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Ian Johnson: The return of religion in China

Posted on: July 14th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

Five religions are officially recognized in China, including the traditional religions of Taoism and Buddhism. Photo courtesy of Ian Johnson


All but destroyed during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, religious life — including Christianity — is once again on the rise in China, says the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of ‘The Souls of China.’

After years of suppression, religious life in China is growing, and is in many ways a response to that nation’s growing prosperity, says Ian Johnson.

“Since the 1980s, as China has gotten wealthier, religion has only grown,” Johnson said. “It’s almost as if people need something else to believe in.”

From 1966 to 1976, during Communist Party Chair Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, religion in China was violently suppressed, with hundreds of thousands of temples, mosques and churches seized or destroyed. Though Buddhism, Islam, Taoism, and Protestant and Catholic Christianity were later allowed to continue, most government leaders assumed that religion would eventually die out.

But instead, religious life has grown since the 1980s, said Johnson, the author of “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.” (link is external)

“There’s one person I quote in the book who said, ‘We used to think we were unhappy because we were poor. Now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, but we’re still unhappy, and we realize there’s something missing.’”

For many Chinese, what is missing is spiritual life, Johnson said.

“People are turning to all of the five religions, but especially growing fast is Protestant Christianity and traditional Chinese religions like Buddhism,” he said.

Ian Johnson

An author and reporter for The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal and other publications, Johnson focuses on society, religion and history. He was twice nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and won in 2001 for his coverage of China. “The Souls of China” describes China’s religious revival and the country’s search for values.

He was at Duke earlier this year to discuss his book with the Duke Asian/Pacific Studies Institute. He also spoke with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: You say that religion has been overlooked in how we think about China and yet is critical to understanding that country. How so?

If you think of America, for example, no one can understand it or its politics if you didn’t know a bit of the history of the Puritans, or the faith and role of Southern Baptists. By the same token, religion historically has played and still plays a big role in Chinese society and how it is organized.

In the late 19th century, there was a big reaction against traditional religion in China. It was seen as superstitious and holding China back, and incompatible with being a modern nation. The old system was destroyed in the late 19th and early 20th century. Since then, China has been looking for something to replace it.

For a while, they had communism, but that collapsed during the Mao period. By the late 1970s, after so many famines and so much persecution, nobody believed in communism anymore. Since then, Chinese society has been adrift, with no shared moral values or ideas about how to hold society together.

But every society needs something like that. That’s the problem in China today, and it’s a big issue.

Q: Give us a historical overview of religion in China. Before Mao, China was virtually a religious state, a mingling of culture and religion.

The emperor was almost a quasi-divine figure, and officials got legitimacy through participating in religious rituals and rites. Temples in China were kind of like a cathedral and a city hall in medieval Europe.

The temples were run by committees of local gentry, the same people who would raise the militia or build new irrigation systems or roads. There were no city halls, so people tended to meet and congregate in temples. They were powerful places. When reformers tried to change Chinese society in the late 19th century, they went after power where it lay, in this traditional system of ruling China.

There was also a feeling that traditional Chinese religion was backward, and there was a big movement even in the late 19th century to convert temples to schools. They had this idea that they needed to catch up to the West in science, technology and education.

Some religion was OK; Western countries were heavily Christian. But they thought their own religions were the problem. That started this wave of anti-religious persecution that went throughout the 20th century.

Q: And under Mao, it all came to a head?

Yes. When the Communists took power in 1949, they were the most radical of the groups that wanted to change China. There had been others before that were skeptical of traditional religion, but the Communists really pushed all this through. It culminated from 1966 to 1976 with the Cultural Revolution, when hundreds and hundreds of thousands of temples, mosques and churches were closed. Pretty much all public religious life ended, and Mao was the only god who was allowed.

He was almost worshipped like a god. People went on pilgrimages to Beijing to see him and carried the Little Red Book like it was the Bible. Young people would go see Mao, and they would faint and become hysterical, like Beatlemania.

The Cultural Revolution ended with his death in 1976, and people began to realize that communism had been a disaster. China is communist only in name now.

Q: What has happened after Mao? What are we talking about when we talk about religion in China today?

Out of the old system, five groups formed. The official religions of China are Taoism, which is the only indigenous religion in China; Buddhism, which has been in China for a long time and came from India; Islam, which came to China quite a long time ago; then, for administrative purposes, Christianity is split into Protestantism and Catholicism.

Nothing else is allowed, which means the vast majority of traditional folk religions were declared to be superstitious and destroyed.

After the Cultural Revolution, they brought back the five religions. But the rulers at the time, Deng Xiaoping and others, saw religion as a relic of the old society. They thought it would be a mistake to destroy it, but they thought it would go away. Nobody thought it would take off. They thought it would disappear as old people died off, but the opposite happened, and religion began to pick up.

Since the 1980s, as China has gotten wealthier, religion has only grown. It’s almost as if people need something else to believe in. There is nothing to believe in, in China. There’s no state religion. The only thing the government has allowed in the past 40 years has been prosperity, getting rich. The slogan since the 1980s has been “To get rich is glorious.” But that is not adequate. Nobody can live on materialism alone.

There’s one person I quote in the book who said, “We used to think we were unhappy because we were poor. Now a lot of us aren’t poor anymore, but we’re still unhappy, and we realize there’s something missing.”

For a lot of people in China, what’s missing is spiritual life. People are turning to all of the five religions, but especially growing fast is Protestant Christianity and traditional Chinese religions like Buddhism.

Q: What about the current leader of China, Xi Jinping? What’s his stance on religion in China?

As a Communist Party official, Xi Jinping is supposed to be atheist, and he probably is. But as early as the 1980s, during his first assignment as a young official, he forged an alliance with a famous Buddhist monk for a couple of reasons.

One, his father was a Communist Party official who had a reputation for being somewhat sympathetic to religion. He worked with a lot of religious groups in western China when he was running Communist guerrilla movements and decided that religion wasn’t necessarily incompatible with communism, as long as it didn’t challenge the party. The elder Xi was in charge of religious work in the early 1980s and wrote the document that allowed religion to come back. When his son became a county chief, he took a lenient position toward religion and forged an alliance with this abbot.

They rebuilt a very famous Buddhist temple. Later, when he was getting promoted through the ranks, he sent his officials to go look at this county and said, “This is the way it ought to be done.”

I think the reason the party is doing this is that they realize there is this moral malaise in society. People are unhappy. It’s probably the biggest complaint you hear from Chinese people, beyond minor daily complaints and stuff like that — the sense that society has no moral compass. Anything goes; there are no minimal moral standards. Anything to get ahead is OK.

Articles circulate on Chinese media about how somebody gets run over by a car and nobody stops to help, because nobody can be bothered. Or the food isn’t safe to eat and drink. There were tainted milk and infant formula scandals. It’s this feeling that you can’t trust anything.

Political scientists talk about social trust. You need to have social trust. You need to trust that when you go into the store, the food isn’t poisoned; otherwise, you’re not going to buy it. So it’s a basic premise of capitalism. This is why Xi Jinping and other leaders are not entirely opposed to religion in China growing.

Q: And you write that they are more favorably disposed to Buddhism but much less so to Christianity.

Yes. I think they feel that Buddhism and other traditional faiths, including Taoism, are more compatible with Chinese tradition. Also, they have this idea — I think it’s mistaken — that these religions won’t challenge the state so much.

The leaders are interested in personal piety and moral values that are helpful to society. I think they feel less comfortable with Christianity because there’s still the perception that Christianity is a foreign religion, even though Christianity has had a presence in China for about 400 years. More importantly, they feel that Christianity is still influenced by foreigners, and it has a social justice component that they don’t like.

Some churches are involved in relatively innocuous programs, like homeless shelters or orphanages, but some are more politically engaged. There was a big movement of lawyers who took on human rights cases, and about 25 percent of these lawyers were Protestants. Only about 5 percent of Chinese are Protestant, so that’s disproportionately high. Clearly, people are inspired in some way by the social gospel to get involved in cases of persecution.

