Friday, February 6, 2015

Alexander Solzhenitsyn Warned the West of Its Tilt Toward Totalinarianism

By Wendy Murray

“When you're cold, don't expect sympathy from someone who's warm.”
― Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

On February 14 in 1974 authorities in the Soviet Union officially charged writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918 to 2008) with treason. He was sent into exile and his Russian citizenship revoked.

Having publicly criticized totalitarian rule under the Soviet system, his writings were censored and condemned in his homeland, but held up and praised in the West. He raised global awareness of Soviet system of forced labor camps, called the GULAG (the Russian term Glavnoye Upravleniye ispravitelno-trudovyh Lagerey, or "Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps") where The Gulag Archipelago (three volumes) and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.
dissidents went who criticized the system. Solzhenitsyn spent 11 years in the GULAG, documented in his books

(Go here for a list of all his books.)

He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1970, "for the ethical force with which he has pursued the indispensable traditions of Russian literature." He was expelled from the Soviet Union in 1974 and took up residency in rural Vermont, but returned to Russia in 1994 after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He died  in August, 2008.

June 8, 1978, Solzhenitsyn gave the commencement address at Harvard University, called "A World Split Apart" in which he warned that Western nations are as vulnerable to totalitarian rule has the East has been and are in fact becoming inclined to it:

"A decline in courage may be the most striking feature which an outside observer notices in the West in our days. The Western world has lost its civil courage, both as a whole and separately, in each country, each government, each political party, and, of course, in the United Nations. Such a decline in courage is particularly noticeable among the ruling groups and the intellectual elite, causing an impression of loss of courage by the entire society. Of course, there are many courageous individuals, but they have no determining influence on public life."

The video of his address is below: He speaks in Russian with simultaneous translation. The first 2 minutes alone are worth watching as he is introduced and his work put into its historical context. At the time the address was received with mix sentiment, as Solzhenitsyn leveled harsh criticism of Western self-interest and materialism: "The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. . . . It is time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.”

Monday, January 19, 2015

Happy Birthday, MLK, Jr. ~ An Interview with Ed Gilbreath

Martin Luther King Day marks the one-year anniversary of release of the book  Birmingham Revolution (IVP) by Edward Gilbreath.  offers an intimate exploration of King and his legacy that lends light to the modern church's role in challenging issues of our time. What would Dr. King say about healthcare? Immigration? Gay rights?

I worked with Ed for several years where we both served as editors at Christianity Today magazine. We shared many laughs and cut our teeth together the important role of religious reporting and writing.

Ed recently took time to answer a few questions regarding his new book:

Do we need another biography about MLK, Jr? How does your book stand out?

That’s the big question I had to ask myself before daring to add my contribution to the massive catalog of books on King and the civil rights movement. Obviously, I arrived at the conclusion that there was room for my book, but every moment of writing it was fraught with trepidation. I knew early on that I wouldn’t write a strict biography of King—it needed to be something a little different. I decided to use Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a way of looking at his whole life and ministry. I wanted to plainly connect King’s life and work to the church, since I believe it was the church and King’s Christian convictions that inspired and empowered the movement he would lead. And I contend that the events of Birmingham in the spring of 1963 represent the defining moment of King’s ministry, where he fully embraced his prophetic call.

What has been your personal “journey” with this figure, given that you are too young to have remembered his impact firsthand when he was still alive?
I was born in 1969, a year after Dr. King’s death. Many people from my generation and younger don’t always have a clear picture of who King was—his faith, his radicalism, his humanity. “I Have a Dream” is often the extent of our knowledge of him.

As I write in the book, I grew up hearing stories about Martin Luther King Jr. and reading about the mythologized version of the man. I went from viewing King as a sort of folk hero like John Henry or Santa Claus to seeing him as a flesh-and-blood man whose words and actions were prophetic. I think young people are understandably introduced to a gentle MLK who gave great speeches and wanted to bring people of all races and colors together. That’s a good King to know, but it cannot stop there. As an African American who spent a lot of time in predominantly white schools, churches and workplaces and witnessed the complications of race in our lives, over time I came to recognize just how radical King’s vision of a “beloved community” was. He was calling the nation to live up to its ideals of freedom and equality; he was calling the church to live up to the prophetic mission of the gospel; and he was calling all of humanity to recognize the image of God in one another. That’s a lot more radical than John Henry wielding a hammer or Santa jumping down a chimney.

