1930s, when there were more big stories like the Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932, the whole system of reporting national news had developed to keep the news coming at a rapid pace.

J. Frank Norris, Sinclair Lewis and the Infamous Elmer Gantry

CRUMM: Most of our readers won’t recall the name of J. Frank Norris, but many of them will remember Elmer Gantry, the famous 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis that later became a hit movie. You argue that Frank Norris helped to shape Lewis’ character, right? Now, it’s true that Lewis finished his novel before the shooting and it already was at the publisher by the time of the trial. But, there’s a bit of Norris in Elmer Gantry.

STOKES: This is very interesting. In early 1926, Sinclair Lewis was going coast to coast and made a detour to Fort Worth, Texas, just to see Norris in action in his church. Lewis remarked that he had never seen so many people in one church at one time. Lewis collected a file of materials on Norris. Of course, Lewis also was looking at figures like Billy Sunday and other evangelists. But to make a point of traveling out of his way to Norris’ church, I think it’s safe to say that Norris helped to shape Elmer Gantry.

CRUMM: Norris pioneered a lot of what, half a century later, we would refer to as Religious Right activism. He broadcast via radio. He regularly preached about political issues from his pulpit.

STOKES: And, even though air travel in the 1930s was still fairly primitive, he was the country’s first pastor at venues as far away as Texas and Michigan. There are a lot of similarities between Norris and the national reporters who covered him. He commuted like they did.

CRUMM: Will we see a movie version of The Shooting Salvationist?

STOKES: I hope so. He was a sensational figure, a showman among showmen. I hope someone comes forward to make this into a movie.

CRUMM: Well, keep in touch with ReadTheSpirit. We’ll report on future developments. This really is a must-read story about the roots of bare-knuckled religion and politics in America.

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Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. So, please, tell a friend to start reading along with you!
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Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

9/11 reflection: James Bond wisdom: Shaken, not stirred

Dr. Benjamin Pratt lives near Washington D.C. and worked for many years as a pastoral counselor, specializing in helping men and women in public service. He also is a literary scholar who researched Ian Fleming’s life and literary career with James Bond. Pratt has lectured on the moral wisdom of Fleming and Bond at the Smithsonian Institution, universities, churches and synagogues. His complete series of lessons of these ideas can be found in the book Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass: A Bible Study with James Bond.

Table of Contents:
All of our 9/11 reflections you can use …

9/11/2011: Shaken, not stirred

By Dr. Benjamin Pratt

As James Bond 007 would put it: We have been shaken, not stirred. Of course, that was Bond’s famous martini order throughout the Ian Fleming novels and nearly two dozen hit movies. It’s also an appropriate way to envision Ian Fleming’s response ten years after the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001. America was shaken to its core by those attacks, but we still have not stirred ourselves to make a soul-searching analysis of our basic moral compass.

What could James Bond, 9/11 and the idea of a moral compass possibly have in common? Billions of men and women around the world are familiar with 007 from movie theaters and TV screens. He’s the secret agent with the license to kill—a daredevil spy with an insatiable appetite for sex and violence.

Surprisingly, that’s not what Ian Fleming envisioned and that’s not what readers find in the original novels. Only two of the movies were released before Fleming’s death in August 1964.

Fleming served in World War II in British naval intelligence. By the end of the war, he also supervised planning for a crack unit of British commandos. After the war, while serving on the editorial board for the Times of London, Fleming turned to deep moral reflection on the painful divisions in the post-war world. He organized a group of famous writers to collaborate on a new series of articles about The Seven Deadly Sins, which were published in the Times and later in book form.

When Fleming created the fictional James Bond, he explained that he wanted to write a series of novels that were parables about evil people. His books have far more mythological, theological and moral depth than movie fans might guess. Nearly half a century after his death, Fleming’s idea of exploring the deadly sins is as timely as ever. Nearly 8 million websites, today, involve references to “deadly sins.”