There’s also perhaps a personal reason. When Xi Jinping was party secretary of Zhejiang province in southern China, there was a clash between church members and the police. The police went in to close down an illegal underground church. But the church members mobilized hundreds of people who came and surrounded the police, who retreated.

The guy who was the head of the police then is now the party secretary of Zhejiang, and Xi is now head of China. They both probably feel that Christians are troublemakers.

Between 2014 and 2016, there was a campaign to remove crosses on top of church steeples in this province. You can’t prove it, but it was payback — “I was the police chief. You humiliated my police. Now, all your crosses are coming down.”

They didn’t close any churches. They took the crosses off 1,500 churches, but only one church was demolished. The other 1,499 were left, and they’re still there.

Q: What does Protestant Christianity look like in China?

After the Communists took over in 1949, they set up the five religious groups, including one Protestant, one Catholic. In the case of Catholics, they cut all ties to the Vatican; they set up a Chinese Catholic Church. And in the case of Protestants, they got rid of all denominations and said, “OK, you’re all Protestants now. There are no more Episcopalians or Baptists or whatever.”

The official Protestant churches have about 20 million members, according to government figures. But according to every other objective source, at least double that number are in nonregistered churches. This could be churches as small as a living room, where a dozen or two dozen people get together to pray, to big churches, like one I wrote about in my book. It has about 500 members and rents half a floor of an office building. They have two big services and started another church in another part of town. They have a seminary, a kindergarten and a bookstore.

These churches are not registered, so officially they’re illegal. But the government has decided that it’s not worth it to take them on, because tens of millions of people would be affected. These are growing quickly, but they don’t have church buildings. They’re not allowed to build a church.

Q: What are the numbers for all five major religions?

There are 23 million Muslims in China, defined by ethnicity. There are 10 ethnic groups that are Muslim, and if you add them up, it’s 23 million, but that assumes they are all practicing Muslims.

There are officially 6 million Catholics, up from 3 million in 1949. Unofficially, people say there are double that number, so I’d say it would be 12 million Catholics, about 1 percent of the population.

Then the Protestant groups were 1 million in 1949. Today, at the high end, some people say there are 100 million, which I don’t think is credible. A better number is more like 50 million. If you add the 50 million Protestants and roughly 10 million Catholics, you get 60 million Christians.

And Buddhists and Taoists — there are no memberships, but you’re talking about a few hundred million in the other groups.

Altogether, that’s 300 to 400 million worshippers in China out of 1.4 billion people. It’s maybe a quarter of the population, which isn’t huge, but you have to look at where it was before. It was completely obliterated, so it’s coming back and growing all the time.

Q: How will it play out? Will religion continue to grow? Are the leaders hoping it can be useful in creating a more just society?

For sure. The government hopes that it can work like that. That’s why they support some of the traditional religious practices.

The problem is, religion is a double-edged sword. Every ruler wants to manipulate religion for their own use. They think religion will support them. But religion usually ends up being a lot more complicated. Religion is something very close to people’s hearts, and it’s harder to control than rulers imagine.

All the religions in China, whether Christianity, Islam, Buddhism or Taoism, have this idea of a higher form of morality that transcends any government’s program. It creates in people’s minds this idea of justice.

They use this word in Chinese, “tian,” which means “heaven,” but it’s this idea of justice coming from heaven. So justice, righteousness, upright living come from heaven. It’s universal. Everybody has the right to justice.

That’s higher than any government program, so it’s a potential challenge in the long run for the party. Religion helps create independent expectations of morality and justice that they can hold the government accountable to.

That’s a macro view. The smaller, micro view of potential problems is that when you start supporting one religion over another — and I think they are trying to support the traditional religions over Christianity and Islam — it can create tensions, and people feel aggrieved.

China is an authoritarian state. We tend to think China will never change and will always be an authoritarian state. But there’s no saying that that will be true. If economic growth weakens, the party loses legitimacy, it’s harder to control society. Religious tensions could rise up.

In Chinese history, there were a lot of uprisings, rebellions, protests, that were religiously based. I’m just grabbing out of a hat, but that’s the long-term risk that the government faces. In the short term, the story is pretty much of growth.

Q: What are the lessons for the church in America? What would you want Christians in the U.S. to know about Christianity in China, and more broadly, religion in China?

We shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that there is persecution in China, but we shouldn’t be fixated on that. Overall, the story of Christianity in China over the past decades has been rapid growth.

I think it also shows that in all countries around the world, materialism isn’t the answer. People in all societies are searching for a life that’s more meaningful, some kind of a moral life. Nobody wants to think, “That’s it. The BMW, the Mercedes — that’s all there is.”

Some prosperity gospel is popular in China, but bigger than that are the basic ideas of Christianity. That’s what is attractive to people. It’s not, “Believe in Jesus — get rich.” It’s rather, “Believe in Jesus because it gives your life meaning and because these are eternal truths that will answer a lot of questions, even in your society.”


Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Faith & Leadership, July 11, 2017

Finding God in suffering

Posted on: July 4th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

By Laurel Parson on July 04, 2017

Endearing Pain: Life Lessons from MS Afflictions

By Colleen Peters

Wipf & Stock, 2016

130 pages

ISBN: 978-1498237895


Why God? Suffering Through Cancer into Faith

By Margaret Carlisle Cupit and Edward Henderson

Wipf & Stock, 2015

172 pages

ISBN: 978-1625644787


Suffering and faith have been the subject of literature since the Book of Job in the Bible. Such literature seeks to explore the questions that arise in times of suffering. Does God cause suffering? How does it affect our faith? Can anything good come out of suffering?

Two books were published recently dealing with these topics: Endearing Pain by Colleen Peters and Why God? by Margaret Carlisle Cupit and Edward Henderson. In 2006, Colleen Peters was diagnosed with progressive, relapsing multiple sclerosis (MS) and began a journey of pain and decline. In 2010, Maggie Cupit was diagnosed with cancer in her leg and began a journey of chemotherapy and surgery. The experiences of both women were very painful—physically, emotionally and spiritually. Both had the love and support of family, medical professionals and friends, but they also endured feelings of isolation because of not being able to participate fully in the life they had before diagnosis. In an attempt to keep friends and family informed, they both journaled or blogged updates on treatment and progress. They also shared their struggles with God about this course of events: Why is this happening to me? How can this be fixed? And, where is God in all of this?

Colleen Peters’ book is the publication of her letters and updates. When Colleen was diagnosed, she was already a faithful Christian. She had a family and worked as a teacher. Her life changed when surgery revealed that she had MS. She says, “I faced great fear and found Jesus waiting to walk through it with me” (p. 26). She also shares the encouragement she gleaned from other spiritual writers. Pain often brings out the best in people along with the worst, but in the midst of the pain, Colleen learned to pay attention to the little joys in life surrounding her every day. Colleen says, “God is healing me…the healing isn’t physical, but is targeting more important matters of the mind and heart” (p. 82).

Maggie’s book is a compilation of her journal entries and reflections, emails and comments by her grandfather, Edward Henderson, who is a philosophy of religion teacher. Maggie was a first-year college student when she was diagnosed. Her treatment was a yearlong journey of terrible suffering, but also joy and faith.

Maggie was born into a Christian family, but struggled with her faith. When she was diagnosed, it set her on a real quest for answers, which Henderson’s comments address. Maggie reflects that she could have given up on God, but with the help of many people, she came through the cancer having gained courage, hope and a faith that gives “the experience of the-good-no-matter-what and of joy even in the middle of life’s pains and anguish” (p. 130).

Endearing Pain is an inspiring spiritual journal that offers hope in the midst of daily struggles. Why God? gets bogged down by the philosophical, case-study style of Henderson’s comments, but the book is redeemed by Maggie’s voice. Both bear witness to the presence of a loving God in the midst of suffering.

About the Author

Laurel Parson


Anglican Journal News, July 04, 2017

David Bornstein: Unleash the change-making power

Posted on: June 24th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

Priest and founder of Magdalene and Thistle Farms

Institutional leaders today all face the same challenge, says author and journalist David Bornstein: How do I unleash the creative capacity of every person in our institution?

