The David Gushee Interview on ‘Changing Our Mind’

NEWS already is spreading that America’s leading evangelical Christian ethicist, Dr. David P. Gushee, has reversed his traditional opposition to LGBT relationships in a landmark book called, Changing Our Mind. One online news report about his new book racked up 42,000 mentions on Facebook by readers who understand the significance of this new stance by Dr. Gushee.

After 20 books—including the award-winning volume that now is a standard reference book for evangelical leaders, Kingdom Ethics—Dr. Gushee is completely rewriting his ethical and biblical approach to gay and lesbian men and women. The news has been welcomed by families, teachers and religious leaders who realize that traditional evangelical teaching has hurt countless men, women and teens. Predictably, the news also has sparked opposition from traditionalists.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed David P. Gushee about his book. But before we bring you that author interview, here is a convenient outline of other resources you’ll want to consider:


CRUMM: Let’s start with the most obvious question: Why now? You are a devout Christian, a serious scholar and you’ve already written enough books to fill a shelf in the library. Now, mid-career, you’ve chosen to reverse yourself on one of the most important issues dividing thousands of churches and millions of families. This is a rare reversal for a scholar of your stature.

In his Foreword to your book, best-selling Christian writer Brian D. McLaren calls this a historic moment and compares your new stance to some others that made headlines. Brian writes: “Older readers will remember when Billy Graham shocked American evangelicals—first, by refusing to segregate his evangelistic crusades, and then, by working with Roman Catholics. Younger readers will remember when Pope Francis shocked Catholics by washing the feet of a Muslim woman, or by refusing to condemn gay Catholics.”

So, David, the first question is: Why now?

GUSHEE: More with this book than with any other book I’ve written, I have a sense of being carried along by a power that goes beyond me. It’s like these ideas have been germinating underground for a long time.

Now, I feel compelled to do more to address this issue in a public way. I feel that this is the issue of the early 21st century in the way that race was the issue of the 1960s and, in my evangelical world, the way that women’s roles became the issue of the 1980s. By God’s grace, I have evolved into a leader in American Christianity and I feel like I have not met my responsibility up until now to lead on the LGBT issue. Now, I’m ready. It took me a while to get here.


CRUMM: That sense you describe of “being carried along by a power that goes beyond me.” Some of the early endorsers of your book are making this same point. One of the most inspiring, I think, is the strong endorsement by Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, who served as General Secretary of the Reformed Church in America from 1994-2011. He calls  your new book “courageous, clear, balanced and … grounded in biblical faith.” And then he writes that your book “will be a challenge to some, an inspiration to others, but a gift to all who find themselves at some point on this journey.”

What he’s saying—and many other Christian leaders are saying, too—is that this is a moment of historic change.

GUSHEE: For a long time as evangelicals we made it impossible for LGBT people to exist around us in an honest way. We allowed no recognized space to be an LGBT Christian. Of course, we know that there are millions of LGBT people in America, but in the spaces we controlled? There seemed to be zero. Of course that means LGBT people were hiding. We were forcing them to remain invisible. That’s a form of marginalization that’s as acute as it gets. We have been saying: In our world, you can’t exist. You can’t exist as a devout Christian. We have been trying to create and enforce environments where it’s impossible for you, as an LGBT man or woman, to exist.

We made people suffer through what we said and taught and, by enforcing this kind of environment where people had to hide, we made people suffer even more.


CRUMM: One thing that’s important to understand about your response is: You’re not saying, “Well, the culture is changing and we should change, too, to remain relevant.” What’s driving your new work is really an awareness of the suffering that traditionalist Christian preaching and teaching has caused among countless families—not only LGBT men and women but their brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers, sons and daughters.

In the opening pages of your new book, Jane Clementi writes about the importance of your book to families who have gay loved ones. Jane and her husband now have co-founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation after their son Tyler was lost to suicide in the wake of that infamous case of cyber-bullying at Rutgers University. Jane concludes her note to readers this way: “Praise God for patiently guiding each of us to this place of new understanding as God moves the Church into the 21st century.” Unless your heart is made of stone, you’ve got to be moved by the Clementi family story.

So, your critics may accuse you of just surrendering to popular culture—but anyone who reads your book will realize that’s not the case. This is a theme that runs throughout your career as a scholar: In each time and place, we must look for those who are suffering and reach out to help.

GUSHEE: You’re right. Popular culture is not my prime motivation.

The prime motivation in all of my work is to help Christians discern what it means to follow Christ faithfully. Just because culture may be moving in one direction does not mean that we should just go along. My doctoral dissertation was on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust where millions in Germany simply went along with the dominant culture.

This is difficult to discern. Sometimes the culture is leading the way in a good direction; and sometimes culture is moving in a direction where the church should dig in its heels. My book addresses that issue directly: Is this change I am describing a surrender to sexual libertinism in our culture? Or is this an emerging justice issue for Christians who want to faithfully follow Christ? I don’t have any doubts about it anymore. This is an emerging justice issue for Christians who want to be faithful to where Christ is leading us.

I would say at the cultural level, while the conservative branches of the church are losing substantial numbers of people and substantial cultural ground on this issue, the responses I’m hearing from the cultural Right demonstrate they’re digging in their heels in a very strong way. Some on the cultural Right are going to be digging in their heels until the very end.


CRUMM: As a journalist, I’ve devoted my career to covering religion around the world. I’m fascinated by religious leaders who break with tradition on justice issues. Recently, we published an interview with biographer Charles Marsh about how Dietrich Bonhoeffer became one of the first Christian leaders in Germany to publicly oppose the Nazis—way before other Christian heroes followed his example.

I always wonder: How did these heroic Christian leaders decide to step out into the forefront and take such courageous positions? What fueled their decisions? Another example: I’m fascinated by the life of John Wesley who took decades to figure out that slavery was wrong, that it was a Christian justice issue—but finally Wesley became a leading abolitionist and published a stirring anti-slavery pamphlet in 1774.

