My TEDx Talk

“God in the Public Square” has been posted here. This seventeen minute talk examines non-theist God beliefs, a huge part of our culture today that few even acknowledge exists. For non-theists, God is a “What” rather than a “Who”. Non-theists have been central to the conversation in the Public Square since the founding of the United States and are still in the middle of the great debate.

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TEDx Adelphi University | AU PAC | April 5th 2016. Copyright Chris Bergmann Photography

12 Books About Spiritual Sustenance

Many webzines put out lists of must-read or you-should-have-read books that will enlighten you, expand you, or help you attain spiritual greatness. These sorts of throwaway articles, which editors often toss off to freelancers, read as if written by excellent MFA graduates who have learned an appreciation for good literature. Good literature is a wonderful, continuing wellspring that illumines our culture except that a good many readers stop tackling the more difficult reads after they leave school. In general we are not reading them.

Moreover, there are excellent books of spiritual sustenance that are non-fiction, even hard science. These texts are not on MFA syllabi because there is only so much one can cover in fifteen weeks a semester for tens of thousands of dollars plus the cost of books. Other voices have added their lists to the conversation as well to fill the gaps. While each discipline offers unique books, the lists are typically skewed to the boundaries of their studies. An enervating list of books that provides spiritual sustenance requires more than a lit. major or a spiritual leader or a doctor of psychology.

What follows is a different sort of list of books. Spiritual sustenance can take all sorts of forms depending on age, education, career, gender, and family life. Beware, lists engender an authoritarian urge to give the reader “the truth” of the matter – these are the ones that matter. Hopefully this collected list does not fall into the trap of giving answers when there are only directions to suggest.

Siddhartha by Herman Hesse. One of the rules for writing fiction is “don’t tell me, show me.” Hesse’s novel is an excellent example that walks a reader through the search for a life of the spirit. You do not need to be a Buddhist to appreciate the novel.
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne. Disney productions of the book need to be dismissed although the great blooper classic title from Disney press, Cooking with Pooh, is worth a mention. Milne’s classic of the imagination of a young boy and his stuffed animals is sublime. There is a reason why parents continue to read the stories to their children over and over.
Ecclesiastes by Kohelet. Yes, a book of the Bible (Old Testament), actually from the back of the Bible. The Bible is three libraries of books and all of the texts are over 2000 years old. Kohelet was included in the canon but a pious editor was so disturbed by the doubt and skepticism woven into the text that he wrote an additional chapter, Chapter 12, to mitigate the potential impiety of the first eleven chapters. Kohelet identifies the absurdities between belief in God and reality as we experience it. Nonetheless, he believes and that is the challenge of the book. Use the JPS or NRSV translations.
How We Die by Sherwin Nuland, a National Book Award winner. The last chapter is worth the cost of the entire book. The surgeon examines the science of how the human body expires with appreciation and fascination for the complexity of the process. The last chapter though. . .
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He is a survivor of the Holocaust but refuses to be a victim. He dedicated his academic life to teaching students how he reclaimed his sanity and his sanctity for life after he emerged from the death camps.
The Blessing of the Skinned Knee by Wendy Mogel. How did we stray from the elements of common sense when it comes to raising children? This book is as much about the art of life as its application with parenting.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Cursed be those philosophy majors who have to think everything through. The novel is a journey that forces the protagonist to even question what questions he should be answering. The enduring strength of the text is that it teaches how to think about the vexing problems that confound us.
The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein. The children’s book that really is not a children’s book. What is selflessness and selfishness? Is there ever such a thing as giving too much?
Soul Mountain by Gao Xinjian, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. This book is meant to be read slowly as the landscapes are painted in lush, exacting detail. If you find yourself wanting to rush through the text, put it down and come back when the urge has passed.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret by Judy Blume. Margaret learns the lessons and humanity of growing up. The text addresses coming to terms with our bodies and our fears.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint Exupery. What is truly important in life and why do the answers often bring as much pain as pleasure? Another beautiful novel that shows rather than tells us the insights and lessons.
Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges. A collection of short stories from the one-time librarian of the Argentinian National Library. This is a book for readers by a reader. Boundaries disappear, profundities multiply and slip away. When you look up from the text, you will never look at the world the same way again. The imagery is overwhelming.