To paraphrase Bob Dylan, every institution is either busy dying or busy being born, said David Bornstein, a frequent writer on social innovation. There is no such thing as sustainability — only continuous renewal.

Given the inevitability of change, leaders need to behave like social entrepreneurs, or intrapreneurs, turning everyone in their organizations into creative thinkers bold enough to remake their institutions every day, he said.

Bornstein, whose books have been translated into 20 languages, is the author, with Susan Davis, of “Social Entrepreneurship: What Everyone Needs to Know.” (link is external) He also wrote “How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas.” His first book, “The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank,” chronicled the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Grameen Bank and the global emergence of microfinance as an anti-poverty strategy. He received the 2008 Leadership in Social Entrepreneurship Award from the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University.

Bornstein spoke with Faith & Leadership about social entrepreneurship and lessons for institutional leaders. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: In your most recent book, “Social Entrepreneurship,” you talk about building institutions. What is the value of institutions?

There’s this expression: “There’s nothing more powerful in the world than an idea whose time has come.” But that’s not true. There are lots of ideas whose time has come — and some whose time has come and gone — because of a lack of institutions to embed them in reality, or the wrong institutions.

Look at the institutions in the Islamic world that promote Wahhabism; look at what happens when you have institutions promoting that brand of Islam that are very powerful and very well-financed. What would the world look like today if the institutions promoting religious pluralism had the same amount of power and reach to challenge those ideas? Institutions make ideas real, whether they’re religious ideas or whether they’re practical, social change ideas.

Q: How do established institutions encourage, support and integrate entrepreneurship?

There are two questions. One is, how do you create institutions that don’t already exist and breathe life into them? The next one is, how do you revitalize institutions that have been around for decades or hundreds of years? Really, the question of how to renew institutions gets to the question of entrepreneurship every bit as much as how to build them at the outset.

There is no such thing as sustainability. There is really only continuous renewal. Bob Dylan said, “If you’re not busy being born, you’re busy dying.” To some degree, every institution is either busy dying or busy being born.

The question that every institution today faces is how do you unleash the change-making power of every single person in the institution? How do you turn everyone into a creative thinker who feels confident to try to advance an idea, someone who believes that it is his job or her job to improve upon things that they see and not just accept the status quo? How does the leadership of the institution communicate, reward people, excite people to see that their job is not merely to fulfill some function but to be a creative actor in the remaking of that institution every single day?

That’s an enormously difficult leadership challenge, one that requires extraordinary communication abilities. You now have essentially said, “Everybody in this institution is a creative actor. Now we have to work together, and what are we going to create together?” We have to be able to build teams.

We need empathy so that we can talk to each other even if we have different opinions about important questions. This is the challenge today in the field of social entrepreneurship, as people are building institutions across society. They’re all facing the same challenge, which is, how do I unleash the creative capacity of every single person in our institution and not just rely on 5 or 10 percent of the people to be the leaders?

Q: Do you have any examples of established institutions that have been successful in this kind of continuous renewal?

If you look at Ashoka (link is external), for example, an organization that supports social entrepreneurship around the world, they expect every one of their employees to be an “intrapreneur,” which is an entrepreneur who works inside an institution.

If you look at the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh, they expect their bank workers to be not just people who administer loans; their job is to help villagers solve their problems.

At companies like Google, a certain percentage of everyone’s time can be devoted to projects of their own choosing. Most of their innovations come from that 20 percent of their time when people can work on whatever they feel like, as long as it is something good for the company. If you look at organizations like City Year or Teach For America or the Acumen Fund, you’ll find the same pattern. They have to be unleashing the creative capacity of everyone in their organization, or they wouldn’t have come so far.

Q: In your new book you describe the process of entrepreneurship as one of leadership more than of creating the best ideas. How is that kind of leadership unleashed and developed?

You have to break these things up into small boxes. From the point of recruitment, right from the outset when they come into an organization, you want to send them signals. You want to choose people who want to be creative actors.

We’re living in a world where people may be coming to a job with conditioning that makes them think, “I don’t want to be a creative actor. I want to know what’s expected of me, and I want to be able to deliver that and go home. It is too much pressure to have to be thinking all the time and to come up with new ideas and be expected to be bold and use my voice.” There’s a lot of old conditioning, which told people they should fit into a certain slot in society and deliver what’s expected of them.

Our test-taking culture — which tells children that you should memorize this information or understand this and then give it back to the teacher on the test — reflects that kind of conditioning. You want to make sure that you’re recruiting people, or at least enough people, who want to behave entrepreneurially and would like to be able to express their full range of talents in their work.

The second thing is the way you communicate. It’s very important to let people know through the storytelling culture — through the speeches, through the newsletters, through whatever the organization rewards or highlights — that we want people to be trying new things and we don’t penalize people for their experiments that didn’t work. We celebrate them for their effort. The one thing that we do penalize or we don’t pay much attention to is business as usual or people who respond to problems by hoping that things will just get better without some new action taken.

Then thirdly, it’s very important to bring in people in the organization who are very, very well versed and skillful at managing teams. The team is very different from the assembly line.

Q: In your previous book, “How to Change the World,” you discussed the importance of investing in young people. Which of these social entrepreneur organizations does a good job of bringing up another generation of young leaders?

One of the goals is to encourage people to grow up so that they have a sense of agency, which means if they see something is wrong they think, “I can fix it.” They don’t feel that something terrible is going to happen if they take the initiative. They can imagine the world better than it has been. How do you bring up children to have moral imagination and a sense of agency? We’ve been seeing organizations that come into children’s lives at a young age and teach them the skill of empathy.

There’s an organization in Canada called “Roots of Empathy.” They bring an infant into a classroom environment with the mother to show what empathy looks like. They ask young children to imagine the experiences of the baby at many different stages in the baby’s development. This process has been demonstrated through independent research to dramatically improve the children’s empathetic ethics. It’s a powerful change. It makes people more loving and kinder and more understanding.

How do you encourage that throughout childhood? One of the best ways to encourage that kind of behavior is by helping children to play in a more beneficial way. Many school districts in the United States have cut down or eliminated recess from the elementary school day because of disciplinary problems, and also because of pressures to cram in as much math and English practice as possible for the state assessment tests.

Recess games are very complex and meaningful. A game is an agreement. A bunch of kids come together and agree to abide by the same rules. In order to have the experience of playing, they have to subvert their own needs for the needs of the group, which is essentially what citizenship is all about. It’s a voluntary agreement to participate in this collective, even when it’s not in your own personal interest.

Organizations like Playworks go into public schools and help bring back this culture of play, not by telling children to play but by helping them become leaders in organizing successful games. This also allows them to demonstrate their teamwork and their leadership and their empathy — all of the skills that any institution needs to be great.

Q: What would you identify as the critical or defining traits of social entrepreneurs, and how can those be taught?

The most important quality is the sense of agency, the sense that you can and you want to take action to change the status quo in any area. So the first thing is this belief that it’s a good thing to take initiative. That you’re not going to be yelled at for stepping out of line or challenging authority. That people will want to listen to you. That’s the first quality.

The second [encompasses] skills like empathy and leadership and teamwork, because as soon as you have an idea, the next thing you have to do is reach out to a bunch of people and say, “I have this idea. Would you like to work on it with me?” That’s about how well you communicate with people and how much they want to work with you and whether you can figure out how to co-create an idea and give everyone a sense of ownership.

Then the third thing is probably what meaning you give to failure, because once you’ve tried something, once you’ve gotten a group together, the next thing that’s going to happen is you’re going to do something, and most likely the first thing you try is not going to work that well. It may work all right, but usually not as you intended. Or, more likely, parts of it will work and parts of it won’t. Or you may believe that you have a great idea and you need to raise some money and it takes you a year before one person says “yes” after 50 “noes.” What does that process mean to you? Do you see it as a failure, or do you just see it as part of the process, not to be taken personally? One of the things that I’ve seen from successful social entrepreneurs is that they don’t take “no” as an answer. They take it as information — that something that they’re doing is not working, which means that they’re going to have to change their approach. It doesn’t mean that “no” is the answer. It just means that “no” is a signal that something is not quite right. What many other people see as failure, they see as guideposts.

