Adam English digging back to the real St. Nicholas

Adam English (left) and a good friend.Our annual Holiday Best Books list named Dr. Adam English’s The Saint Who Would Be Santa Claus No. 2 out of the 12 books on the “best” list. We also featured research from his new book in our annual Feast of St. Nicholas Holiday column.
Now, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Adam English:


DAVID: We know very little about the original St. Nicholas. You describe him, at one point in your book, as “a vaguely historical personage.”

ADAM: Yes, the record on Nicholas is thin because he left no volumes of his own theology or poetry or sermons. We have nothing written in his own hand. We have nothing written by his immediate contemporaries, either. The earliest historical records that mention his name come from a couple of hundred years after his death. That’s always troubling to a historian who, of course, would rather have first-hand accounts.

DAVID: When I’ve heard people preach about St. Nicholas, they like to say he attended the famous Council of Nicaea that was convened by Constantine the Great and developed one of the earliest Christian creeds. But that’s a historical point open to some debate, right?

ADAM: The lists of those who attended Nicaea are not consistent. The questions historians face is: Why do these lists differ? Did some scribes later add people who they thought should have been at Nicaea? Lists range from 200 to more than 300 people in attendance, so that shows you the wide variety. The earliest lists name only about 200, but those could have been partial lists that were made to show some of the most prominent bishops in attendance. The consensus of scholars now is that there were closer to 300 bishops at Nicaea. In the larger lists, Nicholas’s name appears; he’s not in the shorter lists. That’s where the ambiguity lies. He is not named in all lists, so there is room for doubt.

DAVID: People are familiar, thanks to novelist Dan Brown and others, with the extensive Christian archives at the Vatican—and in other parts of the world, as well. But there is no such thing as an archive of documents from Bishop Nicholas’s reign.

ADAM: No. So far, historians have uncovered nothing from his lifetime. Then again, if you’re evaluating historical figures by the surviving works in their own hand—Jesus didn’t leave any written works, nor did Socrates.

DAVID: Excellent point. Still, I want readers to understand how painstaking you had to be in sifting various layers of the historical record to prepare this new biography. Among the claims you had to sift: Where is Nicholas buried today?


Statue of St. Nicholas in Bari, Italy. Photo courtesy of Adam C. English.ADAM: By and large, Nicholas is buried in Bari, Italy. There are fragments of his bones that have made it to Venice and other places. His bones were moved from Turkey to Italy in 1087 and, a few years later, some Venetian sailors came and took some fragments of the bones. There are finger bones and other relics that have made appearances in churches around the world, claiming to be authentic. But the bones in the tomb in Bari have been analyzed on multiple occasions. Today, he’s mostly in Bari, Italy.

DAVID: In my world travels, I’ve never made it to Bari—but I’m fascinated by the annual collection of liquid from Nicholas’s tomb. They call it myrrh, you point out in your book, even though real myrrh is something different—a resin from a thorny tree. So, what’s the deal with this seeping miracle?

ADAM: This is one of the more fascinating and curious parts of this story that is unknown to most Americans—even people who may know that there was a real historical person named Nicholas. From very early on in the history of Nicholas’s relics—and to this day—his tomb secretes this clear watery liquid. They call it myrrh or oil. If you visit Bari, you can purchase little vials of it. It’s collected once a year in a big celebration. One of the ministers goes in and collects a vial of it, then it’s diluted and mixed with water and oil and they prepare tiny samples of it for pilgrims. It may sound unique and it’s little known in this country, but Nicholas is not the only one from the Middle Ages whose tomb secretes liquid.

DAVID: Describe Bari, Italy, for our readers.

ADAM: Today, Bari is a large modern port city on the eastern side of Italy and cruise ships come in and out. But the old town of Bari where you’ll find the Basilica of St. Nicholas is an enclosed, medieval-style area. The streets are labyrinths. Houses are built on top of houses. The locals will say this was done on purpose so that if a raiding party descended on the town, they would get lost in the maze-like bowels of the city. But there is a plaza that opens up and the basilica is there. It’s an imposing, gray, blocky building and you can go inside. The basilica was built around the year 1100. Nicholas’s body is underneath the main altar in a crypt. You take the side stairs down into this darkly lit chamber. There’s a simple gray tomb. Most of the time, the people who are there are either tourists or Russian pilgrims. Nicholas is still very popular with the Russians. Nothing in the basilica would remind an American visitor of Santa Claus—no sleighs or reindeer or any of the images we associate with Santa Claus.

You can see the tomb through a grate, but you cannot see the bones inside it. One of the fascinating things to watch is that on certain days one of the Dominican fathers who maintains the basilica will go behind the grate and—especially for the Russian pilgrims who are there—they will pass their prayer cloths or Bibles through the grate to the Dominican who will lay it on the tomb for a blessing and then hand it back.


CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.DAVID: We’re not entirely sure about the dates of his birth and death, even though his feast day of December 6 is based on the officially regarded date of his death in the year 343. Wikipedia says he was born in 270 and died Dec. 6, 343, but your book says there may be some debate on that chronology among historians.

ADAM: The standardized dates are the ones given in Wikipedia. The death date is very specific in 343, and it now marks the feast—but even that date came from a historical source in the 12th century, hundreds of years after Nicholas lived and died. In terms of his birth date? There are many guesses and we don’t have any concrete historical record to settle the question.

DAVID: One of the historical details you describe in the book is the overall prevalence of the name “Nicholas” in the ancient world. Prior to the 4th century, the name was not well known. After the 4th century, the name was spreading around the world. That’s an indication that something famous happened with a man by that name in the 4th century.

ADAM: It’s a circumstantial piece of evidence. I can’t find records of people named Nicholas before the 4th century, but after that it’s a prevalent name throughout Asia Minor.


DAVID: You tell readers that there are many legends that were associated with St. Nicholas in the centuries after he lived and died. But, the one heroic story that probably was based on historical fact was Nicholas helping three poor girls to avoid slavery, or worse. (For more on that story, see our Feast of St. Nicholas column.)

