Now that's a tough Lent

It was a decade ago during Lent that author Lauren Winner was visited by an angel, unawares. "Actually, it was my priest," said Winner, who teaches Christian spirituality at Duke Divinity School. "I have learned that people in my life often tell me what I need to do during Lent. ... It's kind of like hearing from angels."

Although the voice wasn't miraculous, Winner thought it would take a miracle to follow her spiritual guide's advice. The challenge was deceptively simple: Could she give up reading during Lent?

At the time, Winner was working as book review editor for Beliefnet.com and studying for her doctorate at Columbia University. She was a writer, editor and student and, naturally, was surrounded by books day after day.

How in the name of God was she supposed to stop reading?

Nevertheless, she decided to try.

"This was not your normal 40 days of work," said Winner, author of "Girl Meets God: A Memoir" and other works of contemporary spirituality. "What I was doing was attacking my own work obsessions. This forced me to examine the place of work in my life. It made me examine other parts of my life, as well."

Fasting traditions during Lent -- the 40-day penitential season before Easter -- have evolved through the ages, especially in Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and liturgical Protestant churches that emphasize the church calendar. Winner is active in the Episcopal Church.

For centuries, Catholics ate only one real meal a day, with no meat or fish. Today, Catholics are supposed to observe a strict fast and abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday at the start of Lent and Good Friday at the end. In many parishes, the faithful are still urged to avoid meat on Fridays during Lent. Orthodox Christians strive to fast from meat and dairy products during all of Lent and Holy Week.

Meanwhile, millions of Americans in a variety of churches follow an informal tradition in which they choose to fast from "one thing" -- such as chocolate or soft drinks -- during Lent. This practice may be linked to a passage in the sixth century monastic Rule of St. Benedict, which states:

"During these days, therefore, let us add something to the usual amount of our service, special prayers, abstinence from food and drink, that each one offer to God … something above his prescribed measure. Namely, let him withdraw from his body somewhat of food, drink, sleep, speech, merriment, and with the gladness of spiritual desire await holy Easter."

Winner noted that this practice of "giving up one thing" was supposed to build on the traditional Lenten disciplines linked to food, prayer and almsgiving -- not replace them. The goal was to shine a spotlight into some unexamined corner of one's life.

It didn't take her long, for example, for Winner to realize that she couldn't stop reading -- period. She needed, for example, to reread one book to prepare for an exam. She had to do some reading in order to do her day job, but she asked if she could be relieved from some assignments that she would have accepted, if not for this unique Lenten discipline.

The surprise, said Winner, was how this fast touched her life after the working day. That's when she could almost hear her favorite volumes of history and fiction calling her name (especially the detective novels).

"What this showed me was that I was using reading as an escape. I was reading books as a way to get away from some things," she said, and then laughed. "Fiction is probably a better way to cope with some issues in your life than heroin. But if books are what you're using, then you need to find that out."

In the years since, Winner has repeated this bookish fast several times, while searching for other disciplines that would have a similar impact. This year she is trying to fast from "saying 'yes' all the time," which is harder than it sounds.

"The thing is, Lent isn't a therapeutic self-improvement project," she said. "We're supposed to take a hard look at our sins and then repent. But how do we get to repentance if we have never truly paused to examine our lives? ...

"Most of us are morally and spiritually sleepwalking. We need to wake up and see where we are and what we're doing."

Rushdie says, 'Get religion'

It remains Salman Rushdie's fervent conviction that it's wrong for clergy, jurists or politicos to threaten writers' lives simply because they think their books are terrible.

Not even the shocking success of "The Da Vinci Code" has weakened his pro-novelist stance, he said, drawing laughter at Calvin College's recent Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Mich.

This faith in free speech isn't surprising since the apostate Muslim has lived in hiding ever since his 1988 novel "The Satanic Verses" inspired Iran's top ayatollah to issue a fatwa calling for his death. No one knows better than Rushdie -- who calls himself a "dreadful old atheist" -- that faith, ink and blood can be stirred into a deadly brew.

Nevertheless, he also believes that writers who refuse to wrestle with the power of faith and the supernatural are refusing to deal with real people in the real world. Consider, he said, the daily lives of the gods and believers in his homeland -- India.

"The people in India do not think of the gods as abstractions," said Rushdie. "They think of them as real beings who move amongst them and work upon their lives every day. If you have something that you need, if somebody is sick, if a child needs to get into college or whatever it may be, you would go and find the relevant deity to make the offering to and you would believe that that would increase your chances of getting what you needed in life."