On the anniversary of 9/11, Fleming’s message as a morally scarred veteran of global conflict still is potent. There are many moral lessons one can draw from the entire series of Bond novels, which I explore fully in my book Ian Fleming’s Seven Deadlier Sins & 007’s Moral Compass. But one urgent connection seems crystal clear—the ancient sin of accidie.

Fleming included that specific word, “accidie,” in his Bond novels. He described it as the ultimate sin that can befall even dreamers, romantics and idealists. Accidie is often the most deadening sin for those of us who believe hard, and work hard, and live hard; those of us who throw our whole selves into our work, and our marriage, and our church, and our friends, and our country and our children. It is often the greatest temptation for those of us who believe that we can make a difference in the world.

Accidie is the temptation, after we are shaken—not to stir. Accidie is a sorrowfulness so heavy that any effort to improve the world seems pointless. This is not depression, although the two may be related in our lives. For centuries, accidie was regarded as a deadly sin: falling into such sluggishness and slow bitterness that we no longer can even see hopeful possibilities ahead of us. Our foundations were shaken on 9/11, and many of us now have trouble getting up each morning and trying to make the world a better place. Like the great James Bond himself, at points in the Fleming novels, we have fallen into accidie.

After publishing my book about Fleming’s moral vision in 2008, I have talked about these ideas to many audiences. One woman who heard me describe this problem wrote to me later: “Hearing these words was like having someone step inside my soul and describe the most arduous struggle I wage as I attempt to carry my concern into the wider world.”

I often recommend that people turn to the short letter of James in the New Testament of the Bible, which I argue was an important inspiration to Fleming in his own life and writing. That short letter of James is full of surprises and timeless wisdom. It is a reassuring and challenging companion in exploring the status of your moral compass.

Some English editions of James begin with a greeting from “James, a bond servant.” From the beginning, this little letter urges men and women to shake themselves free of inactivity and get back to the work of justice and rebuilding community. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,” James writes, “whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”

On the tenth anniversary of 9/11, we need to summon that kind of perseverance and ask ourselves questions that Fleming posed repeatedly: What happens to us when life doesn’t hold sacred what we rest our world upon? When our dreams get dashed on the rocks, how do we cope? We can start by admitting how deeply we were shaken after 9/11—and admitting that we are long overdue for a full search of our moral compass. Yes, we were shaken. Now, it’s time to stir.

(Originally published at, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.)

Holy Week: National Geographic reveals Vatican secrets

Our Passover/Holy Week series began Monday: An interview with Lisa Miller on Rob Bell, Part 1
Network TV is airing Passover/Holy Week specials all week. TODAY, we’re recommending two National Geographic documentaries that reveal Vatican secrets on saints and the pope’s security.

MUST-SEE: National Geographic “Mystery of Murdered Saints”

Tuesday, April 19, 10 PM ET & PT (Check local TV listings.)
If you’ve only got time for one memorable hour of TV tonight, don’t miss National Geographic Explorer’s “Mystery of the Murdered Saints.” As a long-time religion reporter, I’ve covered saints, shrines and relics around the world—but I can’t recall a case like this in which the Catholic church allowed scientists to examine the bones of saints in such a detailed and public way. For two years, Catholic leaders from a local bishop to top Vatican officials allowed scientists to study whether the bones of two 3rd-century martyrs are truly preserved in a group of church reliquaries. National Geographic also stages historical recreations of the martyrs’ heroic Christian witness. Combined with the forensic science on the two skeletons, envision Cecil B. DeMille producing an episode of TV’s “Bones.”

The saints were Romans Chrysantha and Darius, who wound up paying for their Christian faith with their lives during a bloody Roman persecution. I won’t spoil the documentary by revealing what scientists finally conclude about this young couple—but here is the most popular version of their lives: Chrysantha was a highly educated young man from a noble family who converted to Christianity. His family was so disturbed that they arranged a marriage with a Roman priestess: Darius. Rather than bringing Chrysantha back to a pagan orientation, Darius joined him in converting to Christianity. They both died for their new faith. For more than 1,000 years, Christians have venerated the courageous couple.