ADAM: This story of his anonymous gifts to the three maidens really stands out. There are also early references that attach Nicholas as a patron saint of sailors, but I think it’s this story of helping the three maidens that jumps off the page. He learns that these three girls are destitute and on the brink of being sold—then, one by one, he provides bags of gold that become dowries so they can marry, instead. There’s nothing exactly like that story from other saints in that era. At that time, the most popular saint stories involved martyrdom in which the saint would die in some gruesome way. Or, there were stories of rigorous monks who went out in the desert and denied themselves in heroic ways.

But here was a story about Nicholas anonymously giving something to these three poor girls—girls who no one else in that era would have cared about. He is truly taking the biblical command to look out for “the least among you” to heart in a serious way. He does something that is purely generous and purely good—for people who weren’t the concern of society in that era—and he does it without any hope of reward.

That story lit up people’s imagination. He becomes a gift giver, a patron saint of young maidens, newlyweds and anyone in dire distress. You’re down to your very last crust of bread, but watch the window: Nicholas may yet appear to save you. That story of the three maidens was his ticket to fame.

DAVID: There are other legends I keep encountering each year around St. Nicholas Day. One of them involves three boys who were chopped up by a criminal—and St. Nicholas restores them to life. You say: Probably didn’t happen during the real Nicholas’s life.

ADAM: That story of the boys being chopped up comes from deep in the Middle Ages many hundreds of years after his life. His first biographers knew nothing of this story.

DAVID: But the story about Nicholas and sailors? That goes way back, right?

ADAM: It goes back to the earliest versions of his life we can find. There were numerous stories of Nicholas rescuing sailors or helping out on the high seas. The references come from the 500s, when he already was connected with sailors, especially when they were crying out for help. It’s also why his fame spread through trade routes around the world. In Greece, they sometimes picture Nicholas’s clothes soaked in brine, his beard dripping sea water, and his face covered in sweat precisely because of this association.


Velikoretsky Icon of NikolaiDAVID: Beyond our Western Santa Claus, the real St. Nicholas remains hugely popular to this day, as you point out in your book.

ADAM: You only have to look at the tradition involving the Icon of St. Nikolai at Velikoretsky, Russia. The tradition of Nicholas’s pilgrims forming a procession to Velikoretsky goes back a long, long time. It became quiet and fell off in numbers during the Communist era—then, afterward, it was publicly reinstated and gets bigger and bigger each year. The procession in June drew 35,000 pilgrims, but there was nothing I saw in the American media.

DAVID: You’re right. It’s virtually unknown over here. There is information on this pilgrimage of the icon on websites in Russian and other Eastern European languages, but nothing I can find in English on the processions. (Here is a Romanian-Orthodox website with photos of a procession.)

ADAM: Nicholas is popular all across Europe. In the United Kingdom alone, there are more than 500 churches that bear the name Nicholas. He’s venerated in Netherlands, Germany, Austria—a very European saint.

His continuing popularity lies in the stories that are told and retold. One of the stories I tell in the book is about Nicholas having drinks with other saints up in heaven. He keeps nodding off. Someone nudges him and says he’s missing out on the party. And he says: I’m sorry but I’m just back from helping more sailors in trouble get back to their port. That’s the kind of story that still is passed around. He’s a saint who is earthy. He’s a laborer. He’s not afraid to get messy to help people.

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

Interview with Paul Franklyn on Common English Bible

PAUL FRANKLYN checks copies of the Common English Bible. (Three CEB photos courtesy of the CEB publishing team.)Paul Franklyn is not a household name, but in homes and congregations nationwide, his work shapes sermons, Bible studies and inspirational reading for millions.
Since the 1980s, Franklyn has played crucial roles in a long list of Bible-related publishing projects. One of the biggest was the New Interpreter’s Bible, a massive effort from 1990-2002 that produced 13 volumes of biblical commentary now used by pastors and educational institutions nationwide. Next time you visit a clergy office, look for the long row of black-and-green books with gold-and-red accents on a shelf near the pastor’s desk. That’s evidence of Paul’s influence nationwide.

For the Common English Bible, however, Paul went in the opposite direction from his role as a coordinator of the scholarly New Interpreter’s Bible. This time, rather than trying to produce an ultimate resource for in-depth Bible research, he wanted to produce a highly readable version of the Bible that everyone can carry and understand—whether enjoying a moment of daily inspiration, discussing the Bible in a small group or reading passages aloud in worship.

When Part 1 of this two-article series about the CEB appeared on Monday, we immediately received an email from writer and Presbyterian pastor Tom Eggebeen—encouraging other pastors to check out the CEB. Tom is known nationwide as a talented interim pastor in the Presbyterian system, which means he’s expert in knowing what works well in congregations. He has been reading the new CEB himself, for a while, and writes: “I’m impressed. This will give other translations a run for their money.”

For their part, the producers of the CEB want people to run with this book. Among the many choices of format are various Thinline editions (like the CEB Common English Thinline Bible with Apocrypha that we recommend). These Bibles are about an inch thick, yet the 9-point type is easy to read for most people. However, if your eyes are sharp and you really want a compact Bible you can carry anywhere, the CEB also comes in three Compact Thin editions (like the CEB Common English Compact Thin Bible edition with an Espresso-hued cover). If you like to tuck a copy of the Bible into a coat pocket, for example, then the Compact Thin edition is your choice—but this even-smaller size does not offer an edition with the Apocrypha and the type size falls to 6.5 points. The text still is clear, but this edition isn’t ideal for most older readers. As the coffee-sipping Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I love that Espresso theme—but my 50-something eyes prefer the bigger Thinline type.