Skepticism or Ignorance

On one of the more academic message boards I follow, someone asked, “How do we know the First Temple (Solomon’s Temple) actually existed? Those who took the man’s question at face value gave proof texts from many different books in the Bible while admitting that there is no archeological evidence. There is no archeological evidence because one cannot/should not excavate under the Dome of the Rock. No matter, the skeptic was not convinced; he became belligerent.

His belligerence only confirms the status of this person – the man is ignorant. The stupidity of the question is easily explained by the course of Israelite history. Solomon’s Temple and his palace was a turning point in Israelite history but not because of a standing House of Worship dedicated to the One God. The excesses of slave labor and the territorial ceding of twenty-three towns and villages in the northwest corner of the country to the Kingdom of Tyre to pay for these buildings led to civil war and a split of United Kingdom into the minor kingdoms of Judah and Israel, kingdoms that never reunited. If the skeptic had studied the Biblical history of the First Temple just a little bit, then the question never would have been asked.

A cliché that has been tossed about for years, usually to encourage shy students, is “there is no such thing as a stupid question.” For a shy student who is afraid to ask, asking any question is a pedagogical success because the content of the question does not matter as much as the new interaction with the teacher. A first question becomes a starting point for teaching a student how to engage the material. However, the cliché is not always understood from a teacher’s point of view but is assumed as a broad statement of academic integrity, that is to say, any question is legitimate. Perhaps in perfect world but in our day the cliché is just a “feel good” sentiment that permits ignorant questions that suck time, effort and life out of a lesson or conversation. When questions and challenges stop the learning process, they are stupid questions. Belligerence on the part of questioner is one of the symptoms of destructive pedagogic behavior.

Skepticism, a philosophical tool of the Greeks, was developed to test the soundness of an argument and its assumptions. Skepticism uses questions as tool to test the soundness of an idea, like using your finger to thump a watermelon to test its ripeness. Like the cliché above, skepticism is great when used in this limited sense but as a broad tool used to challenge everything, skepticism is destructive and debilitating to the process of learning or decision making. Using skepticism as a broadside is meant to attack rather than create.

For anyone who has come prepared to a class and listened to another student who has not prepped ask an ignorant question that the first sentences of the assignment answered, the sense of dismay is powerful. Yet this is not the destructive skepticism that destroys a lesson but statement of pervasive ignorance. Correcting ignorance, no matter its source, can be used as a part of teaching. Pervasive skepticism is not redeemable.

How many times have teenagers exclaimed, “Why do we have to study this? I’m never going to use it.” This is not a teachable moment. If the student has exclaimed, “When am I ever going to use this?”, only then is the opening to teach available. Overindulgent Skepticism kills learning.

Then again, there are some people whose agenda is to do just that.

The Book Stolen Most Often in U.S.A

The most stolen books according to Publisher’s Weekly is by author rather than by title. Literate thieves love everything Charles Burkowski wrote. The most stolen text, amassed by comparing a number of lists is the Bible.

The book that states twice, first in Exodus 20 and again in Deuteronomy 5, “You shall not steal” is shoplifted more than most other choices in the bookstore. The irony is not that any person in America can get a Bible for free, a tradition most widespread by the Gideon Society but probably accommodated graciously by any church with a front door. Even the prison will give an inmate a copy of the Bible in Solitary Confinement.

The irony is The Bible does not contain the answers these thieves are seeking. Excuse me, the Bible does not contain “The Answers” that the desperate are seeking. People who believe and people who do not believe read the Bible and find all sorts of knowledge: folk beliefs, anthropology, philosophy, theology, history, songs, poems, wisdom sayings and ancient oracles. There may be only one God but the Bible gives us an array of ideas of how one might perceive God, from the All-knowing God of Genesis 1 to the God who exists but the human cannot fathom in Job 38.

The most depressing point of a stolen Bible is that the text is incomprehensible without a teacher. A theologian is going to read the text with a certain bias while a biblical scholar is going to teach the text using the tools of Literary Criticism. Answers: the Bible is best understood as generating questions, big ones about life and it meaning to small ones about the definition of word. The Bible is the product of a process and the study of the Bible is a process as well. One should seek out the text to find the questions; to find the answers, find a teacher.