Q: Sometimes, for example in science, you can learn more from failure than from success.

If you set up the experiment the right way. And you can do this with children, by the way. You can play a game of 20 questions with children. You can say — John Holt wrote about this in one of his books years ago — “I’m thinking of a number between one and 10,000.” And as the first kid says, “Is it between one and 5,000?” and you say, “No,” you’ll see that the kids in the class will go, “Aw.” They’ll groan. They hear the “no” as a failure, when in fact “Is it between one and 5,000?” is the best question that the first child could ask, because it cuts the possible numbers in half. It’s exactly what you’re supposed to do in that game. Why do the kids hear the “no” as failure rather than as useful information?

Q: That’s interesting.

Every social entrepreneur I’ve interviewed or written about has heard the response “no,” like Thomas Edison, thousands of times. Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail. I just found 10,000 ways it won’t work.”

Anybody who is going to try to bring change within an institution, especially if it’s an old one with established practices, is going to immediately have people say, “But that’s not the way things are done here” or “That’s the way it has always been” or “Who do you think you are?” And those are all “noes.” I would encourage people to hear those phrases and think, “This is good information. I have to understand exactly who I’m dealing with and the sources of resistance I’m going to be facing in order to navigate this change. If I don’t understand that, I won’t be successful.” So to hear those words and not be disheartened, but to look upon them as helpful information — that will let you know what your next question should be, and it will also help you keep up the courage to persist.


Alban Weekly, Faith & Leadership, May 08, 2017

Only Leave A Trace, Meditations by Roger Epp

Posted on: June 21st, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews



Meditations by Roger Epp
University of Alberta Press,
96 pages + 7 colour images
March, 2017. Paperback.
$19.95 CAD. $11.52 Kindle.
ISBN #978-1-77212-266-4.


Publisher’s Promo:

“Make yourself big when you enter a room, when you meet a bear in the woods. Make yourself big. Meet the eyes.”

Roger Epp’s poetic meditations about the best, the hardest, the loneliest times of leading a small university campus through significant change are depicted in a series of elegant yet understated prose pieces, alongside images by his life partner, Rhonda Harder Epp. Taking a candid look at the many challenges such a position brings, Roger Epp humanizes, scrutinizes, and upholds the integrity of academic administrative work.

Only Leave a Trace will resonate with those who work in universities,
hold leadership roles in them, or care about the connections between higher education, students, and place.


Author’s/Illustrator’s Bios:

Roger Epp is Professor of Political Science at the University of Alberta. He served as founding Dean of the university’s Augustana Campus in Camrose from 2004 to 2011. He is author of We Are All Treaty People (UAP) and co-editor of Writing Off the Rural West (UAP). Rhonda Harder Epp is a painter whose work is held in private and institutional collections. Her work has been shown in galleries across western Canada. They live in Edmonton.


Review by Dr. Wayne Holst

My Thoughts:
Like many other Canadians of half a century ago, I attended and graduated from a school of higher learning founded and supported by a Christian church – Catholic, Protestant, or other. When a great surge of post-war Canadian young people began entering these institutions during the 1950’s and 60’s it became impossible for the denominations to provide the financial and other resources to support these colleges and universities. In many cases, provincial governments provided the needed support. The trade-off was that in exchange for survival and new resources for future development, church schools became state institutions

When Waterloo Lutheran University evolved “under new management” to become Wilfrid Laurier, Dr. Flora Roy, professor of English Literature and the first women to head a university department in Canada (she began her career at Waterloo College, Waterloo Ontario in 1948) wrote two books to chronicle the development. They were entitled Recollections of Waterloo College and Recollections of Waterloo Lutheran University 1960-1973 (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2004 and 2006 respectively.) 

Thirty years later, something a bit different occurred when Camrose Lutheran College, then Augustana Lutheran University in Camrose Alberta, became The University of Alberta – Augustana, Campus.

Longtime supporters of both denominational schools had great fears that much would be lost in the transition. I look back to the transformation of my alma mater with much satisfaction. While some important values were inevitably lost, “my WLU” emerged to become one of the leading small universities of Canada. Much of what had been envisioned by the founders of my school was enhanced in the process.

After reflecting on Roger and Ronda Harder Epp’s beautiful new book of meditations, I can rest content that another successful transition took place as well for a Lutheran college in Alberta during my lifetime.

WLU is an urban university flourishing among many “big league” schools in Southern Ontario. Augustana evolves as a “town and country” partner to the province’s  largest and most established university – the University of Alberta in the central part of the province.

In both cases, academic substance was pursued while quality, well-rounded education, geared to a specialized student body, was provided.

Epp is a political scientist, and his sensitive way with words is apparent in many of the 71 meditations contained here. Harder-Epp’s art work really enhances her partner’s writing.

I especially liked “Those Who Build Bridges,” “A Curator of Tears” and “The Old Man in Winter” (thoughts on the famous Canadian diplomat, pastor and renaissance man Chester Ronning, who once headed Camrose Lutheran College). 

Many of us need to learn that the “Good News” (as we may have come to know it through ecclesiastical institutions) is greater and more eternal than any human establishment, however constituted. The Gospel survives and reveals itself in many forms, conveyed by a wide range of emissaries.

I was able to thank my English professor Dr. Flora Roy for her books before she died some decades ago. Through these words, I want to express contemporary appreciation to the Epps for their beautiful art piece as well.


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Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Colleagues List, Vol. XII. No. 36, June 11, 2017


A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science and the Future of Our Planet

Posted on: May 22nd, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

Spirituality, Science and the
Future of Our Planet,
by Nancy Ellen Abrams

Beacon Press. Paperback. 2016.
200 pages. $19.82 CAD.
ISBN # 978-0807073391.


Publisher’s Promo:

A paradigm-shifting blend of science, religion, and philosophy for agnostic, spiritual-but-not-religious, and scientifically minded readers

Many people are fed up with the way traditional religion alienates them: too easily it can perpetuate conflict, vilify science, and undermine reason. Nancy Abrams, a philosopher of science, lawyer, and lifelong atheist, is among them. And yet, when she turned to the recovery community to face a personal struggle, she found that imagining a higher power gave her a new freedom. Intellectually, this was quite surprising.

Meanwhile her husband, famed astrophysicist Joel Primack, was helping create a new theory of the universe based on dark matter and dark energy, and Abrams was collaborating with him on two books that put the new scientific picture into a social and political context. She wondered, “Could anything actually exist in this strange new universe that is worthy of the name ‘God?’”

In A God That Could Be Real, Abrams explores a radically new way of thinking about God. She dismantles several common assumptions about God and shows why an omniscient, omnipotent God that created the universe and plans what happens is incompatible with science—but that this doesn’t preclude a God that can comfort and empower us.

Moving away from traditional arguments for God, Abrams finds something worthy of the name “God” in the new science of emergence: just as a complex ant hill emerges from the collective behavior of individually clueless ants, and just as the global economy emerges from the interactions of billions of individuals’ choices, God, she argues, is an “emergent phenomenon” that arises from the staggering complexity of humanity’s collective aspirations and is in dialogue with every individual. This God did not create the universe—it created the meaning of the universe. It’s not universal—it’s planetary. It can’t change the world, but it helps us change the world. A God that could be real, Abrams shows us, is what humanity needs to inspire us to collectively cooperate to protect our warming planet and create a long-term civilization.

Author’s Bio:

Nancy Ellen Abrams is coauthor with Joel R. Primack, of The View from the Center of the Universe and The New Universe and the Human Future.

My Thoughts:

I have decided not to add my thoughts about this book because of
time constraints this week, and also because I do not feel adequate at this point to give it an honest appraisal.

However, a scientist-friend suggested I consider the book, and I plan to do so. In the meantime, I am offering a review made available on the website and hope you might consider it, since Bishop Desmond Tutu lends his support at the end of this selection.