GUSHEE: It took me basically 20 years to reach this point: 20 years and 20 books before I reached this point of discernment on this issue.

I think that no human being has the bandwidth to reconsider everything at the same time. John Wesley didn’t. Discernment takes time.

In the context and pace of global change today, it may seem as though we’re reconsidering everything every day. But, as a Christian, you inherit paterns of belief and ways the Bible has been traditionally interpreted on dozens and dozens of issues—money, environment, war, human relations, on and on—and something has to arrive in our lives to crack open a settled pattern of interpretation. Usually that takes the form of a transformative experience with people who are negatively affected by that traditional pattern of interpretation. If we encounter the humanity affected and suffering because of a particular pattern of teaching—then our lives begin to crack open and there is space to reconsider.

If you’re a Protestant, then the Bible is your main authority in life. And, if you’re an evangelical, you want to be sure you have a solid biblical base to your thinking. So, I needed to revisit the Bible passages that have been the main cluster of passages raised when this issue is discussed in evangelical circles.

When I began that careful study, I realized that I should have been clued into the flaws in the traditional analysis long ago. None of the passages cited in the traditional arguments about gay and lesbian relationships is a central passage on which we as Christians normally base our lives. Think about what we consider central as Christians: passages like John 3:16 and the parables of Jesus and Jesus’s own teachings. So, I should have realized that there were flaws in that traditional biblical analysis when it rests on passages like the one in Leviticus. Where else in contemporary life do Christians quote Leviticus as a guide for daily living? Yes, there are a couple of passages in the New Testament that are often cited as well, but they’re not the core passages of the Bible on which we rely every day.

The more I studied this, the more I realized: What a disaster! We have allowed a traditionalist reading of a small cluster of relatively marginal passages in the Bible to trump the heartbeat of Christian morality, which is based on the teachings of Jesus. I feel the scales have fallen from my eyes on this. I’m saying we need to treat LGBT people like Jesus commanded us to treat everybody we meet.


CRUMM: I was moved by your book, especially the final chapter. You close this book with a humble apology “to those who have been hurt by my prior teaching and writing on the LGBT issue.”

And that passage made me look back earlier in your career to the years of research you conducted into courageous Holocaust rescuers—men and women who now are called “righteous gentiles.” These people risked their lives, and many actually died, because they were convinced that they should reach out and help the suffering during the Shoah.

I  pulled off my shelf your book, based on those years of research, titled, Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust: Genocide and Moral Obligation. And, toward the end of that book you write: “Most rescuers … believe that their actions were in fact both morally obligatory and not especially commendable. Their obligation to help Jews seemed perfectly clear to them, and from their perspective a person deserves no praise for fulfilling an obvious obligation.”

Now, years after first publishing that book, you’re publishing Changing Our Mind and you close this new book on a similar note. You’re not asking people to praise you as a great hero. You’re humbling yourself at the end of this book. You’re publishing this book because it’s the right thing to do.

To echo a famous evangelical line: Here you stand; you can do no other.

GUSHEE: I’m really glad you discovered that quote in Righteous Gentiles. You’re right, I was deeply shaped by that research. I spent three years day and night reading about rescuers and researching in Holocaust archives—immersing myself in all of these hidden stories. That was my dissertation and the deepest I thought I’d ever go on researching any topic. Studying these rescuers set my course. I have been attempting to live up to what I learned from them ever since.

I’ve often talked about trying to follow a “rescuer Christianity” rather than a “bystander Christianity” or—even worse—a “perpetrator Christianity.” So, yes, I totally resonate with that quote you just read.

What I’m trying to do is to let Christians know: Here’s an idea. Treat gay and lesbian people just like you’d treat anyone else. Welcome them. Show them hospitality. That’s what we as Christians are supposed to do for everyone. This isn’t rocket science.

And, I don’t deserve praise for having taken 20 years to figure this out. Now that I have, I plan to stand in solidarity with the people we have made to suffer for so long—for the rest of my career. It is the least that I can do.

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

Why David P. Gushee represents hope for the Church

author of A Letter To My Congregation

David Gushee is arguably the preeminent Evangelical ethicist of our time. Until this book, that is, which is more than a book. It is an event and it is one that will propel Gushee outside the camp of approved Evangelical scholars.

But this is where Jesus did his best work. It is the place where the gospel first happened for all people. Gushee’s book will draw many Evangelicals to find Jesus outside the camp with his vulnerable gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender followers, those who have suffered in exile for a very long time.

The thing you will notice in Changing Our Mind, beyond the faithful scholarship, is Gushee’s voice. Words do matter and the thoughts they convey. But the good shepherd is known primarily by his voice. Gushee’s voice is by turns warm, pastoral, prophetic, irenic, careful, authoritative, humble, sorrowful, repentant and even occasionally funny.

Gushee’s new book is a great read.

But his mission is deadly serious. Gushee is out to save the lives of people living with the stigma of sexual minority status. And he is out to save the soul of the Evangelical church, so that it can be good news for all people again.

I met David at a retreat sponsored by the National Association of Evangelicals in 2006. Five years later, I was on a writing retreat—gathering my troubled and troubling thoughts on a way to fully include people in same-sex relationships in the church. I had just finished reading Gushee’s Kingdom Ethics and found the few pages on homosexuality wanting. Those pages didn’t live up to the approach to ethics that Gushee and his co-author presented in the book. With trepidation (Who was I to criticize Gushee in his own field?) I told him so. And to my surprise, he responded with what I now know to be characteristic humility.

He said, “I’m rethinking that section too.”

That’s when I knew that evangelicals are able to—and will—change their minds on this issue for the sake of the gospel. That’s when I felt hope for the evangelical church—that guided by our passion for the gospel, we could find a better way. Today I am aware of several evangelical churches in the dicey, messy, difficult process of changing their minds on this issue.

When I telephoned Gushee that day, I couldn’t imagine such a thing. When I hung up the phone, I could.