The evangelical community—especially the white evangelical community—has had an uneasy relationship with Dr. King over the years. They’ve wrestled with embracing his vision of racial and social justice, and at times they’ve used questions about his more liberal theology as an excuse for dismissing him altogether. I wanted to show that King’s vision was actually more in tune with a complete understanding of the Christian gospel. That despite his failings as a human being, he was operating out of a God-inspired, Christian ethic of justice and reconciliation. Many evangelicals are just now catching up to what King was articulating 50 years ago in “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” I’m hoping Birmingham Revolution can help folks see King in a new light. I wanted to shed light on other aspects of King and, above all, show today’s church that everything he did was driven by his Christian faith and values.

What has the process of the writing this book taught you that you did not already know, both generally and specifically? 
One of the most surprising things for me was the realization that Martin Luther King was both a man and an event. Civil rights pioneer and King contemporary Ella Baker famously observed that “it wasn’t Martin who made the movement; it was the movement that made Martin.” But based on my study of the history—and especially the events of Birmingham 1963—one could argue that during some of the civil rights movement’s most pivotal years, the movement became Martin Luther King. I’m not saying King was the primary person driving the movement but that the countless men, women and youth who comprised the movement were empowered by the public performance of MLK. And, at the same time, King’s message and work were enabled by those same men, women, and youth.

I’m a big superhero fan, so at times I was tempted to look at King’s work through that narrative lens. Take the Dark Knight movies, for instance. Bruce Wayne required the aid of Alfred, Lucius Fox, and Commissioner Gordon to pull off the “performance” of Batman. It took a village for Bruce Wayne to become the Caped Crusader. Similarly, to become a civil rights crusader, Martin Luther King needed the help of his Southern Christian Leadership Conference associates, generous benefactors from around the country, and numerous grassroots foot soldiers from churches and NAACP chapters across the South. I was especially taken by the influence and contribution of the Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the courageous Birmingham preacher who was the one to originally invite King and his team to the city to confront its pervasive segregation. He told them, “If you come to Birmingham, we will shake the country.” Rev. Shuttlesworth endured beatings, bombings, and unjust arrests long before King finally came to Birmingham, and it was his tireless work that paved the way for the ultimate success of King’s Birmingham campaign.

What message would Dr. King render us today in the current fractured and highly-charge cultural, political and religious climate? 
In Birmingham, Dr. King went to jail to help make the point that the pursuit of racial unity and justice is an essential part of the Christian mission. Today, in many ways, we’ve allowed our politics to divide us and define who we are as people of faith. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a call to grace, justice, empathy, and reconciliation. Today issues like immigration reform, healthcare, and gay rights are forcing us to figure out what it means to live out the call of Micah 6:8, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” We can't presume to know what Dr. King would believe on this or that issue. What we do know about him is that he was a believer in the dignity and humanity of all men, women, and children. In “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he wrote,
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality... Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” 
So whatever political opinions he might have held, at the root of his beliefs was this idea that all people are created in the image of God, and that to abuse, oppress, or mistreat some people ultimately affects all of us, and that we should take it personally.

In King’s day, even the people on his side were telling him to slow down and wait. He knew that was another way of denying true justice. Today, in regards to many issues, we may face the same dilemma as the American church of 1963: Do we wait or courageously seek to live out the truth of our faith today?

What would he say about Twitter?
As a man who loved the power of language and wordplay, King likely would enjoy the challenge of using 140 characters to share bursts of truth and hope. I've got to believe the man who wrote “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and “The time is always right to do the right thing” was a guy who would get a thrill out of the immediacy and wide reach of today’s social media.

How do you yourself respond to this reactionary and incendiary climate related to various media frenzies and accusations? Are they legitimate?
I’ve grown increasingly disillusioned with the current media environment and the expectation placed upon all of us to constantly have something profound, witty, or inflammatory to say. So much of our public discourse today is driven by the need to counteract, discredit, or one-up our ideological opponents. Our words are too often reactionary and uncivil and I’m convinced that very little good can come of it. At the same time, I’m reminded that Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” perhaps his greatest written work, grew out of one of his most angry and agitated moments as he responded to the criticism of white clergymen who believed his presence in Birmingham would be counterproductive. King responded that there comes a time when the church has to “disturb the peace” and demand justice. Even then, in the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and in all of his communication, King always sought to treat his detractors with respect and dignity. He never tried to dehumanize them. We’ve lost that sense of honor and empathy in our communication today.