Want to go even smaller and cheaper, too? There’s a Christmas-themed New Testament, called the CEB Christmas Outreach New Testament in softcover, which comes at a bargain price for churches who want to give away CEBs around the Advent season. Christmas Eve, now, is a popular time for evangelism and community outreach. At $1.99 a copy (Amazon’s current price for this Christmas edition as we publish this story), a church could give away 100 copies to visitors for less than $200. That’s cheaper than most holiday decorations and it’s spreading the Good News in a contemporary way.

Obviously, prompted by our own ReadTheSpirit readers, we’re high on this new Bible.
Now, here are excerpts of our interview with Paul Franklyn …


DAVID: One of the unusual and ambitious choices your team made was to organize 77 reading groups across the country to help the translators and editors actually achieve a good, smooth reading experience. These groups included a total of more than 500 readers and they read every single verse in the new translation. I know that you balanced these groups ethnically and they came from two dozen denominations. But what about age? Were these all older folks who are the backbone of our Christian churches nationwide?

PAUL: No, we made a point of including field testers who are students. Yes, of course, we did include older readers. We even organized one reading group in a rest home for older adults. But several of the reading groups were on college campuses. There was one high-school-age youth group in Nashville.

DAVID: And were the translators and editors pleased to hear from this mixed bag of readers? I love the idea of field-testing every verse but, as an editor myself, it sounds like this might have been a nightmare.

PAUL: I’ve got a doctorate from Vanderbilt in Hebrew Bible and I have worked in planning and publishing of big projects related to the Bible for many years. So, I can say that, at first—as editors and Bible scholars—we all were in our ivory-tower mode. As we got started, we would explain this field-testing process to our editors and translators—and their first reactions were: “Oh, these people are going to ask all kinds of silly questions.” Or: “We’re going to have to wade through so much stuff.” Then, we got the first batch of responses from the reading groups—and things changed! The questions and comments were very interesting. The editors and translators wanted more of this. In the end, this process worked very well.


DAVID: Over the next few years, how far will the text of this new Bible reach? Right now it’s an actual Bible. But, Bible translations find ways into devotional magazines, group-discussion materials and into books of worship used in congregations. How far do you hope to take the CEB?

PAUL: I’m making presentations to producers of all of those kinds of materials. We are hoping folks will pick up the CEB for use when they’re quoting the Bible in their publications. We’re getting very good feedback from across the country.

DAVID: What about hymnals? Regular churchgoers know that a lot of Bible passages appear in hymnals, often Psalms and other readings for worship.

PAUL: There are three denominational hymnal replacement projects underway, but hymnal projects move very slowly, as you know. In one case, a denomination pulled back for a while to try to figure out where new technology is going. But looking down the road? Yes, it’s fair to say we may be in hymnals someday. That’s definitely part of our plan.

DAVID: For our many Catholic readers, we need to explain that you have not produced a Catholic edition, so far. You had some individual Catholic translators involved in the project and you have translated all the books of the Bible typically used in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox congregations. That means you include all four books called Maccabees, for example, if people buy an edition of the CEB that includes the Apocrypha. Maccabees 1 and 2 appear in Catholic Bibles, then 3 and 4 appear in Eastern Bibles. But, so far, you haven’t produced an edition either with an official Catholic imprimatur—or with the books organized in the proper order for Catholic readers. Is that right?

PAUL: Yes, that’s right. We have translated all the books, but we haven’t done a Catholic edition yet. I have been talking to some Catholic organizations and we’ve heard from some priests who want to know if we’re going to be going after an imprimatur. At this point, though, we don’t have an official Catholic edition and I’m not sure if the CEB ever will be found in pews of Catholic churches as an officially approved Catholic Bible. That’s a very long process, as you know. But, there are millions of Catholic Bible readers who will enjoy the CEB now.

DAVID: I do appreciate that your team translated the entire collection of books called the Apocrypha. ReadTheSpirit always recommends that readers get the full Bible with the Apocrypha included. I keep hearing from Protestants nationwide who really are inspired when they discover some of those books.

PAUL: We’re hearing that, too. We heard from Protestant readers who told us they’d always wanted to read the Apocrypha. There are stories in there, like the story of Susanna, that is just wonderful and should be preached in churches, but mostly it’s unknown.


DAVID: Tell us more about how you managed all of these far-flung contributors?

PAUL: We managed the entire project online. The reading groups met in person, but then they would collect their comments and questions and upload those materials. Now, this process could have gone on for decades, going back and forth between reading groups and translators, and we never would have had a final Bible. So, we organized it this way: We selected a lead translator for each portion to do a first draft. Then, another scholar followed as a second translator. In some ways, you could describe the second translator as an editor working with the first draft. The second scholar went over everything and made revisions and then submitted that back to us. Then, that text went to a readability editor who also was a filter and made some more recommendations about the text. The readability editor was working with materials that came back from the reading groups. At that point, the translators already had given us the scholarship and we were working on the clarity of the words and the naturalness of reading. Next, we had an academic editor go over everything, again, in a final overall editing process.

DAVID: How much was changed from the first drafts to the final CEB?

PAUL: When everything was finished, less than 50 percent of the first drafts survived into the final product. We had thousands of comments and questions—so there were lots of changes all along the way.


DAVID: Readers will want to know about inclusive language. I’ve been covering religion as a journalist for 30 years and I’ve seen a dramatic change in this hot-button issue. Back in the ‘80s, I heard from lots of readers who didn’t want any of the male pronouns in their familiar editions of the Bible to be made inclusive. But there have been dramatic changes, thanks largely to popular culture, I think. Now, it sounds offensive to most readers to have an excessive number of all-male references in passages where it simply isn’t necessary. But, that’s my own conclusion from years of journalism. How did you sort it out?

PAUL: I think you’re right. This issue still may be controversial in some groups, but the denominations most interested in the Common English Bible take it for granted that most language needs to be gender neutral. So, when the text refers to humans as people, we don’t want to make it sound as though the Bible is only referring to men. Readers in most denominations will find this text very similar to other texts they are using all the time.

