Stormy Weather: Powerless? Nature is the real power

“If this phone line goes dead, that’s because of the storms hitting this part of the country,” our columnist and author Benjamin Pratt said this week as he telephoned the ReadTheSpirit home office in Michigan about the publication of his latest column.

The storms did more than knock out power. In a heart-breaking blow to people along the Boardwalk—high winds whipped fires that destroyed dozens of businesses. (See the news item below.)

This time of year—hurricane season—makes all of us anxious. As founding Editor of ReadTheSpirit online magazine and publishing house, I am writing this column because I so vividly recall the terrifying first hours of the “Blackout of 2003,” which affected 55 million people. I was a senior writer on the Detroit Free Press staff, at that time, and occasionally was called upon to serve as “Rewrite” for major tragedies. In a traditional newsroom, Rewrite was the staffer who sat by a bank of phone lines and took calls from a cast of dozens of reporters swarming all over a breaking story.

With my background in religion reporting and my generally calm demeanor, the Free Press honchos tapped me for Rewrite a number of times over the years. I was at the hub for a couple of plane crashes, a mass shooting, the explosion of a fireworks factory—you get the idea. The rest of the staff would run as fast as they could to grab individual facts, fanning out to police stations, emergency rooms, neighbors’ homes. On and on, they would race until deadline. And, Rewrite would take their calls, tapping more and more details into the final story with each telephone report.

The Blackout of 2003 now is remembered as a cautionary tale about flaws in our national power grid. One long National Public Radio report on the 10-year anniversary of the massive outage focused on the need for proper tree trimming along power right of ways. I thought: How the terror of that story has faded into mundane maintenance tips!

When the Blackout of 2003 hit, the first reports in our newsroom were: It’s another terrorist attack! As Rewrite, I recall one of the first phone calls came from a breathless reporter who was speeding somewhere in a Free Press car: “Flames have been spotted south of Detroit! I’m heading there now!” Turns out, those flames were just the tall, burn-off vents that always sent flames skyward in one industrial area south of Detroit. Suddenly, in the darkness that was descending all around us—those vent stacks were an ominous sign.

As my fingers tapped on a laptop, I thought to myself: “Wow. This is how panic spreads! In an instant of terror, we can leap to the assumption that we are under attack.”

The truth was: We were under attack from ourselves—our own flawed technology in the national power grid. (You can read all about it in the extremely detailed Wikipedia overview.)

The larger truth is: In stormy weather—when we’re suddenly powerless—we glimpse nature’s real power. Talk about scary!?!

TODAY, our intrepid columnist and author Rodney Curtis has published a new column about this very point—as his family was just caught in a power outage.

ALSO TODAY, our caregiving expert Heather Jose writes about the challenges faced by millions of caregivers nationwide as seasons change. She invites readers to share tips to help caregivers prepare for fall and winter. It’s a great idea—and only takes a moment.

AND … BACK TO THE BLACKOUT: Now, 10 years after the 2003 blackout, as I look at that classic photograph of the Free Press team finishing the front page that day, I think: Is this a nostalgic look back? Or, is this a vision of how we’ll all be covering the next waves of disasters as nature truly unleashes her power?

Am I sounding shrill? I think not. After 40 years in journalism, my skin is as thick as a rhino’s hide. I’m simply reporting here: When we’re powerless, the real terror is that we glimpse nature’s unrestrained power. Want to have this message driven home with hurricane force? Grab a copy of Ken Burns: The Dust Bowl on DVD. In our home, we had to watch Burns’ four-hour documentary over four evenings. It was just too darned shocking to watch more than an hour of that film in one sitting! In the 1930s, bad farming practices in the Texas-Oklahoma region set off dust storms that eventually reached the East Coast and even dropped Great Plains topsoil on ships at sea!

‘it’s weird we cannot make the connection’

Another ReadTheSpirit writer, Eileen Flanagan, regularly reports in national publications about the looming effects of global warming. In early 2014, we will publish Eileen Flanagan’s new book—about urgent ways we need to start connecting our global family. If you’re already laying out the calendar for your small group discussions, now that Labor Day has passed—make a note to look for Eileen’s book. For quite a while, Eileen has been writing about these issues in national magazines. She just had one of her stories—a report on how climate trends are affecting Africa—published as a cover story in Christian Century magazine. The title: Temperature Rising.

If you click over to read that story by Eileen, don’t miss the quote from Pini Chepkoech Kidulah, an activist in northwest Kenya who is trying to raise awareness and responses to the growing crisis. Pini is Christian, as are many people in that part of Kenya, and she reminds all people of faith: “As Christians we need to approach it as a justice issue because we have a history of working for social justice, but it’s weird that we cannot make the connection on ecological justice, climate change justice and the issue of poverty.”


By now, you probably know the Boardwalk story: Ravaged by Hurricane Sandy, the folks who live and work along the Atlantic coast Boardwalk rebuilt their businesses to capture much of the 2013 tourist season. Then, a fire on Thursday—whipped by storms that hit the East Coast—wound up destroying dozens of businesses along the restored Boardwalk. Associated Press reports, in part:

SEASIDE PARK, N.J. — A massive fire spitting fist-sized embers engulfed dozens of businesses along an iconic Jersey shore boardwalk Thursday, forcing workers to rip up stretches of walkway only recently replaced in the wake of Superstorm Sandy as they raced to contain the blaze’s advance.  The 6-alarm blaze began in a frozen custard stand on the Seaside Park portion of the boardwalk around 2:30 p.m. and fanned by 15-20 mph winds from an approaching storm system, quickly spread north into Seaside Heights, the boardwalk town where the MTV series “Jersey Shore” was filmed — and where the October storm famously plunged a roller coast into the ocean.

The CBS station in Philadelphia posted a several-minute video report in the middle of the night, as firefighters controlled the fires and residents, once again, talked about their resilience.

(This column originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)

AMAZING Ray Palmer, the pulp pioneer behind the flying saucer craze

“Ray Palmer gave voice to people nobody else would take seriously.”

That’s the most important line in today’s interview about the life of Ray Palmer, the truly “AMAZING” writer and publisher who whipped Americans into a post-World War II flying-saucer craze, who first published a story by teen-ager Isaac Asimov and who ultimately shaped the realms of sci-fi and fantasy that are so popular around the world today. Along the way, Ray Palmer’s talent as a pulp publisher included early promotion of Asian religious traditions, a fascination with angelic apparitions and all manner of mystical experiences in small towns and big cities coast to coast.

Stirring America’s imagination

Ray Palmer certainly wasn’t a scholar of world religions. His Mystic magazine sometimes described India’s main religious tradition as “Hindoo.” In one of his most notorious publicity campaigns, Palmer actually claimed that the spiritual secrets of planet Earth involved a civilization hidden in caverns deep underground. Ray Palmer was as much P.T. Barnum flim flam as he was a promoter of spiritual inclusion.