So read this book—but only if you are willing to venture outside the camp of modern-day evangelicalism for the sake of the gospel. There you will enjoy sweet fellowship with Jesus that is available nowhere else. And you will discover again the thrill inherent in the goodness, the sheer, stupefying goodness of the gospel for all people.

Diana Butler Bass finds hope in Christianity After Religion

CLICK THE COVER to visit the book’s Amazon page.Don’t be afraid.
Religious life in America is changing dramatically, but for millions of Americans who are searching for faith, inspiration and hope on a daily basis—the underlying spiritual strength of our American culture is alive and well. In a couple of sentences, that’s the wise and helpful message of Diana Butler Bass’s new book, Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening.

The timing of this book couldn’t have been better. The majority of Americans, watching the fury on the Religious Right over the Republican presidential nomination in early 2012, are anxiously wondering whether we are seeing another spike in evangelical political clout nationwide. This new book is not about the 2012 campaign, but the underlying message from a middle-American point of view is: Don’t be afraid.

From our author interview coming later this week: As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, I asked Diana the very question that millions of Americans are having trouble answering for pollsters, “Given all the changes you’re writing about in this new book, how do you identify yourself religiously these days?”

She laughed, because religious transformation in our culture is the central point of this book. We’re all changing—like it or not. Finally she said, “Can we just say: She responded with a big silence?”

When I pressed her, though, she said, “I understand myself as a Christian who is leaning toward an unknown future and I am feeling a sense of loss. I know we have to leave some things behind in terms of ritual practices and traditions of the Church, but I am also full of a sense of wonder and imagination. What is Christianity going to look like for my daughter? For my unborn grandchildren? I am hopeful. I see the possibility of a Christianity that can be open and fluid and that will no longer be guarded by huge boundaries and barriers set up by human beings to close out so many people. I see a Christianity emerging that will embrace people around the world in love. I hope for a future of healing for our planet.”

Not a bad response on the fly in an interview, hmmm!?! And—if that summary sounds like you, then you already can see why you should get a copy of this book and read it—then share it with friends in your congregation. That uplifting voice from Diana Butler Bass comes through, loud and clear, in these nearly 300 pages of solid research data, analysis and advice to church leaders about ways to adapt to our current transformation in American religion.

Here’s what this is not: This is not another “inspirational” book by a spiritual writer sharing a personal vision of change. There are many fine books in that genre from individual teachers, but Diana Butler Bass is not merely writing a personal manifesto here. She is a highly respected historian of American religious life and a scholar of contemporary religious culture—regularly invited to lecture to conferences, colleges and gatherings of church leaders. By the time you reach the back cover of her book, you will understand the breadth of current research by Diana herself and by a wide array of other top scholars as well.

And this is not another guilt trip from a “church-growth expert,” designed to whack congregational leaders over the head with 10 Things You’re Doing Wrong in Marketing Your Church. That’s neither Diana Butler Bass’s profession nor her intention. This new book is a stirring—and, to be honest, a troubling—look at change in America’s religious life. But we are in the hands of a scholar whose vocation is driven by the hopeful promise that smart and well-informed church leaders can take positive steps.

Why is it so important that she covers the waterfront in current research?
Because we’re not simply relying on Diana’s own conclusions—leaving the reader to guess whether we should trust her. Instead, she fills in the other voices in a kind of panel discussion of top scholars, including as one example the widely known Harvard scholar Robert Putnam (famous for his work on Bowling Alone) and his colleague from Notre Dame David E. Campbell. Together, their latest book is American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, which ReadTheSpirit also recommends.

Here’s how that writing style works, as this book unfolds. On page 235, Bass explains her own conclusion that, essentially, the evangelical rise to political power in America hit its “Gettysburg” around 1996—and its overall authority and clout has been eroding ever since. Lest readers doubt her analysis, she backs this up with work by Putnam and Campbell. From their research, she writes:

“Putnam and Campbell point out that the number of evangelicals was never as great as portrayed in the press. ‘The rise was real and statistically significant,’ they explain, ‘but it amounted to adding roughly one American in twenty to the ranks of evangelicals. Despite the mountains of books and newspaper articles about the rise of the evangelicals, in absolute terms the change was hardly massive.’ There were many fewer nativists than most of us imagined. The trends revealed something even more surprising. The evangelical rise ended rather abruptly in the mid-1990s when ‘the number of evangelical adherents … actually slumped.’ Thus, Putnam and Campbell make the startling claim: ‘The evangelical boom that began in the 1970s was over by the early 1990s, nearly two decades ago.’”

That’s just one point among many raised in this fascinating book. As Editor of ReadTheSpirit, and as a religion newswriter for major American newspapers for decades before that, I have always described the difference between “religion” and “spirituality” as the two strands in the DNA of faith. The term “religion” tends to refer to faith as a revelation revealed to us for our acceptance. The term “spirituality” refers to the other strand in the DNA of faith—the quest that each of us initiates every morning to find meaning and purpose in life. The “religion” strand is like an arrow we can envision coming toward us from the gods, revealing faith to us. The “spirituality” strand is like an arrow arising from each of us every morning as we begin our daily quests. If you care to read more on this point: In late 2010, ReadTheSpirit published my analysis of these two terms as “What’s the Future of Religion? Or, What’s Our Future in It?

I have been reading Diana Butler Bass’s work for about a decade now—and we have been doing interviews through those years. One reason I so heartily recommend her work is that we both write about this thorny question of religion and spirituality from similar points of view. Of course, her interpretation contains her own distinctions, based on her research. We don’t agree on every point. Considering that the Religion vs. Spirituality question is one of the hottest in American culture right now—that’s yet another reason to buy and read her book.

Ultimately, this is a terrific book for small-group discussion. Not only will it spark lively conversations, but there’s an even more important reason to work this book into your congregation’s small-group schedule this year. It’s this: Rather than simply arguing about various opinions concerning change, reading Diana’s new book will give everyone in your community a firm footing on the latest research into these questions. Oh, people still will disagree, debate and question each other—but at least everyone will know the wide array of solid findings that now are available to help us chart the future.