 ~    ~    ~

Ed currently serves as executive director of communications for the Evangelical Covenant Church denomination in Chicago. He was formerly the editor of Today’s Christian and New Man magazines, and was the founding editor of Urban Ministries Inc.’s online magazine, He is the coauthor of the book Gospel Trailblazer: An African-American Preacher’s Historic Journey Across Racial Lines (Moody, 2003)—the autobiography of the late evangelist Howard Jones, the first black associate on Billy Graham’s crusade team.  Ed’s 2006 book, Reconciliation Blues: A Black Evangelical’s Inside View of White Christianity (IVP), was a 2007 Merit Award winner in Christianity Today’s annual Book Awards.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

A Good Day for Children ~ Happy Birthday, Anno, Mister Rogers & Big Bird! (Plus, it's Spring!)

By Wendy Murray

Where's Anno?

March 20 heralds the coming of great things. The earth finally tilts toward Spring! It also altogether appropriate that this day heralds the births of three champions of hopefulness and imagination.

Awarding-winning children's book illustrator Mitsumasa Anno was born on this day in 1926; the beloved Fred 'Mister' Rogers was born on this day in 1928; and it is the birthday of Big Bird (according to some sites)!

Mitsumasa Anno is the awarding-winner illustrator whose wordless books have captured the imaginations of children (and adults) since he began publishing. The precursor to the "Where's Waldo" phenomenon, Anno's adventure books unfold page-by-page unfold in a magical progression toward a single goal. In Anno's Italy, the book I have owned since my youth, the solitary figure Anno mounts a horse in the Italian countryside and threads his way through the unfolding pictorial narrative, often lost in the ever-swelling crowd, for the sole purpose of reaching the coast. Page by page he makes his way through the beautiful and complex landscape of Italy amid a sometimes festive, other times bucolic world of color and magic. On any given page in the book, you might find in one corner, obscured by forest, such Jesus' turning the water into wine, while across the fence and over a step bridge the Billygoats Gruff will be poised, horn-to-horn, for battle. The challenge is to find them all, especially Anno on his horse, who may be turning a corner amid a parade in Florence, or rounding a bend near a farmhouse in Umbria.

I read the book with children, ages 1, 5, 8 and each is equally transported in his own way by the magic of Anno's wordless world.

A few of Mitsumasa's wordless adventures:
Anno's Flea Market

Anno's Animals

My favorite, Anno's Italy

It is also the birthday of the de fact Patron Saint of Children and Lost Adults, Fred "Mister" Rogers, How appropriate that your life began in this world on the day of the year that heralds spring!
1928. I have written much about him already (here and here), since I visited him and interviewed him for a cover story I wrote years ago. We remember you, dear Mister Rogers!

And who wouldn't cherish the company of an 8-foot loping happy bird who wishes you only good will,  Big Bird! Thanks to Big-Bird puppeteer, Caroll Spinney and creator Jim Henson who introduced this enduring friend in 1969. (In 2000, the Library of Congress declared Spinney, as Big Bird, a "Living Legend.")

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

John Updike's Curiosity About Faith & Resonance with J.D. Salinger

Copyright © 2014 Wendy Murray.

By Wendy Murray

John Updike was born on this day, March 18, in 1932 (d. Jan 27, 2009). He is best known for his "Rabbit" series in fiction, two of which won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, Rabbit is Rich (1982) and Rabbit at Rest (1991).

Updike's Rabbit novels:
(1960) Rabbit, Run 
(1971) Rabbit Redux 
(1981) Rabbit Is Rich  
(1990) Rabbit At Rest 
(1995) Rabbit Angstrom: The Four Novels  
(2001) Rabbit Remembered (a novella in the collection Licks of Love)

I did not take to Updike's novels -- they seemed more a man's game. But I devoured his essays that New Yorker and elsewhere, particularly those he wrote late in his life when he explored spiritual themes.