Nevertheless, throughout his pulp career, Palmer regularly inspired readers in grassroots communities like South Bend, Indiana, and Pikeville, Kentucky. Farmers, school teachers, teenagers and even elderly women who regularly attended Bible study classes were moved by Ray Palmer’s mystical vision of the cosmos. We know that because many of these men, women and teens eagerly sent their mystical testimonies to Palmer, hoping that a few paragraphs of their “True Mystic Experiences” would appear in the next issue of a Ray Palmer magazine.


Despite his titanic impact on American culture, Ray Palmer never became a celebrity. Few photographs of him exist. That’s mainly because he was a tiny man with a deformed back, the result of a tragic childhood accident. Yet, his disability did not prevent him from becoming an unseen media giant whose creative legacy influenced hit TV shows like the Twilight Zone, Star Trek and X-Files—and comic books, too. In 1961, DC Comics renamed the popular super hero The Atom after Ray Palmer. Palmer’s ideas live on today in  blockbuster Hollywood movies featuring comic-book superheroes and outer-space exploration.

Ray Palmer was the king of “What if …” In the 1953 debut issue of his pulp magazine, Mystic, the first feature story opened with this classic Palmer pitch: “When you read this story, you will tell yourself that it is fiction; the editors assure you that it is. But what if—it isn’t? What if, by some strange coincidence, the writer has hit upon the truth? What if, as you read, you find yourself repeating the word ‘fiction’ to yourself in order to feel reassured—because what you are reading stirs some deep conviction, coupled with dread, that it is not fiction?” Anyone who recalls Rod Serling’s 1959 debut as the host of The Twilight Zone can see the influence of Ray Palmer’s pulp fiction in full flower.

If Ray Palmer could spring back from his grave to promote his first full-scale biography, The Man from Mars: Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey, by Fred Nadis, Palmer would write (as he did in penning one advertisement for his own book on flying saucers): “At last! The authentic story of the mystery that has shaken the complacency of the world. On-the-spot answers to the top question of the century! An amazing array of factual evidence, gathered under incredible difficulties and actual risk of life, shorn of the official ‘smog’ that has hidden the truth from the very outset. An incredible array of evidence—the result of years of investigation! The Only Book That Tells The WHOLE TRUTH about …” Ray Palmer.

ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviews Ray Palmer’s biographer Fred Nadis …


DAVID: Ray Palmer’s life began like the “origins” issue of a super-hero comic book. As a boy, he was playing in the street near his Milwaukee home and his foot got caught in the wheel of a truck that spun his body against the pavement. His spine was severely damaged. Then, he became the first patient in the United States to receive an experimental spinal column bone graft. That’s the stuff of comic books. But it didn’t turn out as Palmer’s family hoped.

FRED: The accident happened when he was 7—a very energetic kid with an energetic mind. He was running out in the street. When I talked with Ray Palmer’s son, he told me that the accident involved a motorized milk truck, but one that had old-fashioned spoked wheels. The boy’s foot got caught between the spokes and, before the truck could stop, he had been dragged down the street and nearly killed. He wound up spending years trying to recover and undergoing treatments. And you’re right, the doctors were not able to straighten his back. He had a hunched back all the rest of his life. He was 67 when he died in 1977.

DAVID: This is a fascinating chapter in Palmer’s story, because another person might have become an enemy of science. After all, the doctors failed him and he really did suffer under their care. Why did he remain so hopeful about the possibilities of science?

FRED: They key is that, during this period, he had nothing else to do but read. He consumed adventure stories by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote Tarzan but also the John Carter on Mars series. Ray Palmer fell in love with these narratives. He took Hugo Gernsbach seriously!

DAVID: Gernsbach is a foundational figure in what unfolds during Palmer’s life. He often is called “The Father of Science Fiction,” because in 1926 he founded Amazing Stories magazine. He’s the reason that one of the most prestigious awards in science fiction, to this day, is the “Hugo.”

FRED: Yes, Gernsbach was an early evangelist of science fiction. He wanted everyone in the country to become an inventor and he wanted to hook kids early with science fiction. Gernsbach was an editor but he also was a true believer that, together, people could create a new future for the world with this kind of education. It was this noble pursuit that caught the imagination of the young Ray Palmer as he spent those years reading one thing after another.


DAVID: Your biography very quickly jumps into the heart of Palmer’s career. Before age 30, Ray Palmer had become the editor of Amazing Stories. In a way, this was both Ray Palmer’s heaven—and it was a rude awakening about the nature of pulp, right? At one point, you refer to him as a “Happy Hack.”

FRED: The reality of wanting to make a living as a pulp writer and editor made him realize that he couldn’t hold purely to the Gernsbachian vision of science fiction as a noble pursuit of a better future for the world. By the time he became editor of Amazing Stories,  he had tried his hand at various genres: Westerns, true crime and other pulp formats. By the time he became editor, at age 28, he had put some of his early ideas behind him. He quickly understood that the bottom line of this business was selling magazines. His own salary was dependent on sales. So, he began to push what I would call the Edgar Rice Burroughs formula of romance, adventure and lots of action. I would describe his mid-career approach to publishing in contrast to the Verne and Wells style of trying to write as close as they could to where they thought science could go.

RAY PALMER, ISAAC ASIMOV and The Shaver Mystery

DAVID: We should make it clear for readers of this interview, though, that Ray Palmer wasn’t all hokum. He had a real passion—and a brilliant editor’s eye—for serious writers who would have their own influence on American culture. Palmer kept spinning off various pulp magazines and fan-zines. He had his fingers in a whole array of publications. Here at Read the Spirit, we recently published an interview with Aldous Huxley biographer Don Lattin, who writes about Huxley’s enormous impact on spiritual diversity in American culture. Through FATE magazine—one of Ray Palmer’s various ventures—Aldous Huxley was featured on multiple occasions. We can say that Ray Palmer played a role in helping Huxley to reach an audience of spiritual fans.

Among Palmer’s other claims to fame is spotting the talent of teen-ager Isaac Assimov.

FRED: Yes, Ray Palmer’s tenure at Amazing Stories was notable for his purchase of Isaac Asimov’s first professional story, Marooned Off Vesta. Written in 1938 while Asimov was still 18, the story was rejected by one magazine before Amazing Stories published it in the March 1939 issue.

DAVID: This is fascinating partly because, as a teenager, Asimov had a love-hate relationship with Amazing Stories. Before he was published in the magazine, Asimov had slammed Palmer’s choice of cover art in earlier issues. Palmer was famous for pushing the envelope with sexy and violent cover illustrations.

FRED: Asimov also did not like Palmer’s tendency to anti-Soviet themes. In a 1938 letter to the magazine, Asimov said: “Entirely too many stories are being printed part or all of whose theme is the reaction against some form of despotism.”

DAVID: So, in Palmer’s career we have this rather high-brow kind of exchange with Asimov and the publication of Asimov’s early work. Even though Asimov objected strenuously to some aspects of Amazing Stories, he apparently was happy to have his short stories appear in its pages.