Reviewed on the site by “the Dean Family” –

This is a difficult book to review. It is also a hard book to get through. The subject matter is both lofty and dense. If you are going to do more than skim it, you will probably have to read parts, put it aside, chew on it, and then return for another session. And if it is difficult to read and review, I can only imagine how terrifically much harder it must have been to write! For the effort alone, I would give it four stars. What a task to take on: to set out not only to define what God is, based on (the author’s grasp of) the most recent scientific understanding of the nature of the universe — and then to infuse this with her personal experience of a Higher Power encountered through her 12-Step program!

I found this read (and find, since I am not finished with it) to be stimulating, exasperating, disturbing, overwhelming, inspirational, headache-making, breakthrough, bewildering and finally (even grudgingly), elucidating.

I will say first, in case I lose you along the way, if you are serious in your contemplation of the nature of God, you will want to read Nancy Abrams’ book.

To begin, it helps to look at the roots on which the book grew. There are many, but four I find fundamental to understanding:

One: Nancy Abrams is the wife of cosmologist Joel Primack, one of the promulgators of the theory that our universe is not composed primarily of atoms, as you and I were taught, but instead, of invisible and mysterious “cold dark matter” and “dark energy.” Together, these two form the “double dark” theory, that, according to Nancy, are “the foundation of the modern picture of the universe.” Her idea of God had to fit, first and foremost, with that and the current take on the laws of physics and thermodynamics.

Two: when Nancy was 15, she told her rabbi, “God didn’t create us; we created God.” While she explains how she came to refine that immature idea, nevertheless, that the seed grew into her ultimate theory.

Three: Ms. Abrams was a successful intellectual, lawyer, and philosopher. Yet she developed an eating disorder that eventually drove her to a 12-Step Program (which, you may know, began when two alcoholics banded together in their attempt to remain sober. It was part of the Christian temperance movement of the 20th Century, and grew into a worldwide spiritual program of recovery for addicts of many kinds). Nancy believes that her Higher Power, or God, has a reality outside herself. God is not merely a projection, as many philosophers and theologians have said, of the better part of human nature. Nancy found a God who, unlike the title of her book, not only “Could Be Real” but Is.

The fourth key to Ms. Abrams’ concept of God is the Theory (or phenomenon) of “emergence.” Cells have individual life, but when billions are gathered together in a certain form, what emerges is greater than the sum of the parts: it is (or can be) a human being. Humans themselves have individual life, but when millions focus their efforts in certain ways, other realities emerge. One might be called “the stock market,” which exists and has definite rules and characteristics. Another is “the media,” and so on.

Therefore, Ms. Abrams tells us, God is an emergent phenomenon. He (or it) is not the omnipotent, omnipresent Creator of all things that many religions claim. Instead, she says, God is an emergent reality from humanity. However, God is not just a projection. God is a reality humans can know, pray to, hear, and embrace. Millions upon millions of the world’s inhabitants would reject Nancy Abrams’ version of God, of course. In some cultures today, she could be executed for blasphemy.

In more tolerant, reasonable systems, she would still be branded a heretic, or dismissed as a kook. The first possibility is a lot of what is wrong with our world today – a narrow and violent view of existence that would return humanity to some new version of the Dark Ages. Even the last two would do this deep thinker a disservice. I have thought about the nature of God and reality a lot in my life, but I approach the spiritual being and force that powers a universe with more of a sense of humility and awe, and the sense that the tiny human speck of awareness I am should not and cannot define a God within and behind all things. I am forced to admit, I have never approached the idea of God with Ms. Abrams’ rigor, or depth of research.

Reading her book has required me to question everything I held true about both science and God. I am not saying in the end that I agree with all or even most of what the author is so boldly willing to declare.

I stand with Desmond Tutu, who wrote one of the forewords to her book. “I do not agree with everything that Nancy Abrams says about the scientific understanding of God,” the Archbishop writes. But “..The God I believe in…wants us to keep learning and discovering and exploring every inch…of creation…. This book will help you clarify your own personal understanding of God…. I recommend it highly  to all, religious or secular, believer or atheist, who are ready to explore honestly their understanding of the divine in our beautiful, expanding universe.”

Amen, brother Tutu. And bravo, Nancy Abrams.

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Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. __________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

Colleagues List, Vol. XII. No. 33, May 21, 2017




The Spirituality of Wine: Embracing creation with body and soul

Posted on: May 19th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

By John Arkelian on May, 18 2017

The Spirituality of Wine
By Gisela H. Kreglinger
Eerdmans, 2016
300 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8028-6789-6


As non-initiate into the world of wine, we approached Gisela Kreglinger’s new book, The Spirituality of Wine, with a combination of skepticism and uncertainty. Would a free-ranging examination of the spiritual utility of an intoxicant be persuasive? Would it hold the attention of a non-devotee of wine? The author, who grew up on a family winery in central Germany’s Franconia region, caught our interest with her Christian spiritualist perspective, one that “seeks to integrate faith into all spheres of life, including the material and the everyday.” Something there strikes a chord:  life abundant includes celebrating the “good creation” of “the generous and loving Creator who delights in bestowing gifts on his children, which make their hearts glad and their souls sing.” Ascetic strains of Christian theology emphasize the spiritual and the hereafter, while neglecting the here and now. But we are both body and soul, and we are called upon to take joy (and find fellowship) in God’s creation: “The mark of a decidedly Christian spirituality is not a flight from creation but a faith-filled embrace of it.”

For Kreglinger, wine has had a long and important role in the embracing of creation. She cites biblical chapter and verse to illustrate the association of natural bounty (including abundant grape vines) with the Promised Land; and she cites Christ’s first miracle—at the wedding feast in Cana, where he turns water into wine—as a key example of wine’s role in biblical imagery and Christian celebration. The author sees wine as a sign of God’s blessing, and, through the Eucharist, as a tangible reminder that Christ stepped into “the divine winepress,” shedding his blood for our sake. Taken in moderation, she says, wine is also a way to gladden the hearts of men through shared fellowship and feasting, as engagingly depicted in the film Babette’s Feast.

The book covers a great deal of territory, from the aforementioned theology of spirituality, to the cultural, economic and religious history of wine, to the close connection between the expansion of Christianity and that of viticulture across Europe (the role on monasteries being pivotal in the latter regard). There are chapters on the philosophy of winemaking and one on the abuse of alcohol. Some of that material may be a tad esoteric for the general reader. It’s not immediately obvious who the intended reader of this book is meant to be: scholar or lay person, wine aficionado or curious non-imbiber?

At moments, the author may wax over-lyrically about the benefits of “holy intoxication,” and she tends to reiterate points more often than may be necessary. Further, the book’s type-size is smaller than it comfortably ought to be.

But, Kreglinger brings conviction, a sure command of her material and an engaging writing style to what was, for this reader, unfamiliar terrain. One happy surprise came in the author’s brief preface, in which she alludes to her childhood on the winery: “I thought about the fields and vineyards, the sun and the rain…I thought about all the people who worked for us: their lives and sorrows…” It’s wonderfully evocative stuff that makes us yearn to read a memoir of the author’s childhood years.


Copyright © 2017 by John Arkelian.

About the Author

John Arkelian

John Arkelian is an award-winning author and journalist. Copyright © 2014 by John Arkelian.
Anglican Journal News, May 19, 2017

The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation

Posted on: May 14th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

The Trinity and Your Transformation
by Richard Rohr and Mike Morrell.

Whitaker House (2016) Hardcover.
220 pages. $29.46 CAD
ISBN #10: 1629117293

Trinity is supposed to be the central, foundational doctrine of our 
entire Christian belief system, yet we’re often told that we shouldn’t attempt to understand it because it is a “mystery”.

Should we presume to try to breach this mystery?

If we could, how would it transform our relationship with God and  renew our lives? The word Trinity is not found in the New Testament  – it wasn’t until the third century that early Christian father Tertullian  coined it – but the idea of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was present in  Jesus’ life and teachings and from the very beginning of the Christian  experience. In the pages of this book, internationally recognized teacher Richard Rohr circles around this most paradoxical idea as he explores the nature of God – circling around being an apt metaphor for this mystery we’re trying to apprehend. Early Christians who came to be known as the “Desert Mothers and Fathers” applied the Greek verb perichoresis to the mystery of the Trinity.