However, there is a line that we didn’t think should be crossed in translation and that has to do with pronouns referring to God. We decided to remain fairly conservative on that issue. We did try to complete this translation with fewer male pronouns for God, where it was appropriate. One good example is in Psalms, where some translations may have “He,” “He,” “He,” “He” over and over again referring to God throughout a Psalm. In a case like that, we could use the word “God” instead of using so many “He” references one after another. That helps. But overall we took a fairly conservative approach to this issue of pronouns referring to God. If we had tried to strip out all of the masculine pronouns for God in the Bible, we would have pulled the text out of its cultural context.

DAVID: Bottom line: Your approach to inclusive language is similar to what other editors are doing, these days, in books and study materials for congregations. However, I think the bigger news in the CEB involves your choice of new phrases to clear up language that actually is confusing to readers. In Part 1 of this 2-part series, we will give readers some sample passages. Give us another example, please.

PAUL: One good example is our use of the term “immigrant” in place of words in earlier translations like “alien” or “foreigner.” Exodus 22:21 now reads: “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt.” One of our Mennonite editors first raised this idea. He did a great job in his own translations and we put him on our editorial board. He pointed out the problem with using the word “alien,” today. Ever since Star Wars and Close Encounters, the word “alien” now is associated with outer space and beings who are not human or perhaps are even sub-human. Of course, that’s not what the Bible is talking about. What the Bible is describing is: people who seem like strangers as they are passing through another land. The best term for that, today, is immigrant. It’s the correct English term to describe what the biblical text originally meant. You will find some references to foreigners in the CEB. But in those passages where the Bible is talking about people migrating from one land to another—that’s where the Bible is making a very important point about God treating those people like we are treated. So, “immigrant” is the best English translation for our time.


DAVID: This idea of choosing the best English word for the times isn’t new. In fact, your new CEB makes a point of changing a famous word that William Tyndale chose about 500 years ago in his groundbreaking translation. Tyndale wanted to describe how Christ’s reconciling of the world made us “at one” with God, so he reached for the word “atonement” and put it into his new translation of the Bible. The King James Version came about a century later and atonement picked up momentum. Now, you’ve finally laid that confusing old word to rest, right?

PAUL: That’s right, you won’t find the word “atonement” in the CEB. Tyndale’s use of the term led to a lot of confusion for people, today. Instead, we use forms of the word reconcile, sometimes verb forms and sometimes noun forms. Tyndale introduced that word into the Bible 500 years ago as a compound of at-one-ment. But the word took on a life of its own apart from the Bible. The original language of the Bible is talking about reconcile and reconciliation—and that’s how we translate it.

DAVID: We will remind readers of a truth that I’ve reported in news stories about the Bible over many years: If you start by looking at your most beloved passages, the new translation may jolt you. But, if you look more broadly, you’ll appreciate the fresh language.

PAUL: Psalm 23 is now, “The Lord is my shepherd. I lack nothing.” And that was one of the first passages we did as a test case. We have no illusion that people are going to suddenly switch from the King James cadence so many of us remember when reciting the Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23. These are deep memories in our culture. But, it’s possible that, like the Tyndale use of “atonement,” another 100 years may give us more distance from the biblical terms we’re using today. Our goal was clarity for readers today and we worked very very hard on reaching that point through many drafts. We hope people find it helpful.

We recommend the CEB Common English Thinline Bible with Apocrypha with a Ribbon Marker and Leather-like Cover.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

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

Common English Bible hopes to inspire, clear confusion

QUICK QUIZ: Do these lines appear in the Bible—or were they uttered by Captain American, Martin Luther King Jr. or George W. Bush?We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.”

ANSWER: A Harris poll widely cited around the Internet at the moment indicates that 2 out of 3 Americans picked one of the three men as the source. In fact, those words are from 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 as rendered in the brand new Common English Bible, a carefully researched plain-language translation of scripture sponsored by an ecumenical coalition of Protestant denominations.


Pollster and author George Gallup Jr. famously described the problem this way, “In America, religion is miles wide and a quarter inch deep.Boston University’s Stephen Prothero demonstrated the problem in another way—by publishing quiz results of incoming university students. Most of Prothero’s students couldn’t name the four Gospels and didn’t recognize the story of the Good Samaritan when it was referenced in a nationwide presidential address. Our biblical literacy is sorely lacking. We could go on and on with examples, but the evidence is overwhelming: Nine out of 10 Americans say they believe in God. Eight out of 10 Americans identify as Christian. The vast majority of American homes own a Bible. But, as a nation, we are woefully ignorant of what the Bible actually says.


We may be confused—but we do love The Good Book! A Gallup Poll ranks the overall popularity of the Bible’s books, based on Americans’ response to a Gallup question about naming their “most popular” book of the Bible: Topping the list is Psalms, followed by Genesis. Ranking third and fourth are the Gospels of Matthew and John. Then, Revelation, Proverbs and Job take slots 5-7. Luke ranks 8. Beyond the Gospel of Luke, Gallup couldn’t find even 2 percent of Americans naming any other “most popular” book in the Bible, which means Mark isn’t a very popular “go to” text for Americans.


A recent Time Magazine news story neatly sums up the milestone that the new CEB represents: “In an effort not only to make the Bible more accessible to modern readers, but also to appease both conservative and liberal denominations, the multi-denomination publishers of the new Bible translation … didn’t just toss together a few catchy phrases. They took the task seriously. With more than 200 biblical scholars and church leaders representing more than 20 denominations, the commmittee translated straight from the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek texts. … When field-testing showed passages appeared confusing, project staff worked in modern phrasing.”

Please, also read our in-depth interview with CEB coordinator Paul Franklyn.