But, we also discover in your biography that Palmer could play fast and loose with the truth. He had no qualms about publishing the notorious Shaver Mystery and related stories. These days, the Shaver controversy is long forgotten, except to die-hard sci-fi buffs. Basically, here’s what it involved: This writer named Richard Shaver, a guy with a very checkered past, burst into the pulps with a claim that an evil species of sub-human “Doros” lived in caverns beneath the Earth’s surface and would emerge to reshape our planetary future. It was pure fiction, but Palmer really pushed hard on his “What if …” publishing style and pretty much told readers that this Shaver stuff was true.

FRED: Yes, this was a tipping point in Palmer’s career—publishing Shaver’s pieces and claiming they were true. I think this started as a sales gimmick to outrage people and to see how far he could push the promotion of this Shaver Mystery. You have to remember that a lot of Palmer’s work developed through letters he received from fans. As with Asimov, Shaver had been sending Palmer letters. Of course, Shaver was different from an Asimov—and would never become that kind of author. Shaver was this working man who bounced around various places and was a science fiction fan. Eventually, Shaver began claiming that he had arcane knowledge. The first thing he claimed was that he found an alphabet from outer space, which he said was a key to languages. Another editor wanted to throw Shaver’s stuff in the garbage can, but Palmer pulled it out and said, “Let’s print it.”

DAVID: While we might question Palmer’s ethics in the way he presented the Shaver stories—there’s no question that, from a publishing point of view, this was a hit.

FRED: Readership grew as Palmer kept publishing material from Shaver. A lot of the magazine’s pure science fiction fans complained, but Palmer picked up a lot of fans who were drawn to occult and arcane ideas.

DAVID: What’s your bottom-line judgment on this portion of Palmer’s work with Shaver?

FRED: Shaver definitely had some mental illness in his life—but he also had a brilliant, creative mind. His fiction was his outlet for making sense of the world. He was trying to create a detailed vision of the cosmos, or we might say he was trying to write a Gospel, or chart a new science. In common terms, Shaver was your classic inspired crackpot. He was a visionary. Palmer realized it was good business to publish his stories.

RAY PALMER and The Flying Saucer Craze

DAVID: So, this Shaver Mystery—and all the hoopla from the rising sales to the growing controversy—sets the stage for the far more famous contribution Palmer makes to American culture: the flying saucer craze.

I’m sure our readers will be amazed to learn that our U.S. Central Intelligence Agency actually has a website dedicated to the history of UFO sightings. The CIA tells part of the story of the flying saucer craze: “The first report of a ‘flying saucer’ over the United States came on 24 June 1947, when Kenneth Arnold, a private pilot and reputable businessman, while looking for a downed plane sighted nine disk-shaped objects near Mt. Rainier, Washington, traveling at an estimated speed of over 1,000 mph.” What the CIA never mentions, not even in a footnote, is that Arnold’s experience would have faded into the deep dust of old trivia games—except for the super-charged work of Arnold’s co-author and promoter: Ray Palmer.

FRED: That’s right, a lot of people credit Palmer as one of the most important voices whipping up the awareness of flying saucers. It makes sense. This was a great new mystery for him! By the time Kenneth Arnold came along, the Shaver Mystery had created a lot of negative feedback. Shaver was a problematic figure.

DAVID: But not Kenneth Arnold! This is one of the most exciting sections of your book.

FRED: Arnold wasn’t a science fiction fan or an occultist. He wasn’t like Shaver. He was a former Eagle Scout, football player and Olympic-class athlete.

DAVID: Ray Palmer realized that this was a golden ticket in the pulp world. He and Curtis Fuller founded FATE magazine in 1948 mainly to showcase Arnold’s story. Top of the cover of Issue No. 1 was Arnold’s “The Truth about the Flying Saucers”—complete with a vivid, full-color illustration.

FRED: FATE magazine largely was founded because of the flying saucer phenomenon. After Arnold’s report, there were many other sightings, too. This was quite different from the Shaver Mystery. Curtis Fuller, as Palmer’s co-founder of FATE, was a no-nonsense journalist and flying enthusiast. They all were asking questions of the U.S. military about flying saucers—and they became convinced that they weren’t being told the truth. According to Palmer’s version, his other magazine publishers didn’t want him to go fully into flying saucer stories, so FATE was born.

DAVID: Did Ray Palmer believe in flying saucers? I think he knew that Shaver’s stories were pure fiction. But what about the flying saucers?

FRED: Oh, I think he definitely believed there were flying saucers. He later broke with Curtis Fuller and his wife around this question. But it’s not hard to see why Palmer would become convinced of the truth of flying saucers. There were so many sightings emerging after Arnold’s first report—and they kept coming from so many different countries—that it was hard for Palmer to believe that these sightings didn’t have substance.


DAVID: We’ve come full circle here from the pure love and noble hopes of science fiction—through some of Palmer’s obvious hucksterism—into this realm of Cold War flying saucers and other serious, if speculative, themes. Many of Ray Palmer’s issues were packed with mystical, spiritual stories. His magazines weren’t particularly accurate about world religions, but they certainly inspired Americans to find out more about ancient religions from around the world, as well as what sociologists today call “new religions.”

FRED: Remember that science fiction really has religious undertones. A typical science fiction story is an apocalyptic tale—the death of an old world and the birth of a new world. We can think of so many science fiction classics that are spiritual as well as scientific visions of the future.

DAVID: Would Ray Palmer object to what you just said—or applaud? I think he’s probably smile and nod in agreement.

FRED: Ray Palmer was a remarkable personality with a mind that shaped American culture in ways far beyond his own work and life. He certainly had a problematic side. We might think of him as a classic trickster figure trying to guide people, but guiding them along weird pathways. It took tremendous courage for him to announce so many controversial views over the years and then stand up to so much ridicule.

Here’s a guy who would jump into things fearlessly. While other people were still quietly discussing these ideas in private circles, Ray Palmer was splashing them across the front covers of magazines. And, it wasn’t just Ray Palmer talking to the nation. He encouraged fans to share their experiences in letters they wrote to him—and he set aside pages in every issue for their letters and stories.

Overall, his spiritual vision was remarkable! Now, talk about shamanism and yoga and mushrooms and Eastern religious traditions is everywhere you turn. But, in the era when Ray Palmer was in his prime, you didn’t find that in mainstream American media. In mid-20th-century America, these things were lumped together as occult and paranormal—and they were not fashionable.

Ray Palmer gave voice to people nobody else would take seriously.

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(Originally published at, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, interfaith news and cross-cultural issues.)

The Heather Jose Interview: Learning to thrive—not just survive—in life’s toughest struggles

HEATHER JOSE is passionate about helping millions of Americans with crises like cancer—because she’s been through such a life-and-death struggle herself. Today, she is a nationally known writer, speaker and workshop leader focusing on three groups: cancer patients (helping them play an active role in their cancer treatment), medical professionals (helping them to engage with patients in new ways)—and caregivers (helping them to plan for their own well-being even as they aid others).