In 1961 he wrote a review in the New York Times of his contemporary J.D. Salinger's, book Franny and Zooey. (Prior to its publication as a novel it had appeared as two short stories in the New Yorker.) Even at this ascending phase of Updike's career, he resonated with Salinger's religious exploration in the book embodied in the character of Franny. The story centers around her near- despair: “All I know is I’m losing my mind. I’m just sick of ego, ego, ego. My own and everybody else’s. I’m sick of everybody that wants to get somewhere, do something distinguished and all, be somebody interesting. It’s disgusting--it is, it is.” Her disenchantment incited her to want to pray, but she did not know how to pray. Then she latched onto a little book called the Philokalia, which emphasized the transformative value of repeating the “Jesus Prayer”: Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me, which Franny began to recite compulsively. The novel explores the shock this induced for those around her, as well as the change it affected in her own soul.

In his review of Salinger's book, Updike wrote:  "Let me say, I am glad he is hopeful. I am one of those -- to do some confessing of my own -- for whom Salinger's work dawned as something of a revelation. I expect that further revelations are to come."

(Salinger died the year to the day following Updike's death, January 27, 2010).

Monday, March 17, 2014

It is the day of Patricius Qatrikias Pádraig Padrig

Irish Kings and Archers, 13th Century

Patricius;  Qatrikias;  Pádraig;  Padrig, -- also known as Saint Patrick -- was born on March 17 in A.D. 385  (d.461). A Romano-British Christian missionary and the bishop in Ireland -- of equal importance, he was also a poet.

Patrick composed a poem call "The Lorica," the first hymn written in Gaelic. ('Lorica' is a type of poem that invokes God's protection.) In Patrick's poem he asks for God's protection from druids, whom he believes are planning an ambush as he and his friar traveled to the King's court in A.D. 433.

(The portion below, called Faed Fiada, is translated by Seumas MacManus in The Story of the Irish Race.)

"Deer's Cry" (Faed Fiada)  ~ For protection from an ambush of the Druids"

I bind me today, God's might to direct me,
God's wisdom for learning,
God's eye for discerning,
God's ear for my hearing,
God's word for my clearing.

God's hand for my cover,
God's path to pass over,
God's buckler to guard me,
God's army to ward me
against snares of the devil,
against vices, temptation, against wrong inclination,
against men who plot evil, anear or afar, with many or few.

Christ near, Christ here, Christ be with me, Christ beneath me,
Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ be o'er me, Christ before me.
Christ in the left and the right, Christ hither and thither,
Christ in the sight, of each eye that shall seek me, in each ear that shall hear, in each mouth that shall speak me --
Christ not the less in each heart I address.

(Go here to read a Celtic prayer for endangered travelers.)

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Logic of Pi Day

By Wendy Murray

Today is Pi Day. Why? -- "3", "1", and "4":  the first three digits of  Pi, or "π," in the decimal form, which technically continues infinitely without repetition or pattern. Pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, which means it is an irrational number. An irrational number is a real number that cannot be expressed as a ratio "a/b," where "a" and "b" are integers and "b" is non-zero. (Other irrational numbers include Euler's number e, the golden ratio φ, and the square root of two √2.)

A real number is a value that represents a quantity along a continuous line.

An integer is a number that is written without a fractional component.

The Greek letter “π”  is the symbol used in mathematics to represent the constant which is approximately 3.14159. (A constant is is a "special number, usually a real number, that is 'significantly interesting in some way.'") It is possible to view Pi to the 10,000th digit and also to the 1,000,000th digit and to calculate it to the 2 billionth digit here. Good luck with that.

According to Pi Day. org, Pi’s infinite nature makes it a "fun challenge to memorize and to computationally calculate more and more digits," which is why some of us chose to major in English.

Coincidentally it is also Albert Einstein's birthday. He said, "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough."

(Below is a screen shot of a portion of “π” to the 10,000th digit. Any mathematician who tries to make sense of it is doomed to frustration.)

Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Year of Pope Francis in Pictures

One year later . . .

Driving Pope

Chocolate Pope

Harley Pope

Human Pope

Happy Pope

Seriously? Pope

Selfie Pope

Peace Pope
Haters-gonna-hate / Pope-loves-them-anyway Pope

See how the Pope explains how he chose his name.

~  ~  ~

Buy Wendy Murray's book on Francis of Assisi.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Remembering Mister Rogers

"All that kind of superficial complicated stuff does is to make people feel worse about themselves." 