COPIES OF THE NEW COMMON ENGLISH BIBLE. Photos courtesy of Common English Bible team.How clear is this new translation?
That’s the obvious question and the best way to check it out for yourself is: Order your own copy! There are many editions of the Common English Bible available via Amazon, but we recommend the CEB Common English Thinline Bible with Apocrypha with a Ribbon Marker and Leather-like Cover. So far, the CEB team has not published a Catholic Edition with the books of the Bible in their proper order for Catholic readers. However, the Bible with Apocrypha contains the complete collection of books used by Catholic and Orthodox Christians. That means you’ll also find 3 and 4 Maccabees, Psalm 151 and Bel and the Snake (better known as Bel and the Dragon) in this edition.

Here are some famous passages rendered in the new Common English Bible translation. We admit that it’s unfair to judge a new Bible entirely by famous passages, which most of us know by heart from earlier translations. (That’s why we suggest ordering a full copy, above.) Nevertheless, showing these common passages easily indicates the kinds of revisions you’ll see throughout this new Bible.


When God began to create the heavens and the earth—the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters—God said, “Let there be light.” And so light appeared. God saw how good the light was. God separated the light from the darkness. God named the light Day and the darkness Night. There was evening and there was morning: the first day.

EXODUS 20:2-17

I am the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
You must have no other gods before me.
Do not make an idol for yourself—no form whatsoever—of anything in the sky above or on the earth below or in the waters under the earth. Do not bow down to them or worship them, because I, the LORD your God, am a passionate God. I punish children for their parents’ sins even to the third and fourth generations of those who hate me. But I am loyal and gracious to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Do not use the LORD your God’s name as if it were of no significance; the LORD won’t forgive anyone who uses his name that way.
Remember the Sabbath day and treat it as holy. Six days you may work and do all your tasks, but the seventh day is a Sabath to the LORD your God. Do not do any work on it—not you, your sons or daughters, your male or female servants, your animals, or the immigrant who is living with you. Because the LORD made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything that is in them in six days, but rested on the seventh day. That is why the LORD blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.
Honor your father and your mother so that your life will be long on the fertile land that the LORD your God is giving you.
Do not kill.
Do not commit adultery.
Do not steal.
Do not testify falsely against your neighbor.
Do not desire your neighbor’s house. Do not desire and try to take your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox, donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.

PSALM 23:1-4

The LORD is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
he leads me to restful waters;
he keeps me alive.
He guides me in proper paths
for the sake of his good name.
Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I fear no danger
because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
they protect me.


Happy are people who are hopeless, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Happy are people who grieve, because they will be made glad.
Happy are people who are humble, because they will inherit the earth.
Happy are people who are hungry and thirsty for righteousness, because they will be fed until they are full.
Happy are people who show mercy, because they will receive mercy.
Happy are people who have pure hearts, because they will see God.
Happy are people who make peace, because they will be called God’s children.

Part 2 is our fascinating in-depth interview with CEB coordinator Paul Franklyn

We recommend the CEB Common English Thinline Bible with Apocrypha with a Ribbon Marker and Leather-like Cover.

Please connect with us and help us to reach a wider audience

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!
We welcome your Emails at [email protected]
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.

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

Ready for Triodion, Carnival, Mardi Gras, Lent?

There was grim news from Rio de Janeiro this week that many of the world-famous samba schools are devastated after the fires that tore through the city’s carnival warehouse district. There’s also news rumbling out of New Orleans already about a legal challenge to protect the rights of traditional costume designers to protect their designs. National Public Radio featured a story on Creole Indians hoping to copyright and, thus, earn some income from their elaborate Mardi Gras costumes. They’re getting help in their efforts from a legal expert on the Tulane faculty, Ashlye Keaton, according to the Washingotn Post.

Yes, Lent is coming. Earlier we reported on “Our Lent” as an inspirational option.

This Sunday, February 13, is the first official pre-Lenten observance: It’s the start of the Eastern Orthodox Triodion, and we’ve got that story—complete with fascinating links—in our Festivals and Holidays column now.

From tradition to innovation: New Orleans is pushing its Rock ‘n’ Roll Mardis Gras Marathon, also this Sunday. It’s not as spiritually sublime as the Triodion, but the Times-Picayune estimates the footrace pumps milions of much-needed revenue into coffers of local businesses.


When “Black Orpheus” hit American shores in 1959, the samba beat rolled like a tidal wave from coast to coast. The New York Times called the movie “intoxicating.” Director Marcel Camus walked away with an armload of awards: Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and even the Palme d’Or from Cannes.

Half a century later, as you’ll find in the “Extras” in the new Criterion edition of “Black Orpheus,” the film has its critics. Camus was French, not Brazilian. The movie so effectively turns the slums of Rio into a lavish musical backdrop that the desperation of slum-dwellers is all but eclipsed. In 1959, native-born Brazilian filmmakers were angry to see a foreigner win worldwide praise for the first blockbuster movie from Rio. There are lots of ways to critique the film now.

But, we just previewed the Criterion Blu-ray and agree with Criterion film archivists that “Black Orpheus” still rocks the world with samba culture. You can’t watch this movie and not feel toe-tapping happy. Plus, if you’re intrigued by the power of the arts in Rio, you just might be moved to reconsider our earlier review of “Only When I Dance,” a new movie about hopeful young dancers from the slums.

Doubt our “take” on the film? Well, President Barack Obama’s autobiography says that “Black Orpheus” was his mother’s favorite movie. So, the Times recommends it, ReadTheSpirit—and the president, too.

Lent is coming for 2 billion Christians around the world—most of whom are poor people, most of whom aren’t Americans. It’s a wonderful opportunity to explore global connections through culture.

You can order Black Orpheus (The Criterion Collection) from Amazon now. Or, if you have the equipment to view it, you’ll dazzle your eyes with Black Orpheus (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]

We want our international conversation to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. 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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This year, join a global community in ‘Our Lent’

Lent is coming and, with it, powerful new possibilities to connect lives across America and around the world.
WHERE should we make new connections in 2011?
Are you watching the tumultuous democracy movements sizzling across northern Africa and the Arab world, racing from Tunisia to Egypt and throwing off sparks as far as Jordan? Suddenly Africa is back on front pages across the U.S.—although the African continent has been churning for years. Just a few examples of our still-skewed vision: Missing from U.S. news reports over the weekend were stories from conflicts and ongoing violence that took place in recent days in parts of Nigeria, Sudan, Ivory Coast and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Africa has sparked some fresh interest here in the  U.S., but we still aren’t seeing our neighbors’ lives clearly.