TODAY, Heather Jose talks with ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm in our weekly author interview about her new memoir, Every Day We Are Killing Cancer. At the end of today’s interview, you’ll find several ways you can connect with Heather’s ongoing work.


DAVID: Your title, Every Day We Are Killing Cancer, is dramatic! Tell us how that defined your approach to recovery.

HEATHER: Those words really describe the mindset that empowered me throughout this long journey. I was able to take the driver’s seat in my own recovery—and those words also signaled to medical professionals and caregivers that this was our purpose. Some people have told me they are turned off by the word “killing.” Hey, I’m a peaceful person, too, but I think it’s OK to say we’re killing cancer cells. (laughs) After all, that’s what chemo and radiation are intended to do.

I still remember my doctor initially telling me to go home and get ready to “start killing cancer.” I took that instruction to heart and I didn’t want anyone around me to step back from the challenge we faced together.

DAVID: You actually printed these words on a sign, right?

HEATHER: Yes, I tell that story in my book. I made this little sign that said, Every Day We Are Killing Cancer, then my daughter Sydney who was very young at the time decorated it with some of her scribbles. I had the sign at home and I took it with me when I went back to the hospital for treatments. I wanted anyone stepping through my doorway to know—that’s our attitude here.


DAVID: Years later, you’ve now crisscrossed the country as a speaker and you also write about these issues in both weekly columns as well as your new book. At the core of your message, you’re still telling people: Attitude matters! You say that a person needs to take charge of his or her life. Why is that so important?

HEATHER: Number 1—no one is invested in you as much as you are yourself. Number 2—you have the ability to make the deepest impact in the most ways. Your doctor can help with medicine. Your husband can make a great meal for you. But, ultimately, you’re the one making most of the decisions throughout each day—so you have to be invested. You have to take charge.

DAVID: OK, that’s an inspiring idea. But you’ve also become a leading advocate for caregivers—the millions of Americans who care for others with conditions like cancer or the disabilities of old age or other health crises. So, how do you balance those two goals: Taking charge of your own care—and actively working with caregivers?

HEATHER: The goal is to identify what you’re good at—then, as the captain of your wellness team, focus on those areas in which you are talented and have energy. Once you understand what you can do, you can supplement that with caregivers who are strong in areas where you’re weak. This isn’t a cookie cutter approach for everyone. You have to start by weighing your strengths and your energy—then find caregivers to do the rest. Sometimes, you’ll be surprised by what caregivers can do, if you carefully organize your team.


DAVID: Your book explains how you did this. Then, your weekly WeAreCaregivers columns give lots of additional tips. But give our audience a couple of examples. Here’s the common situation: A major catastrophe strikes and friends will say, “If you need anything, just call me.” Or, they cook something and show up at the door with a dish in their hands. Neither of those responses is bad—but you say those are just first steps. What do you suggest, when people start offering to help?

HEATHER: First, I need to say: It’s natural that you get a lot of general offers from friends and family. That’s a good thing. People want to help—but, they don’t know what to do yet. That’s why you need to organize. As you’re putting together your caregiving team, it’s your responsibility to tell people what you really need.

One thing you need is accountability. In my case, I needed people in my life who would hold me to a certain standard, have expectations for me. We all get a little complacent and it can be easy to fall into the role of a victim. But with caregivers there to encourage you to participate in daily life and activities that are beneficial for killing cancer, you are much better off.

Here’s another example of how we organized caregivers: At one point in my treatment, we had a three-hour round trip each day for radiation. My husband was working. I didn’t have the energy to drive myself. So, our church let us pass around a sign-up sheet for a transportation schedule. We actually passed it through the pews, inviting people to sign up to make the drive with me. That was a big help and people were happy to do that.

Another example: People wanted to make food for us. But, in my case, my diet was carefully planned. Instead, people provided gift certificates for food. That allowed us to use those options when we really needed them. It gave us choices. We got some pizza coupons, which were wonderful. I couldn’t eat pizza, but my husband loves pizza and he got tired of my diet. So, sometimes, it was great to have an easy dinner with my food for me—and a takeout pizza for my husband. People usually wouldn’t think of this unless you talk it over with friends and family and suggest the idea.

DAVID: Through those years of recovery, you did an amazing job. And you share lots of ideas in your book and your weekly columns. However, you also point out that not all volunteers are up to the task, right?

HEATHER: Yes, you need to be honest with yourself about which caregivers are helping you—and which could be draining you. For example, some people just can’t avoid telling you lots of stories of other people who had cancer, including stories about people who died of cancer. Stories like that really dragged me down. That’s just one example, but it is true: Some people who might volunteer to help are more needy than you are. You can actually wind up draining yourself that way. So, I say: It may sound harsh, but you’ve got to be selfish enough to organize your circle of caregivers to welcome those people who actually will strengthen you.


DAVID: We should explain more about this term “caregivers.” National reports tell us that about one in three American households includes a caregiver. There are millions of men and women doing this work on a daily basis. From your perspective, can you explain the term?

HEATHER: A caregiver is anyone who is providing regular, necessary care for a person who is going through a disease or is challenged by a disability, so this ranges from aiding people with cancer to taking care of a disabled adult son or daughter. One thing we do know about caregivers: Their lives are busy! They’re juggling jobs and family duties and their caregiving tasks. These are normal people—people you meet everyday—who are doing an extraordinary amount of work to help others.

DAVID: One of your major campaigns right now is spreading the word coast to coast that caregivers need more help, right?

HEATHER: That’s right. And the first thing caregivers need is to take care of themselves as well as their loved ones. Here’s the challenge they face: Their time is at a premium. They need to consciously plan how they are going to take care of themselves. How are they going to eat well, exercise, pray or somehow quiet their minds? They can’t refresh themselves if they don’t consciously plan for this.

DAVID: You’ve got lots of suggestions about this. So do other writers who sometimes appear in the WeAreCaregivers website that you host. Dr. Benjamin Pratt wrote a whole book on it, Guide for Caregivers. But let’s give our audience, in this interview, an example: You advise people to keep a personalized list of quick refreshers. You actually tell them to organize the list by the minimum amount of time these activities require—5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes and so on.

HEATHER: Everyone is different. Everyone has a different list, but the idea is to keep adding to your list of things you’d love to do if you just had 5, 10, 15 or 30 minutes. That may sound unworkable. But stop and think about this. For me, if I have just 5 minutes, that’s enough time for me go outside and sit in the sun for those minutes. I love that. Or, I can take a walk through my garden and see if I can find any new blossoms. If I have 10 minutes, I can put together a fast, healthy lunch so I’m not grabbing something at a drive-through window. Those are on my list, but you’ll want to make your own list.

If you’ve got a list, then you’ve got a plan for how to use those brief breaks as they arise in your day. If you don’t think about using those short breaks, then you waste them. This idea is about finding activities that give you some joy and replenish your spirits—and making sure they can fit into your day.