NEXT: Read our author interview with Diana Butler Bass.

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

Interview: Matthew Fox on his ‘Christian Mystics’



Matthew Fox prefers to be called just “Matt”—perhaps because his full name in news media usually comes with “Provocative” or “Controversial” attached like it’s his first name. There is some truth to those labels: Matt doesn’t suffer fools lightly and throughout his career in preaching and teaching, his activism has stirred fiery reactions. If you’re reading this interview, you’re probably aware of his years-long feud with the Vatican that led him to move to the Episcopal church in 1994.

Read Part 1 of our coverage of Matt’s work, this week, for a link to his new book about the Vatican. Or, to learn more about the breadth of his work, consider reading this provocative 2008 interview with Matt, which focused on his book, “The Hidden Spirituality of Men.”
Yes, we just used that “P” word, again. How fair is that term? Well, the photo at right shows Matt in 2005 in Wittenburg, Germany, nailing up a long list of principles for transforming Christianity. Wittenburg is the site traditionally associated with Martin Luther and the birth of the Protestant Reformation. Matt staged this 2005 demonstration to protest the election of Pope Benedict XVI, his own long-time sparring partner.

But, let’s be clear: Matthew Fox’s work is far larger than his feud with the Vatican. In fact, Matt describes his vocation as cosmic in scale.

In 2005, Fox wrote from Germany that a TV cameraman in Wittenburg asked him, “Is this just about the corruption in the Catholic church?”

Matt says he answered: “No! The Protestant church is suffering differently from the Catholic church. It is more from boredom and accedia, lack of energy to begin new things.” Matt concluded: “A Reformation—better yet, a Transformation—is called for across the board as we enter a new millennium.”

However, some of the concepts Matt explores in his work can seem a bit dense for general reading, which is one reason we like his new Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations—it’s an introduction in day-by-day segments to the core teachings on mysticism that drive Matt’s work on spiritual renewal.


DAVID: Let’s start with your new book, called The Pope’s War: Why Ratzinger’s Secret Crusade Has Imperiled the Church and How It Can Be Saved. Give readers some background on the scope of this book about Benedict.

MATT: I go into his story, his career—and his enemies. He has silenced more than 90 theologians and activists and expelled them, including me and many in the liberation-theology and base-community movement in Latin America. I write about his allies in the church, too. I write about the pedophile scandal, but also two other scandals: the financial-mismanagement scandal, more of which is just coming out now, and the scandal of dumbing down the church.

DAVID: Explain what you mean by “dumbing down”?

MATT: In expelling all of these theologians, then by appointing only yes men in the hierarchy, this really dismantles the intellectual energy of the church.

But my book is not all about scandal. In the last part of the book, I write about where we can go from here. My thesis is that the church has been so deconstructed under the last two papacies that it’s time to push the restart button on Christianity itself. I see this as the work of the Holy Spirit leveling the playing field. Now, we should be asking: What should we save from this burning building? And that’s where my new book on mysticism comes in. This is part of the treasure of the church that we truly need to save. What does a truly catholic-with-a-small-c Christianity—a truly universal Christianity—look like? The church needs a new Reformation—both in our Catholic and Protestant wings. The Catholic wing is corrupt at the very top and Protestantism has sold its soul to Fundamentalism and needs a good kick in the pants, too.


DAVID: We all have some mental image of a “mystic,” but your list of mystics will surprise readers, I think. You’ve got some famous mystics in this book—but you’ve also got people in this collection like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Marcus Borg, who most readers wouldn’t think of in this regard.

MATT: That’s because too many people define mysticism in an esoteric, narrow way. That kind of definition deprives people from recognizing that they are mystics, too. And that’s at the heart of my 40-year ministry—reminding people that they can be mystics. It’s there inside them.

My whole life has been trying to connect mysticism to the work of compassion and justice. In fact, that’s why I’ve gotten into so much trouble with critics! If I was just telling people to go lock themselves away and be still and meditate—I wouldn’t have made the enemies I’ve made! I would still be making a living as a priest in the Catholic Church! I like to quote William Hocking: A prophet is a mystic in action! I’m trying to find that balance, that dance between the mystic and the prophet. And, you know? There’s a prophet inside all of us. We just have to kick start it! It’s the church’s mission to help people become both mystics and prophets.

DAVID: You list the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a mystic. He’s a great man, obviously, but doesn’t show up in most works on mysticism.

MATT: Don’t even try to tell me that King wasn’t a mystic! That misses the whole point of what I’m saying about mystics. They don’t have to wear their mysticism on their sleeve. It’s by their fruits you will know them. King certainly was a mystic! Did you know that, when he went to jail, the book he carried with him was Howard Thurman’s “Jesus and The Disinherited.” I’m sorry for anyone who tries to tell me that King wasn’t a mystic—or the others I’m including here, like Howard Thurman—shouldn’t be in this collection. I think that response is just spiritually illiterate.

You know 150 years ago Walt Whitman said it was time to smash the crystal of poetry and start over. I think it’s about time to smash the crystal of classic theology. We’ve gotten into a terrible mess. Let’s start over.


DAVID: Last year, one of our most popular stories in ReadTheSpirit was a short profile of your friend, the California-based poet Rafael Jesus Gonzalez. You’ve worked for years with Rafael so you know his approach to art and life and spirituality. What caught our readers by surprise was Rafael’s argument that the American standard of living actually is impoverished when compared with Latin America.

Why? Rafael gave the example of music and holiday celebrations: In Mexico, “there  is much more music in the streets, more dancing in the streets, more color. There are more holidays that have so much meaning in them that they flow through the streets until everyone shares in them. In the United States, people don’t sing in the streets. People glue their own private music to their ears.”

I would say that Rafael is pointing to something very close to the everyday mysticism you’re describing. Rafael is talking about the “awe” in vibrant living—a concept close to mysticism. In American culture, we tend to squeeze that awe out of our daily lives.