There’s certainly a voyeuristic interest in looking over the scientists’ schoulders as they examine these sacred skeletons. There’s a great love story here, as well. Most importantly, the documentary touches on a major question in Holy Week 2011: How much can we trust what religious leaders have told us?

National Geographic’s narrator says: “Authenticity is a question that haunts the world of holy relics. Most saintly remains have been dismembered, torn into untraceable shreds by the appetites of pilgrims. For millennia the faithful have believed that even the tiniest ragment of a saint can perform miracles—but like anything of value there are frauds among them.” What will scientists determine by the end of the documentary? Are these bones sacred relics—or frauds? And how many scientific avenues will the team explore before drawing final conclusions? All of these questions make for great TV!

Reviewed by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

INSIDE THE VATICAN: “Pope’s Secret Service”

Tuesday, April 19, 9 PM ET & PT (Check local TV listings.)

I’ve covered the Vatican and the pope occasionally since the 1980s and I’ve bumped into the strict rules of Vatican security more than once. The rules are in place for important reasons and they’ve tightened considerably in recent years. Perhaps that’s why Pope Benedict’s staff permitted the production of this documentary. At one point, we watch him prepare for a simple walk in the park—and you’ll think the pope’s team is planning to launch a NASA rocket. The photo at right from the documentary shows one of the high-tech control rooms used by the security team. I suspect the Vatican staff concluded that showing off their heightened level of security may ward off a few nuts who’d like to make mischief in the Vatican grounds.

Note: This documentary airs earlier in the evening than the “Murdered Saints” documentary. Between the two, the forensic investigation of the relics is truly must-see TV. “The Pope’s Secret Service” is recommended, too, especially if you’re Catholic or you’ve visited the Vatican and want to learn more about the city-state’s inner workings.

Reviewed by ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm

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633: “Are fairies real, Mommy?” And … “Will we see fairies?” What do you say?

ll this week, we’ve explored mystical realms that can light up fresh spiritual awareness for us (like “The Night Fairy” on Monday), or can embarrass us (like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on Tuesday)—or can both enlighten us and embarrass us at the same time (like the Harvard Psychedelic Club on Wednesday).
    TODAY, let’s talk parent-to-parent about the fun of fairies as our children are growing up and exploring the world with us. Author and marketing consultant Lynne Meredith Schreiber—a parent herself—writes a two-part story for us about these delightful real-life encounters …

The Story of Ann Arbor’s Fairy Doors
    … and the Roots of Belief, Part 1 (Click here for Part 2)

By Lynne Meredith Schreiber

We were driving home from a playdate when Asher asked if we could take a trip to Ann Arbor to see the fairy doors.
“Sure,” I told my 8-year-old eldest son. “During February break from school we’ll spend a day finding them.”
Then 6-year-old Eliana chimed in. “Will we see the fairies?”
Before I could respond, Asher jumped in with a question.
“Are fairies real, Mommy?” he asked, in all his growing-older skepticism.
Like any good mother who wants to prolong her children’s innocence, I shot the question back to him. “What do you think?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see them,” he said.
“Of course they’re real,” Eliana insisted. “If the tooth fairy is real, these fairies have to be real, too.”
“I don’t know if the tooth fairy is real,” Asher said.
I honestly had to bite my tongue to keep from smiling. Thank God I was driving and had to face forward.
“She IS real,” Eliana retorted. “Otherwise, who would leave the money and take the tooth?”
“Well…maybe Mommy did,” Asher said quietly.
Damn. I kept listening, not wanting to jump in until I had to.
“She didn’t! I know it was the tooth fairy. Otherwise why would Mommy have her phone number in her address book?” Eliana said.
Two years earlier, when they asked how the tooth fairy knows about a lost tooth, I’d told my kids the parents contact her. Asher wanted to see her contact information, of course, so I pointed to a blank entry in my address book and explained that phone, fax, address and email are written in special ink that only adults can see. When he turns 18, I said, he can see for himself.
My children believed me. Asher even pulled out my address book during a playdate to show other kids. I love this part of childhood.