DAVID: You urge people to take a positive approach toward these challenges. In fact, you’re one of the key people trying to change our everyday language from “cancer survivor” to “cancer thriver.” Why are you campaigning for that change?

HEATHER: This is important because your mind can do amazing things. I’m not alone in saying this. Recently, Deepak Chopra was making this same point on one of the network talk shows. Simply changing the way we talk about things can make a big difference.

Here’s an example: I’ve heard people say, “Oh no! This new chemo drug is so painful and it makes me feel so horrible. I hate it.”

That’s a natural reaction, because some of those chemo treatments are horrible. But we could take a different approach and say: “OK, this new treatment may feel terrible, but this is a very powerful drug and it’s really going to kill some cancer cells! I’m ready!”

Those are two ways of responding to the situation. One drags you down; one keeps you in charge of your recovery. Becoming a cancer thriver depends on lots of those small choices we make everyday in our lives.

Another idea? Stop reading all of those labels that detail side effects. Sure, it’s good that we are informed about possible complications. You may want to have someone you trust read the side effects for you. But, here’s the problem: Just reading about them can manifest these problems. A label may say: Can cause cramps in hands. Then, one day, your hand aches and you start thinking: Oh no! I’ve got a side effect! I’m sure of it! Maybe you just strained your hand or you’ve got arthritis.

We become cancer thrivers through making a lot of small choices in our attitudes each day.


DAVID: Faith played a big role in your recovery. You talk a lot about physical fitness, diet and medical options—but you also encourage people to explore spiritual resources, as well. I know that your own community church has been a big help in your recovery. What advice can you share for reaching out to congregations?

HEATHER: First, you need to share with people what’s going on so they can help you. If you want people to pray for you, share honestly and be specific. When I was in the midst of this, my husband and I would tell people about specific tests coming up or other steps in my treatment—so they could pray with us about these milestones.

From the moment I was first diagnosed, our Sunday School group became a core group in my recovery. Sometimes close friends would even come over to our home and pray with us before a particularly big test or treatment or procedure.

I talk a lot more about this in my book, in my columns and in talks I give to groups that are interested in hearing about the spiritual part of this.

DAVID: Unfortunately, studies show that most churches really aren’t well equipped to help people—even though congregational leaders may think they’re good at it.

HEATHER: There’s a lot to discuss about how congregations can respond. We can talk about programs. We can talk about how individuals respond to your condition.

For example, some church people respond by saying: “God’s will be done.” That’s something I come across a lot in Christian groups. And I understand the background of that kind of prayer, but it may not be helpful to people who have just received a diagnosis. That kind of response could signal to people: Just sit back and do nothing—and that’s not a helpful message. I’ve come to believe that we want to form a partnership with God: I’ll do my part as a cancer thriver; and God, I’m asking, will you do your part.

The Bible can help. I know that I loved hearing verses of the Bible that tell us things like: “Have the faith of a mustard seed …” or “Faith can move mountains.”

DAVID: This actually is a wonderful area for churches to explore, because it can lead to church growth—partly through the re-activation of members who have fallen away. We’ve seen this happen in congregations that take caregiving seriously. The problem is that most pastors and lay leaders have never stopped to think about how many caregivers are right there in the community—but have fallen away from active involvement.

HEATHER: You’re right. This is a really big issue that hasn’t been addressed in most churches. First, caregivers do tend to fall away on Sundays. They can’t find anyone to relieve them of their duties on Sundays, so they can’t come to church. Over time, we forget about them. We need to start honest conversations about how many people in our communities are caregivers. If you do that, you’ll be surprised! A simple idea like organizing some rotating respite care to help free caregivers on Sundays—that alone can grow your community. And, there’s so much more you can do. You need to start by asking the caregivers in your community what they actually need.

This is a big, untapped area for congregations. Sure, we all start by praying for people with illnesses or other problems in their lives—but too many people stop there. The result is that we’re abandoning a big portion of our community.


DAVID: In your book, you explain that you summarize your mindset in a one-page “Healing Agreement.” When you give talks and lead workshops, you give participants a copy of this agreement. And now, you’re giving it to people free online—to download and print out for themselves. Can you explain this idea?

HEATHER: Sure. The Healing Agreement came about because we realized that not everyone is an extrovert. Not everyone is ready to charge forward and clearly tell people what they intend to do. It’s tough talking with doctors and health-care providers for some of us.

The Healing Agreement opens up an ongoing conversation between health-care providers and patients—to communicate about what is helpful and what isn’t helpful. We want to empower patients to take a leading role in their own care. And, medical professionals also are better served if they know what’s going on with you as a patient. If you don’t make a commitment like this, there’s a temptation to become passive when you’re receiving treatments. Or you may just focus on the steps for the current medical procedure and never talk to your health-care providers about what you should be doing all the days you’re not in the health-care facility.

DAVID: Where do you see all of this going?

HEATHER: I’m not arguing that we need to spend a lot more money or suddenly find more time. I’m focused on using the tools we already have as individuals to make a better healing environment for everyone. Health care providers can work much more effectively if they train themselves in interacting better with patients. And, if you’re someone with an illness or disability, you need to realize that daily choices you make—often small choices—can have a big impact on the rest of your life.


GET A COPY OF HER BOOK: Click on the book cover above to learn more about Every Day We Are Killing Cancer. The book page allows you to read the Preface by best-selling nutrition author David Grotto, you can see the book’s Table of Contents—and more. To help support Heather’s work, please consider buying a copy of the book.

ENJOY HER (FREE) WEEKLY COLUMNS FOR CAREGIVERS: Every week, Heather hosts the new column—dedicated to freely sharing ideas to help caregivers improve their lives.

FOR CANCER THRIVERS: Heather also writes a quarterly column for Breast Cancer Wellness Magazine.

SCHEDULE A TALK OR WORKSHOP: Heather travels coast to coast, speaking to three kinds of groups: Medical professionals, people whose lives have been affected by cancer and caregivers. She has provided everything from keynote addresses at major conferences—to workshops and classes that count as continuing-education credits. (If you’re interested in scheduling an event, email us at [email protected].)

Jacob Needleman on rediscovering our world

Our first image of the Earth from outer space, taken by a camera-equipped rocket fired in 1946.From his home in the San Francisco Bay area, Jacob Needleman still teaches, writes and, when he sits back on a quiet night to contemplate our world—he still enjoys looking up at the stars and waaaay back into his own origins. Looking to the stars? Recalling our origins? Does it sound like something out of a superhero comic book? In his newest book, Jacob Needleman says these forms of reflection are distinctively human. In a healthy way, they can reconnect us with the vast story of the Earth, so that we can recognize our role in our planet’s unfolding drama. Read Part 1 of our coverage for a more complete overview of Needleman’s new book, An Unknown World.
Today, ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm talks with the author in …


CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.DAVID: As I read your latest work along with the other urgent voices we are hearing around the world today, I think of your book as an answer to writers like Yale’s James Gustave Speth who is calling for “a new narrative” that reawakens a global appreciation of the Earth.