What is the religious connection here? News events along the northern rim of Africa mainly involve Muslim activists, but Christianity is growing rapidly in parts of the African continent. This opens a unique opportunity for Americans, most of whom are Christian, to virtually and spiritually connect with Christian communities in the African continent during Lent. Overall, we could promote greater awareness and concern for an important region like Africa this spring.


The world’s Christians celebrate Easter together this year on April 24—a global unity we won’t see again until 2014 and 2017. Eastern-rite Christians begin preparing for their fast of Great Lent on February 13 with a reflective period called the Triodion; then Orthodox Great Lent begins with Clean Monday on March 7. Western-rite Christians, including the majority of Americans, begin Lent with Ash Wednesday on March 9. If you are looking toward the African continent, you’ll find that Christians fall into both Eastern and Western camps. But, with the exception of some “old calendar” churches, this year 2 billion Christians circling the Earth are aiming at the same Easter.


They sure do and they’re generally more devout about it than Americans. A Pew report based on polling in African nations shows a surprisingly high level of Lenten fasting, for example. Pew found that more than half of the Christians in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Rwanda and Zambia plan to fast in Lent. In the continent’s most devout countries, a list that includes Chad, Ethiopia, Ghana and Nigeria, more than 80 percent of Christians fast in Lent.

In the U.S., fasting traditionally has been a Catholic practice. But, Lenten observance is growing among Americans who attend Protestant and independent churches. Think about observing Lent this year in solidarity with Christians around the world through daily prayer and devotional practice. Think about daily Lenten readings, coupled with a conscious effort to follow news from a region like Africa more closely. Most American denominations already have cooperative programs in Africa, so decide to get involved in your church’s African outreach.


Why is Lenten observance growing and making fresh connections in 2011? The following excerpt comes from the Preface by David Crumm in ‘Our Lent: Things We Carry’ …

Lent is the perfect Christian season for the 21st Century era of spiritual revival. Uncluttered by the commercial avalanche that has all but buried the Advent season over the past century, Lent retains much of its ancient religious potential.

University of Michigan sociologist Wayne E. Baker, in his landmark study “America’s Crisis of Values,” used the massive global waves of data from the World Values Survey to demonstrate the unusual nature of American religious values. Compared with other global cultures, Baker showed that Americans are overwhelmingly religious. But, when it comes to values concerning self-expression, all of those individual choices that lie at the heart of spiritual reflection, Americans surpass Scandinavians in our zeal.

In such an era, Lent is the perfect, untarnished blend of religious tradition and spiritual adventure—ancient roots blossoming into self-reflection and self-expression. Or, to put it another way, Lent is the Lord of the Rings of scriptural stories—a loyal fellowship of men and women fearlessly summoning all of their traditional knowledge as they make their way toward a dangerous encounter in a city where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. This is the core of the season—a personal encounter with the sacred. …

The big picture behind Our Lent: Things We Carry is this: Jesus’ journey 2,000 years ago was a public pilgrimage of such profound importance that 2 billion Christians mark it each year, day by day, even in the Third Millennium since Jesus walked the Earth. …

Some of the things we will encounter in these 40 days are spiritual ideas that Jesus conveyed to his followers, for example: We join Jesus in encountering two blind men—and an even more profound blindness in the crowd surrounding this pair. It’s a brief but fascinating encounter recorded in the gospel of Matthew—and it reflects on how we, as Christians today, regard the poor and marginalized we encounter along the world’s highways.

While some things along this journey are scenes and lessons, most of the things in our 40-chapter journey are quite tangible things: coins, basins, bowls, bread, cups, swords and tables, to name a few. This was the stuff of Jesus’ world. It’s still the stuff of our lives, 2,000 years after Jesus’ world-shaking walk to Jerusalem.

This year, come along. Walk with us. You’re already carrying things. Help us to lighten the load.

You can purchase Our Lent: Things We Carry from Amazon now.


That’s right. One of the innovations in ReadTheSpirit Books is that all of our books can be ordered for “group reads” with modified covers—and even additional pages bound into each copy. Your organization or congregation might want to order 100 copies or more for everyone to read. If you are interested in such quantities, contact us at [email protected] and we can talk with you about the possibility of modifying a print run to include your logo on the cover. In addition, you can add several pages to the bound copies in your order, which could contain a schedule of your springtime programs, or perhaps helpful information to share with neighbors and visitors. These modified books become tools for outreach, an easy way to build community connections. That kind of modification is not possible with other mass-published Lenten devotionals. If you’re curious about this option, email us and we’re happy to discuss what’s possible for “group reads.”

We want our international conversation to continue

Conversation is far better than the dangerous shouting matches we’ve been witnessing in our global culture. 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.

(Originally published at

635: Bishop N.T. Wright is back with a powerful new book (and video too)

No contemporary religious author attracts more attention among Christian audiences than N.T. Wright.
    He’s half Bible scholar and half a contemporary embodiment of the celebrity of C.S. Lewis. No, Wright doesn’t write fantasy or allegory, but he is a master at what once was Lewis’ style of straight-forward, street-level writing about what makes our religious lives truly matter in the world.
This week, Wright has a powerful new book available, “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.” AND, there’s also a 6-session “Surprised by Hope” study guide—plus a 6-part DVD set—based on his previous book by the same name.
If you’re not familiar with Wright’s work, here’s what you need to know: Over the past decade or so, he burst on the American scene largely regarded as the evangelical defender of biblical truth from other Bible scholars who question the historical accuracy of many scriptural passages. But, if you think of Wright as merely a Bible traditionalist, you’ve completely missed his larger importance. Like Lewis before him, Wright uses his beloved-uncle-from-England persona to relentlessly push Christians to rethink our often too-passive approach to the faith. Like Lewis before him, Wright wants church people to get our butts out of the pews and become compassionate, transformative neighbors in the world.
    This new book is a clarion call to mature Christians to take seriously some of Jesus’ messages we’ve long ignored.
This week, we have 3 Stories with N.T. Wright, including video on Tuesday and an in-depth interview with the Bishop of Durham “Tom” Wright on Wednesday.