The best translation of this odd-sounding word is dancing.

Our word choreography comes from the same root. Although these early Christians gave us some highly conceptualized thinking on
the life of the Trinity, the best they could say, again and again, was, Whatever is going on in God is a flow – it’s like a dance.  But God is not a dancer – He is the dance itself.

That idea might sound novel, but it is about as traditional as you can get. God is the dance itself, and He invites you to be a part of that dance. Are you ready to join in?


About the Author

Fr. Richard Rohr is a globally recognized teacher and the founder of the  Center for Action and Contemplation ( in Albuquerque, New Mexico. His teaching is grounded in the Franciscan alternative orthodox practices of contemplation and self–emptying, expressing themselves in radical compassion, particularly for the socially marginalized. He is also the academic dean of the Living School for Action and Contemplation.

Drawing upon Christianity’s place within the Perennial Tradition, the  mission of the Living School is to produce compassionate and powerful learned individuals who will work for positive change in the world based on awareness of our common union with God and all created beings.

Fr. Richard is the author of numerous books, including Everything Belongs, Adam’s Return, The Naked Now, Breathing Under Water, Falling Upward, Immortal Diamond, and Eager to Love: The Alternative Way of Francis of Assisi.


Review by Dr. Wayne Holst

My Thoughts:

As secularization continues to strongly influence our political, social and religious ethos in Canada, people of faith need to work hard at finding new language, imagery and experiences to help us grow in that faith. Many of the classic teachings need to be expressed in ways that can be understood by people today. Otherwise they are lost to them.

The Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is a case in point. I, for example, was formed spiritually in an environment where I regularly confessed my faith using the words of the ecumenical creeds (Nicene and Apostles). But as time and experience evolved for me, some of the hard-fought meanings in those words were lost to me – a situation I know very well. Probably you do too.

I began to learn from a notable Canadian philosopher like Charles Taylor of McGill, that a secular age prompts us to formulate new thoughts, models and expressions to help us live the classic Christian way in circumstances very different from the times when those traditional faith formulations were developed. God is very much a part of modernity, says Taylor, but we need to be creative in how we discover God today.

For one attempt to describe the development of the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity click: 

A helpful mentor and model for our quest for renewed meaning is the  author and our colleague Richard Rohr, an articulate and much-published Franciscan living in Arizona. His recent book The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation is a case in point.

Here is a book infused with the kind of new awareness we very much need.

Choreography, rather than rational dogma, is a better way of describing the Trinity – the source of a well-lived Christian life, says Rohr, who seeks to liberate our understanding of the classic faith  while remaining orthodox and true to it.

A helpful way to read Rohr is to note the paradoxes to which he alludes. He links reason and mystery, action and contemplation, faith and real life – by transcending the meaning of both. His thoughts are clear-headed, provocative, inspiring, challenging and infused with the spirit.

Many years ago, as a graduate student in Europe, I first encountered a hymn that had just emerged.  It was entitled: Lord of the Dance.  Do you remember it? Rohr’s book enhances that hymn with new meaning and value for me as I sing it to myself now.

I think that reading The Divine Dance, might do the same for you.


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Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Colleagues List, Vol. XII. No. 32, May 14, 2017


Laura Dunn: Seeing the world of Wendell Berry

Posted on: April 30th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

Illustration based on the “Look & See” movie poster, which features wood engraving by Wesley Bates and typography by Mark Melnick. Image courtesy of Two Birds Film


The director of ‘Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry’ says her film is an effort to transport viewers to the world of the Kentucky poet and farmer — his place — what he sees, and what he cares about.

A portrait is a likeness of someone, but there are many ways to draw a portrait, says Laura Dunn, the director, producer and editor of the documentary “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry.”

Filmed in Henry County, Kentucky, and initially released in 2016, “Look & See” paints a portrait of Berry without his ever appearing on camera. After Berry made clear that he didn’t want to be filmed, Dunn decided to take another approach.

“He explained that he is his place,” Dunn said. “That he’s nothing but for the people around him — his family, his neighbors, his friends.

“That’s where I got the idea of a portrait. It’s the shape of him, but the frames of this portrait are his place — what he sees, and what he cares about.”

Laura Dunn

Dunn said she wanted the film to transport viewers to Berry’s world, one that is “so counter to the culture that we’re in.”

“When you walk into his world, it’s a respite from a world that feels more and more alien,” Dunn said.

After a re-edit last fall, “ Look & See (link is external)” was screened at the Sundance Film Festival in January. Though the film is primarily focused on farming in Henry County, Dunn said it is relevant to both rural and urban dwellers, especially in America’s current political environment.

“If you’re going to ignore the entire heartland of America, if you are going to disregard rural communities — which our country has a long history of doing — that has political implications for everybody,” she said.

Dunn was at Duke earlier this year for a screening of the film, sponsored by the Divinity School’s Center for Reconciliation and the Nicholas School of the Environment. She spoke about the film with Faith & Leadership. The following is an edited transcript.

Q: How did you decide to make a film about Wendell Berry?

My last film, “The Unforeseen,” was about development in Austin. I worked with Terrence Malick on that. We were looking at ways to contextualize the Austin story within a larger frame, and he said I should look at Wendell Berry.

I was aware of Wendell’s works since high school. But when Terry said to look again, I read a lot of Wendell’s poems, and found poems that resonated with what I was trying to say in “The Unforeseen.” In 2004, I wrote to Wendell and asked if he’d record a poem and let me use it in the film.

He graciously agreed. So I went and met with him, and he recorded the poem, and it was in the film.

The film toured all over the place, but I was surprised how few people seemed to know of Wendell Berry.

People would say, “Whose voice is that? Who’s that writer?”

And I would tell them, “Wendell Berry,” assuming everyone knew of him. I found that people either know who Wendell Berry is and he means a great deal to them or people have never heard of him.

I was surprised by that, and I thought I’d like to draw more attention to his work. That’s how it started.

I wrote letters back and forth with him, suggesting this idea. It was a bit of a song and dance, because he doesn’t want the attention.

His family told me that he’s had hundreds and hundreds of requests to make a film about him, and he’s declined every time. He said yes to me, and then he said no, and then yes, and then no. Ultimately, it was his wife, Tanya, who said, “I want you to come, and I want you to do this.” It was really through her that the film came about.

Q: This may seem like an obvious question, but what’s the movie about? The title is “Look & See: A Portrait of Wendell Berry,” but the viewer never sees him, other than in old photographs, and only hears his voice on occasion.

I wanted to make a portrait. I didn’t want to do a sprawling issues piece. I had done that, and artistically, I was inspired by the idea of a portrait — something more intimate.

If you look at the definition of a portrait, it’s a likeness of someone. There are many different ways to draw a portrait.

When I got to know Wendell better, he made it clear that, first, he didn’t want to be on camera and, second, no story could be about him, because we live in a culture where people like to idolize people and put them up on a pedestal that’s not real.

He explained that he is his place, that he’s nothing but for the people around him — his family, his neighbors, his friends.

That’s where I got the idea of a portrait. It’s the shape of him, but the frames of this portrait are his place — what he sees, and what he cares about. It can’t be the likeness of his face, because that wouldn’t reflect the essence, just some piece of the essence of this person.

Q: In the film, he talks about frames, and at one point, he comments on the limitations of cameras — how it all depends on where you place the camera and how you frame the view.

Absolutely. He said to me on a number of occasions that film is a medium that contributes to illiteracy and numbs the imagination. He thinks that film and the visual culture we’re in are a negative thing.

I agree with him in a lot of ways. I use film as a medium because it’s what people pay attention to, and I’m trying to convey messages.

But I didn’t think a portrait of Wendell Berry could be a typical, traditional biopic. He is someone who’s always going against the grain, always bending the arc. If you ask him a question, he’ll come at it from a totally different place.

I wanted a film that gave some little piece of his world and of him. That’s what I was going for.

Q: Speak some to the irony of making a film about someone who’s so skeptical of film.