JACOB: Yes, I’m glad if readers find that kind of vision and promise in my book. I agree that we do need a new narrative about our world, our species, ourselves—if we are to survive. I’m very glad to think of this book in that way.

DAVID: As we will point out in the first part of our coverage, Speth certainly isn’t alone. There are a surprising number of secular writers who want to form collegial relationships with religious communities. Writers like Speth and E.O. Wilson are not talking about making a sudden conversion. But, they are talking in a refreshing way about sharing a vision of the Earth between science and religion.

JACOB: I see this, too. You’re describing what really is a widespread hunger among scientists, young people and so many others. People may not want to call it “religion” or “spirituality,” but there certainly is a hunger for meaning in life.

DAVID: I’m surprised, too, at how many of these recent writers who we might call scientific skeptics also direct their readers back to childhood—to remember what first got them excited about the Earth.

WIDENING OUR AWARENESS OF OURSELVES: In 1948, our snapshot of our world expanded! From single grainy images, scientists assembled this panorama of a broader section of our globe.


JACOB: To go back to childhood is the same thing as reaching back for something we are born with and something we grow up containing. Plato would describe it as an element in ourselves that we are born with. It’s an inner need to open to something higher and greater than ourselves.

Plato referred to this as Eros, but he wasn’t using the term with a sexual meaning. It’s an inner need to open to something higher and greater than ourselves. Yes, one element of what Plato was describing is our love of knowledge and wisdom—but he also was describing our inner need to open ourselves to something higher and greater than ourselves. It’s that part of Plato’s Eros that has been repressed by secularism and scientism, and notice that I’m using that second term with “ism” attached to it. Since the time of Plato, we have known that humans have a need to be aware of something greater than ourselves. It’s an absolutely essential element of who we are—and it cannot be repressed without further damaging our future. To go back to childhood goes back to a time in life when that aspect of Platonic Eros was alive and influencing us, our thoughts, our hopes, our dreams. That’s where we can join with great scientists, with searching philosophers, with religious seekers and with so many young people today. When we reach toward that point of sharing this larger need, then hope opens up for us.

DAVID: You see this as especially compelling for college-age students, right?

JACOB: Oh, yes. For example, I taught a course on Ralph Waldo Emerson and, in this digital age, I wondered: Would any students be interested? I was surprised that the students were absolutely enthralled with Emerson! So, I asked them: “Why do you like this so much?” One student said: “It brought me hope.” And other students agreed with that first student.

These are questions we all want to answer: What is our hope? How do we find it? Emerson recognized that these questions touch on something that we have largely hidden from ourselves. Many people now have forgotten these questions. Emerson knew that we needed to ask them, again.

A BOOK-SIZE GLIMPSE OF THE WORLD FOR KIDS: In his new book, Jacob Needleman writes about The Stars for Sam, a popular science book for young readers that forever shaped his own life.DAVID: When readers open your book, you take them right back to your childhood. So, give us a little explanation. Where did you grow up? Who was this young friend you describe in the book?

JACOB: The setting is Philadelphia, where I lived from about age 7 to 12 or 13. I open the book in the lower-middle-class neighborhood where we lived. We had difficulties making ends meet. I was already deeply interested in astronomy; I had such a sense of wonder about the world, the planets, the stars, the universe. I met my friend when I was about 10 or 11 and he was a little older than me. I give him the name Elias in the book, which wasn’t his real name. But we really would sit together on a low stone wall along a neighbor’s yard, just as I describe it. We would talk about the life, living things and the whole universe. He was a close friend and we met all the time to talk about these things. Then, he died of leukemia when he was about 14 or so. I was about 13 at the time. This was a great blow to me.

DAVID: In your new book, you also tell us about a children’s picture book that forever shaped your life: The Stars for Sam. I’ve got a copy of a 1960s edition of the book, which originally was published back in the 1930s. It’s a straight-up scientific picture book for kids. It’s not fiction, not fanciful at all. What’s so important about witnessing scientific wonders?


AN EYE-POPPING GLIMPSE OF THE EARTH. Finally, in 1972, Apollo 17 was in position to capture an image of our planet that stretched from North to South Pole. “The Blue Marble,” the popular title for this historic photo, revolutionized our awareness of the planet.JACOB: We have lost the cosmic dimension to our lives. We need to reach out and explore. It’s absolutely essential. You know that in most cities, we can no longer see the stars at night. The light humans make today has eclipsed the light of our stars and—right there—we’ve described the problem we face. Even the light of human reason, which is a wonderful light in itself, has eclipsed the greater questions we need to explore.

I remember going to a big NASA night launch at a time when about a thousand reporters were covering the event. I could hear reporters sounding skeptical as they talked about all the dollars we were spending on this big project, when there were so many other needs in the world.

Right there, across the big lagoon from us, was this rocket about 30 stories high. The lights were shining on it like a massive spiritual symbol. The countdown was going on and I could hear Walter Cronkite’s voice talking about the launch. Everyone was talking around me; people were laughing; the countdown continued. Then we got to 10, 9, 8—and in the final seconds we suddenly saw these huge, brilliant orange flames all around the base of the rocket. So gorgeous! And, I realized that there was not a single sound. You know, at first, the light comes across the lagoon and reaches our eyes before the sound arrives. When the sound came across the lagoon, we felt a rumbling that was the deepest and most beautiful sound any of us had ever heard. It went right through the body. It affected the heart. One would have followed that sound anywhere. This huge skyscraper of a rocket started rising. Our jaws were dropping!

This was a deeply spiritual event. We watched this rocket go up and up. It separated and it turned into what looked like a star. At the same moment, we all were aware that there were human beings, just like us, in the middle of that. Then, the rocket all but disappeared—yet the silence persisted where we stood. People were so touched with wonder at what we had just experienced together that there was little anyone could say. I do recall one of the most cynical reporters simply saying, “I had no idea it was like this.”

That night, people were so touched that they became normal again. Their better natures resurfaced. As they were preparing to leave, people stood quietly, talked softly, helped each other. There was no more wise cracking. People were gentle and civil. If there is a key to world peace, it starts with rediscovering our wonderment.


DAVID: One experience that everyone in their 40s or older can recall is our first glimpse of “The Blue Marble,” the famous first photo of Earth from outer space that showed the whole planet—pole to pole. That’s one potential asset we share, now, around the world. We are the first generations in world history to have seen our planet from a perspective outside the Earth.

JACOB: The appearance of the Blue Marble photo was such a huge event for most of us. I was younger than I am now, of course, and I can remember my response to it. At that point, we knew the scientific facts. Of course, we knew the world was round. We knew the shape of the continents. But a lot of the facts we know are not processed by the part of ourselves that connects with true meaning. Our standard of knowing is so literal that it precludes us from experiencing that deeper meaning, purpose and value. That’s why I write in this new book that scientism—and again I’m using that “ism” form of the word—can only tell us what is real. It can’t tell us the underlying meaning. That Blue Marble photograph broke through that barrier. I remember seeing it for the first time and it was like an ancient scripture suddenly revealed to the light of day again. People perceived that photo with both heart and mind.