HERE ARE convenient links for ordering the new book and the study guide to “Surprised by Hope”:
CLICK HERE to order “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters” from Amazon now.
OR, for the study guide: CLICK HERE to order the new “Surprised by Hope Participant’s Guide: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church” for a 6-week small-group series.

N.T. Wright Part 1:
Sample of “After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters”

It rains quite a lot in England, where I live, but early September 2008 was exceptional. It had poured for days on end, with as much rain falling on the final day of the spell as you’d normally expect in a month. It wasn’t the nicest time to be out for a walk, but one family had decided to brave it. As they were crossing a park in the town of Chester-le-Street, about 15 miles northwest of my home, the family dog went to splash in a large puddle, and the 3-year-old daughter went to join him. Suddenly, without warning, the little girl simply disappeared. The father, running up, saw the dog disappear as well. He realized in a flash what had happened: a strom drain had burst its cover beneath the puddle, and the girl and the dog had both been sucked down into the drain itself. Thinking quickly, the father, Mark Baxter, realized that a storm drain would almost likely spill out into the river, about a hundred yards away. He set off at once at a run. When he got to the river, he spotted the girl’s coat floating downstream—with Laura, his daughter, face-down inside it. Immediately he plunged in and rescued her, bruised and battered but alive.
Another miracle? In a sense, yes. All sorts of things might have happened. … But what impressed me most, hearing the story, was what the father said afterward about his frantic run to the riverbank.
“Everytime I thought a bad thought,” he said, “I forced myself to think of somehting else.”
Therein lies the secret. Mark Baxter wasn’t working out, step by step, what he had to do. He had grasped that in a flash. But he needed self-discipline to keep a firm grip on his own thoughts. All kinds of fears and terrors were, no doubt, rushing into his mind, threatening to make him panic or go to pieces. But he had what we sometimes call the presence of mind to hold those fears at bay. He consciously made the effort to replace the bad thoughts with good ones, and to concentrate on what he had to do. That is, in the technical sense we’ve been using, “character.”
It doesn’t come by accident. It comes through the self-discipline required to do anything in life really well—to learn a musical instrument, to mend a tractor, to give a lecture, to run an orphanage. Or, indeed, to live as a wise human being. Again and again, when you’re working hard at a difficult or complex task, the mind will try to jump away, to focus instead on something easier or more enticing. And again and again, if you’re going to get the job done, you have to force your mind back onto the job and away from the distraction.

As it happens, Mark Baxter worked for the British Royal Air Force. … He learned his self-discipline in a field where it is obviously vital at every minute. The ability to size up a situation, figure out what to do, and do it as though by instinct is one thing. The ability to hold at arm’s length the thoughts that would terrify and paralyze you as you go about it is another thing, the kind of back-up mental discipline necessary for “virtue” to take effect. … You never know when you might need that discipline; when it might save a life. You won’t have time to stop and think. The “character” of mental discipline needs to run right through you.

Learning to navigate this world wisely, and to grow toward complete and mature human life in and through it all, is the challenge we all face. And the point of this book is to suggest that the dynamic of “virtue,” in this sense—practicing the habits of heart and life that point toward the true goal of human existence—lies at the heart of the challenge of Christian behavior. …
When we approach things from this angle, we are in for some surprises. A great many Christians, in my experience, never think of things this way, and so get themselves in all kinds of confusion. Virtue, to put it bluntly, is a revolutionary idea in today’s world—and today’s church. But the revolution is one we badly need.

What’s the Spiritual Season this week? Lent … plus International Women’s Day, Mothering Sunday and 40 Martyrs, too


(You’ll also find weekly news in our “ReadTheSpirit Planner.” See a sample & learn how to get this free Email newsletter.) HERE IS …

What’s the Spiritual Season?
(March 8 to 14, 2010)
By Stephanie Fenton

THIS WEEK, Lent continues for Christians—and
Orthodox Christians mark a mid-season feast with the Forty Holy Martyrs
of Sebaste. Also this week, celebrate International Women’s Day and
Mothering Sunday! Saturday, Scientologists engage in community service
in honor of L. Ron Hubbard’s birthday, and on Sunday, don’t forget to
turn your clocks one hour ahead! Read all about these events and
observances below

ALL WEEK, Lent continues for 2 billion Christians around the world. We’re publishing a FREE daily Lenten series, called “Our Lent: Things We Carry,” for the 40 days leading to Easter.
    ALSO, we’re expanding our Lenten Resources Page—with suggestions readers are Emailing us at [email protected].

MONDAY, learn about both the potential power and continuing struggle of women on International Women’s Day.
Today, women around the globe gather to promote world peace and greater awareness of gender inequality. (The
photo at left shows an Afghan woman teaching girls at a school in Afghanistan—a major step forward from the Taliban era
    Did you
know that 70 percent of the world’s poor are women? Are you aware that
it isn’t uncommon for Afghan women to attempt suicide to escape a life
of domestic abuse? (BBC reported on this in 2009.)
    Hundreds of women’s groups are hosting awareness events on March 8. Women for Women International,
an organization that provides resources to female war survivors, will
play its part this year by hosting a global campaign entitled “Join Me
on the Bridge” to honor the millions of women who are survivors of war.
Well-known bridges like the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and Millennium
Bridge in London are among the high-profile sites. This year, a major spotlight from these events will focus on the plight of women in Rwanda and Congo. War has been ravaging these countries
for years, and there have been hundreds of thousands of rape cases
during that time. (Is there a participating bridge near you? Find out.)
This organization has so far served about 40,000 women in Rwanda and
Congo and hopes to draw more attention to this cause through the annual observance.
International Women’s Day was inaugurated 99 years ago—and
today hundreds of events draw attention to the economic, political and
social accomplishments of women as well as continuing patriarchal obstacles. (Watch a video about IWD here, and read a detailed history.)
International Women’s Day is now an official holiday in countries including China, Russia, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Kazakhstan. (More is at Wikipedia.)