It’s a wonderful challenge, because I myself am skeptical of film. I tend to think in words more than images. The two parts of filmmaking I love the most are the interviews and the editing. I do all the editing, and my editing is definitely designed around the words.

Wendell Berry articulates and conveys a world that is so counter to the culture that we’re in. When you walk into his world, it’s a respite from a world that feels more and more alien — a world that’s fast-paced with a lack of community and destruction of nature and detachment from one another, detachment from meaning, detachment from our children, a disconnection from the land that sustains us.

All these things that bring my soul much comfort are rapidly disappearing. Wendell’s world represents a counter to that. I was trying to transport the viewer to this other world.

But certainly, there’s a tension there. I used to ask Wendell, “Could you make a film that makes people want to turn away from it?”

And he was asking, “What do people do after seeing the film?”

I’d say, “It would be great if they turn their TV off and go get a book or take a walk outside.”

Q: To some extent, the film is about Berry’s approach to farming and a different kind of agriculture. But what does the film have to say to urban dwellers or people who aren’t interested in farming and who may know nothing about him?

In this new political context, post-Trump election, there’s a relevance to the film no matter where you live. Because if you’re going to ignore the entire heartland of America, if you are going to disregard rural communities — which our country has a long history of doing — that has political implications for everybody.

That’s one argument — that you should pay attention. You should look at rural America and see that there’s complexity and beauty and struggle and a lot more dimension to the American story than has been relayed in the media for a long time.

But also, Wendell Berry isn’t just someone who writes nonfiction essays about agriculture. He’s written almost 60 books. His fiction is beautiful. He writes some of the most wonderful stories and poetry.

And his essays aren’t just about farming. He writes about economics; he writes about theology; he writes about major cultural issues. He’s a great thinker. It’s ideas that make me like Wendell Berry.

So it’s not just about farming. Wendell is a farmer, and he comes from a farming family, and he writes about farming as an art. It’s this fundamental and spiritual way of relating to the land that sustains us. It’s not what we made; it’s what we depend on. It’s where we come from. It’s where we return to.

It frames a kind of morality that he embraces and writes about. But the rural landscapes of this country are in absolute decay, and there are big consequences. It’s an economic picture that we’ve embraced, and an agricultural one too, and he talks about that.

It’s not just the ethos of land stewardship. It’s all the cultural values that go along with that, and it’s disappearing.

Q: Tell us about making the film. I read that you ended up with 100 hours of film.

In documentaries, you don’t start out with your whole funding. You get a little bit of funding, you go work, you have a show, you raise a little bit more money, and so it’s a process.

I started the concept about seven years ago, but I found myself pregnant with twins and paused for a bit, and then came back to it.

We started shooting in August 2012. I wanted to get all four seasons in Henry County, Kentucky. If I had been able to shoot straight through for four seasons, it would have been great, but I had two babies in the course of that, so it slowed me down a little.

The last shoot was in the summer of 2015. We covered three seasons over those three years. And then I edited.

We had about 100 hours of footage, and I edited it. I don’t have any assistants, and I’m a full-time stay-at-home mom, so I did it at night.

That was the most brutal part of this project, honestly. I home-school my kids; I really want to be with them. So it means you’re working two full-time jobs. On a personal level, by far the hardest part of this project was just exhaustion from doing two full-time jobs. But it was hopefully worth it.

Q: At one point last fall, you pulled the film and reworked it and changed the title. Tell us about that.

Wendell did not like the title. The original title was “The Seer,” which I thought was a good title. My husband and co-director, Jef Sewell, came up with it.

We were trying to solve this problem — it’s a film about a person, but you don’t see him. We were trying to have a title that would allude to that.

But “The Seer” is also kind of a prophetic person. Wendell wrote me that he was uncomfortable with it because it gave him more credit than he deserves or can deal with. We respected that, of course.

There’s a place in the film where his daughter talks about her parents, and how they always taught her to “look and see.”

“Look at the world around you. Notice this. This is good. This is beautiful. This is ugly. This is a scar.”

It’s such a basic concept, and yet all of us miss it — look and see the world around you. Also, it’s a command that Wendell is always telling us — look out at the world, rather than at ourselves, and notice things. So that was the title change.

Why did we pull it? We premiered it in March 2016, at South by Southwest. Later, we screened it in Kentucky for a week and got feedback from the Berrys. Tanya felt like the ending was too despairing. She wanted something more hopeful.

So we pulled it and worked on it.

In that time, Donald Trump was elected, and everyone all of a sudden started asking, “What’s going on for all of America?” and Sundance wanted to screen it. It re-emerged in a new way.

Q: Did making this film change you in any way?

I think it certainly changed me.

I did several audio interviews with Wendell. I told him from the beginning, “I’m not going to trick you and put you on camera. I respect that you don’t want to do that.”

But I did a lot of audio interviews. I would sit with him in his living room and ask him all sorts of questions and get him to read different selections.

I did that maybe four times, to the point where he was sick of me. Also, every time we would go to shoot, I would go and sit with him — and sometimes he’d give me a couple of hours — and talk with him.

In one of those interviews, Wendell asked me how I was changed by this. He said it was important to him that I was the product, not the film — that how I was affected and how I was changed mattered more than the film itself.

That stayed with me. I think the film is continuing to change me in a couple of ways.

One, it re-convicts me of my principles, because if you are trying to work against the grain and cultural trends, it takes a lot of commitment. Working with him and his wife and other people in Henry County is convicting, because you see this world where people aren’t caught up in fast-paced technology. There’s a different set of values.

It has reinforced that for me in my own life. Some of the choices we’re making for our own children, our own family, are very much influenced by being there. It’s a kind of conservatism in a really beautiful way, not trying to make as much money as you can or live as big and fast as you can. It’s a simple idea, but if you apply it to your own life, it has profound effects.

The other thing is that Tanya Berry has had a big influence on me as a woman who works but is also a mom. I went to Yale and I was raised by a very feminist mom, and I’m grateful for those opportunities. But you’re trying to be a mom and you’re straddling these worlds of work and motherhood. The domestic realm is not one that’s really elevated in our culture. But Tanya gave me this example of how those can be more integrated.

Q: In the film, she talked about recovering the notion that your art is your life and your life is your art.

Totally. Your home, your children, your space, your community — to imbue the domestic spirit with that artfulness, and inspiration, and dignity, and integration, is huge. Honestly, what probably changed me more than anything was her.


Faith & Leadership, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, April 18, 2017

The Mythic Dimension

Posted on: April 28th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

Selected Essays 1959-1987
by Joseph Campbell

Collected Works
New World Library, 2017
Hardcover. 348 pages. $18.35CAD
Paperback. 348 pages. $24.26CAD

(second paperback edition just released, March, 2017)


Publisher’s Promo:

These 12 eclectic essays explore myth and its fascinating context
in the human imagination – in the arts, literature, and culture, as
well as in everyday life.

The most recent title in New World Library’s Collected Works of
Joseph Campbell 11-volume series, this new paperback edition
features pieces that exhibit Campbell’s trademark thoughtfulness
and intelligence. These essays explore the topic for which Campbell

was best known: the many connections between myth and history,

psychology, and the daily world. Drawing from such varied sources
as Thomas Mann, the occult, Jungian and Freudian theory, and the
Grateful Dead, these dynamic writings elucidate the many ways in
which myth touches our lives, our psyches, and our relationship to
the world.

This second volume of Campbell’s essays (followingThe Flight of the
Wild Gander) brings together his uncollected writings from 1959 to 1987.

Written at the height of Campbell’s career – and showcasing
the lively intelligence that made him the twentieth century’s premier
writer on mythology – these essays investigate the profound links
between myth, the individual, and societies ancient and contemporary.



“Campbell has become one of the rarest of intellectuals in American

life: a serious thinker who has been embraced by the popular culture.”
“No one in our century—not Freud, not Thomas Mann, not Lévi-Strauss—has so brought the mythical sense of the world and its eternal figures back into our everyday consciousness.”
— James Hillman


“In our generation the mythographer who has had the fullest command of the huge scholarly literature, the analytic ability, the lucid prose, and the needed staying power has been Joseph Campbell.”