MATT: I love your quote from Rafael! Yes, we live in a culture where art itself is encased in crystal. We only talk about art in terms of what sells commercially. We miss the important point that everyone has an artistic life. Everyone can express themselves creatively. Yes, this is what I’m talking about when I talk about the everyday mystical journey on which all of us can take part.

DAVID: I appreciate your including Howard Thurman. We actually publish a book, “Interfaith Heroes,” that profiles Thurman for contemporary readers. We think Thurman was a very important spiritual pioneer.

MATT: Of course! Thurman was a spiritual influence on Dr. King. I consider Thurman one of the greatest mystics in North America. I knew his wife, because he ended his life here in San Francisco. The pastor of his church was vice president of my University of Creation Spirituality. We published a whole issue of our magazine some years ago on Thurman. The guy was an absolute spiritual genius. His work influenced so many other movements. You can even see his influence in the Jewish renewal movement. I never met Thurman, but I’ve seen film of him and I’ve heard his sermons in recordings. There’s a beauty in his voice that’s absolutely moving. So, it’s no small thing that King chose Thurman’s book to take to jail.


DAVID: Your book and your public speaking has an apocalyptic air to it. You talk about the house of Christianity burning down. You talk about kicking Christianity in the rear end. So, let’s close this interview with what you see on the horizon line.

MATT: I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. I think hope is very different from optimism. Hope comes out of facing the darkness, facing the despair. We have to face what is happening to us as a people and as a planet. The damage we are doing to Earth is reaching irreversible proportions.

We’re running out of time and we’re still making very unwise decisions. The BP disaster is a sign of that. The situation in Japan is another sign. The Japanese know they’re sitting on a ring of potential earthquakes—so why didn’t anyone stop to think that earthquakes can produce tsunamis and it’s a very bad idea to design nuclear power plants and the emergency-response equipment in such a way that it all can break down when an earthquake strikes. You would think the human race would be smarter than this.

What we’re realizing is that, as a species, we’re not as smart as we think we are. For example, I’ve been reading about new thinking on farming. It could be that we’ve been doing agriculture wrong for 10,000 years if we want to sustain ourselves and the Earth. And, I think we need to admit that we’ve perhaps been doing religion wrong for 10,000 years—or doing education wrong for 10,000 years.

We have to learn from the mystics about purifying our longing, living simpler lives, using less energy and getting out from under this incarnational greed that passes itself off as our economic system.

But, we do have a lot going for us. You’re going to publish this in an online magazine. The Internet allows us to communicate beyond our own tiny cultural ghettos. We can send out wakeup calls. We have to live differently on this planet to survive. Can we do that? Of course, we can do it. Our species is amazingly adaptable and we can change—but not if we remain trapped in our own tiny, little, introspective consciousness.

Remember: You can purchase Christian Mystics: 365 Readings and Meditations—Fox’s 365-day vision of what mystics can teach us at this moment in history—via Amazon.

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, 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, an online journal covering religion and cultural diversity.

What does it mean to be Google, Apple, Twitter … ummm, Methodist?

hat does it mean to be Methodist?
Sounds like a trivial question fit for a lecture in a classroom and … zzzzzz … maybe a nap, right?
    In fact, right now it’s a vital question for all people of faith—partly because we all have a stake in rethinking the meaning of our traditional religious “brands”—and, even more importantly, because historian John Wigger and Oxford University Press are dropping an amazing new book in our laps: “American Saint: Francis Asbury & The Methodists.” This carefully researched history explores this basic question in a mesmerizing way.
“Mesmerizing”? It’s true! I couldn’t put this book down! Why?
Because Wigger sweeps away a lot of old biases and cobwebs about Asbury to reveal that: Once Upon a Time in America, asking the question, “What’s it mean to be Methodist?” was like asking today, “What’s it mean to be Google?” or “What’s it mean to be Apple?”

Francis Asbury was a genius of American cultural and organizational innovation. He was not a great preacher or writer, which is why there are no popular enduring works under his own byline. But what have you read lately from Bill Gates or Steve Jobs? They’re not great writers either.
In Asbury’s day—at the very dawn of America—men, women and children flocked to see this man, much like people today might yearn to catch a personal glimpse of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or even Oprah.
Under Asbury’s leadership, Methodism went from near extinction in the American Revolution to becoming the biggest religious group in America in the years before the Civil War. It was a stunning accomplishment and its legacy helps to define America to this day, even though Methodists today have dwindled from their Microsoft-like dominance of the landscape.

What I’m writing here will come as a shock even to Methodists (most of whom are called United Methodists today) partly because—as Wigger points out in his book—Asbury didn’t write his own autobiography. Instead, we’ve had more than a century of self-serving biographers painting Asbury for their own political purposes or, worse yet, tarring him with their own biases.
There was a time, for example, when Asbury was widely trashed by leading Methodists for being anti-intellectual. As the church rose in American prominence, many major figures in the church tarred Asbury for arguing that a seminary education wasn’t necessary for preaching or for leadership. Asbury’s critics said the stubborn old man celebrated ignorance and was a relic of the past.
Flash forward to 2009, when the most important spiritual voices in America have never attended seminary (people like Mitch Albom, Patrick McDonnell of “Mutts,” Oprah herself and so many others)! Suddenly, we can appreciate the genius in Asbury’s message. Wigger points out that Asbury certainly was not anti-intellectual. He simply understood that, in America, effective preaching could come from every American, whether seminary trained or not. In 2009, that’s now a bedrock truth in understanding American culture.

    There was yet another era when Asbury was dismissed as a harsh guardian of American decency—imagine an evil stepchild of Gen. George Patton and Miss Manners. But, that also was self-serving fiction, Wigger explains. That image was cooked up by Methodist leaders in the 1920s and handed down through families for several decades. In fact, Asbury could be strict in pursuing his work and his vision, but he was famous for his sense of humor!
Rescued from the rubbish of bad biographers by Wigger and Oxford, Asbury becomes a fascinating model for restless American spiritual pioneers today. He was a genius at rethinking church administration, and that genius rested on his own grassroots work with shockingly low overhead.
In effect, Asbury envisioned a church that was—in effect—an early Internet, as strange as that may sound. Because America lacked effective roads in the 1700s and early 1800s, Asbury became this Internet. He personally hit the road—by horse with all the physical punishment that entails—and covered 130,000 miles through America’s trails, dirt tracks and bumpy roads! Then he replicated his style of movement. He organized his church with thousands of Circuit Riders, each of whom typically rode 200 to 500 miles in month-long cycles of visiting about two dozen communities per pastor.