By Wendy Murray

Mister (Fred) Rogers died on this day 11 years ago. The more time that passes since he left this world the more I wish he was still here, still inviting us to the Neighborhood. The cover story I wrote for Christianity Today was the last major article written about him when he was still alive. I know it was the only major piece that highlighted his "theology of the Neighborhood." He was thrilled to see it. He repeatedly contacted me requesting more copies.

Fred was known to become close to those journalists who interviewed him. How could he not? When you were with him he gently hijacked the interview and asked you the questions. He loved us "just the way we are," even as journalists. He changed our lives.

Upon this anniversary I  include highlights from my time with him in which he discusses the power of the media. He was ordained in the Presbyterian church to minister to children and families through television so he was vested in the proper appropriation:

The space between that television screen and the person who is watching and listening, that space is holy ground. What you present can be translated through that space to meet the need if the person who is listening and watching. The Holy Spirit translates our best efforts into what needs to be communicated to that person. The longer I live the more I know that that's true.

Television is a fabulous media. I would not have devoted all of my professional life to it if I hadn't believed that. 
I wish I knew how every media outlet could take an assignment--and I'm talking about television and radio and computers and magazines -- to do our best to make goodness attractive. We're so caught up in glorifying the opposite, giving it space. I think the Accuser [Satan] would have us be so despairing that we wouldn't do anything. But you know the effect in great darkness of one little candlelight. That sounds very simplistic, but it is true.
What is deep and simple is what is eternal, not what is shallow and complicated. Sometimes evil is almost palpable and we see it trying to make people sad and mad and distrustful.
But I refuse to give up hope because I have seen in my life too many indications of what is wonderful about human beings. 

(Wendy Murray's upcoming book on Fred Rogers will be out next year.)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Brilliant Mind, Troubled Soul: Remembering Nobel-prize winning Writer, Knut Hamsun

Nobel Prize-winning Norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun, died 62 years ago today on February 19, 1952.

From Nobel Prize website:
Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) was born in Gudbrandsdalen, Norway, and grew up in poverty in Hamarøy in Nordland. From early childhood he was a shoemaker's apprentice, but was also a road worker, stonemason, junior-level teacher. He spent some years in America, traveling and working as a tram driver, and published his impressions, chiefly satirical, under the title Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv (1889) [The Intellectual Life of Modern America]. The novel Sult (1890) [Hunger] and even more so Pan (1894) led to Hamsun's literary breakthrough and Sult is regarded as the first genuinely modern novel in Norwegian literature."

Hamsun's work reflected his the belief that humanity's only true fulfillment lies with the soil, finding its expression in his epic Growth of the Soil (Markens Grøde) (1917), the seminal work that positioned him to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1920.

Of the homestead the protagonist built in the far north out of the Norwegian forest, called Sellanra, Hamsun writes:

"Let's take you people at Sellanra: you look every day at the blue mountains, they're not invented things, they're old mountains, rooted deep in the past; but they are your companions. There you are, living together with heaven and earth, at one with them, at one with the wide horizon and the rootedness. You have no need of a sword in your hand, you walk through life barehanded and bareheaded in the midst of a great kindliness. Look, there is nature, it belongs to you and yours! Man and nature do not bombard each other, they are agreed; they do not compete or run a race for something, they go together. 
You Sellanra folks live and have your being in the midst of all this. The mountains, the forest, the moors, the meadows, the sky and the stars--there is nothing paltry or apportioned about all this, it is without measure. Listen to me Sivert: Be contented! You have everything to live on, everything to live for, everything to believe in; you're born and you bring forth, you are vital to the earth. You sustain life. You go on from generation to generation, fulfilling yourselves through sheer breeding; when you die, the new brood takes over. What do you get in return? An existence that's just and strong, an existence based on a true and trusting relationship to everything. What do you get in return? You Sellanra folks can't be pushed around or bullied, you enjoy calm of mind and authority, and this great kindliness all around."
Buy Growth of the Soil.

His mental faculties deteriorated with age. His widely publicized admiration for the German culture and the Nazi movement left him after the war impoverished and temporarily under psychiatric observation.

With the passage time, his native and beloved Norway, forgave him this betrayal -- at least some did. Because his sensibilities never came across in any of his literary works his publisher celebrated his literary legacy with a 27-volume of "Collected Works."