Rushdie, 58, understands India -- with its tense mix of Hinduism, Islam and Christianity -- from the inside out. As a child, he enjoyed asking his Muslim grandfather why he practiced a faith in which the prayer regime required him to spend so much time with his rear end higher than his head. Meanwhile, Rushdie's father was both an unbeliever and a Muslim historian.

After years of airing his doubts, the pre-teen iconoclast celebrated his own loss of faith with a symbolic culinary sin -- a ham sandwich. The fact that God did not strike him dead with a thunderbolt confirmed his newborn atheism.

As a writer, Rushdie said that he has always insisted on treating religion as a "normal part of life." Thus, his goal was "not to give it special treatment, not to hedge it around with the language of taboo and respect because that has always seemed, to me, to be anti-intellectual."

However, skeptics have their own way of avoiding the truth when dealing with intensely religious cultures, he said. Even writers who are unbelievers must realize that almost everyone in a land like India believes in one god or another and views life through the lens of that faith. Skeptical writers who refuse to accept this reality are practicing another form of intellectually dishonesty.

Rushdie does not, of course, believe writers should surrender their right to deal with religion in an irreverent or critical manner. However, he stressed that skeptics must be willing to doubt their own doubts and remain open to the possibility that the believers may, in some mysterious way, be right.

After all, he said, the real world is not completely realistic. Ordinary people believe in miracles and their beliefs are considered normal. Even in modern America, real life contains moments that are utterly surreal.

"So the sense that the miraculous and the mundane, that the supernatural and the everyday, coexist in a completely natural way, is everywhere," he said. "The idea that, somehow, these are separate categories of thing is quite alien. So if you are going to write about that world, you have to take cognizance of that fact. You have to recognize that this is how people think."

Ultimately, religious faith is one of the most powerful forces shaping the myths and stories that bind together families, nations and cultures, said Rushdie. In a free society, people are free to tell and interpret their own stories. Tyranny is when other people have the right to censure or kill the storytellers who get out of line.

"We are, as human beings, storytelling animals," he insisted. "We are the only creature on the earth that tells itself stories in order to understand what it is and what its life means. Therefore the story is of unusual importance to us, whether we are writers or not. It is something unusually important to human nature."

Calling more Christian writers

It was hard for businessman Jim Russell to pick up his local newspaper without thinking about one simple church statistic.

According to the Yellow Pages, there were 400 churches in and around Lansing, Mich. That meant there were 400-plus ministers and many thousands of lay people who either read the newspaper or decided not to. Surely, he thought, these readers must have some kind of reaction to what they saw in the news.

Yet Russell kept looking -- usually without success -- for letters to the editor offering sharp, winsome Christian commentary on news events. Sometimes weeks would pass without the appearance of such a letter, or a similar point of view in the guest editorial columns.

After a few years of this ritual, Russell decided that enough was enough.

"The problem does not exist in the editorial policies of the newspaper, which has a fair, open and reasonable position toward local participation in all of its departments," wrote Russell, in one 1995 essay. "No, the problem exists in the lack of Christian understanding of biblical vision, mission and strategy required to disciple our nation."

Thinking like an entrepreneur, Russell projected his local analysis out to the national level and reached a logical conclusion. He decided that it would be good if more Christians learned how to write, rather than spending so much of their time complaining about the news media.

So Russell opened his checkbook and, in his own quiet way, tried to do something positive. Starting in the early 1990s, he began looking for writers with a knack for expressing their faith in mainstream publications and he kept at it until his death on Aug. 31 at the age of 80.

Russell started the annual Amy Awards -- with a top prize of $10,000 -- to honor writers who published newspaper commentaries that quoted scripture while wrestling with issues in public life. He started a national "Church Writing Group" network to encourage writers to learn from each other's successes and failures. I met him because of his dedication to helping college students explore their talents, through scholarships and donations to Christian campuses that emphasized mainstream media writing.

As a businessman, Russell was known as the founder of Russell Business Forms, which grew into the Lansing-based RBF Inc. In 1976, Jim and Phyllis Russell started the Amy Foundation to support efforts to spread the Christian faith and help the poor. They named it after their fifth and youngest child, who was born with Down syndrome. A spokesperson for the foundation (amyfound.org) said the family would take some time before making decisions about the future of the Amy Awards and the writing projects.