    Here’s a small excerpt from Wigger’s book:
“Asbury communicated his message … through the organization of the Methodist church. He was a brilliant administrator and a keen judge of human motivations. … As Asbury crisscrossed the nation year in and year out, he attended to countless administrative details. Yet he never lost sight of the people involved. … The system Asbury crafted made it possible to keep tabs on thousands of preachers and lay workers. Under his leadership, American Methodists anticipated the development of modern managerial styles. No merchant of the early 19th century could match Asbury’s nationwide network of class leaders, circuit stewards, book stewards, exhorters, local preachers, circuit riders, and presiding elders, or the movement’s system of class meetings, circuit preaching, quarterly meetings, annual conferences, and quadrennial general conferences, all churning out detailed statistical reports to be consolidated and published on a regular basis.”
Without electricity, let alone computers, Asbury networked America’s spiritual life! He built a church that, if he had today’s tools at hand, might be compared to something like Google or Facebook or Twitter.
So, now this week’s question starts to look a little more interesting, doesn’t it?
And this guy Asbury? A cool guy to meet, right?
Come back Wednesday for our in-depth interview with John Wigger—and learn more about Asbury.

ALSO, our new Web site for youth—is exploring this same question, this week. There’s a cool video there asking young people, today, what they think of the Methodist brand.

FINALLY, here’s one last treat today to illustrate our theme. The next photograph is from the LIFE Magazine archives. It was taken by the famous photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt in the 1950s. LIFE Magazine, among others, published famous “cover stories” back in that era about why Methodists were the most distinctively American of all religious sects.
Among the reasons were: Methodists still had the most churches in America by far and they were spread the most evenly across the whole nation. Think about that: As recently as half a century ago, Americans still were fascinated in huge numbers by this question: “What does it mean to be Methodist?”
Hard to imagine, now, perhaps. But, true.
Here’s Einsenstaedt’s iconic photograph of Methodism:


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”

Not only do we welcome your notes—but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
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Finally, here’s a brief excerpt from Wigger’s book

532: Conversation With a true prophet: Dr. Harvey Cox on “The Future of Faith”


Harvey Cox “The Future of Faith” now in Paperback

NEWS in late 2010: YOU CAN PURCHASE “The Future of Faith,” by Harvard’s Harvey Cox from Amazon in a more affordable new paperback edition now.

Remember that hot young skeptic who, five years ago, wrote a best-seller called “The End of Faith”? That was Sam Harris who was sure that all this nonsense about faith would die out, if people would only realized that religion was a bunch of dangerous superstition and … Well, you know the message Sam preached.

It is no coincidence that, as a true giant in the field of religious studies—Dr. Harvey Cox of Harvard—finally weighs in on the subject, his book is called “The Future of Faith.” This book is a deliberate 180-degree turn from the neo-athiests and skeptics out there hoping that people will flush out religion like a bad case of the flu.

But wait!!

Before you start cheering on behalf of organized religion—get a copy of Harvey’s book and read what he has to say in just a little over 200 pages! I guarantee you that this book will spark rousing discussions in your small group. You’ll discover that this major manifesto from a “true prophet” is not quite the reassurance that religious leaders are hoping to find!

In a nutshell, Harvey says that we should celebrate the millions of Americans who are seeking out their own mix-and-match spiritual solutions in life. That is the future of faith, whether we like it or not.

Does that sound crazy? Hardly. Check out our interview with the “Mutts” cartoonist who launched a major new book about our spiritual connections to pets with Eckhart Tolle. Check out our story about Mitch Albom’s new bestseller, “Have a Little Faith.” Or, check out the series about “Nones,” people without a specific religious affiliation.

All of these stories highlight examples of what Harvey describes in his book. Again, in a nutshell: He’s saying that the most exciting and vibrant movements in the realm of faith are happening outside the doors of organized religion. Here’s Harvey himself …


DAVID: I’m so glad to talk with you again, because when you write about American religious life, you’re writing as someone who has been at the heart of those movements for half a century.
I can remember seeing your “The Secular City” back in 1965 on the shelves in the office of my father, who is now a retired pastor. When Liberation Theology arose as a force in Latin America—that wasn’t just some distant movement you read about. You actually went down into Latin America and experienced it first hand.
And you knew the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally.
HARVEY: Yes, I met Martin Luther King years ago when we both happened to be in Tennessee and he was giving a talk. I went to hear him and we chatted later. Turns out we both were born in 1929, both were Baptist ministers, both of us were very interested in the theology of Paul Tillich and then—at his invitation—I got involved in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
DAVID: That’s why it’s so important that you’re still writing at age 80. You don’t have to research the 20th Century history of American religious life. You were directly a part of it. I’m sure a lot of our readers will want to know: How are you doing these days at age 80?
HARVEY: The 80 years went by very quickly! I was very active—and I still am active—at Harvard. I’ve taught here 44 years, working with highly motivated students.
Harvard is a great place because, over time, everyone wants to come here and speak and be heard. But, throughout my life, I’ve kept involved outside of Harvard, as well, first in the Civil Rights movement and then also in the anti-war movement. That’s been important in my life.
I’ve also been active and participated personally in church life. I’m not an exclusively academic theologian. I like to think that my work helps to inform people in the pews and the pulpits—and it connects with people in a way that a strictly academic approach might not have.
I’ve lived long enough to see some of the things take place that I was hoping for in the political world—and in the sphere of religion, too.
DAVID: For example …
HARVEY: It was hard to imagine, when we were struggling back in the 1960s Civil Rights movement that we might someday have an African-American president—but I’ve lived to see that. Many of the things I’m writing about in this new book were just beginning to grow in the early years of my work.