JACOB NEEDELMAN: ‘The Earth is a sacred book.’

DAVID: So now we’re getting at the ultimate message of your new book: The Earth is more than a huge rock circling the sun. The Earth is sacred book in itself. What you you’re describing is not some kind of crazy DaVinci Code or National Treasure kind of conspiracy theory about global secrets. What you’re trying to explain is that science is an important way to “read” the Earth—but it’s a literal reading. We also need a spiritual reading of the Earth.

JACOB: You’re talking about the whole theme of the book. Everything I’ve been trying to understand about myself, to research as a scholar and to share with others is contained in that line: The Earth is a sacred book. When you really feel the deeper meanings of scriptures, you are stunned. You are in awe. You become quiet as this experience rolls through you. That’s what I just described on that night of the NASA launch. The answer to the many challenges we face in the world today is not to pour more agitated religious fervor or political ideology over our problems. Even strict scientism can’t uncover solutions. The answer lies in our search for meaning and the possibility that we just might come together in a community that is more civil and more benevolent because we share a sense of awe. And, in fact, this is an appeal that falls on the ears of so many people, especially young people, who feel this deep hunger for meaning rising within them. They’ve had enough horizontal distractions in our culture. They want vertical ideas—ideas that look toward higher purposes in life. If we could leave readers with one line, it would be: The Earth is a sacred book.

Care to read Part 1 of our coverage of An Unknown World? That first story also contains links to several other related books and ReadTheSpirit stories.

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

Jacob Needleman rewakening the story of the Earth

Once upon a time, we all discovered the Earth. Perhaps, for you, it was your first glimpse of the Apollo 8 Earthrise photos (like the one above) in 1968 or the Apollo 17 Blue Marble photo in 1972. Perhaps, like Jacob Needelman—a widely revered pioneer in interfaith scholarship—it was through the black-and-white photos and inviting text of a W. Maxwell Reed young reader like The Stars for Sam.

But, somewhere—sometime—at some moment, you stopped in your tracks, your eyes grew wide and you realized that the Earth is something far larger than you ever dreamed.

And quite simply: That’s the big message! Ponder that idea, if you take away nothing else from our coverage this week of Jacob Needleman’s marvelous, magical—and absolutely urgent new book, An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth.


WHAT CHILDREN’S BOOK FIRST AWAKENED YOUR WONDERMENT FOR THE EARTH? At top is The Stars for Sam in its 1960 revision for young readers. Jacob Needleman discovered the book in its original 1931 edition by popular children’s author W. Maxwell Reed. In 1960, Time-Life and Golden Books released the large-format full-color The Wonders of Life on Earth. In 1954, Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventure produced the Beaver Valley nature film that toured U.S. theaters and appeared as a picture-book for children. In 1957, Captain Kangaroo introduced millions of American children to giant pandas, a year before the London Zoo caused a sensation with the arrival of Chi-Chi and 15 years before Ling-Ling and Hsing-Hsing arrived in Washington D.C.At 77, Jacob Needleman’s life has spanned great events of the 20th century as a scholar of religion, a teacher of countless college students and the author of 16 books. His landmark book, as a pioneer in the serious study of world religions, was his 1970 best-seller The New Religions, now available in a recent Tarcher Cornerstone Edition.That book surprised readers with both an authoritative overview of global spiritual traditions and a report specifically on how these seemingly exotic faiths were unfolding on American shores. Later, millions of Americans got to know Needleman through his talks with Bill Moyers on public television.

In our 2010 interview with Needleman, he explained the vocational pull that has shaped his life—and the lives of all the Americans who have been influenced by his insights. He said:
As I taught for many years in this area, I got more and more interested in religious thought. As my interest grew, I saw a dynamic convergence in the teachings of all the great traditions. There was a common, universal vision of the central questions, such as: What is humanity? And: What should we be doing with our lives? When new religious movements began entering into the San Francisco area in the 1960s, I decided I wanted to write not so much for the academic specialists but for the general public. I wanted to see how this convergence of humanity in the light of the world might provide answers for the problems we all face.

But, if you think of Jacob Needleman as “an author I once read back in the day,” then you’re missing the fresh and exhilarating books he is producing in his 70s. He’s still actively teaching students in the second decade of this new century. Our 2010 interview explored his recent book What Is God?In that book, he accomplished something that few other writers would even dare to attempt. He combined a memoir about his personal search for God with insights from a wide range of world religions.

And where did that book start? The same place he takes us in the opening scenes of his newest book An Unknown World: Notes on the Meaning of the Earth. He takes us back to childhood. But if you assume he is merely a wallowing in Norman Rockwell nostalgia, then you haven’t yet discovered Jacob Needleman’s writing.

In the opening pages, he and his young friend Elias, lit to sit and talk as children do on a convenient low stone wall in their neighborhood. Needleman writes: I tried to recollect the times the two of us had spent sitting on the stone wall—even when it was covered with ice, or while snow was falling. When it was raining heavily, however, we would go to the big house he lived in, where his beautiful Armenian mother would serve us delicious cakes and strangely fragrant teas.

Of course, this is our childhood, too—a friend, the changing seasons, a favorite place to sit, the sensations, the scents, the tastes. For you, perhaps it was girl who sat beside you on the playground each day at recess. Perhaps it was the boy who liked to roller blade with you after school. Maybe the scents and tastes that summon these memories weren’t fragrant tea and cakes. It might be the scent of a backyard barbecue or the taste of a root beer.

But, summon your memory with Jacob Needleman and the next place he’ll take you is—up into the stars.


CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.Come back later this week to meet Jacob Needleman in our new interview about the message he hopes to convey through his newest book, An Unknown World.

In addition to talking about memory and wonderment as touchstones in the pathway to reawakening the story of the Earth, we also talk about the compelling context of this new book.

In recent years, leading voices in the secular scientific world have turned to the realm of religion and asked: Is anyone aware of the major global crises we are facing? Does anyone from a faith perspective see a way to motivate people to help change the human trajectory toward ecological disaster?

Yale’s former dean of environmental sciences, James Gustave Speth, writing as a secular scientist made that exact appeal in his own passionate and prophetic book, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. Writing from the standpoint of natural selection, Speth argues that the limits of our instincts for survival may not extend beyond ourselves, our families and possibly our communities or nations. There’s no sense of any species-wide instinct for survival that might cause humans to tackle global problems—unless, Speth argues, religious leaders and teachers awaken a compelling planetary narrative. “The potential of faith communities is enormous,” Speth writes. He adds that we need “a new narrative that helps make sense of it all and provides a positive vision.”

E.O.Wilson, the famous biologist and secularist, makes the same appeal in The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. He opens that personal, moving book with these words: “Dear Pastor: We have not met, yet I feel I know you well enough to call you friend. First of all, we grew up in the same faith. As a boy …”

In An Unknown World, Jacob Needleman answers them. He doesn’t address them by name, but he stretches across a wide range of religious traditions to offer that “new narration that helps make sense of it all,” that Speth was hoping to see. Like Wilson, he takes readers back to childhood wonderment and hope.