Orthodox Christians remember the Forty Holy Martyrs of Sebaste, soldiers in Armenia who were persecuted in 320 CE. (A general history is at Wikipedia.) This commemoration was first marked by St. Basil, Bishop of Caesarea, in a homily. (Read details from the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America.)
As St. Basil related these miraculous events: 40 Christian soldiers were persecuted by pagan authorities who ordered them to remain in a nearly frozen pond throughout a cold winter night. Eventually, one near-frozen soldier raced from the water toward bonfires the guards had set as a temptation—but, he fell dead before reaching the fire. (Here is the Byzantine Catholic perspective on this event and the third week of Lent.) The story doesn’t end there. Tradition holds that one of the pagan guards saw a brilliant light shine upon the Christian soldiers—and 39 crowns descend to the heads of these martyrs. Moved by this apparent miracle, the guard took the
place of the one fallen soldier and hailed Christianity himself. According to
tradition, the brilliant light also brought warmth to the soldiers so
that they would all survive the night.
    (For facts about cold water and hypothermia, check out this PDF from the Department of Natural Resources. Did you know that cold-water survival depends on the specifics of each
individual’s body, but the average human body loses heat up to 25 times
faster in cold water than in cold air?)
    Eastern Christians
believe that the soldiers lived through the night but, come daybreak,
their stiff bodies were burned by the pagans. (Check out this page on it, from the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.)
Numerous Christians collected the remains of the soldiers and carried
the relics to cities far and wide. Many churches were built
in honor of the 40 martyrs, including the church at which St. Basil
gave his homily on them years later. Centuries-old discourses on the 40
martyrs are preserved, as is an eyewitness account and some of the
    Here’s a contemporary connection: During an Orthodox Christian
wedding, a priest reads a prayer that states “Remember them (the bride
and groom), O Lord, as thou didst thy Forty Martyrs, sending down upon
them crowns from Heaven.”

SATURDAY, it’s the birthday of L. Ron Hubbard, the creator of Scientology (this is the official site).
After composing a self-help system he called Dianetics (first published
in 1950), Hubbard developed doctrines and rituals that would become the
guidelines for Scientology, which was founded in 1953. (Here is the Wikipedia page on Hubbard.) Prior to his death in 1986, Hubbard asked that his birthday be
celebrated by Scientologists with community service. Hubbard once wrote
that “a being is only as valuable as he can serve others,” and each
year on March 13, thousands of volunteer hours are donated
by Scientologists in honor of Hubbard.
    Scientology is most famous in the U.S. for the celebrities it attracts. Here’s the latest celebrity item: Katie Holmes
reportedly is undergoing a fresh Scientology auditing
process in preparation for another pregnancy
    And, on Sunday, the New York Times published a major investigation into alleged abuse among some of the organization’s leadership. (You may need a free Times Web registration to see the story.)

SUNDAY at 2 a.m., it’s time to turn your clocks ahead by one hour. Celebrate spring with Daylight Savings Time! (Wikipedia has a page on DST.)
Daylight Savings Time has a rocky history: It was repealed in the U.S.
in 1919, re-established at the beginning of WWII, and was observed on
and off by different states after the war. Standard dates for Daylight
Savings were established in 1966, and then the dates were moved again
in 1975—only to be moved more throughout the ’80s, ’90s and in the new
millennium. The most recent change was made in 2007, when Daylight
Savings was set to start on the second Sunday in March and end on the
first Sunday in November. (Read more U.S. history from the U.S. Naval Observatory.)
    Opinions vary on the value of Daylight Savings Time: While
some argue that electricity is conserved with DST, others report on its
averse affect on workers. (An article on this was published at the WPTV News Web site.) Now, a large portion of the world observes DST, but many places do
not—such as the state of Arizona, the state of Hawaii and a few U.S.
    Modern DST was proposed by George Vernon Hudson, an
entomologist from New Zealand, in 1895. He actually proposed a two-hour
time shift during the spring and fall equinoxes.

Also on SUNDAY, sink your teeth into a Simnel cake (pictured at left) and spend some time with your mother; today is Mothering Sunday, an old festival celebrated throughout Europe. (The BBC has a great page on Mothering Sunday.)
Not to be confused with the American Mother’s Day, Mothering Sunday
originated as a Roman religious festival in honor
of the mother goddess, Cybele. When Christianity spread through Europe,
this mid-March festival became a time to honor the Virgin Mary and the
time when people would visit their “mother church.” (Wikipedia’s page has more.)
    Because so many Christian families
have long gathered on Mothering Sunday, it has become tradition to
celebrate with a Simnel cake—a fruit cake made of marzipan and
decorated with 11 marzipan balls, to symbolize  the 12 apostles sans
Judas. (Try it yourself with a recipe from RecipeZaar.)
    Or, learn more about Simnels in this text, from the Church Literature Association.
    As was written in 1648 by author Robert Herrick:
    I’ll to thee a Simnell bring
    ‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
    So that, when she blesseth thee,
    Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.


    This is a good time to sign up for our Monday-morning ReadTheSpirit Planner by Emailit’s
free and you can cancel it any time you’d like to do so. The Planner
goes out each week to readers who want more of an “inside track” on
what we’re seeing on the horizon, plus it’s got a popular “holidays”

    We welcome your notes!
Email [email protected]. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and other social-networking sites as well.
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