DAVID: The most powerful message you’ve got in this book, I think, is telling people: Hey, all these changes you’re seeing are not cause for alarm that faith is somehow disappearing! They’re evidence that faith is alive and well and thriving—in many different forms that people are selecting for themselves.
You’re drawing the same conclusion that a historian like Mitch Horowitz is drawing in his new book, “Occult America,” which we just featured in ReadTheSpirit a few weeks ago. (NOTE to readers: Here’s a story about Mitch Horowitz and “Occult America.”)
Or, here’s another example: Everybody’s buzzing today about the “Nones,” the 30 to 40 million Americans who answer “None,” when asked by pollsters to give their religious affiliation. Your conclusion is: That’s a healthy sign of the times. Organized religion may be in trouble, but faith and spirit are doing just fine!

HARVEY: Yes, I read the data pretty much the same as you’re reading it.
People do want to be in touch with the sacred, but they’re suspicious of doctrines and creeds and labels and hierarchies. They don’t want to buy that whole package that people have tried to force upon them and I think that’s a positive move. I think it’s a signal to the elites who have been in charge of the religious establishment that there are a growing number of people out there who are no longer merely going to accept things based on their authority. People aren’t simply going to believe what someone tells them they ought to believe. That’s a healthy move.
I see lots of students here at Harvard who are in this category but they’re certainly not atheists or skeptics even. They’re in a search mode. That’s healthy.

DAVID: As I read your book, you’re also arguing that this isn’t something that has suddenly exploded in the age of the Internet. Like Mitch Horowitz, you’re talking about something that’s a long-term movement of people and faith. Is that a fair way to put it?
HARVEY: Yes, you’re right about that. This is something that’s not sudden and that’s not going to go away suddenly. Fifty years ago, there were a lot of people who were predicting the demise—or at least the marginalization—of religion. They were saying it wouldn’t have anymore influence on the public sphere or the culture. Now, of course, we realize that conclusion was completely wrong.
We are experiencing a really long-range trend, not a short-term change. It’s another phase in the ongoing history of Christianity, which I rather simplify in my book into three periods of time. I call this the Age of Spirit.
DAVID: You write, “We stand on the threshold of a new chapter in the Christian story. Despite dire forecasts of its decline, Christianity is growing faster than it ever has before, but mainly outside the West and in movements that accent spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope; pay scant attention to creeds; and flourish without hierarchies.”
So, you call this new era a time when people react against the old creeds and codes of belief and structures of authority. You call this the Age of Spirit.
HARVEY: A number of things are going on in the choice of that word “Spirit.” It cuts across categories. Think of women theologians who prefer words like Spirit to other words for God like Father. Or, think of the rapid growth of Pentecostalism in these Spirit-filled churches all around the world. Or, think of all the people today who say they’re spiritual but not religious.
When you decode all of that, people are showing us that they really do want to pursue the sacred, but not in the ways that people in traditional religious leadership want to require them to move and act.
One of the marks of the Spirit is that it’s not easily containable. The Spirit blows where it will and that’s one reason clerical elites have always been suspicious of mystical or spiritual movements. They can’t control them very well. Now, those movements are too widespread for anyone to control.
DAVID: These movements vary around the world, and I’ve seen them in many distant lands. I was in Singapore a year or so ago, where many houses of worship are air conditioned to make it comfortable for people to worship, especially the Christian churches. But there’s a Catholic shrine there that draws huge numbers of young people, even though it’s not air conditioned and it’s a bit of a challenge to reach the place, compared with other churches. When I was in Singapore, local journalists there were asking me what I thought of this trend. My answer was: This is part of a global movement.

HARVEY: Yes. But, sometimes all the influences and activity are not freely admitted.
In Seoul, Korea, the biggest single Christian congregation is the Yoido Full Gospel Church, which is technically Pentecostal but it’s perfectly evident if you spend time there that the Shamanic tradition of folk religion in Asia is alive and well under Pentecostal rubrics there. The Yoido church (see photo at right) doesn’t advertise itself that way, but that’s what it is. They claim to have 800,000 members in a single congregation and they had seven services a day when I was there. It’s an astonishing thing to see.

    DAVID: I would say that you’re talking about what’s often called “bricolage”—toggling together something new with the materials at hand in a particular time and place. It’s a way of describing how people pull together all kinds of cultural elements to create meaning in their lives, right?

HARVEY: Yes, people select elements the way you might select tools from a tool chest and they put something together for themselves. Generally, they have a background in which they do this. They’re Jewish or Buddhist or Christian—or something else in their background—but they freely put into this background other elements that make sense to them. And it’s never a complete, finished work. Nobody ever says: It’s done. It’s always a work in progress.
We need to recognize the porousness of the boundaries between the various traditions.
    Some weeks ago, I met a woman who’s a good example. She told me she’s an Episcopalian who goes to morning prayers, then in the evening she goes to her yoga class in the Methodist church basement. Then, she comes home and reads her bedside book that’s by the Dalai Lama. She’s a living example of what we’re talking about here.

DAVID: You see this as an especially strong movement among the young.
HARVEY: Do you know who the most popular poet is among all college undergraduates and students today?
DAVID: I’m not sure how to answer. Bono of U2, perhaps?