In our interview, Jacob Needleman says, in part: There is a widespread hunger among scientists, young people and so many others. People may not want to call it “religion” or “spirituality,” but there certainly is a hunger for meaning in life. To go back to childhood is the same thing as reaching back for something we are born with and something we grow up containing. Plato would describe it as an element in ourselves that we are born with. It’s an inner need to open to something higher and greater than ourselves.

Continue on to the ReadTheSpirit Interview with Jacob Needleman.

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

James Gustave Speth’s America the Possible

CLICK THE COVER TO VISIT THE BOOK’S AMAZON PAGE.If you want a hard-headed analysis of the global disaster that is looming—and possible pathways to cope with that challenge in sustainable ways—then you need to read books by the former head of Yale’s school of environmental studies James Gustave Speth.

Several years ago, we strongly recommended Speth’s prophetic, research-based manifesto, The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability. This week, we are reminding readers of that earlier book in our coverage of Jacob Needleman’s new book, An Unknown World.

There’s no coincidence that this is the same week we are receiving America the Possible: Manifesto for a New Economy. This is Speth’s newest book that repeats—and expands on—his appeal for a new progressive vision as well as a worldwide network to work for social, economic and environmental change. World events are moving so rapidly now that thinkers from realms of religion, like Jacob Needleman, and science, like Speth, are honing their messages into clarion calls that just might make a difference.

In his earlier book, Speth ended with some strong questions to teachers, religious leaders, social activists, scientists as well as anyone else who would listen and start thinking. Now, he is mapping out an even clearer appeal that he describes as a new progressive movement.

Toward the end, he writes: Throughout this book, I have made references to the various progressive communities. Note the plural. What does not exist yet, and what must now be built with urgency, is a unified progressive community. He explains in a clear-eyed way why most sympathetic men and women seem determined to construct barriers that so far are hobbling any hope for a unified movement.

Who can help? As he argued in his earlier book, Speth says that we need a deep, widespread and sustained effort to form and share “a different story.” One key source for that new story is social movements. Speth writes: Social movements are all about consciousness raising, and if successful, they can help usher in a new consciousness. … The proliferation of protests in cities across our country in 2011 may have signaled its beginning.

But that’s not enough, Speth concludes. Writing as a secular scientist, he argues that we must engage the world’s religions, religious teachers and congregational leaders:

Mary Evelyn Tucker has noted that “no other group of institutions can wield the particular moral authority of the religions.” The potential of faith communities is enormous, and they are turning more attention to issues of social justice, peace and environment. … In his 2009 encyclical, Charity in Truth, Pope Benedict XVI called for a radical rethinking of economic life, the profit motive, and economic disparities. Spiritual awakening to new values and new consciousness can also derive from the arts, literature, philosophy, and science. Consider, for example, the long tradition of “reverence for life” stretching back to the Emperor Ashoka more than 2,200 years ago and forward to Albert Schweitzer, Aldo Leopold, Thomas Berry, E.O. Wilson, Terry Tempest Williams, and others. … Cultural transformation won’t be easy, but it’s not impossible either.

Speth ends his new book with poetry of Seamus Heaney:
History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme.

Speth concludes: “Full of hope, it is time to rise up and make history.”

This new book is a great choice for individual reading. It’s also a terrific choice for small-group discussion both in congregations and in secular settings. Given Speth’s stature, the Yale University Press publishing imprint and the balanced sources from which this book draws, there is no religious-secular boundary here preventing America the Possible from being discussed in any setting where people gather.

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

Review: Ian Cheney’s eye-popping film ‘City Dark’

New York City’s annual Tribute in Light is one scene in Ian Cheney’s ‘The City Dark.’ Photo courtesy of PBS.HOW TO SEE THIS FILM: The PBS premiere of “The City Dark” is July 5, 2012. However, check local showtimes in your region. We are aware than this series does not air everywhere, so visit the PBS POV website for information about watching the documentary online through August 5, 2012.

Review: Ian Cheney’s ‘The City Dark’
invites us all to rediscover our stars

Review by RTS Editor David Crumm

Are you one of the many viewers still choking on Ian Cheney’s 2007 documentary King Corn, now available on DVD from Amazon? Well, then—good. That was Cheney’s aim in his broadside against the dominance of corn in American life. Although a lot of farmers and ranchers didn’t care for that film, 82 out of the 99 reviews on the Amazon page for King Corn were 4-star and 5-star raves.

Now, “The City Dark” arrives as a kinder-gentler successor to Cheney’s earlier work. That doesn’t mean it’s any less troubling. Cheney shows us that—after thousands of years of global wisdom about the importance of the starry night sky—most Americans now are covering themselves in “a luminous fog.” The basic problem is light pollution: In our quest for safety, security and longer working hours, Americans have wired our world to shut out the night. In doing so, we create glowing domes above most of our cities, preventing the stars from shining through to us.

ReadTheSpirit has participated in two full-scale pilgrimages to the Isle of Iona, one of the world’s most revered sacred sites. I can tell you, first hand, that one reason Iona is described as a spiritual “thin place” is the lack of light from the ground at night. The lack of nighttime light pollution is a fact of life on Iona. But, during one pilgrimage we made to the island, an Atlantic storm knocked out power across northewest Scotland. Men and women standing on Iona that night were knocked to our knees by the spectacular show of stars after the storm passed. The Milky Way looked like a tidal wave of light flowing toward us.

That’s what Ian Cheney tries to show us in the opening of “The City Dark.” Of course, we are watching this on TV screens (and some of us on computer screens), so Cheney’s ability to wow us with his visuals is sorely strained. But, I must say: He does a darned good job! Partly, he uses lots of visual tricks: High-resolution images, shots taken from telescopes, elaborately timed photography. Plus, he selects fascinating examples to include in his brief hour-long version for PBS. One of the best sequences shows us the hatching of endangered sea turtles and the tiny creatures’ vigorous search for the ocean shore, theoretically guided by starlight reflecting on the waves. Of course, due to light polution some of the fragile creatures head inland by mistake. (Don’t worry: Cheney’s team rescues those stragglers, but the point is obvious—thousands more perish due to light polution each season, when friendly filmmakers aren’t hanging around to help.)

But, “The City Dark” is not another Threat-of-the-Week nail-biter. If you are reading this review, then you’re among the many readers who already understand: We’re seriously messing up our planet. Cheney isn’t trying to beat us over the head with another eco-disaster warning here.

At his best, Cheney is pointing us to the deeply spiritual human connection with the night sky. Several times in the film, you’ll meet men and women who understand this age-old link between faith, science and the stars. Again and again, “The City Dark” asks us whether we’ve forgotten that essential connection.

Cheney asks us: “What do we lose, when we lose the night?”

Turns out: We may be losing our guiding lights.

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