Back to the car that day and the fairy doors: Asher replied to his sister’s comment that he’ll remain unconvinced until he turns 18 and can see for himself. OK. That buys us 10 years. And in the meantime, Asher wanted to see the fairy doors.
But the topic of believing in something we can’t see brought God into the question as the conversation unfolded. Finally, it was my turn to jump in without giving away the secret that imagination is simply imagination.
“Well, you believe in God and you can’t see Him,” I told Asher.
“That’s different,” he said.
“How is that different? You believe in Africa and Australia though you’ve never seen those countries. And you believe in lots of other things that you haven’t seen or can’t see but still you believe in them. Fairies are exactly the same.”

And besides, I thought, there are actual doors peppered throughout the city of Ann Arbor, behind which, apparently, fairies live.

    MEANWHILE, test your vision with the photo below. Can you find the Fairy Door?

Lynne Meredith Schreiber has written five books and many magazine articles. She is the Chief Creative Officer of Your People LLC, a company that provides community-focused marketing and public relations.

NOTE on the photos with this story: Some of the illustrations with this week’s series of articles come from Victorian-era picture books, now in the public domain. The color photographs of Fairy Doors, like the one above and more photos with Part 2, were taken by photographers from Divine Light Media, a high-school-age media-production group at First United Methodist Church in Ann Arbor, which includes: Alex DeHart, A.J. Gay, Sarah Higdon, Joey Houghton, Alex Koukios, Blake Martin, Eric Seitz and others. The Divine Light crew retraced the steps of Lynne and her children—hoping to catch glimpses of what they saw.

(Click here for Part 2)


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631: The Case of Sherlock Holmes’ Creator Wanting to Believe in Fairies

(Update below on death of “debunker” Geoffrey Crawley)

In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own words:

In Doyle’s own book, “The Coming of the Fairies,” he boasted: The series of incidents set forth in this little volume represent either the most elaborate and ingenious hoax ever played upon the public—or else they constitute an event in human history which may in the future appear to have been epoch-making in its character.

What a story!

The brilliant creator of Sherlock Holmes—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a world-famous, best-selling writer now in his 60s—publishes a major new non-fiction book that he insists will rank among his most important works! Why such a stunning claim? Because he has “actually proved the existence upon the surface of this planet of a population which may be as numerous as the human race.”

That newly discovered “population”? Fairies.

Conan Doyle is absolutely convinced they are real—and he claims to have scientific proof. Actual photos! (The black-and-white photos today are part of his “proof.”)

Turns out, the Cottingley Fairies weren’t even an especially elaborate or ingenious hoax. The whole infamous incident unfolded because two curious little girls borrowed cameras to take pictures of some paper “cut outs” of fairies, which they held up in their garden with hat pins.

They were just having fun. Just kids.

Kids love fairies to this day. If you missed it, read our review of “The Night Fairy,” a wonderful new book by Newbery Medal Winner Laura Amy Schlitz about some back-yard connections with fairies.

But, in Conan Doyle’s life—this was a historic milestone for all the wrong reasons. These two girls’ handful of black-and-white photographs spiraled way beyond their control. At the time, speculation on mysterious spiritual forces ran rampant in popular culture. Conan Doyle announced to the whole world that he had proof of fairies.

In fact, these photos weren’t even good fakes. The images just struck a desperately wanting-to-believe old man at the right moment to rocket fairies into orbit for years to come.

It wasn’t until the early 1980s—more than 60 years after the photos were taken—that the “girls” admitted the photos were made from cut-out pictures held up by pins. To contemporary eyes, that’s exactly what they appear to be—photos made with cut outs carefully poised in the frame. Today, it looks like a fun elementary-school project—photographing your favorite illustrations in an outdoor setting. If only Conan Doyle hadn’t become so overly enthusiastic, right?

You may be wondering: How could these women spend most of their lives “keeping mum”? Well, that’s obvious, said one of them in an interview: “Two village kids and a brilliant man like Conan Doyle—well, we could only keep quiet!”

