Mark Markuly, a former journalist with a Ph.D. in education, is Dean of the School of Theology and Ministry at Seattle University. He founded “The Search for Meaning” in 2009, a book festival that draws famed authors and an eager audience to Seattle U. every February.
Valerie: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?
Mark: I’ve been reading books by the keynoters at the Search for Meaning event, including Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity, by Katherine Boo, and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, by Isabel Wilkerson.
Boo’s book deals with hope in one of the poorest slums on the planet outside of Mumbai, India; and Wilkerson has documented the remarkable migration of six million African-Americans out of the south between 1915 and 1970. The authors are dealing with human manifestations of hope, which I find fascinating.
Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown. The book gives a wonderful glimpse into the Depression era through the experience of an assortment of young men preparing to go to the 1936 Olympics in Germany. A different wrinkle on that era than anything I’ve read before.
What kind of stories draw you in? What kind do you stay away from?
I’m a sucker for stories dealing with personal transformation or conversion, and biographies of people who have managed to make a substantive change for the better in human history.
I’ve never acquired a taste for pulp fiction. The closest I will get to mass market entertainment writing is reading book jackets at Costco and the odd review I might see. Trying to track pop cultural forces more closely is one of my growth areas.
When and what is The Search for Meaning Book Festival?
We are holding the sixth festival on Saturday, February 15. The past few years we have had somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 people join us through the course of the day. The speakers have all committed serious thought to the perennial questions that haunt us as human beings. We also look for as wide of a diversity of topics as we can find.
One of our goals for the event is to model a civil conversation among people who value very different things and follow different religious traditions or none at all. Despite our differences, we can engage in a thoughtful, passionate discussion of our values and dreams with others who are different from us. In some ways, the Search for Meaning is an extension of our school mission to help people learn how to build bridges across difference.
Where did you get the idea for the Festival?
When I moved here to work at Seattle University, I was familiar with the unique demographics of the region, i.e., ground zero of the so-called “spiritual but not religious.” The questioning and questing outside of conventional religious and philosophical boxes, which is such a natural part of this region, seemed to describe the region’s commitment to an ongoing “Search for Meaning.” I started commuting to work, and noticed on ferries and buses how many people drag books with them. A book festival seemed a likely activity for a region like Puget Sound.
The creation of a cultural event that engages the local community to think about life is deep in the blood of a Jesuit university. Although I’m not a Jesuit, I went to a Jesuit high school in St. Louis and have been told the influence has been fatal on my thinking processes! The idea isn’t to shove religion down people’s throats, but rather to engage people in reflection and conversation about what it means to be a serious human being trying to live a good life.
The actual title of the event, Search for Meaning, comes from a couple of sources.
In high school I took a religion course that used Viktor Frankl’s famous 1946 book: Man’s Search for Meaning, as well as a graphic historical book on the Nazi concentration camps. After reading both books our teacher took us into the school chapel and showed us confiscated Nazi film footage of mass burials at the concentration camps and World War II Allies’ footage from camp liberations. As I watched the film in the darkness of the school’s chapel, I knew this knowledge of the human potential for brutality and dehumanization of others was leaving a permanent scar on my psyche. I think ever since I took that class I’ve been on my own Search for Meaning and the title resonates pretty deeply with my own questioning about what life is all about.
How would you characterize the authors speaking at this year’s Festival?
All of the authors explore the perennial questions of the human mind and heart: Who am I? Why am I here? What should I value the most and why? How do I identify and articulate what is good, true and beautiful in life? What are the most precious things in my life, and for what am I willing to die?
The authors address these issues in different ways and literary genres – from fiction to nonfiction, from children’s literature to more heavy academic texts, from the exploration of the “big picture” in human meaning making to very specific topics, such as sustainability of food.
Which speakers are you especially excited about this year?