HARVEY: It’s Rumi, the Persian-Muslim poet. That’s from the last survey I saw of poetry books selling in college bookstores—and Rumi was No. 1. I don’t know where Bono comes in. That’s a good point. He’s probably not on the bookstore poetry list.
Rumi is your classic bricolage poet. He’s Persian-Muslim. He pulls from Jewish tradition. He has very favorable things to say about Jesus. He’s also a poet of love.
DAVID: You say some very strong things in your book, warning against trying to bail out the religious ship by trying to draw tougher and tougher rules about doctrine—or trying to enforce traditional creeds in a heavy-handed way.
HARVEY: I make a very strong case about this and I know some people are going to be critical of what I’m saying. The bad turn that Christianity took under Emperor Constantine was a much worse turn than most of us have realized. He didn’t just legalize Christianity. He really wanted Christianity to become the ideology of a crumbling empire to try to hold it together.
Until Constantine and the Council of Nicea held in the year 325 at his summer palace—presided over by Constantine—there was no Christian creed. Without hierarchies, without a single standard liturgy, with a wide variety of different congregations, Christianity had grown.
The canonical text of the Bible was emerging at the time but it very much in flux and process. Then here came the Nicene Creed—a boundary line outside of which you weren’t supposed to step. There were a handful of bishops who declined to agree and they were sent into the outer darkness. Their books were to be burned.
That was the beginning of what I roughly call the Age of Belief—when being a Christian was identified with propositions to which you had to subscribe. And after Nicea came creed after creed after creed—none of which really reached the goal that people hoped to achieve with creeds.
I think we’re in the midst of liberating movements and liberating discoveries, today. But, this news hasn’t gotten down into the pews yet. What we need to finally acknowledge is that there was a much wider perspective on Jesus and on Christianity—from the very beginning—than what we have inherited today in our creeds and in organized religion.
I think the elites are fighting a lost battle if they try to defend all these old creeds.
DAVID: You call it a kind of dysfunctional “compulsive creed making” in your book. You say it’s grasping at straws in an era when the sacred and the spiritual are alive and well and are a vital part of people’s lives all around the world. Shoring up the old creeds is a losing proposition, you argue.
So, in the end, how do you describe yourself at the moment—at age 80 and with a new book mapping out “The Future of Faith” spreading around the world.
Are you “optimistic”? “Hopeful”? Or “worried”?
HARVEY: I’m not optimistic. But I am hopeful—hopefulness is a theological virtue.
One thing that keeps me hopeful is that I spend day after day and month after month among Harvard undergraduates and divinity school students. I spend a lot of time with them and it refreshes my sense of the possible.
This is not a cynical generation rising up around us. It’s sometimes wrongly accused as such. They’re looking to the future. They’re getting married and preparing for work. Somebody wrote an essay a few years back, called “A Generation Without A Future”—but that’s just not true.
This generation is skeptical—quite skeptical about whether simply accumulating capital and things and income is going to be very fulfilling in their lives. They are much more open to—let’s call it the spiritual dimension of meaning and value. They’re certainly willing to look and search and take all of this quite seriously.
I just don’t fall back into pessimism. Certainly there are plenty of ominous signs on every side of the horizon—and any of us could write that list of worries. But I remain hopeful.
Hopeful. That’s a gift of grace.

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!

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(Originally published at

529: Are you now—or have you ever been—a “None”? Want to meet one?

“The fastest growing faith community now consists of those with no faith community—but they’re not without faith.”
    The “Nones” are a red-hot “group” of Americans identified by pollsters who ask about religious affiliation. For many decades, researchers have tried to sort Americans into groups they can describe—and whose behavior they can predict. America is distinctive in the world for its strong religious beliefs and widespread religious practices.
    But, in recent years, pollsters have been noticing that a small but growing number of men and women answer, “None,” when they’re asked to give their religious affiliation. That “group” now is pushing 40 million in some estimates—the number depends on how pollsters ask the question.
    This week, Martin Davis—an expert on congregational resources at Alban—and Dan Cox of Public Religion Research invited me—ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm—to discuss our different approaches to understanding these millions of “Nones.” As it turned out, we agreed about a lot of things!
    Care to listen? Click on the link above to the Podcast page and you can download the MP3 file. If you use an iPod, then you know what to do with the file. If not, you can play the audio file on most standard computer operating systems.

Meanwhile, are you a None yourself?
    If so, we’d like to hear from you: What’s your religious background?
    What causes you to say you have no religious affiliation now?
    And why do you think current categories of religious affiliation don’t seem to fit anymore?
    Click here to Email us, please.

Want to meet a None?
    Did you read our interview yesterday with “Mutts” cartoonist Patrick McDonnell, whose delightful new book, “Guardians of Being” (with Eckhart Tolle), is bound for a successful holiday shopping season among spiritual seekers.
    Well, Patrick is deeply spiritual—and he’s also a “None.”
    Here’s the exchange yesterday about his religious affiliation:
    DAVID: First question: How do you describe yourself religiously?
Based on the handful of excerpts you’ve selected from Tolle’s work—I’d
almost guess you’re a Buddhist. In the book, you champion concern for
the environment, you talk about the importance of compassion—and you
urge us to appreciate the “here and now.” You urge us to be “completely
present.” You even refer to “Zen masters.”
But, you also have sections in the book about “soul” and “divine
presence” and the “Creator.” So, how do you describe yourself
PATRICK: I was born Roman Catholic. I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist.
I kind of read everything about religion these days—Eckhart’s book in
particular. I was taken by the directness and simplicity of his
writing. I would call myself a spiritual person.
DAVID: Let me push you a little further. There’s one page where you
quote Tolle’s words: “We are immersed in a continuous stream of mental
noise. It seems that we can’t stop thinking.”
Again, that section of your book seems pretty Zen to me.
PATRICK: I think a lot of people can appreciate what’s being said there, whatever their religious background may be.

 Want to check out some of the research?

    Here’s a link to a 2009 story we published about the latest Pew research into Nones. The story outlines our own Top 10 insights into the data—and provides links back to the Pew site, as well.
    Want to go back a little further? Here’s a link to a 2008 story we published on Pew’s round of research that year.

Please, check out the Podcast via the link at top … enjoy the McDonnell interview, if you missed it … and drop us a line about a None you know. Perhaps it’s—you.

Please tell us what you think!

     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”

    Not only do we welcome your notes—but our readers enjoy them as well. You can do this
anytime by clicking on the “Comment” links at the end of each story.
You also can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm. We’re also reachable on Twitter, Facebook, Amazon, YouTube and other social-networking sites as well.
    (Originally published at