Joseph Campbell’s Words:


“Accordingly the vision and the visionary, though apparently separate, are one; and all the heavens, all the hells, all the gods and demons, all the figures of the mythic worlds, are within us as portions of ourselves – portions, that is to say, that are of our deepest, primary nature, and thus of our share in nature. They are out there as well as in here, yet, in this field of consciousness, without separation. Our personal dreams are our personal guides, therefore, to the ranges of myth and of the gods. Dreams are our personal myths; myths, the general dream.”

—  from The Mythic Dimension


Joseph Campbell Bio:

John Campbell (1904-1987) wrote, among other works, the classics The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Inner Reaches of Outer Space, and The Masks of God. A prolific writer, lecturer, and scholar of art, history, religion, and culture, he taught at Sarah Lawrence College.

(extensive Wikipedia bio):


Editor’s Words:

From 1959 until his death in 1987, Joseph Campbell wrote three
major works – “The Masks of God” “The Historical Atlas of World
Mythology” and “The Mythic Image”. These books were not just
books about mythology; they were books about all mythology,
or large-scale attempts to comprehend the religious expression
of the human species.

In them, Campbell introduced many facts, stories, images, and
ideas to serve his larger argument, only to let them go after they
had served their purpose… During these most productive years
of his career, however, Campbell did write about much of the
material that he only touched on in his major works. He lectured
prodigiously and wrote numerous essays that were either early
explorations or of mature reflections upon material that appeared
in his larger ventures. These essays were published in small-
circulation magazines and journals, or in introductions to chapters
in others’ books. The best of them are collected (in this book.)

(Campbell writes about the historical development of mythology
and the mythological themes dating from early times that inform
our lives today. This book contains many of those foundational
essays linking his major themes to inform us of how myth addresses
the universal concerns of human consciousness)…

(These essays help to tie together the themes of his major works,
as he wrote during the height of his powers and then during the
period of his life when he sought to integrate and emphasise the
key learnings of his unusual career.)


Review by Dr. Wayne Holst

My Thoughts:

Joseph Campbell was a prolific and profound writer who was
always venturing into new subjects, then integrating what he
discovered into his earlier understandings.

This book is a reflection on the integrational aspect of his teaching,
and continues to stand out as new generations become aware
of his significant contribution to human understandings.

A review of the thematic contents page of this book reminds us
of the breadth of his learning and the way he continued to weave
new discoveries with older understandings.

In the first part of this book he writes of the expanding nature of

comparative mythology across global cultures; the historical development

of mythology, rituals that emerge from myths; and the goddess theme in myths.

In the second part of this book, he writes of mythology and the
arts – and of how myths are communicated verbally and symbolically.
His ability to understand this theme through creative literature
and art can help us to understand how myth is so much part
of the world of the arts in every era. He not only deals with myths
of the past, in other words, but with how myths continue to
be reconstituted in every era of human history, including our own.

The book contains an excellent index of themes appearing here,
and an extensive list of his writings.

The new paperback edition, just published, is an indication of
the timeliness and continuing appeal of Joseph Campbell for
new readers as well as veterans returning for another drink
from the well of one of the twentieth century’s great minds.


Buy the book from

Buy the book from New World Library:
Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Colleagues List, Vol. XII. No. 30, April 30, 2017

The Souls Of China

Posted on: April 28th, 2017 by CEP Administrator No Comments
Books, Reviews

The Return of Religion After Mao
by Ian Johnson

Random House Canada Pantheon
Publication date: April 11th, 2017
455 pages. Hardcover. $30.00 CAD.
ISBN #978-1-101-87005-2



Publisher’s Promo:

From the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, a revelatory portrait of religion in China today—its history, the spiritual traditions of its Eastern and Western faiths, and the ways in which it is influencing China’s future.

The Souls of China tells the story of one of the world’s great spiritual revivals.  Following a century of violent anti-religious campaigns, China is now filled with new temples, churches, and mosques – as well as cults, sects, and politicians trying to harness religion for their own ends. Driving this explosion of faith is uncertainty—over what it means to be Chinese and how to live an ethical life in a country that discarded traditional morality a century ago and is searching for new guideposts.

Ian Johnson first visited China in 1984; in the 1990s he helped run a charity to rebuild Daoist temples, and in 2001 he won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the suppression of the Falun Gong spiritual movement.

While researching this book, he lived for extended periods with underground church members, rural Daoists, and Buddhist pilgrims. Along the way, he learned esoteric meditation techniques, visited a nonagenarian Confucian sage, and befriended government propagandists as they fashioned a remarkable embrace of traditional values. He has distilled these experiences into a cycle of festivals, births, deaths, detentions, and struggle—a great awakening of faith  that is shaping the soul of the world’s newest superpower.


Author’s Words:

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese patriots … worried that their country was so backward that it would be torn  apart by foreign powers… Those who sought reform of China’s traditional culture, especially its systems of belief, (targeted) superstitious relics that dulled people to the potential of science and progress…

Out of these struggles for a new identity, based on the best of the past but also open to the future… is coming something more than the hyper-merchantilist, fragile superpower that we (currently) know. It is a country engaging in a global conversation that affects all of us: how to restore solidarity and values that have made economics the basis of most decisions. Perhaps because Chinese traditions were so savagely attacked over the past decades, and then replaced with such a naked form of capitalism, China might actually be at the forefront of this worldwide search for values.

These are universal aspirations, and like people elsewhere in the world, Chinese people feel that these hopes are supported by something more than a particular government or law. They are supported by heaven.

– from the introduction to “The Moon Year” and the Afterword


Author’s Bio:

Ian Johnson is a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books and The New York Times, and his work has also appeared in  The New Yorker and National Geographic. He is an advising editor for the Journal of Asian Studies, and teaches a course on religion in Beijing. He is the author of two other books that also focus on the intersection of politics and religion: Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in China, and A Mosque in Munich: Nazis, the CIA, and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the West. He lives in Beijing.

Christianity Today Interview of the Author (short):

Review by Dr. Wayne Holst

My Thoughts:

Like many  foreign observers of Chinese society today, I am both intrigued and baffled by what is going on there. The miracle of religious revival or of the growth of new faiths like Christianity, is simply amazing. At the same time, solid predictions are hard to come by and it is difficult to describe the future of that great nation. One thing is certain, what happens in China will have global ramifications.

I have tended to approach the subject of China’s souls from a religious perspective. But much of what lies at the heart of China’s people are spiritual traditions quite different from what we have experienced in the west. Why, for example, is there so much animus to the nation and spirituality of the little country of Tibet? Why the bitter resentment to such internal Chinese movements like Falun Gong?  

What is similar in all this are the common hopes and aspirations that influence and affect all humans.
We in the west are only beginning to scratch the surface of what is actually taking place in China today. People like me have been approaching the subject from a very limited perspective – such as more recent historical encounters through the prism of colonialism and modern missionary Christianity.

What we need right now are venturesome scouts and interpreters like Ian Johnson, who can provide a bigger picture and deeper awareness.

Thank God we are no longer dealing with the fears and biases that early guides like the Canadian Chester Ronning had to face fifty years ago! We now stand at a stage of serious human-to-human encounter that could not have happened before the era of the cold war or the ubiquitous, global presence of Chinese tourists!

Many more of us need to be reversing current behaviour and making China one of our personal travel goals. I have a number of friends who have done just that. Perhaps there is still time for me too!

“The Souls of China – The Return of Religion After Mao” is a book that will require attentiveness and concentration – as well as conversations with those Asian friends who may be in as much need for enlightenment about the real China today as non-Chinese might be.

There is much more to this book than a rich resource on the miraculous growth of Christianity in China. But that story is also present here as marvelous testimony to the role of religion in modern societies.

This book is one with shelf-life and would be well worth the investment – either now, or during the next few years – for those who take the future of our world, its people and spirituality seriously.

Buy the book from


Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and  helps  to co-ordinate Adult Spiritual Development  at St. David’s United Church in that city. ________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________
Colleagues List, Vol. XII. No. 27, April 9, 2017