When we started working on Search for Meaning I was surprised by just how many books published in the United States are written by men. We worked really hard this year to provide some gender equity in literary voices and I’m especially excited about having two outstanding female presenters this year. Both Katherine Boo and Isabel Wilkerson have written incredibly insightful books about the human capacity to dream of a life that is very different from the one fate hands you.
Do you have any spiritually themed books you’d highly recommend?
I don’t believe one size fits all in spiritual reading, and a book that can transform us in one period of our life, might leave us cold or even repel us in another. A spiritual book needs to come into our life at the right time.For those seeking to develop a “spiritual vocabulary” that is non-specific to a religious tradition, I would recommend the typically cited best-sellers in spiritual writing, people like Eckhart Tolle, the Dalai Lama, Pema Chodron or Wayne Dyer. Thich Nhat Hanh is probably my favorite spiritual writer from this kind of genre. He writes some beautiful stuff, with a simplicity that is borne from deep suffering and complex thought about the great mysteries of life. For a deeper appreciation of the complication of how spirituality and spiritual themes intersect with contemporary times, I would suggestion a synthetic thinker such as Ken Wilber.
On the other hand, I would have other suggestions for people grounded in a specific religious tradition and seeking to make sense of that tradition with all of the changes occurring in the world.
Any novels you think deal especially well with spiritual themes?
Wow, there are so many.
Some favorite novelists dealing with spirituality out of my Catholic and Christian tradition, although often in a thematic and allegorical fashion rather than overtly, are Walker Percy, Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene. There is a whole other list of authors I value a great deal, like Nadine Gordimer, Annie Dillard, Anne Lamott and Madeleine L’Engle. I think Brazilian author Paulo Coelho draws readers into imaginary worlds and explores spiritual themes in captivating ways, as has Umberto Eco, who explored spiritual themes in powerful ways.
What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?
I was deeply influenced by fiction as a child and read almost anything I could get my hands on. If you get past my childhood fascination with Dr. Seuss and The Hardy Boys, the books that influenced me most were A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens; Lord of the Flies, by William Golding; and almost anything by John Steinbeck, but especially Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath, and Travels with Charlie. Then there was John Knowles’ A Separate Peace and J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye that I stayed up all night reading as a sophomore in high school.
Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?
Lots of things, but perhaps, Mary Oliver’s famous line from her poem, “The Summer Day”: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
I often think of a quote from “The Pure Fury,” a poem by Theodore Roethke, which warns of the ease of mistaking knowledge for the deeper wisdom born of solitude and a spiritual experience;
“Stupor of knowledge lacking inwardness – What book, O learned man, will set me right ? One I read nothing through a fearful night, For every meaning had grown meaningless. Morning, I saw the world with second sight, As if all things had died, and rose again. I touched the stones, and they had my own skin.”
Any book you’ve read lately that caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?
Not long ago I re-read Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, and Charles Johnson’s, Middle Passage. Both books stayed with me for a long time and cultivated some new kinds of thinking.
I recently completed a three-year seminar with an interdisciplinary group of scholars looking at a new hybrid field called the Cognitive Science of Religion. One of the researchers in the field, a philosopher from Emory University named Robert McCauley, wrote a book I found fascinating, Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not. Bob is not a particularly religious guy and offers a nuanced evolutionary theory on why religion just won’t go away.
What book do you plan to read next?
I’ve been dying to get into a book called, Preachin’ the Blues: The Life and Times of Son House, by Daniel Beaumont. Son House was a fundamentalist Baptist preacher who became intrigued by the sound of a bottleneck guitar and became one of the most influential early bluesmen. Because the rural black church considered blues as something from the devil, Son House was trapped in a battle between following his musical muse or his religious belief. It’s a drama of trying to live out your faith authentically.
What Val’s Reading This Week: What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, by Alexander McCall Smith of No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency fame, is a charming little book full of literary references I can’t wait to follow up on. Part memoir and part Auden worship, the book is full of humor and appreciation for poetry’s place in our daily lives.