"When you stop and think about it, he had no credentials of any kind when it came to working with the mainstream media," said William R. Mattox, Jr., an Amy Award winner who is a member of USA Today's op-ed page board of contributors. "He just came up with this idea and, when it seemed like it was doing some good, he stuck with it. He never quit."

Russell knew what he was after. An early set of guidelines sent to the church-based writing circles stressed that their writers should strive to reach people who retained some interest in religious faith, but were rarely seen in pews. It wasn't enough to preach to the choir, because 60 to 80 percent of all newspaper subscribers say they read letters to the editor.

"The writing language should be contemporary secular English, not fluent evangelical or fellowship Christianese," said the brochure. A few lines later, Russell advised, "The writing will never be strident of harsh, making simple points with sledge hammers, embarrassing the body of Christ."

Russell sincerely believed that most newspaper editors are interested in reaching as wide an audience as possible. Thus, editors have a powerful incentive to allow fair, constructive debates in their editorial pages about moral issues. The question was whether religious believers had the skills to compete in the marketplace.

"Jim Russell was not the kind of man who played the heavy and came on strong," said Mattox. "He really believed that it made more sense to take a gentle approach and then stick to it. That's what he was all about, as a businessman and as a believer."

Yes, there is a Mitford

Just north of Columbia, S.C., there is an unincorporated community called Mitford.

As far as author Jan Karon knows, this is the only place in North America that bears the name of the mythical North Carolina mountain town she has made so famous with her novels.

The real Mitford has a Baptist church and a barbecue joint and that's about it.

"Now what more do you need, I mean, if you really stop and think about it?", asked Karon, before letting loose with a Southern hoot and a cackle.

Yes indeed, all that the Mitford lady needs to tell most of her tales is a busy church, a gossipy diner and the people who frequent one or the other or both. She has taken these humble ingredients, slipped them into the structures of the British "village novel" and created a franchise that keeps taking small-town virtues into the uppity territory of the New York Times bestseller lists.

"Who would want to read books with no cussing', no murder, no mayhem and no sex? ... How can something so innocuous as these Mitford books sell 10 million copies?", asked Karon, speaking at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., just before the release of "In This Mountain," the seventh Mitford novel.

"This is what I think. I think there was a wide vein of readers out there who were just waiting for someone to write a book about them, about their dreams and their lives and their values. ... With Mitford, we look at the ordinary lives and see something extraordinary and dramatic and full of feeling and worthy to be observed."

The books revolve around Father Timothy Kavanagh, a shockingly orthodox Episcopal priest who is so behind the times that he even converts people to Christianity. Late in life, the shy bachelor marries Cynthia Coppersmith, a witty blond divorcee who moves to Mitford to create her award-winning books for children. The surroundings yield legions of colorful characters.

Karon began writing books in the early 1990s in the picturesque town of Blowing Rock, N.C., and other pieces of Mitford can be found in her life. When she was six she wanted to be a preacher. When she was 10 she wanted to be an author. Today she is an author who crafts the words spoken by one of America's most beloved preachers.

But the witty blond didn't start writing until mid-life, when she abandoned her career as an advertising executive and escaped to the mountains. The pain of a divorce and the sweetness of a newborn faith figure into her story as well.

Thus, her fiercely loyal readers keep asking: Is she Cynthia?

No, says Karon, Cynthia has better legs.

But the questions keep coming. Is Barnabas, the priest's scripture-friendly dog, going to die? Now that the Appalachian urchins Dooley Barlowe and Lace Turner have grown up, will they get married? What will Dooley do with the fortune the late Miss Sadie secretly left him? Where does Uncle Billy get his corny jokes? And what is livermush, anyway?

Then there is the ultimate question. In the new novel, Father Tim crashes into his own mortality and even survives a near-death experience. Karon has promised that the next Mitford book, "Light From Heaven," will end the series. Readers now ask: Is Father Tim going to die?

"No, he's not going to die," she said. "This is about his LIFE."

The books are relentlessly cheerful, even though Karon weaves in dark threads. There is schizophrenia and depression, greed and grinding poverty, child abuse and alcoholism, disease and death. But most of all there is faith, even though her books fly out of secular bookstores.

Karon said it would be impossible to edit out her beliefs. It would be like trying to filter a shot of brandy back out of a cup of coffee. Once they're mixed, they're mixed.

"Even if I never mentioned the name of Jesus Christ, I can't hide from you who I am," she said. "In truth, the work that has no faith is for me not a whole work. It may be an amusing or credible or clever work, but not a whole work. Faith is a critical and urgent and necessary component of human wholeness."