Was it a “fraud”? No, they insisted. “I never even thought of it as being a fraud—it was just Elsie and I having a bit of fun and I can’t understand to this day why they were taken in! They wanted to be taken in.”

And there’s the truth, I think. We do want to believe. And in our desire to believe we wager our lives and reputations on some beliefs that are timeless and noble and have changed the world in wonderful ways. But, let’s be honest, shall we? We also hold tight to lots of beliefs that are in fanciful shades of gray and pastel.

Who exposed the Cottingley fairies?
October 29, 2010, Cottingley debunker Geoffrey Crawley dies

A number of people have taken credit for the final exposure of the hoax. In the early 1980s, revived interest in the Cottingley fairies prompted a number of interviews with the elderly women, who readily admitted to the hoax. One filmmaker interviewed them at the time. A journalist named Joe Cooper also is credited with an interview in which they were fairly open about the hoax. Meanwhile, Geoffrey Crawley, a world-renowned expert on photography and editor of the esteemed British Journal of Photography, launched a careful study of how these photographs were created. In addition to the easy-to-detect method of using little paper figures, Crawley also exposed some later darkroom wizardry when the original prints were created—indicating that the entire hoax was more than an afternoon lark by a couple of little girls who barely knew how to take photos. Crawley’s series was so elaborate that it spanned issues of the journal from 1982-1983.

The fairies were such a hot topic that they eventually spawned two Hollywood movies: “Fairy Tale – A True Story” and “Photographing Fairies [VHS]” We recommend the first of the two films, which features Harvey Keitel as Harry Houdini. The second film was a British indie production that never received much attention in the U.S. and, so far, hasn’t been released on DVD. The main criticism of “Fairy Tale” is that, in the end, it waffles on whether the photos were fake—in the interest in celebrating youthful fantasy.

Geoffrey Crawley’s death and the Cottingley Fairies

Geoffrey CrawleyGeoffrey Crawley was not interested in crushing anyone’s spirits. The New York Times obituary, which filled most of a page on Sunday, November 7, is headlined, “Geoffrey Crawley, 83; Gently Deflated a Fairy Hoax.” The Times requires readers to register to read its stories online, so here’s a link to the Telegraph obituary in the UK, which appeared on November 7 as well.

The Journal, where he worked so successfully for many years, posted a lengthy tribute, which includes these lines:

Crawley joined the British Journal of Photography in the 1960s … and became editor-in-chief around 1967, a position he held for more than 20 years. From 1987, … he continued as technical editor, working through into his seventies up until 2000. His reputation as one of the world’s leading figures in photographic science was without parallel during this period, and in all probability, no one in the post-analogue age will likely command the same all-round technical expertise and authority. In addition to his brilliant technical articles, he developed many chemical formulae … He also provided invaluable technical help to the industry during this time, advising Stanley Kubrick during the making of 2001, after which the filmmaker kept in touch with Crawley, suggesting article ideas for BJP. And, Crawley foresaw the impact of digital long before it became mainstream, embracing the new technology with his usual vim. Among his many talents, he was an accomplished concert pianist, and probably could have made a career as a musician, but he will probably be best remembered for his work uncovering one of the greatest photographic hoaxes of the 20th Century.

Read more on Cottingley Fairies?

READ DOLYE: Click here to buy a recently republished edition of the original Conan Doyle book “The Coming of Fairies” (with all of the original black and white photos) from Amazon.

WIKIPEDIA WEIGHS IN: Not every detail in the Wikipedia article is correct, but in this case Wikipedia does have a pretty good overview on the case of the Cottingley Fairies. Despite a few flaws, the page is worth a visit.

THE LARGER CONTEXT: Lock Haven University’s Dr. Donald Simanek maintains a popular Web page about Conan Doyle, Spiritualism and the case of the fairies.

THE DEBUNKING EXPERT: James Randi Educational Foundation—one of the most important de-bunking projects—devotes a page to the fairies. It’s intriguing because the page also has copies and transcripts of some of the letters related to the fairy photos.

We want our international conversation to continue

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

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

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